Sir Winston S. Churchill’s 137th birthday was marked by a black tie reception and dinner November 30 at the Union Club of Boston, just around the corner from where Churchill spoke on his 1900-1901 lecture tour. At the end of a filet mignon dinner at which the President, the Queen and the Heroic Memory of Sir Winston S. Churchill were toasted, the audience listened enthralled to Barbara Leaming, author of Churchill Defiant: Fighting On 1945-1955, tell how she came to discover Churchill in the course of her research for another book and what she learned about Churchill’s qualities of political skill and perseverance as he staged an improbable comeback in the years 1945 to 1955. The New England Churchillians had selected this title for discussion at their 2011 summer picnic at Suzanne and Dan Sigman’s lakefront house.
A decade ago the 11th Duke of Devonshire handed Leaming volume I of Winston Churchill’s The World Crisis and told her, “Start here.” She had been interviewing Andrew Devonshire for a biography of John F. Kennedy. The duke was explaining the impact that Churchill had on JFK as a young man in 1938-39 in the run-up to World War II. This set Leaming to trace Churchill’s impact on JFK; the result was Jack Kennedy: The Education of a Statesman, the first book to detail the influence of Winston Churchill on Kennedy’s intellectual formation and strategic thinking.
But there was also another outcome of her research that has brought Leaming to Boston and other venues recently. By the time she finished reading Volume I of The World Crisis, Leaming was completely fascinated by Churchill. It was the start of what became a decade of immersion in Churchill’s life and thought.
While researching the JFK book, Leaming came across something in Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s diaries that intrigued her: Macmillan’s account of what he saw as a member of Churchill’s government between 1951 and 1955. It called to Leaming’s mind King Lear, Shakespeare’s great drama of age and power. She had come to know that play very intimately years before when Orson Welles talked to her about it as he tried unsuccessfully to secure financing for a film of Lear. She realized that if she could find out the rest of the story that Macmillan’s diary entry hinted at, she might find one of history’s great dramas of age: about power – having it, losing it, regaining it, yielding it; and about generational conflict and succession struggle.
She realized also that this Churchill story was untold. The result was her book Churchill Defiant: Fighting On 1945-1955, the story of the last decade of Churchill’s public life. Her story begins where most of the Churchill books end: at the end of the Second World War and Churchill’s defeat in the general election of 1945 in the middle of the Potsdam conference. The huge Labour victory and crushing defeat of the Conservative Party made it seem impossible that Churchill could harbor any hope of returning to power. He was 70 years old in 1945 and not in good health, and it looked as if at least 10 years would pass before the Conservatives had any chance to return to power. By then he would be 80, if still alive. Also, everyone – including his wife -believed he should retire. He had done enough, he had achieved his destiny with the victory over Hitler.
But from Churchill’s point of view everything looked very different. First there was the question of Churchill’s character – he craved responsibility. But there were also strong reasons that made him sure he must not retire, that he must find some way to do the impossible and return to power and the summit. Everything was changed – the Soviets had gone from ally to adversary. He was sure there would be a third world war if a lasting peace was not made. From the time of the First World War (as expressed in The World Crisis), he had always believed that victory on the battlefield was not enough; one must make a lasting peace.
His decision: defiance. He would not step aside. He would fight on. What ensued was an extraordinary race against time. Churchill spent the next six years fighting to do the impossible: return to Ten Downing Street in time to save the world from nuclear destruction in a third world war with the West’s ally-turned-adversary, the Soviets. In 1951, against all odds, Churchill managed to regain the premiership. He then undertook to fight his way from this position to the summit, against the staunch opposition of key members of his own party, as well as of his most powerful international allies, the Americans.
In the years of Churchill’s postwar premiership, he fought two extraordinary battles: one with President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the other with Robert “Bobbety” Salisbury, 5th Marquess of Salisbury and the most powerful member of his Cabinet. Churchill’s relationships with both men were not only extremely complex and fascinating, but incredibly revealing of the way in which the great man’s mind worked.
In the end Churchill was defeated not by either of these powerful men, but by age and illness. At the age of eighty, even the titan finally had to accept that the time had come when he must leave the stage.
In this final chapter of his long public life Churchill had fought relentlessly to return to the summit and make a lasting peace. Churchill Defiant is the story of this final struggle. Although Churchill did not get to the summit, between the years 1945 and 1955 he did extraordinary things, fought incredible battles, and continued to shape the course of history in crucial ways.