Larry P. Arnn, Churchill’s Trial: Winston Churchill and the
Salvation of Free Government, Thomas Nelson Books, 2015,
240 pages, $22.99. ISBN 978-1595555304
Reviewed for The Churchill Centre by JOHN H. MAURER
Churchill’s Trial by Larry Arnn is a must-have book for anyone who wants to know more about Sir Winston Churchill, the challenges he faced as a leader in public life, and the values he upheld as a statesman. Arnn has achieved much in this volume: he has written a serious, learned book, without being tedious; a thoughtful meditation on leadership, without losing sight of the ugly realities and the difficult choices that confront leaders living in dark, troubled times. To Arnn, Churchill is a heroic figure, a champion of the cause of freedom, who changed the course of history, despite sometimes having to fight against fearful odds. Hence, understanding what motivated Churchill to take up the challenges before him, to fight the trials of his era, is of great value for us in facing the dangers of our own times.
Arnn is uniquely qualified to write this book. As is well-known to members of The Churchill Centre, he serves as President of Hillsdale College. One of his initiatives at Hillsdale was to bring back into print the celebrated official biography of Churchill started by Randolph Churchill and completed by Sir Martin Gilbert, as well as to finish the accompanying companion volumes of documents. By providing a handsome edition of Churchill’s biography to a new generation of readers, and doing it an affordable price, Arnn has performed a valuable public service. Churchill’s Trial is dedicated “To Sir Martin Gilbert, Master Teacher.” Arnn, too, is a master teacher: Churchill’s Trial is written in a clear, engaging style that is the hallmark of a seasoned educator. Arnn’s volume, then, is the product of a deep and longstanding commitment to the study of Churchill, as well as the teaching of classics on leadership and politics.
Churchill’s Trial offers a sure guide for understanding the principles that guided and motivated Churchill the statesman. In the concluding section “The Lessons of Churchill,” Arnn enumerates and explains these principles. Arnn highlights that, throughout his lifetime, Churchill showed a remarkable consistency of purpose in his efforts to defend a liberal order both at home and abroad.
The international environment in the first half of the twentieth century presented a deadly trial for Churchill and Britain. In Nazi Germany and the Russia of Lenin and Stalin, the liberal world order was menaced by well-armed extremist regimes bent on spreading their tyrannical creeds. These dangerous ideological foes threatened nothing less than the destruction of the democratic experiment in the West. Arnn writes: “Nazism is understood to be a movement of the Right. There was also a growing tyranny in Europe, and eventually on other continents, of the Left. Churchill did not think this distinction between Left and Right so important: he said that the two tyrannies differ as the North Pole differs from the South” (xxvi). Churchill did not shirk from standing in the lists as a champion against these twin terrors, as well as inspire others to fight with him.
In these struggles against the Nazi and Soviet tyrannies, Churchill would have preferred to avoid war. Arnn writes: “Churchill believed it tragic when the purposes of politics must give way to the urgencies of war” (53). Churchill understood the enormous cost of wars involving the great powers, armed with the full panoply of the weaponry conjured up by modern science, and committed to fighting for the highest stakes. Churchill, as a young man, had experienced first-hand the lethality of the modern battlefield. Early in Churchill’s political life, speaking before the House of Commons about army reforms in the aftermath of the Boer War, he predicted with uncanny accuracy the high cost of warfare in a scientific age, in which the victors would not emerge unscathed from war’s violence and horrors. Churchill was always the realist, even as he fought for the high ideals of Western Civilization.
Of course, wanting to avoid war did not mean that Churchill was willing to pay any price for the preservation of the peace. He understood that a secure peace required strength on the part of those countries intent on preventing aggression. Meanwhile, weakness encouraged aggression. Arnn writes: “Churchill taught that when…free peoples are threatened by armed despotism, they should seek unity and also overwhelming force, including especially military force” (247). Churchill’s call to arm and form alliances was the foundation for averting unnecessary wars. Britain’s inability to deter Germany from unleashing war in 1914 and 1939 was at the center of Europe’s tragedy and the decline of British power. Arnn writes: “The wars of modern Germany were his wars, and the growth and influence of modern Germany a defining phenomenon of his time. Churchill’s trial always involved Germany” (xxi).
