I’m a day late on the D-Day anniversary, I know—had my daughter over for the weekend, for the first time in way too many months. No matter, though; it’s never a bad time to take a moment and remember the historic occasion with reverence and pride, and this piece on the great Winston Churchill makes a mighty fine way to mark it, I think.
The greatness of Winston Churchill continues to shine through despite the ravages that accompany what Roger Scruton so strikingly called “the culture of repudiation.” To be sure, there are growing efforts to “cancel” one of the greatest human beings of this or any other time. One of his best biographers, the English historian Andrew Roberts, has rightly noted that his conservatism, a conservatism at the service of English liberty and the broader inheritance of Western Civilization, could be summed up under “the generalized soubriquet, Imperium et Libertas, Empire and Freedom.”
But “civilizing empire” has a bad name today and is wrongly and presumptively identified with plunder and exploitation and a racist contempt for other peoples and nations. All were alien to Churchill.
As Roberts points out in his impressive 2018 book, Churchill: Walking with Destiny, Churchill was deeply grateful to the millions of Indian subjects of the Crown who volunteered to fight for the cause of civilization during the two world wars of the 20th century. His opposition to a precipitous granting of independence to what became India and Pakistan was rooted as much in his desire to avoid sectarian strife and unnecessary bloodshed than in imperial blindness to the self-determination of peoples or the dignity of colonial subjects. Churchill was humane and magnanimous if he was anything at all. His fiercest critics are driven by ignorance and ideological parti pris, not to mention a lack of gratitude to the statesman, who more than anyone saved Western liberty and made possible Britain’s “Finest Hour.”
To acknowledge Churchill’s greatness does not necessitate hagiography or what Churchill himself called “gush.” There is always an essential need and role for “discriminate criticism.” Roberts enumerates a long list of issues and decisions in the nine decades of Churchill’s life (1874–1965) where his judgment legitimately might be questioned. These include his early opposition to women’s suffrage,
As time grinds on and the West’s downward spiral intensifies, that one looks less and less “questionable.”
his decision to continue the Gallipoli operation after March 1915, his employing of the Black and Tan paramilitary forces in Ireland, his support for Edward VIII in the Abdication Crisis of 1936, his mishandling of the Norwegian campaign in the spring of 1940,
Okay, we can indeed debate each of those; so stipulated. Onwards.
the misplaced “Gestapo” speech during the 1945 general election campaign that badly backfired (he suggested that Labour style socialism might eventually require a full-fledged totalitarian apparatus and secret police),
Can’t see much way to argue against this one, myself. Painful and depressing as it is to have to say it, it begins to look as if any populace so decadent, historically ignorant, or lapsed into the sinkhole of hedonism, shiftlessness, and personal avarice as to turn its approving gaze towards the adoption of socialism is a populace in dire need of a hard-handed, strongly anti-socialist despot to rule it. Such a society is far too juvenile, unwise, and feckless to be trusted with any say in their own governance; their purblind embrace of a patently evil system provides irrefutable proof of that.
and his questionable decision to remain prime minister after a serious stroke in 1953. All these decisions and judgments are debatable, and some were no doubt mistakes, perhaps even serious mistakes.
But much of this is beside the point. Political greatness is not coextensive with infallibility or perfect judgment. On the issues that really mattered, Churchill was right, and not just in 1940 or as a critic of the disastrous appeasement of Hitler’s lupine imperialism in the half-decade or more before the outbreak of World War II. Today, many mediocre historians and critics, professional enemies of the very idea of human greatness, begrudgingly acknowledge that Churchill was right once, in 1940, and never or rarely before or after.
These include those with a pronounced leftist orientation as well as the kind of perverse Tories, like the historian John Charmley, who retrospectively have preferred a separate peace with Nazi Germany in order to preserve the British empire and to ward off a coming threat from Soviet Communism. Even the Labour leader Clement Attlee, who presided over the War Cabinet with Churchill during World War II and came to acknowledge his qualities and to esteem him as a human being, problematically claimed that “Energy, rather than wisdom, practical judgment or vision, was his supreme qualification.” In truth, his undeniable energy would have amounted to very little, or little that was positive and constructive, if it had not been informed by practical wisdom of the first order.
