Winston S. Churchill
Volume 8 of Martin Gilbert’s Winston S. Churchill—Never Despair, 1945-1965—completes in grand style the official biography of Winston S. Churchill begun by his son Randolph Churchill in 1962. Churchill’s son lived to complete only the first two volumes in the series, and Gilbert inherited the task of completing the massive study. The eighth and final volume, accompanied by a 374-page book of photographs, covers the troubled period from the collapse of the German Third Reich in May, 1945, until the elder Churchill’s death in January, 1965.
Never Despair begins on the morning of May 9, 1945, with Sir Winston Churchill waking late to the news of the capture of Rangoon, an event that marked “the splendid close of the Burma campaign” and the dawn of the postwar era. For five years, the stocky prime minister had steered England through the tumultuous struggles of the world war and was ready to lead the country into an era of peace. Yet it was not to be. During the Postdam Conference, following the German surrender, Churchill’s Conservative Party was defeated by Clement Attlee and the socialist Labour Party. Although Great Britain and the world continued to admire, even revere Churchill, he was not seen as the appropriate leader for the postwar economic and social reconstruction of his country and had to yield to Attlee and watch the dawn of the welfare state. Gilbert traces in considerable detail and with many supporting documents the process of Great Britain’s postwar transformation, and Churchill’s disappointment over that and the erosion of the British global empire.
The world Churchill viewed between 1945 and 1951, when he was out of power, troubled him in other ways as well. Soon the Soviet Union was putting into place what Churchill described during a visit to Fulton, Missouri, in 1946 as an “iron curtain.” This graphic metaphor, used by the former prime minister in a speech at Westminster College in March, became one of the best-known and most influential of the early Cold War era. Gilbert devotes an entire chapter, replete with letters and other documents, to the American visit and related matters. Churchill had been deeply concerned about Soviet expansion for several years, and now at the dawn of the postwar era spoke of what he viewed as the choking hold that the Soviet Union had on Eastern Europe. Although he acknowledged his “strong admiration and regard for the valiant Russian people and for my wartime comrade, Marshal Stalin,” he averred that “from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.” It appeared to him that a crucial juncture had been reached, and that a “new unity of Europe” was necessary to prevent the expansion of communism.
The pivotal events of the emergent Cold War occurred in Germany, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe during Churchill’s ministerial interim. By the time he returned to power in 1951—just two years before the death of Stalin—it was a recognized reality around the world. Churchill lamented both that fact and the continuing loss of Great Britain’s historic leadership role in many areas, from India to the Western Hemisphere. This, and Churchill’s 1945 electoral loss, have been seen by some to mean that Gilbert’s study is largely one of decline and erosion, both for Great Britain and for Churchill personally. Yet that is not quite the case. The courageous and determined Churchill, who had stood like a bulwark against surrender to Adolf Hitler in 1940, is still in clear focus in this volume.
One salient fact that comes through vividly in Gilbert’s account is that Churchill in the 1950’s and 1960’s was an aging man whose health and vigor were waning. Churchill suffered a minor stroke in 1953, and it was not the last one or the only type of health problem he had. Close by his side was Baron Moran, his private physician and one of the major sources for this study. Moran’s private diaries are frequently quoted by Gilbert, providing some interesting personal insights into the famous statesman. Moran provided some measure of comfort and medical support for Churchill during his second ministry (1951-1955) and his last decade of life.
Despite his problems, Churchill remained strong, somewhat irascible, but still his own man. Yet never again would he be in control of domestic or world events to the degree that he had been at times during...
(The entire section is 1818 words.)