Review: The Splendid and the Vile

The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson. New York: Crown, 2020.

Summary: A day to day narrative of the first year as prime minister of Winston Churchill, focusing on the circle around him as well as how he inspired a nation fighting alone under the Blitz.

There are a number of biographies of Winston Churchill and studies of his leadership as prime minister during World War 2. What distinguishes this one is that Larson takes us into the intimate circle around Churchill, bringing the great man to life out of the pages of history. We become observers on the edge of an intimate circle rather than removed readers of history from eighty years ago during Churchill’s first year as prime minister.

We are with Churchill as he speaks in parliament or over radio broadcasts, not so much giving the people courage as helping them summon the courage and resolve that was in them. They would need it. Almost at once the bombings began, taking a frightful toll. We walk with Churchill among the ruins as people try to recover and go about their lives.

We get to know Churchill with his closest leadership, particularly the asthmatic but effective Max Beaverbrook who takes over aircraft production and doubles it. Beaverbrook had a genius for cutting through red tape and making enemies, but he got things done–between his resignations, which Churchill refused. The wisdom of Churchill was having someone so close who never told Churchill what he wanted to hear, but only the unvarnished truth, with no reverence for any institutions.

Larson takes us into the family circle: the reserved and opinionated Clementine, the dissolute Randolph, constantly mired in debt and affairs, to the distress of young Pamela, wife and mother, and Mary, the spirited youngest daughter discovering the world, love, and living with courage amid the restraints of her parents. She ends up heading up an anti-aircraft battery and recognizing her parents wisdom in rejecting her first love. John Colville rounds out the circle as Churchill’s secretary. His “intended” doesn’t return his affection, he wants to enter the air corps, but apart from a few sorties, serves with Churchill, in the process keeping a diary that is a treasure trove for historians like Larson.

We are acquainted with the ever-present dangers of the bombing, almost always at night, rendering the RAF ineffective, except in its own nighttime bombing of Germany. We learn of underground shelters for 10 Downing Street, the special hideaway of Churchill at Ditchley, rather than Checquers on the nights around the full moon. We glimpse the tragedy of the bombing of a nightclub that would have been Mary’s next stop on a night out. And we walk with and observe with Churchill, oblivious to dangers to his own person.

Another theme is Churchill’s clear perception of the vital importance the United States would play, and his vital role in maintaining the spirits and fight of the nation until it became politically possible for the U.S. to fully join the fight. As a career politician, he grasped Roosevelt’s challenges, working incrementally through the exchange of bases for materials and the passage of Lend-Lease. Of great fortune was the recall of Joseph Kennedy and the presence of Harry Hopkins and later Averill Harriman, both of whom Churchill welcomed into his inner circle and who became Churchill’s advocates with Roosevelt in consequence. It would cost Randolph’s marriage, already on the rocks, when Harriman and Pamela take up an affair.

Through it all is Churchill himself. I don’t think it is possible to write a bad book about Churchill because he is so interesting, even if sometimes exasperating! Larson gives us the man in full, from his demand to bathe twice daily wherever he went, dictating letters in bath and bed, to his prodigious alcohol consumption, the cigar which made him incomprehensible to his inspiring speeches and presence that made it clear to both his own country and Germany, that unlike the countries of the European mainland, there would be no surrender. This, too, was critical to the hoped for alliance with America.

What Larson has done is not just given us another biography or war history. He has helped us imagine being with Churchill during this first year from May 1940 to May 1941. Perhaps this is a good book for our time, when we are fighting a different, but it appears, no less protracted, combat. When life cannot be normal, we see what it is to live with day to day courage, resolve, and determination without losing heart.

Review: Hero of the Empire

Hero of the Empire

Hero of the Empire, Candice Millard. New York: Doubleday, 2016.

Summary: The history of Winston Churchill’s involvement in the Boer War as a correspondent, his capture, imprisonment and dangerous escape–events that brought Churchill to national attention.

“Crouching in darkness outside the prison fence in wartime southern Africa, Winston Churchill could still hear the voices of the guards on the other side. Seizing his chance an hour earlier, the twenty-five-year-old had scaled the high, corrugated-iron paling that enclosed the prison yard. But now he was trapped in a new dilemma. He could not remain where he was. At any moment, he could be discov­ered and shot by the guards or by the soldiers who patrolled the dark, surrounding streets of Pretoria, the capital of the enemy Boer repub­lic. Yet neither could he run. His hopes for survival depended on two other prisoners, who were still inside the wall. In the long minutes since he had dropped down into the darkness, they had not appeared” (p. 1).

Candice Millard opens her narrative of Churchill’s Boer War experience with this vivid account of Churchill’s escape from the Boer prison at the Staats Model School. The two other prisoners were unable to follow. With nothing more than a biscuit and a few pieces of chocolate and unarmed, Churchill had to elude capture on a nearly 300 mile journey to Lourenco Marques, Portuguese territory.

Even today, Churchill is known as the Prime Minister who led Britain resolutely through World War 2. We know him as a prolific writer, a gifted amateur painter, and for his sobering speech in Fulton, Missouri about the iron curtain that had descended across Europe. Lesser known were the early events in the life of an ambitious Churchill that propelled him into national awareness and a seat as a member of the House of Commons, setting him on a long, winding course, with many setbacks, to his pivotal role in World War 2.

Millard traces the life of this young man, son of Randolph Churchill, who was a meteor across the political firmament that burned out quickly. He was also the son of Jennie Jerome, a “panther” who would remarry to a man Churchill’s age, but also able to exercise formidable influence to advance her son’s cause, though not formidable enough in his first run for office. He concludes only war experience, with honors, could do that. Previous tours in India and the Sudan resulted only in a memoir, The River War, that served to infuriate some members of the militarily establishment. Conveniently the Boers had declared their independence from their British overlords, and the mighty empire set about to put down this rebellion. Churchill, unable to get a military appointment, goes as a highly compensated member of the press.

