Over the course of the last few months or so I finished three books on Sir Winston Churchill:
- Churchill by Paul Johnson published in 2009;
- Franklin and Winston by Jon Meacham published in 2003; and
- Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood With Britain In Its Darkest, Finest Hour by Lynne Olson published in 2009.
From the time I was a small boy and began to understand Mom’s survival in the bombings during the London blitz of 1940 I was interested in Churchill. Those bombings killed my grandmother and my aunt and buried Mom in the rubble with their corpses overnight. As Churchill said at a function on the night my grandmother and aunt died, the people of London were now in the frontline.
Around the age of ten or eleven I found in my grandfather’s bookshelves a book on Churchill that included a 45 rpm disc of some of Churchill’s wartime speeches. It was the first time I heard the high pitched squeaky lisp uttering “we shall fight on the beaches … we shall never surrender!” or “let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, This was their finest hour.” Even as a pre-teen I felt my heart rate rising.
But what I noticed immediately was the reaction of the adults. Not just the reaction of the Brits and former Brits, but of the Americans in the room as well. All conversation stopped, chins rose, and eyes stared straight ahead. They were all of them on both sides of the Atlantic remembering the dark days of Hitler’s triumph in 1940 over all of Western Europe. Remembering a time where the United States would not fight, when the British had few weapons and not enough men to defend Britain, and the entire future of mankind rested on the portly old aristocrat and his command of the English language.
Johnson’s Churchill is for me another baffling product of a historian with too much ideology and not enough data. Johnson knew Churchill when Johnson was a young man, but the personal anecdotes lose their force when you realize Johnson is not going to address major facts about Churchill. The example that leaped out from the book was Churchill’s marriage to Clementine.
Every historian I have ever read has described the Churchill marriage as a major or THE major strength of Churchill’s life. But adultery was common in the aristocratic families of Britain from Victorian times and throughout Churchill’s life. Many historians suggest that Clementine had an affair in the 1930s during one of her periodic vacations without her family. Whether that or rumors of Churchill’s own affair on the Riveria are accurate is beside the point. If you are going to discuss the Churchill marriage as a historian, you at least have to argue against the adultery allegations. Johnson simply ignores the issue because in his Churchillian ideology it is unnecessary. One wonders what else of the historical record he finds unnecessary.
Jon Meacham’s Franklin and Winston adds to Churchillian lore in focusing on the relationship between FDR and Churchill and how that relationship dictated and reflected the course of the war. When FDR chose to ignore Churchill at conferences with Stalin in order to convince the Soviets that the United States and Britain were not aligned against the Soviets, Churchill was personally hurt. But more importantly, it reflected the decline of the British Empire even when it was right. As Churchill had predicted, Stalin broke his promises soon after the Tehran conference.
Lynn Olson’s Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood With Britain In Its Darkest, Finest Hour is the best book of the three for Americans. It focuses on the Americans who at FDR’s direction left the safety of American shores for the bombing in England. Averill Harriman and George Winant both arrived in London at the height of the Blitz with the express tasks of determining whether Britain could survive, what America could do to assist short of declaring war, and making sure American munitions arrived in Britain.
It is a remarkable book that moves quickly through the highest policy debates and Harriman’s affair with Churchill’s daughter-in-law, the indomitable courtesan Pamela Churchill, and Winant’s affair with Churchill’s daughter, Sarah. As in Meacham’s earlier work, Olson’s contribution is to explain the personal impact of the Americans not only on the lives of the British leaders and their families, but the average British citizen. When Ambassador Winant arrived in England he stated at the airport that there was nowhere else he would rather be than England. Nowhere else he would rather be than under Hitler’s bombs. The next day his words were proclaimed across all the major papers in Britain.
And it was the same throughout the war. Whether it was Harriman or Winant or the other Americans, they brought not only weapons and food but the emotional support to fight on. Mom remembers her first American as a tall man in uniform who gave her first chocolate in years.
What Meacham’s and Olson’s books add to the record is the absolute importance of leadership at all levels in dangerous times. French leadership in 1940 was weak and its armed forces suffered from that lack. But British and American leadership at all levels provided the strength and trust necessary for victory. And the numerous personal foibles of the principals under the enormous stress of war were never allowed to effect the war effort.
It was a time where ordinary people were heroes. As Eric Severeid said: ”In years to come, men will speak of this war and say, ‘I was a soldier,’ ‘I was a sailor,’ or ‘I was a pilot.’ Others will say with equal pride, ‘I was a citizen of London.’” Both Meacham’s and Olson’s book place you in the middle of a battle where women and children earned that title.