20th Century Biography
Sir Winston Churchill was a world figure. With Franklin D. Roosevelt and Josef Stalin, he helped shape the postwar world. Present at Yalta (1945) and other important wartime meetings, he shared Roosevelt’s terrible responsibility in coming to some kind of terms with the victorious Red Army. Although Churchill is remembered for having been a staunch anti-Communist, his treatment of Stalin was inconsistent. He seems to have thought on occasion that he could charm the Soviet leader into taking a moderate, peaceful view of postwar politics. Sometimes Churchill seems to have been cynical in suggesting to Stalin that there was an equitable way of dividing up Europe to the satisfaction of all the wartime allies. In truth, for all of his brilliance, Churchill had a weak hand to play as the representative of a declining empire and perhaps thought that he could make do with guile and with ingratiation.
Churchill’s disappointment over the course of postwar events is readily apparent in his famous Fulton, Missouri, speech (1946), in which he coined the term “Iron Curtain” to describe the brutal way Stalin had cut Eastern and Central Europe off from the “free world.” Churchill’s rhetoric crystallized what many Americans and Western Europeans had not yet articulated, and his view of the menace of postwar Communism came to dominate American foreign policy—especially in the formulation of the “containment” strategy by which American governments attempted to prevent the spread of Communism throughout the globe. Elected prime minister twice after the war (in 1951 and 1955), Churchill was not a particularly effective leader, although his august position as world statesman was unassailable.
Whatever Churchill did not win through politics or through war, he won through the word. His many books consolidated his position in history. In 1953, he won the Nobel Prize for his writing and oratory. His six-volume history The Second War (1948-1954) and his A History of the English-Speaking Peoples (1956-1958) made him appear as a figure for the ages. These books are as much myth as they are history, for Churchill had no compunction about revising the past to portray his own part in it as illustriously as possible. Yet the books are also reflective of a great man who was able to stamp history in his own image and to make his word stand for the deed.