In War and Peace, Tolstoy contends that Great Men have no agency; instead, they are merely slaves to Providence. British philosopher Herbert Spencer liked this idea, but he put it a little differently: “Before he can remake his society, his society must make him.” There is certainly value in this view of the world, but taken ad absurdum it will lead to a rejection of exceptionalism — and even of free will: “His society” may well have led to the content of Shakespeare’s plays, but how to explain his facility for language?
One might well ask the same question about Winston Churchill, of whose literary output New York City’s Morgan Library has just opened an exhibition. In war and in peace Churchill was a human force field whose time was as much a product of him as he of it. In his magisterial biography, Churchill, Roy Jenkins implored us to appreciate how much of a tangible difference to the course of history Churchill made, and how adroitly he drew on his understanding of the past to predict the future. Contra Spencer, Churchill was special. He seems to have known it himself, telling Violet Asquith at a dinner party in 1906, “we are all worms, but I do believe I am a glow worm.”
Later, modesty obtained. “I was not the lion, but it fell to me to give the lion’s roar,” was his verdict on his role. It is perhaps more accurate to say that he was not the only lion. But whatever he was, his resolution to achieve victory “whatever the cost may be” stood him in dramatic contrast with many of his peers. The similarly bred Lord Halifax, who came perilously close to the premiership on the eve of the fall of France, was in favor of a negotiated peace with Hitler. Those who had recently occupied 10 Downing Street had been faced with a choice between war and dishonor: “They chose dishonor. They will have war,” Churchill warned. Given the unfavorable circumstances in which his judgment was issued, he could hardly have guessed that when its full fury came he would be sitting in their place. We should be thankful that he was.
Churchill’s qualities transcended his gift for rhetoric. Evelyn Waugh’s biting characterization of the man as “simply a radio personality who outlived his prime” was a cheap and witless shot. His indomitable courage and instinctive understanding of the Nazis’ true station in the “dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime” played an equally critical role in his contribution to British survival. But a voice ringing out in the darkness will not resonate without the right words to shape it, and it was his command of ideas and mastery of language that gave his roar its bite. As Edward R. Murrow put it, Churchill “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.” This is the exhibition’s central theme.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Churchill had scant capacity for extemporaneous remarks. This much is obvious from his unscripted V-E Day speech, which is egregious among the collection on display. Such was Churchill’s reliance upon preparation that his friend, Lord Birkenhead, joked that “Winston has spent the best years of his life writing impromptu speeches.” The barb rings true: His words were meticulously fashioned and generally extensive. So prolific was Churchill in his output that others often felt duty-bound to put him down. A vast memorandum to the secretary of state, Lord Elgin — under whom he served as under-secretary for the colonies as a young man — was finished with a peremptory, “These are my views.” This prompted Elgin to add, “But not mine,” and return the treatise to Churchill without further comment. It was a great British put-down of a not-yet-great Briton.
But time changes everything. Ultimately, Churchill’s unyielding prose found a receptive audience and a historical role. His uncanny capacity to identify what was at stake — so often parsed as much in terms of the virtues of the Anglo-American West as of the evils of the Nazis and, later, the Soviet Union — allowed him to cast the Second World War and its aftermath in its proper light and deftly to illustrate the perils of inaction as the world around his “island home” sank into “the abyss of a new dark age.” Nowadays “Nazi” is a casually thrown synonym for “evil,” but this was not always so. Given understandable British reluctance to replay the horrors of the Somme, and Americans’ legitimate hesitation to be dragged into the new battles of the Old World, Churchill had his work cut out.
Fortunately, by the time he became prime minister he had been warning of Nazism’s hazards for a good five years — an ample period in which to collect his thoughts on the matter. That notwithstanding, his first speech to Parliament gave the measure of the man. Addressing the Commons, he made no mention of those whose mistakes had led Britain to the brink of its first invasion since 1066; nor of his having been ignored on that score for so long. He could well have lamented that he had been rendered Cassandra and relegated to the political wilderness for the crime of being right. But then, always preferring to move forward, that was never Churchill’s style. Instead, he said this:
We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival. Let that be realised; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal. But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, “come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.”
