Winston Churchill was an adventurer, soldier hero, national leader, visionary politician, and prolific and heralded writer. Who else could have fought as a common soldier in three wars, led his country to victory over the Nazis, stirred the nation and the world with soaring oratory, foreseen the closing of the Iron Curtain and the demonic spread of Communism, and written one of the most comprehensive histories of Great Britain ever written?
Sir Richard Francis Burton, like Churchill was an adventurer, writer, soldier, and a man of extraordinary courage. A geographer, explorer,translator, writer, soldier, orientalist, cartographer, ethnologist, spy, linguist, poet, fencer and diplomat, he spoke 29 languages so well that with his uncanny observation of culture he could pass for an Arab, an Indian, or an Afghan. He successfully disguised himself as a Pashtun and his perfect accent, demeanor, and knowledge of local customs allowed him to be only the second European to gain access to the holiest of shrines in Mecca.
Where are men like Churchill and Burton now that we really need them? Churchill especially was a remarkable man. The photograph of the Prime Minister in top hat, cigar, wainscot, overcoat and bow tie walking through the ruins of a bombed out London was the image of resolve, courage, and leadership.Burton's best-known achievements include travelling in disguise to Mecca, an unexpurgated translation of One Thousand and One Nights, bringing the Kama Sutra to publication in English, and journeying to visit the Great Lakes of Africa in search of the source of the Nile. He was a prolific and erudite author and wrote numerous books and scholarly articles about subjects including human behavior, travel, falconry, fencing, sexual practices and ethnography. A unique feature of his books is the copious footnotes and appendices containing remarkable observations and information.He was a captain in the army of the East India Company, serving in India (and later, briefly, in the Crimean War). Following this, he was engaged by the Royal Geographical Society to explore the east coast of Africa and led an expedition guided by the locals and was the first European to see Lake Tanganyika. In later life, he served as British consul in Fernando Po, Santos, Damascus and, finally, Trieste. (Wikipedia)
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.
Of all of the admirable qualities of Churchill (and Burton) bravery stands out:
Bravery was a constant throughout Churchill’s long, eventful life. D’Este notes that “long before he became a statesman,” he “was first a soldier.” The young Churchill, with his miserable childhood and miserable personality, chose military service as a way to make his name and prove himself worthy — especially to his cold and distant father. As a young man, he fought in India and was almost killed. In 1898 he fought under Kitchener at Omdurman and barely escaped death again. Then he fought in the Boer War, where he was captured and escaped. In World War I he served as first lord of the Admiralty, but after the failure of his plan to force open the Dardanelles, which led to the death of thousands of British and Allied soldiers at Gallipoli, he had himself assigned to fight alongside such men in the bloody trenches of Flanders. (Robert Kagan in the New York Times, reviewing Carlos D’Este’s biography of Churchill 11.08)
It was this bravery in defense of this country, said D’Este, which helped form the patriotism and sense of duty that he demanded of all Britons.
He was a soldier, a “warlord,” a warrior-statesman in the mold of Frederick the Great, Napoleon, Oliver Cromwell or his great ancestor the Duke of Marlborough (Kagan)
Churchill used his understanding of history (his History of the English-Speaking Peoples was begun in 1937) and his battlefield experiences to correctly predict the course of modern events. Kagan continues:
In political exile following World War I, he warned of the rise of dictatorships in Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain and the Soviet Union, so much so that his critics, who did not want to think anymore about great confrontations, called him a warmonger. When he denounced the agreement reached at Munich in 1938, he warned that there could “never be friendship between the British democracy and the Nazi power.”Churchill understood that Hitler could never permit an independent Britain, which would always threaten Germany’s control of the Continent, and would use peace only to gather strength for a final assault.
Churchill was turned out of office in 1945 in an election which favored the Labor Party. Despite his heroism, the British electorate felt that Labor would do a better job of rebuilding the country and effected needed political and economic reforms. The glory of Empire was fading in the minds of the British, and they were turning inwards.
