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.”