A Man of Words and Deeds

 

Paul Johnson’s biography of Winston Churchill
is itself an event (Viking, 2009). Johnson unabashedly admires the British statesman, and his book tells why. It begins: “Of all the towering figures of the twentieth century, both good and evil, Winston Churchill was the most valuable to humanity, and also the most likable. It is a joy to write his life, and to read about it. None holds more lessons, especially for youth . . . .” Churchill lived through both the Great War of 1914 and its aftermath, World War II, and beyond, dying at 90 on January 30, 1965. (No doubt, the year 1965 seems to many today to be ancient history.)
 
Johnson points out that World War I may be much the greater tragedy. The neglect of studying the Great War is, I often think, the cause of much political blindness. Johnson writes, with overtones that go back to Thucydides: “Indeed the first of the two world wars proved the worst disaster in modern history, perhaps in all history, from which most of the subsequent problems of the twentieth century spring, and many of which continue, fortissimo, into the twenty first.”
 



Churchill was, in Aristotelian terms, a statesman, a man of action with the prudence that goes with it. He held most of the major cabinet posts in the British system at one time or another. He fought in World War I. He visited the Empire and talked to all, great and small. He wrote some
12 million words, mostly of history — elegant words. He learned to be a brick layer, to paint, and to run a stable of horses. He gained and lost several fortunes in the stock market.
 
But the chief activity of the postwar [World War II] Churchill was writing. This is the main reason Clementine [Churchill’s wife] was right to say the 1945 [electoral] defeat was a blessing in disguise. He had always believed — he said so explicitly in May 1938 — “Words are the only things that last for ever.” Between 1941 and 1945, he had performed great deeds. Now he needed to write the words to ensure that the deeds were correctly described and so made immortal.
 
The world of deeds is not complete without the world of words. Worlds of words without great deeds are empty. We are beings who act and speak both.
 
Johnson is insistent to point out that Churchill was a happy man in his marriage. His children he loved; he was a faithful husband. This faithfulness freed him for the great things that he knew he had to face. Had his personal life been disordered, he would not have been able to concentrate on the things that mattered, including having a good marriage itself.
 
In passages that will not make the anti-bomb people happy, Johnson points out that Churchill had no opposition to the massive bombing of German cities. Britain was ahead in developing the atom bomb but sent it over to the Americans to carry out. Johnson has no doubt that Churchill would have used the bomb if he had had it at his disposal, just as Harry Truman did. And for the same reason: namely, that he understood the consequences of not using it would have caused more havoc and death. The plans for the invasion of Japan, had it not surrendered, envisioned the killing of millions of soldiers and civilians, as well as the destruction of the physical plant of the country. Johnson is quite straightforward here in picturing Churchill’s pragmatic, no-illusions mind on war.
 
Churchill was a man who foresaw issues beyond the immediate problem at hand. He tried unsuccessfully to invade Russia from the north after Lenin took over. He understood the danger to humanity that Vladimir Lenin represented, something that Franklin Roosevelt evidently did not. Churchill was a man who got things done, whether it was in building the navy or providing munitions or counteracting political moves that frustrated what needed to be done. When his policy was defeated, he did what was second best — but he always did something.
 
Johnson pictures Churchill as a basically happy man. He was a man who enjoyed things from cigars and champagne, to jokes even about himself, to the camaraderie of the House of Commons. Churchill knew of the slaughter of war and of the dark side of human nature. He was not a particularly religious man, but he was a good man. He liked to sing off-key, “‘Ta-ra-ra-Boom-de-ay,’ ‘Daisy, Daisy,’ and old Boer War songs. His favorite was ‘Take a Pair of Sparkling Eyes’ from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers.”
 
These are Johnson’s last words, themselves reminiscent of Abraham Lincoln: “Everyone who values freedom under law, and government by, for, and from the people, can find comfort and reassurance in his life story.”

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.

By

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. His recent books include The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His newest books are A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and the forthcoming On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His most recent book is Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017).

  • Austin

    Churchill was not perfect, but he got the really big things right. He smoked cigars and drank a lot, but so what? He saved Britain from the Nazis, so these minor vices have no consequence. On top of it all, he had a razor sharp wit and could skewer opponents quite nicely, such as Atlee, the “modest man who had much to be modest about.”

