What’s Best to Read on Churchill Postwar?
Q: We are asked to recommend books to read on Churchill’s postwar career, as Leader of the Opposition (1945-51) and Prime Minister 1951-55).
A: Of course the most definitive account is Martin Gilbert’s official biography, Volume 8 Never Despair, published by Hillsdale College Press. (Its accompanying brace of document volumes will shortly be published.) For readers who prefer a good burger to filet mignon, Gilbert’s Churchill: A Life, is briefer but no less authoritative, covering Churchill’s entire life in one volume.
The best specialized book I’ve read on Churchill’s first postwar decade is Barbara Leaming’s Churchill Defiant: Fighting On, 1951-1955. (The author also writes beautifully about Churchill’s influence on the young John Kennedy, largely through Marlborough and his warnings of the German threat in the 1930s, in Jack Kennedy: The Education of a Statesman.) Two earlier works on the postwar years also deserve mention.
Churchill Defiant, by Barbara Leaming (2010)
Leaming’s book numbers only 300 pages, lacks the clinical, chronological approach of Gilbert, and contains little that challenges his findings. Its value is its personal dimension and thoughtfulness that places it well above the long array of potboilers. It may be the most thought-provoking survey of Churchill’s postwar years. While it’s not the first Churchill book young people should read, the more experienced will find it full of insight to his lifelong defense of liberty and constitutional government.
Why did Churchill fight on postwar? In two words: world peace. It was, he said, “the last prize I seek.” He considered himself gifted for what he called “parleys at the summit.” Even at Fulton, as he warned of the Iron Curtain in 1946, he believed that if only the heads of government could sit down together, the danger of another world war could be eased. Repeatedly he risked rupturing the special relationship he valued above all others, challenging a reluctant Eisenhower to meet with him and the Russians. He never gave up, Leaming writes: “Where others heard taps, Churchill heard reveille.”
This is an intensely personal portrayal not only of Churchill but of colleagues and adversaries like Stalin and Eisenhower. Make no mistake, Eisenhower as president was an adversary. Rosy portraits of their relationship have obfuscated Churchill’s low view of Ike in office, deeming him short on vision, stagnant in thinking. Above all, he regarded the President as subservient to his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, “whose breath stank and whose left eye twitched incessantly and disconcertingly”—whom Eisenhower sent at regular intervals “to try to turn Churchill from his purpose.”
The reader is at Churchill’s shoulder from page 1, where, in Berlin in 1945, the PM descends the stairs to Hitler’s bunker, hesitates halfway down, climbs wearily back and—when a Russian soldier shows him where Hitler’s body was burned—turns away in revulsion. In 1946, in Miami, he is “seated beside a bed of red poinsettias near the pink brick seaside house,” his tropical tan suit “snugly across his stomach,” pondering what he must tell the world at Fulton. We read parallel sketches of Stalin around the same time, holidaying on the Black Sea—ailing, exhausted, paranoid, suspicious of plots against him, torturing a former doctor he believes is a spy.
Leaming’s insight is extraordinary. Why, for example, did Truman invite Churchill to Fulton, when the President was seeking to avoid confrontation with Moscow? “At a time when Truman had yet to emerge from Roosevelt’s shadow,” she suggests, “it might be difficult politically to depart from his predecessor’s Soviet policy. The Fulton speech, delivered by a private citizen who also happened to be a master of the spoken word, as well as a figure of exceptional appeal to Americans, would allow Truman, at no political cost to himself, to see if the public was ready to accept a change.” (67)
Barbara Leaming better understands Lady Churchill than Clementine’s more recent biographers. From 1945 she yearned for her husband to retire. Yet she backs him, wishing him go on his terms, responding angrily that while she’d be happy if he stepped down, “I don’t wish to be told that by Mr. Harold Macmillan.”
Churchill’s Tory colleagues do not show well under Leaming’s light. Nearly to a man, they hoped he would retire as early as 1945, each of them in profound self-interest. “Bobbety” Salisbury wanted Eden, knowing he could not as easily control “Rab” Butler; Butler dangled a coalition before Labour as a way to supplant Eden as heir apparent.. Ever the prevaricator, Eden flopped this way and that. No wonder the wheels nearly came off the cabinet at several junctures. Churchill Defiant reminds us of what Churchill said the night before his resignation as Prime Minister in April 1955: “I don’t believe Anthony can do it.” Sadly, his judgment proved true. Leaming quotes the historian P.J. Grigg: Eden was notorious for “bullying people who could be bullied and collapsing before those who couldn’t.” (137)
The book leaves us with poignant and sorrowful realizations, national and personal. Nationally, Britain’s place in the world fell precipitously in the decade after the war. The “special relationship” proved more special to London than to Washington, and the disagreements over a summit evolved to a major rupture over Suez. On the personal level we witness the fall of a giant.
Yet Churchill like Marlborough “had a good and fair end to his life.” He never gave in. He faced down colleagues who pressed him to resign with all the resolution of his joust with Hitler. He gloried in battles won, as when turning somersaults in the sea for actress Merle Oberon after a great speech in Strasbourg. “Never give in,” he told the boys at his old school: “…Never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense….” Who can say whether he was right or wrong about a summit with the Russians? It was never tried. When honour and good sense told him it was time, Churchill went—and forever regretted going.
