EDITOR’S ESSAY: FINEST HOUR 136, AUTUMN 2007
An interesting article was published in The Washington Post in July by Lynne Olson, author of Troublesome Young Men, a new book on the young Tories who helped put Churchill in office in 1940. (The title tends to overstate matters: chiefly it was the Labour Party that put Churchill in office, by refusing to serve under Chamberlain.) I have not read Olson’s book (Ted Hutchinson has, and reports on page 40). But her article, “Why Winston Wouldn’t Stand for W.” is worth reading. Olson begins with what seems to this writer a sophomoric argument: that George W. Bush, whose friends like to compare him to Winston Churchill, really compares more closely to Neville Chamberlain.
Like Bush in 2003, Olson writes, Chamberlain in 1938 thought that he alone could bring a troublesome foreign dictator “to heel.” Really? Is it not a fact that Chamberlain wanted desperately to avoid bringing Hitler “to heel,” hoping to ply him with kind words and friendly concessions? Bush offered none of those to Saddam Hussein. (Would they have worked in Saddam’s case? That is now only historical conjecture.)
Like Bush, she continues, Chamberlain resisted a “true partnership” with his allies. But isn’t a true partnership what Chamberlain had with France at Munich? And did Bush not woo the French and United Nations far more smarmily before invading Iraq than Chamberlain wooed the Russians and League of Nations before Munich?
Chamberlain, come to think of it, rejected the proffered hand of an American President. Bush, by contrast, grasped and held the hand of a British Prime Minister—held on for dear life. It seems hardly possible to compare Bush, who opted for war at any price, to Chamberlain, who opted for peace at any price.
As much as we may despair over current leaders, each in our own way and each from our own political viewpoint, what Olson says about “shutting down public debate” is way off. All we seem to have is public debate—a veritable permanent campaign, thanks to a 24/7 news media and the intellectual vacuity of leaders unable to communicate what they are doing, and for what purpose. There is far more debate over the way to handle Iraq than Chamberlain had (or indeed tolerated) over his handling of Hitler and the Third Reich.
Lynne Olson warms to her subject when she quits attempting vain comparisons and rounds out a picture of her “own Churchill.” The key word in her understanding is the single word “Liberty”—which is a pretty good start. She quotes Eric Seal, Churchill’s principal private secretary during the early years of the war: Churchill “intensely disliked, and reacted violently against, all attempts to regiment and dictate opinion….He demanded for himself freedom to follow his own star, and he stood out for a like liberty for all men….”
Now one thing you have to say about G.W. Bush is that he follows his own star. “But Churchill would snort,” Olson continues, “at the administration’s equation of ‘Islamofascism,’ an amorphous, ill-defined movement of killers forced to resort to terrorism by their lack of military might, to Nazi Germany, a global power that had already conquered several countries before Churchill took office in 1940.”
No argument there (aside from wondering who forces religious zealots to terrorism). Olson’s piece is worth reading because it winds up on a much more compelling note than it begins. “The president no doubt has his own Churchill,” she writes—a comment which should instruct all of us who tell Churchill’s story to future generations. “Our role,” a colleague suggested to me, is to “show, write, explain, highlight, inform, publish, teach, discuss and promote everything Churchill (and others in his life and times) said and wrote. But at the same time, we should allow people to learn and think, to work out for themselves their ‘own Churchill’ ” We support individuals who explain what Churchill teaches them (like Chris Harmon’s “Let Us Preach What We Practise” in our previous issue, and Kevin Theakston’s piece on WSC and the British Constitution in this issue). But as a matter of policy, we should not alienate anyone who draws different lessons than we do from what Lady Soames calls “The Saga.”
Articles which apply and learn from the Churchill experience in relation to modern situations are a stock in trade of this publication. But our traditional disclaimer bears repeating: The Churchill Centre takes no official position on modern political questions. Thoughts expressed here are those of the authors; counter-opinions are welcome, and will be published. And to quote WSC’s and F.E. Smith’s famous Rule 12 of The Other Club: “Nothing in the rules of the Club shall interfere with the rancour or asperity of party politics.”
We do take an official position in another area: We encourage discussion of Churchill’s experience—what it teaches us, and what means to individuals. We encourage this on the widest possible basis. We intervene only when someone’s ideas about Churchill are not supported by the facts as we know them. —RML
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