    Churchill was not handsome, like so many of today’s politicians. Great men like Churchill and Lincoln would probably not get elected today, due to not looking so good on TV. Now we have amoral, empty suit, pretty boys like John Edwards [and perhaps the current and previous couple of occupants of the White House]. I would take Churchill over any of our recent so called “leaders.”

  • Rich

    Now we have amoral, empty suit, pretty boys like John Edwards [and perhaps the current and previous couple of occupants of the White House]. I would take Churchill over any of our recent so called “leaders.”

    I am glad we have Obama, and for the life of me, cannot understand why anyone would call him an “empty suit, pretty boy.”

    Really? Oh well, I suppose everyone is free to see what they want.

    Like many other men who had the character when it counted, Churchill was blessed to be that man when the time needed him. It is unfortunate that more people have such closed minds when it comes to our current president. The times may not be as dire, but in terms of the finesse that is required to get some of the really tough things that need doing done…I am glad Obama is NOT an “empty suit pretty boy.”

    My guess? quite a bit will get done in his tenure, and he will be under appreciated in his own time. Much like Churchill among a few in his own day. smilies/smiley.gif

  • Bob G

    “I am glad we have Obama, and for the life of me, cannot understand why anyone would call him an ’empty suit, pretty boy’.”

    You can’t? Did you know that when Barack moved into the White House he had Churchill’s bust removed and sent back to Britain? He hates Churchill! That might tell you something.

    As Mona Charen said in her column today, Barack is a “conviction politician” of the far left. He believes his statist policies are the soul of morality, and has no intention of compromising. That’s why he went back to health care right after and despite the Massachusetts loss.

    Here’s a partial list of his achievements: he wasted most of his first year pushing health care reform few wanted, when 17% of the population was at least underemployed; he read terrorists their Miranda rights and gave them lawyers; he apologized to the world for America’s manifold sins; he increased the national debt by $1.6 trillion in one year; he elected to try Modammad in Manhattan until reality forced itself upon him; he promised transparency then presided over shameless backroom deals; he clung to cap and trade in the midst of economic misery; he extended more conciliation to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad than to Republicans (whom he calls obstructionists); he has the entire press in his back pocket but tries to punish Fox; and so on.

    Let’s see how glad you are when this economy crashes for good.

  • Michael

    Some may consider Churchill the savior of western civilization. Others may consider him the man most responsible for its self-immolation. How we see Obama may depend on the lens through which we view him in a similar way. But somehow, I doubt the president who broke the bank while recklessly pursuing far left policies will be remembered well by history.

  • George

    Paul Johnson goes out of his way to defend the British and Churchill. Churchill was Secretary of the Navy when the Lusitania was sunk. Unbiased historians have pointed out that German agents in New York were watching the loading of weapons in huge amounts on a British commercial vessel bound for Liverpool in 1915. Historians testify that Germany sent out warning to American newspapers not to put civilians on this weapon carrying ship. American newspapers refused to issue the warning. Churchill was in cahoots with J.P. Morgan and the Rothchilds, et. al. to get the U.S. into the War because England could not pay off its loans from the war to the bankers. So, England promised to get the U.S. into the war to make sure Germany lost and the usurers got paid. Churchill was totally involved in this conspiracy. His intelligence (he was in charge) watched the ship slowly pass along the coast of Ireland within eight miles. No warning was issued. One torpedo sank the ship. Was it 1200 Americans sacrificed by this demonic tyrant to appease the international bankers? And allow him eventually to assume the horns of power Britain? How can anyone defend this monster? I am astonished that Father Shall would post this tribute to a Protestant anti-Catholic stooge, a slave to the $ elite powers that be.

  • Doug Moore

    Thank you for this article about this book, I look forward to reading it. My impressions of
    Churchill came from reading his history of the English speaking peoples. A remarkable man in seriously dangerous times.

  • Casey Khan

    It is getting quite tiresome to hear about how these unabashed defenders of leviathan should somehow be considered defenders of Western Civ, or Christendom, or some such good. The man, like Truman, bombed the daylights out of the few Catholic strongholds inside enemy territory and slaughtered its citizens (Dresden & Cologne like Hiroshima & Nagasaki). This isn’t just an “anti-bomb” concern, but a very Catholic one. Winston was as Hobbesian and consequentialist as they come, a Christian example he was not.

  • WilliamPMcKenna

    Anti-bomb people?

