July 4, 2013



We like to put students on the right track, but not write their papers for them. When Zachary Chan, Jessica Suhardjo and Morgan Stewart, ninth graders at Upland, California High School, asked for an email interview for their History Day project, I tried to cite references I hoped they would follow up. See if you think my answers encouraged but did not “give the game away”….

1. Did Churchill’s earlier government offices contribute to his success as Prime Minister?

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Yes. By being First Lord of the Admiralty in World War I, for example, he learned a crucial lesson: never try to carry out a major operation (the Dardanelles campaign in WW1) without the authority to see it through. In 1940 when he became PM, he appointed himself “Minister of Defense,” an entirely new position, which gave him authority to direct the military. However, he never went against the advice of his military chiefs.

As Home Secretary, he urged more enlightened treatment of people jailed for trivial offenses. As PM, he was against severe treatment of security risks in Britain, and wished to eliminate wartime restrictions on* civil liberties as soon as the war ended. (He would probably be doubtful about our Patriot Act, though he might approve it if war had actually been declared.)

Use our website search feature to look up articles on Home Secretary, Admiralty, Exchequer, Colonies, etc.

2. Do you think all of Churchill’s decisions as Prime Minister were reasonable to defeat the Germans? If not, what were the bad ones, and their results?

Yes, given what was known at the time. Later, even Churchill admitted mistakes. For example, he greatly underestimated the effectiveness of the German Blitzkrieg tactics in France, and the power of hostile aircraft over capital ships (resulting in the sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse by Japanese aircraft off Singapore. Please read “Churchill’s Flaws and Mistakes.”

Read the “Second Front” debate, Finest Hour 124:31. It gives the reasons why Churchill was cautious about launching a second front in Europe until 1944. His experience in WW1 most influenced this decision.

3. In the 1945 election, Churchill based his campaign on his record as a wartime leader and criticism of Attlee’s Labour Party. Do you think Churchill’s views caused him to lose the election?

His views had little to do with it—he was himself easily re-elected. But his party was turned out of office. Remember, this was the first general election in ten years. The voters held the Conservatives responsible for the appeasement that led to war, and were weary after six years’ fighting. Labour promised a brave new world. The loss was very natural. Churchill himself said of the British people, “They have had a very hard time.”

4. If Churchill had not become the Prime Minister during the war against Germany, what would you think would have happened?

Churchill proved that individuals do matter in history. It is difficult to imagine another likely leader—Halifax was the leading alternative—who would not have tried to reach an “accommodation” with Hitler that left all of Europe in Nazi hands and Britain disarmed. The genius of Churchill is that he convinced his colleagues to fight on, when things looked about as bad as they could be. There is much on this on our website. Read our review of John Lukacs’ book, Five Days in London, or better yet, read the book itself.

5. Do you find Churchill a strong or weak political leader, even though he was successful in the war?

This sounds like an essay question and I hope you are not asking me to help you write an essay. Churchill was a strong leader during the war. Afterward, many think he was too old and tired to roll back the damage done by the postwar Labour government. On the international stage after the war, he sought accommodation with the Soviets during the Cold War. But Britain was too insignificant to matter, so the problem was more Britain’s weakness than Churchill’s. Why Britain’s power and influenced waned after the war is a subject on which whole books have been written.

6. Before becoming Prime Minister, some say Churchill lost many supporters because he criticized others with loud outbursts, and he lost the friendship of many Conservatives. What do you think of this?

Not much. He made strong speeches, yes, but few outbursts. One that did do him great harm, albeit temporary, was when he pleaded for more time for King Edward VIII to reconsider before abdicating in 1936—use our website search and look up “Abdication.”

To understand why he was not fully supported “Churchill the Great? Why the Vote Will Not Be Unanimous” by Douglas
Hall, explains much of this.

Remember that in the 1930s, Churchill was urging rearmament at a time when the slaughter of World War I was as recent in people’s minds as the 1991 Gulf War is today. As the famous broadcaster Alistair Cooke remarked, every village in England had its war memorial, and its long list of dead: “The British people would do anything to stop Hitler—except fight him.” Most leaders who deliver bad news are unpopular. The ones who are proved right often end up heroes—but only time and history can judge them.

If you want a feel for how British people viewed Winston Churchill in the period from 1910-39, read Alistair Cooke’s speech. —Ed. 

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