In the magisterial conclusion to Churchill: Walking with Destiny, Roberts effectively responds to the naysayers, to those who are intent on minimizing both Churchill’s greatness and the practical judgment that informed and vivified that greatness. Roberts rightly points out that “when it came to all three mortal threats posed to Western civilization, by the Prussian militarists in 1914, the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s and Soviet communism after the Second World War, Churchill’s judgment stood far above that of the people who sneered at his.”
Paraphrasing Kipling’s great poem “If,” Roberts notes that many of Churchill’s critics were “losing their heads and blaming it on him.” Attlee, honorably anti-Nazi to be sure, opposed rearmament and conscription before World War II, long after Churchill had wisely called for both. “Energy, rather than wisdom” indeed.
Aiight, difficult as I find it to stop myself from further excerpting, the above offering should be more than sufficient to convince y’all to trot on over to AmG for the exciting conclusion, I think. Persons of discernment, wit, and good taste—as CF Lifers all indubitably are—will think this must-read piece well worth their while.
Update! Yeah, yeah, I know I said I was all done with the excerpting. Damn it all, though, I am but a man, no more than flesh, blood, and sinew; I am not made of stone, and the temptation here is just too much.
I would add that Churchill understood the lethal character of Bolshevism long before the majority of his complacent contemporaries. As early as April 11, 1919, in a speech in London, Churchill argued that “Bolshevist tyranny,” as he called it, was “the worst, the most destructive, and the most degrading” in human history. He would reiterate that claim many times over the years. Churchill wanted to truly help the fledgling White forces in Russia while his short-sighted colleagues were anxious to withdraw the small Allied forces in Russia who were in a position to prevent the consolidation of Bolshevik tyranny. Even this is held against Churchill by anti-anti-communist historians, who are legion today. Somehow a meager, ineffectual, and brief Allied presence on Russian soil during the Russian Civil War is said to be responsible for the long Cold War. This reflects anti-anti-communist ire rather than a disinterested analysis of the facts. A widely held sophism, but a sophism nonetheless.
Churchill saw what was at stake in the totalitarian assault on liberal and Christian civilization like few people before or after. Among 20th-century statesmen, only de Gaulle shared this admirable lucidity and the determination to resist the inhuman totalitarian temptation on the intellectual, military, political, and spiritual fronts. These two great statesmen fully appreciated that World War II was much more than an age-old geopolitical conflict: it was no less than an effort to save and sustain a civilization at once Christian, liberal, and democratic. They still cared for the West as the West, a civilization worth preserving because it alone fully valorized the dignity of human beings who are souls as well as bodies, persons imbued with dignity and not playthings of ideological despotisms that in decisive respects were “beyond good and evil.”
That noble spiritual and civilizational vision is increasingly moribund in the democracies today.
From my well over four decades of avid study of all things WW2, it seems clear to me that the aforementioned “anti-anti-communists” were legion back then, too. Of a certainty, there was a great swathe of the British polity who were adamantly opposed to involving themselves in what they perceived as a Contintental tarbaby which, in their view, posed no imaginable threat to the British Isles. That Hitler might ever even dream of crossing the Channel to invade England was ridiculed as a wholly preposterous notion, considering Churchill’s clairvoyant realism as little more than the mad ravings of an incompetent, drunken paranoiac, all beneath the notice of intelligent people.
To their own eternal disgrace, a not-insignificant contingent of Brits went so far as to advocate some flavor of rapprochement, entente, or even open alliance with Der Fuehrer and his Thousand Year Reich.
The British dismissal of “Hitler’s war” as a strictly European affair, in concert with a strenuous resistance to needlessly becoming enmired Over There only a scant twenty years after the close of what, out of a surfeit of over-optimism and oblivious naivete about some of the darker realities of human nature, had come to be misnomered as “The War To End All Wars,” was held in common with a significant majority of Americans. It was a sentiment of which FDR was uncomfortably aware, one which troubled him a great deal.
FDR had favored US involvement in aid of America’s struggling British ally since the launch of Hitler’s blitzkrieg against Poland. Ever the cunning political animal, Roosevelt was at least astute enough to recognize widespread antiwar feeling among Americans as an obstacle he would need to find a way to surmount before he’d be able to take the actions he felt the quickly-unraveling situation in Europe would demand of him.
Okay, that’s it, no more excerpting. You know what you must do, Glasshoppah.