    Well I guess I am one of those “anti-bomb people”. Vatican II tells us that we should condemn the bombing of cities involving extensive civilian areas unhesitatingly. It seems to me that one of the things that a Catholic Congressman should do is work on targeting policies and weapons procurement such that civilian deaths are minimized.

    God bless

    Bill

  • Kamilla

    On my last visit to London I saw the Churchill Museum/Cabinet War Rooms as well as the Imperial War Museum. It’s hard to come away from those visits without an appreciation for how badly WWII devastated the national psyche.

    It was also a privilege to learn just a little bit about Churchill himself.

    I’ve ordered the book.

    Kamilla

  • Rev. George W. Rutler

    Father Schall (may he live forever) writes a splendid summary of the Man of the Century and really one of the Men of the Millennium. Once, but a memorable once, I had the chance as a boy to see him, and have had some limited contact with his family since, and I am increasingly aware that we would not be here now as we are had it not been for him. One other song he sang off-key in the garden of 10 Downing Street in darkest days – by Sir Harry Lauder – which also sustained my own grandfather in bad patches – “Keep right on to the end of the road, Keep right on to the end…” It was not Churchill’s lot to live the theological virtues as, say a More or Fisher, but if ever a natural man lived the natural virtues to an heroic degree, it was he.

  • Michael

    [quote=Rev. George W. RutlerI am increasingly aware that we would not be here now as we are had it not been for him.

    Of this, there is little doubt. Here is another take on that ‘great’ man. http://tinyurl.com/4vhxvt

  • David

    I had the privilege of meeting Mrs Elizabeth Nel, one of Winston Churchill’s personal secretaries during the war period. She truly represented all that was good about England and the English of that time. Courage, hard work and master of the understatement. Alas, those times have passed. It was wonderful to hear her anecdotes of the great man. One could almost see the cigar smoke and hear the gruff voice.

    Its not really very constructive to compare Obama with Churchill. Their circumstances were quite different. However, few statesmen have had to deal with the string of tragic events that Churchill had to deal with and over such a long period of time. However, he always rose to the occassion and never backed down. His courage was exemplary. Obama has yet to prove himself in this regard.

  • Francis Wippel

    Father Schall (may he live forever) writes a splendid summary of the Man of the Century and really one of the Men of the Millennium. Once, but a memorable once, I had the chance as a boy to see him, and have had some limited contact with his family since, and I am increasingly aware that we would not be here now as we are had it not been for him. One other song he sang off-key in the garden of 10 Downing Street in darkest days – by Sir Harry Lauder – which also sustained my own grandfather in bad patches – “Keep right on to the end of the road, Keep right on to the end…” It was not Churchill’s lot to live the theological virtues as, say a More or Fisher, but if ever a natural man lived the natural virtues to an heroic degree, it was he.

    Amen!

    Churchill is perhaps the most underappreciated political leader of the 20th century. He saw things as they were and not as he hoped they would be, and dealt with trouble head-on.

    It

  • TheOldCrusader

    …Wilfrid Scawen Blunt speaks of the marked debasement that showed itself in the English spirit after the brutal robbery and assassination of the South African Republics. The heroes that the mob followed after Mafeking Day were far inferior to the heroes that it had followed in the days before the war.

    The English gentleman began to disappear from public life, and in his place appeared a rabble-rousing bounder obviously almost identical with the American professional politician

  • MAT

    One thing we learn from Churchill is the peril of appeasement. He sounded the alarm early on, but was ridiculed. When his tragic prophesies erupted, his critics went scurrying to him for salvation. He led the nation from the precipice and didn’t belittle himself by blaming the nation’s plight on his predecessor. Here was a leader and grownup.

  • MAT

    I was intrigued by the TheOldCrusader’s reliance on Wilfrid Scawen Blunt’s assessment of Churchill. Here are some tidbits on this fellow from Wikipedia:

    1.He had a number of mistresses and moved one into his home, resulting in a legal separation from his wife.
    2.He maneuvered to disinherit his own daughter.
    3.Besides selling off his Arabian horses to pay off debts, he shot at least four of them to spite his daughter.

    I don’t think I’d call on him to be a character witness.

  • Carl

    How many extreme-pacifists-pure-moral-characters did nothing to stop the NAZI onslaught?

    To each individual special gifts are given.

    The real sin is to not recognize and use these special gifts for the good of mankind.

  • Kevin Aldrich

    Churchill was not perfect, but he got the really big things right. He smoked cigars and drank a lot, but so what?

    Drinking and smoking are imperfections?

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