Defender of the Realm

Is the subtitle of the third and last (posthumous) volume of Wm. Manchester’s biography of Winston Churchill, The Last Lion.  Manchester died in 2004, before he could begin writing this final installment, which covers the period from Churchill’s first appointment as prime minister in the chaos of the German invasion of France, in May, 1940, up through his death.  I ran across and bought the first two volumes during the summer of 1993, when I was working my 1L summer out in the middle of nowhere and had little to do of an evening but read, drink beer, and sweat in my un-air-conditioned apartment.  I ran through those books pretty fast (in fact I may have read them twice during the course of the summer) and enjoyed them tremendously.

In the first two volumes I thought Manchester did a phenomenal job of communicating just how unusual a person Churchill really was.  There’s one vignette that’s very telling.  Churchill’s still a young man, and was visiting some people at their ancient country house.  The house caught on fire, and ended up destroying everything, including some priceless manuscripts from the Middle Ages.  Churchill writes about the fire to his then Sweetie Pie, later wife, Clementine Hozier.  The fire was tremendous fun, he writes, very exciting, the blaze consuming everything before it, etc. etc. etc.  All his best efforts in the bucket brigade, as he climbed up on the roof, were unavailing, and the place was a total loss.  One mourned for the devastated owners, of course, but what fun and excitement it all was.  Manchester notes several revealing things about the letter, the first being his thoughtlessness in scaring the bejesus out of Clementine.  She fully expected to marry him, and here he’s just sort of off-handedly relating how he almost got himself killed traipsing about on the roof of a house that’s in the process of burning to its foundations.  That thoughtlessness of others, especially those nearest to him and fondest of him, is a recurring theme throughout his life (and one that he learned at mommy and daddy’s knees).  Secondly is the apparent callousness of his description of the fire which destroyed centuries of this family’s existence in a matter of minutes:  it’s all great fun, a tremendous spectacle, and a stage for Churchill’s enactment of his own prominence.  But last and ultimately of greatest importance is the salient point that, jolly fun though he found this family’s tragedy, it was Churchill alone who climbed onto the roof, risking his life to try to douse the flames.

Of Manchester’s other books I’ve read only A World Lit Only By Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance Portrait of an Age, his placing of Magellan’s circumnavigation in its socio-historical context, and The Arms of Krupp: The Rise and Fall of the Industrial Dynasty That Armed Germany at War, the title of which is self-explanatory.  The former is as much about a world and humans’ understanding of themselves in it as it is about a specific person; the latter is a book which spans the period 1587 to 1968 and includes within it some truly unsavory characters (Alfried Krupp, who during the war so abused his slave laborers that even the SS complained about it, comes as close to the incarnation of what the Occupy “movement” thinks of business in general as anyone I’ve ever heard tell of).  So I can’t tell if it’s a Manchester trait to identify as warmly with his subjects as he so obviously does with Churchill.  It’s pretty clear that Manchester just plain likes Winston, in addition to being massively impressed with him.  In several passages in the book (I’m speaking specifically of those relating to the Gallipoli campaign, but there are others) he comes across as nearly an advocate.  That may or may not be true; certainly that particular campaign, had it succeeded, might well have been the game-changer it’s portrayed as having had the potential to be.  That is, however, as it may be.

I’ve spent the past 19 years waiting for the next chapter, and was mightily disappointed when Manchester died without having published it.  I’d understood (incorrectly, as it turns out) that he’d got the book more or less written, but ran out of time and energy before getting it in final form.  As it was, by the mid-1990s Manchester was so enfeebled that he wasn’t able to write any more at all, and had not even started the writing of this final book.  So the book is listed as by William Manchester and Paul Reid.  Manchester had done the vast majority of the research, the note-taking, the collating into themes, and so forth, although there was still quite a bit to be done, and of course all the actual text is Paul Reid’s (they’d become friends several years before, and it was Manchester who out of the blue one day asked him to finish the book when he was gone).

