In London’s Mayfair district, a monument honors the World War II alliance between Britain and the United States, symbolized by the friendship between Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Statues of the two statesmen, smiling broadly, are seated at opposite ends of a park bench. While the gap between them likely was arranged in anticipation of the many tourists who now are photographed as they sit between the two statues, the space actually captures something true about both Churchill’s personality and his patriotism. He was a loner who saw his beloved Britain as occupying a unique role in world civilization.
These attitudes were bound to produce a dramatic life. William Manchester, a professional writer with a dramatist’s sense of narrative and pacing, was well suited to capture Churchill’s theatrics. His collaborator, the journalist Paul Reid, wrote the vast majority of this final volume of Manchester’s Churchill trilogy after an ailing Manchester delegated the task to him. Neither author was trained as a historian. This fact gives the biography both weaknesses and strengths.
This long book lacks proper emphasis and proportion. The intended focus is the last 25 years of Churchill’s life. There are 1,051 pages of text, of which the first 951 are devoted just to the last five years of World War II. That leaves a little over 100 pages for Churchill’s postwar experiences. The years 1945-55, when Churchill served as leader of the opposition in Parliament and then made a remarkable comeback as prime minister, receive particularly inadequate attention.
In the preface, Reid declares his continuity with Manchester’s style, which is chronological and comprehensive rather than thematic and specialized. At times Churchill himself vanishes from the narrative for long passages while the setting of a battle is portrayed and its story told. Exception should be made for the story of the Battle of Britain, not only because that is the only part of this book for which Manchester managed to write himself but also because it was the central event of Churchill’s life. Overall there is no need for this much detail. The general narrative of World War II is well related elsewhere. The authors’ intent to show the conflict through Churchill’s eyes is often obscured; his experiences are present and compellingly told but buried in an avalanche of context.
Reid’s continuity of method, however, is honorable in these circumstances. He undertook the task as a tribute to a dear friend and was ethical in avoiding any major renovation of the project. Manchester’s approach does have the advantage of showing how much of a wartime leader’s life is based on the simple reaction to diverse events as they come up and press him in a bewildering array. It is the forte of a journalist like Reid to reconstruct such pressures.
Particularly in the case of Churchill, the chronological and comprehensive approaches to his life are hazardous because of the man’s versatility. Several recent biographers of Churchill have chosen instead to pursue a single theme within his life. Parliamentary politician, friend of Roosevelt, writer/historian, half-American, prophet and imperialist—these are but a few subjects of recent creative books about him. The present volume’s subtitle, “Defender of the Realm,” provides the seed of a possible theme for a condensed version of Manchester and Reid’s work.
Churchill first undertook the defense of the British realm for motives both patriotic and imperial. The central drama of his latter life, discernible in this book even though not so explicitly stated, is that he did not hold power until an era when these two virtues were no longer compatible. World War II and its aftermath created a situation in which the service of patriotism required that the British Empire be brought to an end if the British nation was to be saved. While Churchill clearly disliked this situation and continued to champion the empire rhetorically, his actual deeds show that he understood it had to be discarded to defend the realm. In the internal struggle between his romanticism and his pragmatism, the latter won. This victory is worthy of the dramatics of Manchester and the journalism of Reid.
Churchill’s ejection from power immediately after the war spared him the task of beginning the actual dismantling of the empire and allowed him to think creatively about the realm’s post-imperial role. Churchill wanted Britain to pursue a strong alliance with the United States, offered vocal support for a strong European Union, even while advocating that Britain itself remain somewhat aloof from that Union, and sought an enduring relationship between Britain and the Commonwealth remnant of the empire. The first two of these have had important long range effects—Churchill had influence as late as the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq and the British decision not to join the common European currency. This enduring influence is what makes Reid’s too-rapid summary of the later years a missed opportunity.
Moreover, certain themes of Churchill’s old age are not as familiar to Americans as they deserve to be. We celebrate his opposition to the aggression of Nazi Germany in the 1930s and the Soviet Union in the 1940s, but what of the dovish quality of his second premiership? Alarmed by the emergence of the nuclear arms race, Churchill hoped to become a broker between the United States and the U.S.S.R. Also, his enmity with the Labour Party did not mean that Churchill was hostile to the concept of social welfare. In fact, Churchill prided himself on his role as an architect of the Liberal version of welfare earlier in the 20th century and resisted Labour mainly for its means and excesses rather than its ends.
A final theme discernible in this work is that genius is lonely. In all his stands, Churchill went through intense periods of holding them alone. That is another reason that the isolated placement of his statue on that Mayfair bench is so appropriate.