Saturday, November 30, 2013

A Remembrance of Winston Churchill

Thumbnail for version as of 20:24, 7 January 2012

Churchill followers around the globe commemorate the birthday today of Winston Churchill, one of the towering figures of the twentieth century and among the first-rank of important statesmen of modern times. The eloquent and pugnacious leader was born on November 30, 1874, and he was engaged in virtually all the key world events that unfolded during his 90 years.

The wartime prime minister is endlessly fascinating; he was a multi-talented figure whose career reflected great achievements, widespread challenges and even notable failures.  Few public figures, certainly none today, can parallel his spectrum of interests.  Winston Churchill was a statesman, politician, writer, painter, and even a bricklayer.  Indeed, had he not achieved fame during World War II, his prolific writing would have earned him renown and even his artwork might have made him a celebrity.

Churchill’s life was riveted with symbolism.  He entered Parliament at the end of the Victorian era and embodied many of the characteristics of the Edwardian era.  His death in 1965, following a slow and steady decline, replicated the demise of the once-mighty British Empire.  He also was half American—his mother, Jennie Jerome, was a New York socialite before marrying an ascending British politician, Lord Randolph Churchill—and he seemed to embody some of the notable traits of both countries.

I am not a Churchill scholar—there are many of them, both in Great Britain and the United States.  However, I was introduced to the life of Churchill and his legacy decades ago, and I continue to read and learn about him while mostly being charmed but also sometimes puzzled.

Winston Churchill’s life is the stuff of movies.  He fought and wrote from India’s wild Northwest Frontier; he was a brash hero in the Boer War at the age of 25; he participated in the last significant cavalry charge at the Battle of Omdurman in Egypt; he bolstered a middling education by self-absorption in the classics; and he overcame a speech impediment to become perhaps the greatest orator of his century.

But there was more.  Churchill served in a variety of high-level government positions, knowing great highs and also great lows, including the responsibility for a disastrous sea expedition in the Dardanelles during World War I.  Going against the grain of his political party, where he was always suspect, he was left without office during a crucial period in the 1930's, unable to make his grave concerns about Hitler addressed during the heyday of appeasement.

When the situation was most dire, of course, Britain did turn to Churchill, and many believe that his leadership and oratory as prime minister in 1940 saved not only his country, but the West.  And then when he helped steer Britain and its allies to what once seemed improbable victory, an appreciative but discerning electorate voted him out of office.

During his later years, he continued to add luster to the growing legend, warning at a famous speech in Fulton, Missouri, about the “Iron Curtain” of the Soviet Union; arguing for a united Europe; and earning a Nobel Prize for Literature for his amazing writing career. Each of these were staggering achievements; collectively, they round out the corpus of why he was identified in a BBC poll as "the Greatest Briton”, topping Shakespeare, Newton, Elizabeth I and other notables.

All of this does not mean that Churchill was all-knowing or always successful.  In addition to the Dardanelles episode, which temporarily sank his career, his increasingly anachronistic views on empire were incongruent with basic American views and eventually put him at loggerheads with Franklin Roosevelt.  He had a very dim view of Gandhi; he mistakenly championed Edward VIII in the abdication crisis; and he failed to see a changed England at end of World War II, foolishly suggesting that the opposing Labour party had Gestapo potential.

While Churchill could be charming, witty and a delightful raconteur, he also could be insufferable and simply difficult to deal with.  His wife, Clementine, who staunchly supported him through a marriage of 56 years, must have been unbelievably patient.  Churchill was a great man; he knew it and he expected others to appreciate that.

I tell my students that most historical figures are a blend of the good, bad and ugly, and it is up to us to sort out where the balance goes.  In this era of fast-moving events, with so many governmental decisions made on opportunistic grounds, it is valuable to study the lives of successful leaders and true patriots.  On this 139th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s birthday, it is proper to reflect on his many singular contributions.

For more information, see:
The Churchill Centre:
The Churchill Archives Centre (Cambridge, England):
Churchill War Rooms (London):
National Churchill Museum (Fulton, Missouri):

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