Reid’s and Manchester’s writing styles are not dissimilar, although certainly not identical.  I don’t pick up from Reid quite the reverential tone towards the subject that I did from Manchester.  For example, Churchill is portrayed in this final book as being more given to alcoholic intake than in the first two, and in fact being noticeably elevated on more than one occasion.  This is in marked contrast to the same topic as treated in the first two volumes.  In numerous places Reid goes out of his way to describe specific meals eaten by Churchill and company during the war, and more particularly to describe their sumptuousness.  While he doesn’t say as much, the contrast must be intentional with the constant hunger that the vast majority of British, and especially the urban populace, experienced both during the war and for several years afterward.  But is it really necessary to go into that kind of detail, repeatedly?

Churchill’s war ended up being divided into three phases, the first being his period close to power, but without the ability to grasp the wheel alone.  He came back to the Admiralty on September 3, 1939, but with Chamberlain stll in charge Churchill was both responsible and muzzled.  Then of course the debate of May, 1940, after the disaster of Norway and the launch of the German western campaign, brought Churchill what he’d been after since about 1895.  That phase lasted until December, 1941, and was in the epitaph of his long-time personal doctor, Lord Moran, “his finest hour” during which he “held inviolate” the soil of his beloved England.  And in point of fact, if the first step in winning is not losing, and the key element of not losing is not admitting, even to yourself, that you might lose, then what Churchill did for England during those months alone will ensure him immortal memory, or at least as long as Western memory endures.

The final phase, which lasted until his ousting from power in his moment of victory, can best be described as a long slide towards the contumely which must have grated on him more than nearly anything else.  As he told Violet Asquith (as she then was, in 1906, when he was 32 and she nineteen), he did believe himself to be a glowworm.  Which he was.  Yet once Britain had been drained financially, bled down physically, its capital bombed into rubble over wide areas, and the United States had swept into the room, Churchill inexorably became Yesterday’s Girl.  The progress of his relationship with Roosevelt takes on the character of supplicant and high-handed adored object. 

It’s only to be expected, of course, that three allies as different from each other as the U.S., Britain, and the Soviet Union would have war objectives different from each other.  It’s also only natural that each ally should attempt to extend its vision as far as possible in the post-war world.  Stalin spoke a great truth when he observed that in that war, the winner would not merely seek territorial relief but also impose his own social system on the conquered.  That in fact happened, both in the areas occupied by the West and of course in Eastern Europe as well.   But Reid’s portrayal of FDR and how dismissively he dealt with Churchill casts a sobering (and IMHO necessary) corrective across the hagiographic understanding of Roosevelt which pervades American consciousness.  On any number of occasions Churchill would propose things to FDR, from meetings to clarify and resolve conflicts of strategic vision to dealing with Stalin, who apart from Hitler and Chiang Kai-shek may have been the most difficult ally of any nation ever.  And FDR would — literally — blow off answering for days or even weeks.  He treated Churchill like he treated his cabinet members, as someone to be lied to as desired or convenient in order to get what he wanted. 

Whatever other faults Churchill may have had, and he had them in abundance, no one ever departed a meeting with him under any misapprehension of what he thought.  Lying through his teeth was a Roosevelt trademark, which he indulged with Congress, with his cabinet, and with the press.  He was the kind of fellow who’d pat you on the back, piss down your pants leg, and tell you it was raining, all the while smiling in your face.  No one can deny FDR his crown as master politician, in the sense that he clung grimly to power through a whatever-it-takes program, and in the process crafted a theory and practice of politics which is still very much alive and well.  Cobble together as many different constituencies and promise to beggar the world to line their pockets, and they’ll vote for you.  Thanks to exactly this approach to electoral alignment we are looking forward to another four years of the only expressly anti-American president ever.  If partisanship was the lodestar of Churchill’s political life, dishonesty was that of his ally.

I would also note here that FDR was very much a late-comer to the notion that Hitler and national socialism were things which needed exterminating at any cost.  If Hitler had as his next-door neighbor Japan, instead of Poland and France, you really have to wonder whether the U.S. would have gone to war against him at all.  If he’d undertaken to rid the African continent of its native population, instead of Europe of its Jews, would Roosevelt have put any effort behind amending the neutrality laws, or pushing Lend-Lease through?

