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In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War

by David Reynolds; Random House, New York, 2005, $35.

He was a giant of a man, a larger-than-life figure with an insatiable appetite for fine cognac (although Cointreau would do in a pinch) and huge black cigars, a man with simple but sybaritic tastes (“I only like the best”), a swashbuckling 19th-century hussar and a savvy modern politico wrapped into one barrel-shape package. Winston Churchill was also a writer and historian of no mean talent, author of sprawling, super-size works on topics as varied as World War I (The World Crisis, six volumes, 1923-31); the career of his illustrious forebear, Sir John Churchill (Marlborough: His Life and Times, four volumes, 1933-38); and, of course, his six-volume masterwork, The Second World War (1948-53).

It is this last collection that is the subject of David Reynolds’ excellent new book. In their American incarnation, published by Houghton Mifflin, the books form a phalanx of handsome red hardback volumes that sit on the shelf—even today—of virtually every historian of the war. They offer a unique voice, since Churchill was the only long-term war leader who left his memoirs. Roosevelt had died; Stalin wasn’t the reflective sort; Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo were, shall we say, otherwise engaged. As he himself would say to his aides during some wartime controversy, “I shall leave it to history, but remember that I shall be one of the historians.”

He certainly delivered on that promise. Even 50 years later, the books still enthrall. Not only are they a priceless collection of Churchillian bons mots, they also contain some of the most famous set-pieces in the entire historiography of the war: Churchill visiting the French high command briefing at the Quai d’Orsay in May 1940 (“Utter dejection was written on every face”); his presence at Fighter Command on September 15, 1940, the crucial turning point of the Battle of Britain, inquiring anxiously, “What other reserves have we?” and hearing the answer from Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park, “There are none”; Churchill tossing and turning sleeplessly after hearing of the sinking of HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse off the coast of Malaya. The writing of history doesn’t get any better or more vivid than this. In fact, even if you haven’t read these books, you probably still know them, so thoroughly have their rhetorical flourishes worked their way into our consciousness. How can one think of the war without phrases like “the gathering storm” (the title of volume 1), “their finest hour” (volume 2) and “the hinge of fate” (volume 4)? Quite simply, The Second World War is the most influential work ever written on the most important war of all time. At 2 million words, it’s also one of the longest, and the $2.23 million advance he received for it would be worth anywhere from $18 million to $50 million today, depending on how you calculate for inflation.

According to Reynolds, however, The Second World War is both more and less than it seems. Far from an unbiased history—that lofty but perhaps unreachable ideal—this is a work that attempts to speak simultaneously to the past, the present and the future. After all, what other history of the war could have been written by a past and future prime minister?

The guns had barely fallen silent in Europe (and had not fallen silent yet in Asia), when the British electorate unceremoniously tossed Churchill out of 10 Downing St. All six volumes of The Second World War, therefore, may be read as a sustained piece of campaign literature, as Churchill attempted to guide the Tories back to power and reclaim his position. He crafted them carefully to show that he had been right about the past, that the issues he engaged then still had resonance, and that he was the man to lead Britain into the future.

So, for example, Reynolds argues that the first volume (The Gathering Storm) was not merely a narrative of Churchill’s fight for military preparedness in the 1930s. It was a present-day warning against appeasing the Soviet Union. Published in 1948, and written after Churchill had once again found his political voice in the “Iron Curtain” speech at Fulton, Mo., the volume presented him as the prophet crying alone in the wilderness about a danger that no one else seemed to perceive. It is an attractive tale, to be sure, but it treats British policymakers of the era unfairly, and oversimplifies the tangled history of Great Britain’s imperial defense problems of the 1930s. After all, British planners could not simply focus on the German threat. There was a huge empire to be defended in Asia against Japan, and there were trade routes to be protected in the Mediterranean and Suez that appeared extraordinarily vulnerable to a re nascent Fascist Italy. According to The Gathering Storm, however, the issues were black and white. When the book appeared in 1948, it could not have been more timely, with Stalin’s Russia replacing Hitler’s Germany as the principal threat. As The New York Times reminded its readers, it was “the hesitancy and division of the West European nations that made most of them an easy prey for totalitarian conquest.” Here Churchill the historian shares the stage with Churchill the campaigner—the latter in fact almost threatens to crowd out the former.