Barbara Leaming offers no summary, no list of the faults or mistakes of Churchill or his co-players in the great drama. But her opinions register throughout the book, and nowhere more forcefully than toward the end:
“When Churchill refused to retire in 1945, his decision had flowed from everything that was essential to his character; so had his subsequent decisions to fight on. At the beginning of 1955, the decision that confronted Churchill was different, harder. This time, rather than ride the wave of his obstinacy, he had to overcome it. He had to crush his lifelong refusal to accept defeat. He had to conquer the primal survival instinct that had allowed him to spring back so many times before. This time, Churchill’s battle was not really with Salisbury, Eden, Eisenhower or any antagonist. It was with himself. (306)
The Opposition Years, by Frank A. Mayer (1992)
Subtitled Winston Churchill and the Conservative Party 1945-1951, this 188-page study is deeply researched and footnoted, and takes a challenging stance. All British postwar social legislation was to the good, Mayer believes; and Churchill deserves the credit. This confronts the prevailing orthodoxy that Churchill, as postwar Leader of the Opposition, cared little about domestic affairs. Conventional knowledge is that liberals like Rab Butler and Lord Woolton brought their party into sync with much of the Labour agenda, and Churchill just went along.
The question posed by Mayer was addressed by Professor Raymond Callahan in a 1992 review: does this book compel us to revise the standard view of Churchill as postwar party leader?
There has been, historically, no single pattern to which a Leader of the Opposition has been supposed to conform. Churchill in 1945 was both tired and initially stunned by his defeat. He soon found ample solace in a wide variety of activities—his memoirs and paintings, the movement for European unity, and the numerous speeches that kept him very much in the public eye. All this left him relatively little time for the routine activities of a party leader. Moreover, it is clear that Churchill lacked the taste as well as the time for such duties. His Toryism had always been of a rather eccentric variety in any case. What Churchill did that was of enormous importance, however, was to grasp the fact that the party he led—and planned to use as his vehicle for a return to Number Ten—needed both to rebuild its structure and to rethink its positions to cope with the new world inaugurated by the events of 1945.
Woolton and Butler, by turning the defeated Conservatives toward the “Tory Democracy” Churchill’s father had once imagined. is well known, but the evidence of Churchill’s involvement remains doubtful. He certainly approved what Woolton and Butler proposed—acceptance of the National Health Service, and some degree of nationalized industries, for example. But he did not lead or inspire those actions. What is missing from this book is a balanced discussion of how much Churchill really accepted of socialist goals—a subject thoroughly discussed by Dr. Larry Arnn’s Churchill’s Trial (2015).
Yet, as Mayer shows, Churchill’s leadership built a party that returned from the half-dead to dominate British politics for nearly two decades. As Callahan wrote, that “was a considerable accomplishment for a man in his late seventies. After all, how many party
leaders have the wit to pick really capable subordinates, the self confidence virtually to hand over the party machine to them, and the sheer bravura to surmount defeat, age, declining energy and the complexities of a new—and often unwelcome—world, as
Churchill did in 1945-51?” If The Opposition Years does not establish Churchill’s authorship of postwar Tory policy, it nevertheless testifies to Churchill’s leadership.
Churchill’s Indian Summer, by Anthony Seldon (1981)
Its subtitle, The Conservative Government 1951-1955, truly defines the scope of this detailed study, first published in the U.S. in 1984. Treating an area not then reached by Martin Gilbert’s biography, its special feature is Seldon’s comprehensive interviewing of over 200 primary sources connected with the Churchill administration. And, although the author is the grandson of Daily Worker columnist Wilfred Willet, he is remarkably sympathetic to the Tory Churchill. He refutes the commonplace portrait of Churchill as increasingly ga-ga; his villains, rather, are the Tory politicians who, he says, hovered in the background, anxious to dump the boss at first opportunity.
Seldon himself said that the most controversial element in his book is this very balanced view of Churchill’s postwar premiership:
The title Churchill’s Indian Summer is not intended to be sensational, but it is meant to be combative. I do not suggest he was as fit or as brilliant as he had been during the war. He clearly was not. The characteristic of an Indian Summer is that the temperature is cooler than at the height of the season: indeed, a feature one would expect of a man a month off his seventy-sixth birthday on his return to Number Ten. Yet despite his failing powers, he was, I believe, right to remain in office, at least until his major stroke in the summer of 1953, and a good case can be made for his retention of power until the autumn of 1954. Only in his last six months in office was he not fully up to the task.
As important to students of government as to Churchill, the book analyzes each major government department and the people who ran it. Seldon called it “an emollient administration,” to the left of both Labour and Tory parties in the age of Margaret Thatcher. It is a massive account, highly readable, a balanced and shrewd assessment of the players and their relations. Sir Winston’s former private secretary—always willing to demolish any misrepresentation of the boss he revered—called it “a gigantic exercise in oral history…a triumph.” Sir Robert Rhodes James, no mean critic yet one of the most balanced and understanding of biographers, gave it high marks:
So much has been made of Churchill’s infirmities in these years that too little attention has been given to his final, and extraordinary achievement, and it is the outstanding achievement of Mr. Seldon that, although no slavish adulator, he recognizes that little of this would have been possible without that spirit of humanity and warmth and faith which radiated from the Prime Minister….There are few histories of a single government so competent and reasoned as this.”