In any event, the story of the U.S.-British alliance in World War II is an illustration of the thought Stalin was getting at when he once asked someone what he thought the Soviet Union weighed.  The unspoken question being of course what was to happen to the poor individual on whom that weight chose to fall.  Once the wealth and manpower of the U.S. were tossed into the scales of the Western alliance, Churchill and the British were doomed to becoming what they in fact did: junior partners asked to shoulder the burden and die in the process, but beyond that to take what scraps might be handed them.

Not that Churchill and the British were necessarily the saviors and strategic geniuses that might have Won the War Overnight if only the U.S. had done as told.  One of my favorite quotations from Geo. C. Marshall, when — yet again, for the umpteenth time — Churchill was flogging his notion of invading the Balkans, a man-killing battleground in which the chief advantages of the U.S. — massive hardware in the air and on the ground, deployed on massive scales — would have been effectively neutralized, all to be launched by invading Rhodes, was the blunt observation, “Not one American soldier is going to die on that goddam beach.”  End of conversation.

A recurring element in this book is quotation from the diary kept by Field Marshall Alan Brooke, the chief of the Imperial General Staff.  To say that he thought poorly of everyone except himself is understatement beyond the call of duty.  He thought everyone in every room he was in was a moron who had no strategic vision at all, didn’t know his business, was a footling amateur.  It was Brooke’s self-consciously shouldered cross to have to bear with all those drooling imbeciles.  This is a book about Churchill, of course, and so we don’t get much idea of what alternatives Brooke proposed, in light of the constraints of both the political realities of the situation and the material realities of time, manpower, and hardware (a quick check on Amazon.com shows only an edition of his war diaries, but no proper biography).  Reid does observe in several places that a key element in understanding the differences in strategic visions between the Americans and the British is that the British commanders, being raised with the dynamics of sea power as part of their background intellectual fabric, thought like sea generals, the Americans thinking like land generals.

Perhaps that’s true.  And perhaps in a war of smaller scale the strategic approach would work of continually shifting about the perimeter of a vast land power, probing for weak spots to attack and exploit, and if not playing it by ear then nonetheless allowing one’s specific actions to be guided by results on the ground as they unfolded.  But I beg leave to question whether when you’re steering around hundreds of thousands of troops, backed by logistics chains thousands of miles long, with the days of living off the land decades in the past, and the outcome of battle driven as much by how fast a magneto can get from Dayton, Ohio to the Meuse River in France as it is by the niceties of wheel, pivot, and entrenchment, that approach of we’ll just nip ashore here and there, and see what happens will work.  I am surely doing them an injustice on at least some level, but in a world in which the Dodge 2½-ton truck has claim to be the weapon that won the war (the Red Army marched to battle in U.S.-made lined boots, and its equipment rode Mopar), I get the impression that F.M. Brooke’s thinking was more than a little tilted towards the world of the Retreat from Mons.  The Old Contemptibles marched themselves out of the tidal wave of field gray.  In contrast, those trucks don’t run on hay that you can get from any pasture you pass.  They and their fuel and parts have to move as seamlessly as possible from their point of manufacture to the front.  Places with poor transportation networks, lack of access to deepwater ports, and with rugged terrain are just not conducive to moving modern armies.  Going ashore in the Balkans would have frittered away the one advantage the inexperienced Americans brought to the table: sheer mass of men and material.

At any rate, I think Reid did a worthy job of discharging his promise to Manchester.  There are a few places in the book where ordinary bad editing sets one’s teeth on edge (this seems to be my fate, that some of my favorite books have stuff that wouldn’t pass a WordPerfect spell checker, like several spots in Paul Johnson’s The Birth of the Modern).  There’s a place where the French soldier is a “poliu,” even though elsewhere it’s invariably given correctly.  Then there is the bad fact-checking of identifying Tirpitz as a “battle cruiser.”  And then there’s the statement that Churchill was “nearing early middle age” when the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk.  Huh?  Churchill was born in 1874; the Wrights flew in 1903.  My math tells me that would make Churchill in the neighborhood of 29 years old.  Whatever 29 may be it is emphatically not middle age or even close to it.  But all those are penny-ante quibbles.

The book’s a terrific read, and coming to the end is a disappointment.  If that’s the measure of a book’s success then Brer Reid’s done a very good day’s work.  I just wish Manchester were here to enjoy his friend’s success with him.

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