Finest Hour 113, Winter 2001-02
By CHRISTOPHER H. STERLING
On October 15th at George Washington University, The Washington Society for Churchill sponsored a two-hour panel discussion on recent books on the Second World War. Four accomplished authors provided their views and reading suggestions, followed by a reception and book signing. Dr. Chris Harmon, who teaches a Churchill course for Marine officers, assembled and chaired the panel.
GW’s Dr. Ron Spector began the session noting the huge number of related books available over the Internet, with Amazon.com alone listing more than 5,000 on the Second World War. Of the top ten sellers, individual volumes of Churchill’s war memoirs occupy slots one, two, four, seven, and ten, suggesting their lasting impact. Spector noted topics that have not been as well covered in recent literature (the Eastern Front, mainland Asia, social impact of the war) as well as reasons why America’s more positive view of the war (the U.S. was not bombed or occupied, and was the only unqualified winner) differs from that of other nations. Describing himself as the only panel member who was not a “Churchill groupie,” Spector ranged widely over recent publications on the war.
Dr. David Jablonsky of the Army War College focused on two recent volumes he found especially insightful: Warren Kimball’s Forged in War on the WSC FDR relationship, and David Stafford’s Men of Secrets, which reviewed the uses of intelligence by both leaders throughout their political lives. Jablonsky outlined the similarities and differences between the two men (e.g., WSC focused on details and writing most things down, FDR did neither). He spoke of Churchill’s reliance on the signals intelligence “golden eggs” from Bletchley Park, and on the art of making grand strategy. He also provided useful contextual commentary, such as noting how small government was in 1939-40 in Britain and the United States. He assessed the impact of World War I’s trench warfare on both Churchill and Hitler’s later leadership, and how differently A Roving Commission and Mein Kampf read, indicating much about their respective authors.
Dr. Williamson Murray, author of many well-received volumes including his recent A War to Be Won, focused the most on Churchill himself, strongly criticizing John Charmley’s books (for among other drawbacks, citing no German-language sources). He noted Churchill’s understanding of history and the repeating patterns of human development, drawing from his own historical work (as many have noted, Marlborough says a good deal about WSC and provides some precedent for his role in World War II). Even more important, Murray argued, was Churchill’s deep understanding of how politicians worked and how governments operated. He also reviewed Sir Martin Gilbert’s landmark biography, calling the document volumes “a great pile of evidence” for all those who would assess Churchill in the future.
Murray described Churchill’s relationship with his military leaders, noting that while WSC sacked some, he was working with a thin talent pool that limited his options. Finally he noted that while the military leadership often fought with the Prime Minister, at no time did Churchill overrule their advice when they were in agreement – while Roosevelt most certainly did.
Dr. Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins University, whose book Supreme Command is to be published in 2002, was an active participant in the question period, noting that WSC’s reputation is suffering under current historical opinion. He described Gilbert’s main biography volumes as more chronicle than analysis or even biography, but praised Gilbert’s Companion Volumes as a “literary treasure,” admitting that he was one of those “over the edge” fans who owned every one of the sixteen companions published.
The panel ranged widely over the varied roles of political leaders and generals among major combatants; the strategic vision present in some but absent in others; the relationship of intelligence in making wartime decisions; and the widely different political contexts in which Churchill and Roosevelt operated. All speakers commented on the continuing flood of WW2 books, noting that some were superb and added considerably to our knowledge, while others merely raked over old coals. The audience was engaged throughout, a large number of them posing questions to the panelists.
Dr. Sterling is Associate Dean of Graduate Affairs, George Washington University.