Review by MANFRED WEIDHORN
Richard M. Langworth, Winston Churchill, Myth and Reality: What He Actually Did and Said, McFarland, 2017, 256 pages, $49.95. ISBN 978–1476665832
There is something about greatness that brings out the worst in some observers, be it out of envy, spitefulness, or invincible ignorance. Thus by common consent the three greatest American presidents are Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt, yet each was subject to a barrage of opprobrium and invective. The same holds true for Winston Churchill, probably the savior of Western civilization in Europe in 1940 and the Man of the Century. Because of his colorful, risk-taking personality and his active imagination, Churchill attracted the criticisms of more conventional, conformist political colleagues and of the chattering class—not always, be it noted, unfairly.
For many years Richard M. Langworth waged a campaign in the pages of Finest Hour—the journal of the International Churchill Society, which he founded and edited for decades—to clear the record of many of the false accusations hurled at Churchill. Here he has finally collected these corrections, fleshed them out with documentation and logic, and put the results within the covers of a book. This is as close to rendering a definitive verdict on the topic as anyone has come.
In following a chronological order, Langworth inevitably mingles important matters with lesser ones. Thus such lesses issues as what killed Lord Randolph, The Battle of Sidney Street, Churchill’s consumption of alcohol, and the extent of his “Common Touch,” must take a back seat to serious charges: that Churchill opposed women’s suffrage, sent troops to crush Welsh strikers in 1910, was eager for the First World War to begin, favored the use of poison gas, opposed autonomy for India, did nothing to help Indians in the 1943 Bengal Famine because he was a racist, tried to quash or delay the Second Front, was silent on the Holocaust, and sold out Eastern Europe in 1944–45. In each case, weighty or not, Langworth gives the nay-sayers a platform and then proceeds to offer evidence and arguments to dismiss them. When, as occasionally happens, there is some ambiguity, he indicates that fact.
Each of the thirty-seven chapters begins with a subtitle which states a given unflattering story about Churchill. As an example of the procedure, take what is perhaps the most serious of the charges leveled at Churchill—that he was the architect of the Dardanelles/Gallipoli disaster in the First World War. Langworth presents the historical background and the substance of the charge, together with a helpful map. Then he turns to a brief exposition of Churchill’s role, sympathetically presenting the rationale for Churchill’s idea that something must be done to circumvent the bloody deadlock in the trench war on the Western Front. The operation is then described, as well as the unexpected adverse developments. After some contemporary eye witnesses are quoted, he rounds out the chapter with the findings of the official inquest, which relieved Churchill of most of the responsibility.
That judgment did not prevent political adversaries, who were suspicious of Churchill’s motives and temperament throughout his career, from continuing to associate Churchill with the fiasco. Especially careful about hearsay evidence, Langworth weighs the reliability of various sources of information and uses common sense in drawing conclusions. In effect, he warns critics to proceed no further unless you can provide fresh evidence. Since this is a book for the general reader, Langworth avoids getting bogged down in the morass of books and essays debating the pros and cons to no viable conclusion.
There is one minor defect in the book. Upon finishing it, the reader comes to the conclusion that Churchill, acquitted of all charges, is some sort of secular saint. We know of course that there are few saints—certainly none in politics. And, to be fair to the author, he has gone out of his way, both in Finest Hour and elsewhere on the internet, to discuss in detail those defects and mistakes of Churchill’s which exasperated people who worked with him and provided fodder for legitimate criticism. It is too bad that that material was not included in the book in order to forestall the accusation of hagiography and to highlight Langworth’s unquestionable objectivity.
But that omission is not crucial. Written in a lucid style and with brief chapters concentrating on the key questions, this book will be consulted by every person eager to find the truth about one “Great Man” of history whose reputation has been somewhat besmirched by “alternative facts,” rumors, malice, or intellectual laziness.
Manfred Wiedhorn is Emeritus Guterman Professor of English at Yeshiva University and author of four books about Churchill.