Winston S. Churchill

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

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...

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Winston S. Churchill

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

The Prophet of Truth is the fifth volume of what must surely be not only the authoritative life of Winston Churchill but also one of the great biographical works of the twentieth century. The first two volumes were written by Sir Winston’s brilliant but erratic son, Randolph, who found in them at last an expression for his very considerable but hitherto wasted talents. Each of the volumes as it appeared was hailed by the critics as a masterpiece. Tragically, Randolph died when his work was only well started (Volume II closed in 1914), and Martin Gilbert, known for his historical studies of twentieth century Britain, was chosen to carry the biography forward. This is the third of his volumes, carrying Sir Winston up to 1939, and while not perhaps equaling the achievement of the Randolph Churchill volumes, they certainly are very good indeed. With World War II, the beginnings of the Cold War, and the Churchill government of the 1950’s still to be covered, the project clearly has many thousands of pages still to run. When one adds that each of the first four volumes was ultimately supplemented by two to three additional volumes of supportive documents (as will be this volume and those to follow), the scope of the biography is seen to be truly awesome—or perhaps better, Churchillian—in its dimensions.

Although part of this vast project, The Prophet of Truth can be read as a separate book of great interest in itself, without reference to the earlier volumes. For the nonspecialist reader, it may prove something of a challenge at times since Gilbert provides only to a minimal degree the context of British and European public affairs within which Churchill’s career as politician and statesman took place. (He is better about recording events in Europe in the 1930’s than about British domestic politics in the 1920’s.) As a matter of practical necessity, Gilbert obviously had to focus rather narrowly on the life rather than the “life and times” of his subject. But the nonspecialist may wish to have at hand a brief summary of British history in the 1920’s and 1930’s to fill out his own background of Churchill’s actions and opinions.

The volume opens with Churchill without a seat in Parliament for the first time in twenty-two years and about to return to the Conservative Party. The occasion for his break with the Liberals, whom he had served in high office for almost two decades, was the victory of the Labour Party in 1924 and the Liberal Party’s decision to give the first Labour Government tacit support. Churchill’s reaction to the growing strength of Labour is reminiscent of his extravagant and unfortunate remarks about that party in the campaign of 1945: he predicted in 1924 that if Labour were in charge of elections, law and order could not be guaranteed and the threat of such a situation would cast a blight “on every form of national life.” He was, of course, completely wrong; both Labour governments of the 1920’s were models of decorum and responsibility. This attitude and statement are typical expressions of one aspect of Churchill as politician. He was, as the title of the book suggests, rather given to prophecy, but these prophecies did not always prove to be the truth. In the 1920’s and 1930’s, he failed to appreciate the true nature of several of the most important events and tendencies of the age. He pictured the Labour Party as Bolshevik when in fact its members were essentially conservative; he dramatized the General Strike of 1926 as carrying the threat of revolution whereas its leaders viewed it as a large-scale trade union dispute; he disliked and misunderstood Gandhi and Nehru and opposed movement toward dominion status for India. (He even invested heavily in the New York stock market on the eve of the 1929 crash.) He wished always to relate individual events to a larger context, and to present that relationship in dramatic and even extravagant terms. This tendency of his mind served him well in understanding the true significance of the rise of Hitler in the early 1930’s and in rallying the British nation to rearm and eventually to resist the Nazis in war. But earlier it caused men to be wary of him.

Churchill returned to Parliament in the Conservative landslide of 1924. He expected to be offered office, but to his considerable astonishment he was named to the second highest post in the government—Chancellor of the Exchequer. This good fortune he owed at least in part to his future political antagonist, Neville Chamberlain, whose position in the party was such as to command that office but who found the Ministry of Health more interesting. Chamberlain suggested Churchill almost casually to Stanley Baldwin, the Prime Minister, and the latter responded favorably. The appointment surprised the Conservative Party, the country, and even Churchill’s wife, who was persuaded only with difficulty that he was not teasing when he returned home with the news.

Churchill was Chancellor from 1924 to 1929, preparing five budgets in that time, as well as putting out an official newspaper during the General Strike of 1926, helping with a settlement of the coal strike in that year, and participating in continuing discussions of foreign affairs and defense. He impressed colleagues and the public alike with his vigor and boldness and was praised as the best Chancellor in many years. Nevertheless, his achievements do not seem of great significance when viewed in retrospect. The overriding problem for Britain in the 1920’s was to revive industry, still stagnating after the war, and to deal with massive unemployment. Churchill was much concerned with these problems but did little to solve them. He is today chiefly remembered for having returned Britain to the gold standard in response to demands of the Bank of England and the financial community, an event which aggravated Britain’s already serious problems as an exporting nation. Gilbert helps to balance that unfavorable impression with evidence of Churchill’s humane endeavors to solve problems of unemployment and make social reforms through his budgets. But his techniques were not adequate to his tasks, being strikingly orthodox. Despite this fault, the years as Chancellor were good ones for Churchill, years in which he had the...

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Winston S. Churchill

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

This seventh installment in the multivolume authorized biography of Winston S. Churchill presents a detailed, almost day-by-day account of Churchill’s political life from December, 1941, when the United States entered World War II, until May, 1945, when the war in Europe ended. Martin Gilbert, a Fellow of Merton College, Oxford, is both a prolific and literate writer on twentieth century British and European history, the author of more than forty books; his graceful writing style contributed to his selection in 1984 as the recipient of the Wolfsen Literary Award.

One reason that Gilbert’s seventh volume must take precedence over previous biographical studies of Churchill during the war is the impressive range of...

(The entire section is 3514 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

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