“What, another Churchill book?” This was my wife’s comment when she saw me reading this book. I’ve read Churchill’s own account of World War 2 as well as several other biographies. So, beyond my admiration for Churchill, what possible reason was there to pick up this book?
What Hastings does is focus particularly on Churchill’s leadership of England from his ascent to Prime Minister in 1940 during England’s darkest days, to his ignominious departure from office in July of 1945, shortly after Allied victory in Europe. What Hastings gives us is neither a hagiography nor a hatchet job. Rather I found this a balanced treatment that justly celebrates the qualities of character that made Churchill the “indispensable man”, at least up to 1943, as well as delineating the less seemly aspects of his leadership.
Among the latter was his conservatism, which he had to overcome in dealings with Stalin, and resulted in his lack of connection with the domestic concerns of his own people, particularly in post-war life, which accounted for his unceremonious turning out from office. He was also an infuriating dabbler in military strategy, particularly with the British Army, whose leadership frustrated him. He avoided the castastrophic errors such as invading the Dardenelles that brought him down in World War 1 but was often thwarted in diverting forces from the D-Day invasions by the Americans who had to put up with repeated proposals for actions other theaters. He also could not see, as did Roosevelt, the end of Britain’s colonial empire.
All of this, and other flaws, pale in the light of the fact that Churchill was a warrior, more than most of the war-weary military leadership in England. He recognized that Nazi tyranny could never be compromised with, and from early 1940 until America’s entry in the war in late 1941, led Britain in standing alone in the face of possible invasion threats and the air Battle of Britain that convinced Hitler to turn eastward in the fatal decision to invade Russia. Hastings, more than others I’ve read, recognizes that while Churchill and Roosevelt were not nearly as close as often stated, Churchill’s major success was in bringing the US into the European War when it would have been easier to focus our attention in the Pacific. He also argued persuasively for the importance of Allied action in 1943, so that Russia might not be seen as fighting Germany all alone.
One of the things Hastings book explores more thoughtfully than most is this dilemma of allowing Russia to bear the brunt of fighting Germany, arguably a military necessity in light of the weakness of British military forces and the necessary buildup of American forces. Churchill perhaps agonized more than most at the postwar consequences this would have in Eastern Europe, accentuated by his inability to awaken the Americans to these concerns. Consequently, apart from rescuing Greece from communist forces, there was little he could do but protest incursions and broken agreements.
What Hastings book points up for me are the differences between peace time statecraft and warcraft. It seems these may require different kinds of leadership, and that the same person may not always be able to do both. Perhaps that was the distinction between Churchill and Roosevelt. What is clear is that when war comes, nations need leaders who can lead with courage and resolution to “see the thing through” and can impart that courage to their people, something Chamberlain could not do and both Churchill and Roosevelt did.