This goal, to maintain the “urge and impulse of the ages,” motivated Churchill in war and in peace. In this he channeled his American heritage (his mother was born in Brooklyn, and he spent a not insignificant amount of time in the country as his fame as a writer grew). F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Crack-Up that “England was a people, but America, having about it that quality of an idea, was hard to utter.” Churchill uttered it magnificently; at once straddling and bridging the divide, and championing Anglo-American liberty in its new and old forms. Not by accident did he elect to write his History of the English-Speaking Peoples. He appreciated keenly the ideas that those peoples had generated — ideas that transcended them and of which he considered the colonies of the British Empire to be beneficiaries, white and non-white alike. Such convictions, noble though they were, could occasionally push him down a blind alley. Certainly, they explain his regrettable and dogged unwillingness to let go of India when it was clear to most that the independence of that country was an inevitability.
The ideas that underpinned the British Empire and American Republic creep freely into Churchill’s writing, even when dubiously relevant. In 1936, when condemning the Japanese bombing of China, he lamented to an indifferent House of Commons that the Japanese were attacking the “stately language” of the Declaration of Independence, and the Chinese were fighting for “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” There he may have overstepped the bounds of credibility, but his oratory was generally better off for such enthusiasms. His readiness to separate the virtues of Anglo-American liberty from its authors and see freedom as a universal good formed an especially crucial distinction when contrasted with the crude appeal to exclusive racial superiority that emanated from Germany during its Third Reich.
In his post-war “Iron Curtain” speech at Westminster College in Missouri, Churchill adumbrated this line of thought. Britain and America’s role in the world, he affirmed, was to defend the “title deeds of freedom which should lie in every cottage home.” And, these being “the message of the British and American peoples to mankind,”
we must never cease to proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of freedom and the rights of man which are the joint inheritance of the English-speaking world and which through Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, the Habeas Corpus, trial by jury, and the English common law find their most famous expression in the American Declaration of Independence.
The war predominates, for obvious reasons. But the exhibition also deals with both Churchill’s formative years and the emotionally mixed days after victory had been won — days in which he suffered from depression (“black dog”), a surprising post-bellum defeat at the polls — and faced up to the task of warning a war-weary world that the “sunlit uplands” that he had promised would be the fruits of victory were, alas, subject to a new shadow cast by an “iron curtain.”
As a child, Churchill did not seem set for greatness — who does, really? — and struggled at school, ever remaining in the shadow of his famous father, Randolph. “The stupidest boy at Harrow who is the son of the cleverest man in England” was his schoolmaster’s evaluation, and the report card in the Morgan Library’s collection does little to contradict the opinion. (One verdict was simply: “Very bad — is a constant trouble to everybody.”) As was common at the time, being sent to boarding school was a virtual estrangement from his parents. The letters in the exhibition show a boy full of unrequited love and trapped within Victorian strictures that had little room for his effusive personality and specialized skills. Like many a great autodidact, he was unsuited to the confines of a curriculum. “Personally I’m always ready to learn,” he wrote, “although I do not always like being taught.” That he had written and had published two classic war memoirs by his 20th birthday vindicated his complaint.
It would be a grave mistake to presume that, after a rough school career, the boy magically transformed into a sage. Lord Birkenhead never spoke truer words than when observing, “When Winston’s right, he’s right. When he’s wrong, well, my God.” But while Churchill was often wrong, he was never unsure. Of the British government’s policy toward Nazi Germany he wrote, “so they go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent.” Whatever his flaws, these were words that could never have been spoken of him. Instead, he lived by his motto: “I never worry about action, only inaction.” The modern world owes that fact a sizeable debt — Herbert Spencer be damned.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.