Finest Hour 159, Summer 2013
By Warren F. Kimball
A Nice Cruise Down A Lengthy River You’ve sailed Before
The Last Lion, vol. 3, Defender of the Realm 1940-1965, by Paul Reid and William Manchester. Little Brown, hardbound, illus., 1232 pages, $40, member price $32.
Literature’s long-standing, obsessive self-absorption by authors has crept into the book review game. Few reviewers seem able to write a review of this book without resorting to the first person singular: I knew the author personally, watched him suffer from writer’s block; tried to help, etc., etc., ad nauseam. An egregious example was Deborah Baker’s review in the Wall Street Journal, barely ten percent of which was about the book. The rest was a memoir of her personal relationship with “Bill” Manchester.
Why should Manchester matter? He wrote two volumes on Churchill; then, over a longue durée, he compiled frightfully disorganized notes in preparation for the third and final volume, then sadly died. Why depend on his outdated notes and inadequate research, or follow his arrogant injunctions against so-called academic histories? What Paul Reid has written is his book, whatever the rampant rumors of restrictions by the Manchester estate.
Reid’s narrative skills are obvious. At his best he is succinct and enlightening; other times, he rambles on about details that matter little to the big picture. Does naming British regiments (the King’s this or the Queen’s that or, even sillier, the 2nd Sherwood Foresters or various Hussars) really matter? Nazi reactions are exaggerated. Josef Goebbels’ diary seems quoted almost as often as Churchill’s war memoirs. Battle details are laid out like case studies at Sandhurst.
For the most part, this is a narrative about the Second World War—with Winston Churchill playing the lead role—a war that always threatens to overwhelm the narrative. Martin Gilbert has already given us a meticulous, good-to-the-last-detail chronology of Churchill during WW2 (cited less frequently than I expected). We have many broad surveys of the war viewed from the top. What does this book add?
The slings and arrows of inaccurate history are best left to the sharp and spot-on ripostes found in the Churchill Centre web page, “Leading Churchill Myths.” Reid, ostensibly aloof from such debates, does a nice job of addressing them, without, curiously, mentioning the arguments. (How ever did he know about them without reading recent studies?)
Some examples: Reid argues persuasively that Churchill, wisely, convinced Roosevelt that an invasion of western Europe could not work in 1942 or even, perhaps, 1943. To determine Churchill’s commitment to OVERLORD requires gathering bits and pieces throughout the book. But overall, Reid concludes that Churchill believed in OVERLORD only if Germany was “on the ropes” because of the Red Army, the RAF, and the success of the Italian campaign.
In January 1943, during the Casablanca talks, Churchill went for a walk on the beach with his bodyguard. Taking a shortcut, they ended up outside the perimeter wire. When Churchill tried to step over, rifle chambers clicked, voices called HALT, and the bodyguard yelled, “It’s Churchill.” To quote Reid, “the soldiers lowered their weapons, cursing at having almost shot at the prime minister, and cursing the prime minister for almost forcing their hand” (623-24).
That irrepressible and irresponsible confidence was in many ways the essence of Churchill—and is how Paul Reid depicts his protagonist. WSC’s overriding obsession, his unwavering focus, was on the defeat of Hitler’s Germany. Yet victory was not the only high stake, albeit the necessary first step.
Reid generally fails to note the long-term effects of Churchill’s blinkered focus, but the point comes home with undeveloped throw-away lines: “The topic, for the first time [March 1943] during his premiership, was the postwar world” (652). The first time? Whatever the lack of leverage available to any British leader then or later, not to think seriously and persistently about the purpose of victory is self-defeating. As indeed it proved for Churchill.
Of course the inconvenient postwar uncertainties would not go away. Reid’s descriptions of the all-important wartime summit meetings, which so determined the makeup of the postwar world, are deft if sketchy. They create the mood and some of the details. Excerpted and printed together they would provide a readable and valuable primer on summitry.
Reid summarizes the Second Front discussions at Teheran in pithy fashion: “Roosevelt had given Stalin an opening, and the marshal had marched right through” (757)—a clever but misleading phrase. Of course Stalin wanted the Anglo-Americans to fulfill their promise of a cross-Channel invasion. Reid speculates that the dismissal of a Balkan “thrust,” Churchill’s unworkable notion of an invasion though the so-called Ljubljana gap, which FDR threw out as a sacrificial lamb, indicated that Stalin had a political strategy regarding Eastern Europe. Wow! Some surprise.