Arriving in South Africa, he learns that the war will be no cakewalk. The Boers, eventually led by Louis Botha, are formidable fighters who could strike swiftly, ruthlessly, and then vanish into thin air. Churchill, always willing to risk himself to get the story finds himself on an armored train that was part of efforts to relieve the British defenders of Ladysmith. Instead, the train is attacked. On his own initiative, Churchill led the effort to rescue the train, including directing efforts to move derailed cars so the engine was able to make it back to friendly lines. Churchill was left behind and taken prisoner.

The remainder of the work recounts Churchill’s seizure and imprisonment, and subsequent escape. Plotting with several officers, he is first over the iron paling, impatient to launch the escape. Incredibly, a combination of hopping a train and hiking on foot and hiding in the veld brings him at last to the one man in that whole area who could help, unbeknownst to him when he approached the house of mine manager John Howard, one of the few British allowed to remain because of his indispensable role of running the mine at Delago Bay. After hiding him for a time in the mine, and in a secret part of his office, he secrets him into a shipment of wool to Lourenco Marques, Portuguese territory with a British embassy. Despite searches combing the country, Churchill makes it, becomes a hero, and then gains a military appointment and is among the troops liberating his former fellow prisoners.

Any who follow my reviews know I’m a fan of Churchill, and also the work of Candice Millard, whose previous works Destiny of the Republic (review) and The River of Doubt (review), I thoroughly loved. Millard has a way of ferreting out lesser known events in the lives of great personages, whether it was the medical malpractice and the crazed assassin behind the death of James A. Garfield, or Teddy Roosevelt’s perilous journey down an unexplored South American river, from which he nearly died. Those focused on events toward the end of her subject’s lives. This book reveals the rise of a young man, through an improbable escape and subsequent military exploits, and his reports of them that set him on the path of greatness.

This was a book that made me wonder about a word Millard has used elsewhere — destiny. Yes, we have Churchill himself, never in doubt that he was destined for great things but merely impatient to get there. But the other side of destiny is that he survived at all. In one battle, he rides into the middle of the fray on a white horse, men dying all around him, as well as the horse under him. Again and again, in the train attack, and subsequently in battle, he emerged unscathed, and not for the last time. That Churchill made it to freedom, even that he sought help in the one place that would give it to him makes one wonder at the Providence that watched over this man and brought him to prominence in Britain’s darkest hour.

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.


Fondling Your Books

Winston Churchill, an avid bibliophile and writer, as well as statesman, once said,

“If you cannot read all your books…fondle them—peer into them, let them fall open where they will, read from the first sentence that arrests the eye, set them back on the shelves with your own hands, arrange them on your own plan so that you at least know where they are. Let them be your friends; let them, at any rate, be your acquaintances.”

The other day, I wrote a post titled Close the Libraries? and was surprised by the number of comments I received not only about the importance of libraries as physical places in our communities where we encounter not only books but each other. I also received several comments about what I would call the “physicality of real books.”  Readers of the blog posted about how they enjoyed the sight, feel, and even the smell of their books. Some talked about children and picture books and curling up on a parents lap to share a good book together.

Research has shown that having books in the home enhances childhood literacy. C.S. Lewis grew up in a home filled with books that nurtured his love of reading. As I child, I remember exploring the shelves of books in our living room, basement, and way back in the closet in my bedroom. Sometimes, it was fun just to look at the dust jackets and sometimes to delve into books to learn about basic mechanics, science, or just to see what my mom liked to read. I wonder if there had been a tablet or e-reader sitting on the table if I would have had the same experience and same delight in exploration.


Honore de Balzac Novels volume 1

I have old paperbacks like Bonhoeffer’s Life Together that I’ve read and re-read over the years. The pages have turned brownish yellow and some fall out as the inexpensive binding has become brittle. But these books chronicle my life in the margin notes as my understanding and interaction with the ideas of the authors have changed and grown. I treat these aging old friends with tenderness rather than just replace them with new editions or digital copies. Perhaps for the same reason, I like to listen to old LPs and CDs not only for the richness of the music but the connection to the time and place that I bought them, and in some cases the times where I’ve been a part of a performance of this music.

I have a collection of Balzac novels that I received from my mother. Inside the front cover, I find my grandfather Scott’s signature. The books were published in 1923 and my mother spoke of how she used to love to read this as a young girl. In holding these books, I leaf through pages pored over by my grandfather and mother.  I have Bibles owned by both of my grandmothers and the passages they underlined and the notes they scrawled connect me to the values that have formed our family.

Title Page from volume 1 of Balzac

Title Page from volume 1 of Balzac

I don’t think my son and daughter-in-law would appreciate getting all my books! But I wonder if there is some value in thinking about what are the books that have most defined us and that we don’t want subject to the ephemeral nature of digital media. Maybe our children are the best to answer this.  There may be others we keep as our “old friends” whose look, feel, and even smell we enjoy until the time comes when we are beyond these pleasures. And there are the books I discard, and some that I do acquire electronically because they have served their purpose once I’ve read them–whether for information or enjoyment or both. Perhaps a blessing of this age is that we can enjoy both the best of print books and the best of e-resources. Must we settle for the either-or zero sum thinking that says we must choose a smaller, less richly textured world? I hope not.

Review: Winston’s War: Churchill, 1940-1945

Winston's War: Churchill, 1940-1945
Winston’s War: Churchill, 1940-1945 by Max Hastings
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“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.

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