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Staring down danger

Churchill in France, 1946 (Associated Press/Photo by B.I. Sanders)


Staring down danger

A leader who made a world of difference in 1940

As America faces Islamic fascism and some U.S. leaders refuse to lead, three new books on Winston Churchill are worth reading.

Larry Arnn’s Churchill’s Trial: Winston Churchill and the Salvation of Free Government (Nelson, 2015) fluently shows us the great man’s physical courage as a young soldier. That’s important because if Churchill had not been shot at and missed, his 1940 rhetoric—“If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood”—could have been seen as merely office bravado.

Churchill was no hawk. Before World War I he accurately predicted that “a European war can only end in the ruin of the vanquished and the scarcely less fatal commercial dislocation and exhaustion of the conquerors.” Before World War II he predicted that “each side, at the outset, will suffer what it dreads the most, the loss of everything that it has ever known of.”

But Churchill was a realist. He was unimpressed when 62 nations in 1928-29 signed a treaty renouncing war. Arnn shows he was right not to be, because one early signer, Germany, was “already busy rearming itself even before the rise of Hitler.” Nor did Churchill in 1930 get excited about the Treaty for the Limitation and Reduction of Naval Armaments: One of its signers, Japan, was busy building a fleet.

Ten years later Churchill became prime minister at probably the lowest time in England’s history: John Kelly vigorously narrates Never Surrender: Winston Churchill and Britain’s Decision to Fight Nazi Germany in the Fateful Summer of 1940 (Scribner, 2015). As with all historical turning points, we tend to see inevitability after the fact—but aside from Churchill’s determination, Britain may well have followed Neville Chamberlain, who had stepped down as prime minister but was a still-influential inner cabinet member. Chamberlain did not totally reform after his Munich disaster: When the French army disintegrated and Britain stood alone, Chamberlain was “ready to consider decent terms if such were offered to us.”

Furthermore, had Churchill not been available Lord Halifax would have become prime minister, and Halifax was also open to talking turkey with Hitler, even though it was clear the Führer had a roasting pan ready. Most Conservatives and King George VI preferred Halifax, but his seat was in the House of Lords rather than the Commons, and Churchill had greater military understanding. Halifax deferred: Churchill became prime minister and received the harshest welcome possible, since on May 13, the day of his inaugural speech as prime minister, the German army pierced French defenses in the Ardennes and began the envelopment of British and French troops in Belgium.

Within days it became obvious that Churchill’s May 13 promise of “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” was no exaggeration. France surrendered, but Britain survived under the leadership of Churchill and his war cabinet. Jonathan Schneer in Ministers at War (Basic, 2014) tells how Churchill for the following five years brilliantly led a mix of Conservative, Labour, and Liberal politicians who would normally have been at each other’s throats—and were once again in 1945.

Which book to read? Schneer portrays individuals well, Kelly is an excellent storyteller, and Arnn offers fine analysis of the underlying ideas.

Short stops

Don Glickstein’s After Yorktown (Westholme, 2015) shows how the American Revolution wasn’t over till it was over. Battles continued into 1783 as negotiators huffed and puffed. Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates, by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger (Sentinel, 2015) is a good read if you’ve ever wondered what Marines did before they fought their way through the halls of Montezuma. Mark Tooley’s The Peace That Almost Was (Nelson, 2015) tells of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and its desperate attempt to avert a war that would leave behind 600,000 corpses: The conference failed, probably inevitably, but the delegates’ fondness for giving long speeches didn’t help. —M.O.