True, FDR left it up to Stalin to choose which “second” front, and “Uncle Joe” did just what Roosevelt expected—insisted on the cross-Channel attack. Why did FDR do that? Because he believed the only hope, short or midterm, for Eastern Europe was a Soviet Union that felt secure. Reid describes the late night, private offer to Stalin to move the Polish-German boundary westward, quoting Churchill: “If Poland trod on some German toes, that could not be helped….Boundaries were drawn by the strong.” This may be accurate. but leaves Churchill as willing to recognize Soviet territorial expansion (760).
Does Reid present Teheran as what it was, the most formative of the wartime conferences? No, but he does catch the essence of Churchill’s instincts: “With a growing awareness of his diminishing role within the alliance, Churchill departed Teheran fully intending to find the right way home. As always, the path led through the Mediterranean” (771). So American suspicions were on the mark. In Reid’s words, Churchill “sought no financial gain; Roosevelt did. Churchill sought no territorial gain; Stalin did” (812). That’s a clever defense, which doesn’t add that Churchill’s efforts to preserve the Empire were beyond his grasp. Is political gain somehow more admirable and less selfish?
Coverage of the remarkably revealing TOLSTOY talks in Moscow (Autumn 1944) between Churchill and Stalin (878-81) is oddly inadequate. No mention is made of the ugly banter between Stalin and Churchill about the Poles; no mention of Stalin’s support for a harsh peace imposed on Germany (later denied by Moscow); no mention of the extraordinary discussions between Molotov and Eden, who tried to spell out the details of the percentages deal. Are details of battles more important?
With Averell Harriman absent from the first of the TOLSTOY talks, Reid considers that Roosevelt did not understand the “spheres of influence” deal that Churchill was making with Stalin. This ignores the clarity of Harriman’s reports to FDR. Harriman knew what his two allies were doing, and provided accurate though not detailed information to the White House. (Perhaps a look at the volumes of Foreign Relations of the United States, not cited anywhere, would have filled in that blank.)
Reid wonderfully suggests what Stalin was thinking (here and in other situations), without indicating any knowledge of recent or current Russian scholarship from the Soviet-era archives. Mention of Churchill’s support for concessions to Russia in the Far East (a precursor to the much-criticized Far Eastern Protocol agreed to by Stalin and FDR at Yalta) is missing.
Reid does drive home a key point— by the time the talks had ended, Churchill could no longer support the exiled Polish government in London, which was unwilling to make any compromises on territorial disputes. Sounding like FDR, the Prime Minister told the House of Commons that “the future depends upon the union of our three countries [UK, Russia, USA]. If that fails, all fails” (881).
Summing up the Teheran conference, Reid creates one poignant and amusing image (such “creations” pop up frequently). After noting that FDR intended to bring American forces back to prepare for a massive invasion of Japan, Reid has Eden and Churchill gazing “across the Channel,” realizing “that Roosevelt’s decision would leave in Europe an undermanned and ill-equipped French army of barely eight divisions, an exhausted British army, and the Red Army.”
Reid’s imagining may be accurate, but it cries out for context. The Red Army was huge, but also war-weary. Soviet-era documents show that Stalin had no plans for military expansion into western Europe. In fact, in autumn 1944, Stalin was still hoping for a cooperative relationship with the West, albeit one that left Russia in control of what became the Soviet empire. Historians who rely on old Cold War histories can be overpowered by old Cold War fears.
Yalta, quite properly, gets less coverage than Teheran. The analyses of Churchill’s apparently inconsistent views about Stalin and the Soviet Union are incisive and insightful—worthy of a full review in themselves. I do not have space here to describe the way in which the minor roles played by Charles de Gaulle and France get far more attention than they deserve.
Sometimes a throw-away line needs elaboration. One is Reid’s astonishing analysis of Heinrich Himmler’s proposal to a Swedish diplomat at war’s end that the Germans surrender to the Anglo-Americans in the west while continuing to battle the Russians until the Allies and Eisenhower could take up the struggle against the Bolsheviks—“an astoundingly naive yet not unsound concept” (915). Not unsound? Go to bed with the Nazis to achieve what?
In the same vein, Reid makes much of Ike’s reassurances to the Russians that the Allied armies would withdraw some 140 miles to the zones agreed upon at Yalta, ominously writing that in April 1945, Churchill was “as yet unaware of Eisenhower’s pledge.” Wasn’t Churchill at Yalta? If the time had come to confront the Soviet Union, what was there to prevent the Soviets from swinging around north of Berlin and “liberating” Denmark and northwestern Germany?