In confronting imminent danger, Churchill spoke out for preparedness in defense of the cause of freedom. Before both world wars and during the Cold War, Churchill urged the world’s democracies to create positions of strength to deter aggression. He presided over the buildup of the Royal Navy in the years immediately before the First World War. Denied office during the 1930s, he still pressed hard for a substantial buildup in the Royal Air Force to stay ahead of Germany. Both out and in office after 1945, he warned against the West’s weakness in the face of Soviet military might. Churchill also called for the association of the world’s democracies to band together because they faced a common danger. By concerted action, the Western democracies would not be eaten “course by course”—divided and defeated one at a time—by the tyrants seeking to devour them. Arnn rightly emphasizes that at Fulton, Churchill spoke about the importance of alliance solidarity to prevent a third world war, as well as Stalin’s imposition of an iron curtain on Eastern Europe in violation of the Yalta accords: “If the population of the English-speaking Commonwealths be added to that of the United States with all that such co-operation implies in the air, on the sea, all over the globe and in science and in industry, and in moral force, there will be no quivering, precarious balance of power to offer its temptation to ambition or adventure” (101).
Britain and the United States were fortunate that the twin tyrannies of German nationalist extremism and Russian communism did not cooperate for long in pursuit of mutual benefit. Lenin, brought to power by the German generals during the First World War, made a separate peace with imperial Germany. German forces in the East were then freed to attack the Atlantic democracies on the Western Front during the first half of 1918. Meanwhile, in a replay of 1918, when Hitler and Stalin cooperated with each other between 1939 and 1941, the liberal world order received immense jolts that almost destroyed it. If not for Churchill and the determined stand of the British people in 1940, the triumph of the tyrants might well have ushered in that new dark age. Instead, denied victory in the West by Churchill and Britain, Hitler turned on his fellow gangster Stalin. The hideous struggle between these two extremists—a conflict Churchill predicted would occur and warned Stalin was about to break—helped the liberal democracies to prevail in the Second World War. (The diaries of Ivan Maisky, the Soviet ambassador to the Court of St. James, edited by Gabriel Gorodetsky, recently published by the Yale University Press, reveal the extent to which Churchill went to warn Stalin of the impending Nazi onslaught.) Betrayed by Hitler, Stalin was forced to fight for his survival, in conjunction with Britain and the United States to forge a Grand Alliance to overthrow the Nazi tyranny.
In examining Churchill’s trials, Arnn does not dodge controversy, nor does he pull his punches. His chapter on “Strategy and Empire” will provoke those who want to condemn Churchill as an old-fashioned, racist imperialist. Arnn argues effectively that the British Empire made a signal contribution to the victory in both world wars. He poses the fascinating counterfactual question: “An independent India, governed by Gandhi and the Congress Party, might not have come to the aid of Britain and the rest of the allies in either world war. Would Britain have survived?” (103). Arnn’s provocative question underscores the dangerous trials through which Churchill and Britain passed during the Second World War, and how history might have taken a jarringly different turn for the worse if the resources of the British Empire had not been arrayed against the Axis menace. One need only look at the baleful consequences of Éamon de Valera’s Ireland remaining neutral during the war to get an appreciation for the significance of Arnn’s counterfactual question.
Churchill’s actions to defend a liberal constitutional order at home present another trial explored by Arnn. The rise of socialism as a force in British politics and society, in Churchill’s eyes, went against that order. In this political trial, Churchill faced strong opposition. Churchill was unrepentant in his opposition to socialism’s siren calls to restructure society. Arnn tellingly notes: “Churchill was as relentless in resisting socialism as were its supporters in advancing it” (141). The general election debacle of 1945 showed just how strong was the socialist impulse in British life. Despite election setbacks and political ostracism, Churchill remained committed to the rule of law, the principles of limited government, and the enterprise made possible by the free market. He also understood that, after the hardships and sacrifices suffered by the British people during both world wars, socialism’s allure would prove even more seductive. “When they [that is, the British people] rejected him,” Arnn writes, “he carried on their service, according to his own lights, seeking agreement with them” (240). Arnn maintains that Churchill sought to educate and to inspire the people of the Western democracies to greatness. To Arnn, Churchill “was as much a teacher as a statesman, as much given to explaining as he was to convincing” (251).
Larry Arnn has brought to the forefront these important questions about statecraft and ethics, the trials of war, and the demands on leaders of a political life in an open society. To those who would mock Churchill and the values for which he fought, Arnn comes to the defense and offers a rebuke. Arnn’s book provides insight not only into Churchill’s leadership, but into the enduring problems that confront today’s leaders in the liberal democracies, engaged as we are in new trials against extremist non-state terrorists and authoritarian challengers, intent on destroying the global order underwritten by the United States since 1945. Churchill’s Trial deserves a wide readership and will richly repay those who read it.
John H. Maurer is the Alfred Thayer Mahan Professor of Sea Power and Grand Strategy at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, where he teaches a popular course on Sir Winston Churchill as a statesman, strategist, politician, soldier, and war leader.