Review: The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965

the last lion

The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965William Manchester and Paul Reid. New York: Bantam Publishing, 2013 (first published 2012).

Summary: The third volume of Manchester’s biography of Churchill, covering his leadership of England during World War II, and his political and personal life until his death in 1965.

During the 1980’s I read and relished the first two volume’s of William Manchester’s biography of Winston Churchill, and looked forward eagerly, as did many to the next installment covering the critical years of his Prime Ministership during the Second World War. I heard Manchester was struggling to complete the work though in poor health, and then that he had died. But before he did so, he passed along his notes, approximately 100 pages of text, and his blessing on the enterprise, to Paul Reid. In 2012, the long-awaited final volume was published.

Most of this volume (approximately 800 pages) covers the war years. What I noticed was that there was as much war here as there was Churchill, perhaps because it was impossible to understand the character and specific actions of Churchill’s leadership except against the canvas of the war. And so we see the miraculous escape from Dunkirk as the British army is routed from the continent, and Churchill’s galvanizing speeches as the island girds itself for the invasion that never came. Then there was the Blitz, and Churchill’s presence among the ruins, inspiring people by the fact that he was there and he knew. This volume also chronicles the desperate U-boat war in the Atlantic that nearly brought the country to its knees while it struggled alone.

Manchester and Reid show us the development of the complicated relationship between Churchill and Roosevelt, from Churchill’s desperation to gain whatever help he could from a neutral U.S., the first flush of the alliance following Pearl Harbor, and the increasingly tense relationship as strategic disagreements develop between the two countries, and different visions for the post-war world based on differing national interests, even as Roosevelt was loosing his slender hold on life. Part of this had to do with their interesting tripartite alliance with Stalinist Russia, which bore the major part of the European struggle, and in turn expected to reap the benefit of its conquests.

Part of the tension had to do with Churchill’s complex vision of strategic opportunities as opposed to the pressures placed by both Russia, and the Americans for the main effort of an invasion in France. First there was North Africa, then Sicily, and Italy, and the ever present temptation of the Balkans. Part came from the great fear of a repulse on the beaches, delaying invasions from 1942 to 1943, and finally 1944. On the other hand, it was Churchill who understood the Russian ambitions correctly and that they would hold onto the land that their armies took, in Poland, and throughout Eastern Europe. (Yet one wonders if the outcome in Eastern Europe would have been different with an invasion a year earlier, if it had been successful.)

While the Americans hoped for a warm relationship with Russia following the war, Churchill, now out of office, spoke of “the iron curtain” descending across Eastern Europe. Along with George Kennan’s famous telegram, he helped shape the beginnings of the Cold War policies that lasted nearly 50 years and averted a major, and possibly cataclysmic, confrontation. Back in office in 1951, he led his country to research resulting in the H-bomb, and was perhaps the first to enunciate the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).

The last 250 pages recount not only this history but the public honors, the extensive travels, the personal pursuits of painting and writing and caring for Chartwell and the gradually declining health resulting in his death at 90. Like many great men, we see how his children struggled in his shadow, including son Randolph, and daughters Sarah, who died from the effects of alcoholism, and Diana, who pre-deceased Churchill, dying of a barbituate overdose, ruled as suicide. The authors also refute Lord Moran, who characterized Churchill’s final years as a struggle with the “Black Dog” of depression. Only in the final couple years, when his health began to seriously fail was there any hint of this.

This is a portrait of a demanding leader, and yet one who most who served him considered it the high point of their lives. He drove others hard, even as he drove himself harder, sometimes to near death with several bouts of pneumonia as he approached age 70 at the end of the war. He was on the wrong side of history on some things, particularly colonialism, although he also foresaw some of the problems these countries would face in a post-colonial world. He was a man of prodigious intellectual ability and prodigious appetite, who could probably drink anyone under the table. It is also the story of a man of clear vision and resolve, who stood up alone, and led his country to stand alone against the might of the Axis powers, which seemed unstoppable. He helped a country understand that knocked down was not the same as knocked out, and helped them survive long enough for the U.S. to join them.

This is a big book on the life of one who arguably was the greatest leader of the twentieth century. It follows two others of similar size. It might take several months to read all three (this one took me a month), but I think you will be a better person for it. It makes one wonder about the Providence that gave such a man for such a time, and long for such leaders in our own time.