Once Churchill leaves office late in July 1945, the narrative takes off like a race-horse heading for the finish. During his five years back in the wilderness, he “sent into battle” (Reid’s phrase) more than 200 speeches attacking Attlee, the Labour Party and socialism, defending the Empire and supporting his version of European unity (“We are with them, but not of them”). If this was a “battle” worthy of the Last Lion, it is not debated. But Churchill’s out-of-office style prompts Reid to raise a verbal eyebrow: “Whether he was in gentlemanly form was not of any concern to him.” That hints at an answer to oft-asked questions about seeming inconsistencies in Churchill’s controversial positions throughout his career: high office can, and should, bring out the best in a statesman.
The entire book suffers from “historical isolationism”: the failure or refusal to consult the vast body of historical works, something even more apparent for the postwar years. Eisenhower’s diaries would have divulged the reasons for Ike’s angry, dismissive reaction to Churchill’s 1953-55 proposals for a summit; Klaus Larres’ Churchill’s Cold War would have offered a far deeper exploration of Churchill’s thinking on atomic and thermonuclear weapons. Reid missed a wonderful opportunity to make corrections to Churchill’s war memoirs, ignoring David Reynolds’ definitive account of writing those memoirs, In Command of History, published eight years before Defender of the Realm. Whatever the reasons, the truncated, high-speed treatment of Churchill’s final ministry is a disappointment. Reid is right to claim that Churchill’s search for detente during his second premiership found him at his most heroic; but that heroism is not apparent from the speed-dialed postwar narrative.
So what is this book all about? Reid admires Churchill but recognizes him as a “flawed giant.” There are explanations for mistakes, but few acceptable to Reid. An honest report that the British Navy failed to rescue German sailors from the sunken Bismarck, while the Luftwaffe killed defenseless British sailors trying to swim to safety during the battle of Crete, prompts a sad but prescient observation: “both sides, it appeared, had jettisoned any pretense to gentlemanly rules of engagement” (364).
Recounting the loss of HMS Repulse and Prince of Wales in December 1941, Reid scoffs at Churchill’s excuse: “chance played so fatal a part.” Chance, adds Reid, “was aided and abetted by Churchill adhering too long to his notions of battlewagons and their mythic prowess” (437). He deftly describes Churchill’s failure to understand the vastness of the Pacific (less of a self-inflicted wound than Hitler’s ignorance of the vastness of Russia).
Churchillians will wriggle with delight at Reid’s literate and emphatic discourse on Churchill as both defender of the Empire and of democracy; and squirm in discomfort reading Reid’s collection of ethnic and racial slurs. A discussion of racial tensions among black and white Americans stationed in England leads to a brief but pungent description of British and Churchill’s racial attitudes. Whatever the examples of a general, if benign, British attitude—Frogs, Wops, Japs…foul, nasty, filthy and wretched—the most revealing comment is that of Churchill in the 1950s when he proposed that England’s national motto be “Keep England White.” In the spirit of the non-judgmental chronicler, Reid simply reports the statement and passes on (573).
But let us not be generationally chauvinist (Manchester’s term): this same Churchill condemned as repugnant the U.S. Army’s insistence that the British accept segregation of black American military personnel in Britain.
Paul Reid has not written a biography, but rather an old-style “life and times” narrative with guns and bullets, political conniving, oft-repeated (but worth repeating) anecdotes, lovely touches of the personal, and the most important asset—a hero. It is a nice cruise down a rather lengthy river that you’ve sailed before. There is nothing new or exciting; it is reassuring rather than challenging. Still, it is a lovely and literate view of familiar territory that massages old stories, nurtures legends, and points gently to miscalculations and mistakes of the hero—who, flawed though he was, remains a hero.
Reid chose, or was forced, to pretend ignorance of the dogged efforts of a multitude of academics who, in the last four decades, pushed forward the frontiers of scholarship and intellectual inquiry into the history of the Second World War. Not only is his historical isolationism rude; it is a shame, particularly since he is a superb writer. He makes a familiar history come alive, though you’ll have to manage a huge cargo of extraneous material in a book this long (with strikingly narrow margins), that takes Churchill only from 1940 until his death.
Prof. Kimball edited the Churchill-Roosevelt correspondence and is the author of several books about those figures and World War II. We wish to note that this review differs from more general reviews in the popular press by requiring the broader knowledge of Churchill which most FH readers possess.