June 21, 2013

Finest Hour 137, Winter 2007-08

Page 6

Editor’s Essay – Churchill and People

A well-known member of the “punditsphere” recently sent me research questions involving his forthcoming book: one of those iconoclastic best-sellers about why it was wrong to fight World War II—why Churchill’s bulldog stubbornness, however admirable and heroic, bankrupted Britain, lost the Empire and gave us the Cold War. Think back. Haven’t you heard something like this before?

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“As of March 1939,” my friend said with unimpeachable hindsight, “the dead attributed to Stalin were in the millions: barbarism at its worst. Hitler was responsible for 150 dead in the Night of the Long Knives and 100 dead in Kristallnacht, which was not his doing but Goebbels’….I quote four different sources proving that Hitler wanted to end the war—was desperate for a deal.” (Aside from the 30,000 Jews sent to concentration camps following Kristallnacht, and the round-ups and murders in Austria and the Sudetenland, it seems quite possible that by the Battle of Britain, Hitler, anxious to invade Russia, was indeed desperate for a deal with Britain.)

We are equal-opportunity researchers so I provided the references requested. In the process we talked about Churchill’s relationships with people. “Gratitude was not the Great Man’s long suit,” my critical friend declared. “Churchill suggested that poor Robert Boothby, who went to the wall for him, be put on a bomb disposal unit.”

“What’s your source?” I asked. One can always take isolated remarks made in heat or in haste, in unguarded or private moments, and read all sorts of distortions into them. WSC’s remarks about Bob Boothby (and that’s not precisely what he said) are in my forthcoming book of quotations.* I think most readers will conclude that Churchill’s standards of integrity were such that he reacted violently toward anyone who fell short—even his friends.

The idea that Churchill cared nothing for other people, so frequently inferred by his critics, resounds oddly to students of his words. That doesn’t mean that a spontaneous outburst is no clue to his thoughts. But in reviewing what Churchill said about people, what we mainly find, in the end, is understanding and magnanimity.

As I worked on the “People” chapter of my book (the largest chapter of all) I was struck by how often Churchill’s final view of someone ended on a generous note—even toward those he had severely criticized. Indeed I found only two people about whom Churchill was ultimately censorious. (No, they are not Hitler and Mussolini.)

Churchill knew an amazing array of characters: presidents from McKinley to Eisenhower, sovereigns from Victoria to Elizabeth II, magnificoes, potentates, heroes, villains, dictators, democrats, literati, entertainers, generals, admirals. In his many appraisals, one is hardpressed to find shafts of pure hatred. About “guttersnipes” like Hitler he was vituperative; yet even here here we find traces of an effort to find something worthwhile, somewhere.

When the German radio announced that Hitler had died “fighting with his last breath against Bolshevism,” Churchill murmured: “Well, I must say I think he was perfectly right to die like that.” In 1985 WSC’s former private secretary Sir John Colville told me, “I had the impression that somehow he grudgingly approved.” (Churchill did not know when he said this that Hitler had committed ignominious suicide. And he too had expected to die “fighting with his last breath,” had the Germans invaded and hewn their way to Downing Street.)

The people Churchill knew would fill volumes, and he himself wrote a good one: Great Contemporaries. Yet many he admired—like Bracken, Beaverbrook and Birkenhead, his wife’s “three terrible B’s”—rarely received his public encomiums. Privately, it was another story. Even toward strident adversaries in Parliament, there was a measure of affection characteristic of Churchill—an aspect of politics that has almost vanished today. (See for example page 19.)

Christopher Matthews, the Churchill Centre Trustee honored with our Emery Reves Award last October, recalled in his remarks an amazing sight. It was 1981, after President Reagan had been shot and nearly killed. The first outsider allowed into the President’s hospital room was Matthews’ then-boss, Speaker of the House Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill. A doctor entering the room was startled to find O’Neill on his knees in prayer, holding the unconscious President’s hand—this partisan Democrat who had opposed Reagan, and would again. It is scarcely surprising to know that Reagan and O’Neill were both admirers of Winston Churchill.

One of my favorite stories along these lines is from I960, when Sir Winston learned of the death of his great Labour nemesis, Aneurin Bevan. To the astonishment of listeners, WSC launched into an impromptu valedictory— about the man he had once called the “Minister of Disease.” Then, suddenly, half-way through and in mid-sentence, Churchill paused and inquired, sotto voce: “Are you sure he’s dead?” —RML

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