Finest Hour 141, Winter 2008-09
Empire’s End: Churchill’s Centrality
The Last Thousand Days of the British Empire: Churchill, Roosevelt, and the Birth of the Pax Americana, by Peter Clarke. Bloomsbury Press, 560 pp., hard-bound, $35. Member price $28.
By David Freeman
Professor Freeman teaches history at California State University, Fullerton.
A former professor of Modern British History at Cambridge University and Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, Clarke is a biographer of Sir Stafford Cripps and wrote the final volume in the Penguin History of Britain. Thus he is well qualified to consider British military, imperial, diplomatic and economic history from the Second Quebec Conference in 1944 to the independence of India in 1947: the last thousand days when Britain functioned as a major player in world affairs. For most of them, Clarke observes, Churchill is “the central figure in the story.”
The recurring metaphorical theme is that first Churchill and then Attlee were (in Attlee’s own words) “playing the hand they were dealt.” But this also points out the book’s primary weakness: its narrow focus. Clarke does not get into how the British came to be dealt the hand they were playing. The deal took place before the time covered in his text, and readers interested in this aspect of British Imperial history will have to look elsewhere—such as former Churchill Archives Centre Keeper Piers Brendon’s The Decline and Fall of the British Empire (2007), which covers the period from 1781 to 1997. Still, for a virtual day-by-day account of the Empire’s “final days,” this book can’t be beat.
The day-by-day aspect is important. These were hectic times. The number of issues and decisions that had to be grappled with each day and their complex interconnectedness were monumental. Economic, political and military realities circumscribed the decision-making process—a fact overlooked in revisionist histories that focus on single topics such as Palestine, India or the origins of the Cold War. With the luxury of time and hindsight, too many historians have inquired into “what should have been done,” instead of understanding the context in which important decisions were made.
Clarke avoids the revisionist trap by relying heavily on the diaries and papers of the major figures of the era to illustrate their concerns, and how they attempted to maneuver under the circumstances they faced. Churchill dominates the first two-thirds of the narrative, as Clarke shows “how intractably Britain’s postwar problems were rooted in precisely those wartime commitments that had brought victory.”
If Churchill was the architect of victory, Clarke concludes, “he was surely to this extent also the author of Britain’s post-war distress” (xvii). “Victory at all costs” was promised and delivered. Yet without victory, Churchill rightly prophesied, there would have been no survival. Clarke illustrates how Churchill himself appreciated Britain’s declining position in the closing months of the war and attempted to salvage what he could on the economic front through Lend-Lease negotiations; on the Imperial front by trying to delay Indian independence; and on the international front by his deal with Stalin to keep Greece free of communism.
The postwar Attlee government simply wound up the process with the 1946 American loan (paid off in 2006), withdrawal from India and Palestine, and transfer of responsibility in Greece and Turkey to the new Western superpower. Clarke’s facing of the facts head-on does not diminish Churchill’s greatness. Instead, Clarke depicts a great man at work making decisions both right and wrong but always respecting the institutions of parliamentary democracy and working for what he saw as the best interests of his country.