Likewise, the books looked to the future. In the preparation of volumes 5 and 6, Closing the Ring and Triumph and Tragedy, it made no sense for Churchill to be honest about his wartime feelings toward General Dwight D. Eisenhower or Ike’s broad-front strategy for driving into Germany. Eisenhower was the NATO commander and a likely future president of the United States, and Churchill saw the “special relationship” of the transatlantic powers as indispensable to the continuing status of Britain as a world power. The same might be said for the increasingly gentle treatment of Stalin’s Russia as one book followed another. Using the Communist threat as a campaign tool to win votes was something altogether different than trying to establish a modus vivendi with the Soviet Union after Churchill returned to office in 1951. Triumph and Tragedy, in particular, appeared at a time when Churchill was concerned with easing the same Cold War tensions he had helped to stoke, all the while cementing the relationship with Washington. As Reynolds puts it, the result is not a diplomatic history, but a “very diplomatic history” that pulls punches and glosses over some real wartime disagreements. It even includes a scene that hardly makes Churchill look like a quintessential Cold Warrior: the famous “percentages” agreement with Stalin, in which the fate of millions of Eastern Europeans was decided in seconds on a half-sheet of paper. Clearly, Stalin was a figure with whom Churchill felt that he could do business, man-to-man. In this area, at least, Churchill was as vulnerable to the grand illusion of 20th-century diplomacy as anyone.

When Churchill wasn’t using The Second World War to run for reelection or secure world peace, he was using it as a forum for defense of his own past. By the time Churchill sat down to write, a number of American writers were already in print on the war, and what they had to say wasn’t always flattering to him. The American view, first put forth by Harry Butcher in My Three Years with Eisenhower and Ralph Ingersoll in Top Secret (both published in 1946), showed Churchill as very much the old man of Gallipoli, desperate to do something—anything, in fact—to avoid a direct Allied landing in Western Europe, more interested in nibbling at the European periphery than in coming to grips with the mass of the Wehrmacht. Ingersoll, in particular, scorned Churchill’s obsession with sending armies into the Balkans and doing all he could to sabotage Operation Overlord. Much of Churchill’s work, therefore, especially Closing the Ring, amounts to a defense of his actions in that period. The only trouble was that Ingersoll was telling the truth. Churchill had not been an enthusiastic supporter of the D-Day landing. He had supported the disastrous landing of British troops in Norway in 1940, and talked for the next five years about doing it again; he really was obsessed with the postwar political situation in Greece; he really did seem to think the war could be won by invading Italy or by luring Turkey into it. Claiming that he had always been for the invasion, therefore, required a great deal of document-fudging, hair-splitting and clever sentence-parsing, all of which these volumes have in abundance. For Churchill the historian, it was not his finest hour.

And speaking of fudging…the casual reader and scholar alike may well be shocked to know how little of these six volumes Churchill actually wrote himself. Instead, it was a group of authors known as “the Syndicate” who put much of it together. Churchill’s contribution often amounted to little more than laying down a series of documents as the basis for each chapter (“the track”), then filling in the gaps between them with his own dictated memories and long think-pieces by members of his team. They were a talented bunch, including William Deakin, the later author of the seminal work on Hitler and Mussolini, The Brutal Friendship (1962), and they grew quite skilled at aping Churchill’s style. According to Reynolds, none of this diminishes Churchill’s accomplishment, which was more like “running a large, well-funded research group on a par with the barons of modern science” than simply writing a book. He uses another analogy: that of the master chef. Churchill didn’t chop the celery or make the stock himself, “but he knew how to get a six-course meal on the table in the right order and at more or less the right time.”

Permit me to demur. Historian and chef are two different jobs, and a book with the name Winston Churchill on the spine is supposed to be his own work. Reviewer after reviewer of these books waxed rhapsodic at the brilliance of Churchill’s prose. In The Times Literary Supplement, C.M. Woodhouse said it was “as if the Iliad had been written by Agamemnon,” and in presenting Churchill with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953, Swedish author Sigfrid Siwertz likened the accomplishment to Caesar “wielding Cicero’s stylus.” According to Reynolds, as the project progressed, Churchill actually wrote less and less of it. The final volume didn’t appear until he was back in office, and he wrote this one least of all. Reynolds argues that his careful analysis of The Second World War has only increased his appreciation for the great man. Many of the rest of us may feel as if yet another idol has been smashed.


Originally published in the August 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here