Nevertheless, the British were lucky to have such a great man as leader during perhaps the most crucial years of their history:
Like Lincoln, Churchill saw the importance of bolstering public morale, and he understood how deadly it was to talk of peace deals when the nation was losing. “We shall go on and we shall fight it out,” he declared. “And if at last the long story is to end, it were better it should end, not through surrender, but only when we are rolling senseless on the ground.” No one doubted him when he promised to die with pistol in hand fighting the Nazis in the streets of London.These were the qualities that made Britons choose him over other men, and to follow him in a desperate struggle against the greatest odds. Margot Asquith, describing why people looked to him for leadership, observed that it was not his mind or judgment they respected. “It is, of course, his courage and color — his amazing mixture of industry and enterprise. . . . He never shirks, hedges or protects himself. . . . He takes huge risks. He is at his very best just now; when others are shriveled with grief — apprehensive . . . and self-conscious morally, Winston is intrepid, valorous, passionately keen and sympathetic.” He may have longed “to be in the trenches” and was “a born soldier,” but it was not as a soldier that the world needed him.
In a recent biography of Churchill, Peter Clarke focuses on his writing, and in a review of the book in the Times Literary Supplement Geoffrey Wheatcroft comments on Churchill’s extraordinary ‘prolificity and precocity’. As Churchill’s daughter, Lady Soames once remarked “The thing you have to remember is, he was a journalist”. Not only was he a journalist, but a war correspondent, and even before his career as a soldier, he was part of battle:
In 1895,before Churchill turned twenty-one, the 4th Hussars had tolerantly given him leave to go to Cuba where he witnessed the patriotic rebellion against Spain, and he paid for the trip with his first newspaper commission, from the Daily Graphic.Two years later, Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 found him on leave again, in England. “On the lawns of Goodwood in lovely weather” he heard the riveting news that a “field force” was being raised under the improbably named General Sir Bindon Blood, to subdue the unruly Afghan tribesmen (a good deal of Churchill’s early life does have an eerily premonitory ring more than a hundred years later). He rushed back to India, having secured a contract from the Daily Telegraph, an adventure which provided enough copy for his first book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force.By the time it was published in 1898, Churchill had wangled his way on to one more expeditionary force which Kitchener was leading up the Nile, switching in true freelance spirit to the Morning Post, and producing another book. The Sudan was followed by the Boer War, which he covered for the Morning Post at the age of twenty-four.
In later years he wrote a biography of his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, a history of WWI, The World Crisis, a biography of the Duke of Marlborough, and his above-mentioned History of the English-Speaking Peoples.
Churchill’s journalism and books were lucrative and the fees and royalties financed his political career. It is historical writing which has received the most criticism in recent times – not objective enough say modern historians:
“Give me the facts, Ashley, and I will twist them the way I want to suit my argument”, he had once said, doubtless meaning to shock, and he later said of The Second World War that “It is not history, it is my case”. So were all his books: his case for his father, and for Marlborough and for himself. Clarke quotes the damning verdict of Robin Prior in Churchill’s “World Crisis” as History: “The reader is never sure that the version given by Churchill is complete, or if material damaging to the case Churchill is building up has been omitted, or if any deletions made have been indicated in the text”
Yet Churchill himself was quite aware that he was writing more than just history but anapologia for Great Britain. It is not surprising that he wrote in this way. His passionate patriotism, belief in country and empire, and full understanding and respect for the power, sweep and importance of Britain since the days of the Romans could never be disguised or hidden. His histories were as eloquent as his wartime speeches. If they omitted the facts that a modern historian would have kept in for the sake of objectivity, they were elegiac works, resoundingly reaffirming Britain’s greatness, and for that they will be remembered.
For Churchill, the past was never a foreign country, and they did not do things differently there: King Alfred, Marlborough, Chatham and Washington were his contemporaries, who surely thought and felt as he did.
Churchill was never fully appreciated for the great leader, statesman, and hero that he was.
“Rarely can an author’s writings have received less attention than those of the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953”, Clarke observes at the outset. It is idle to ask whether Churchill deserved the prize: like the outrageous praise showered on him at the time, especially in the American press, and with none more fulsome than Isaiah Berlin, it was the mood of the age. Today we can view those writings with more detachment. Churchill was a born storyteller, and an unashamed exponent of what Giovanni Giolitti called “beautiful national legends”; at one extraordinary moment in history, his faith in such legends helped save civilization.
In recent years, many have branded Churchill a pariah because of this long, persistent, and immutable defense of Empire. Whether it was the Roman, British, or Spanish Empire, it brought Western Civilization to the undeveloped parts of the world. Churchill never flinched from this conviction, believing that the legacy of the Greeks carried on throughout the history of Europe and later America was worth preserving. If the British benefited from the wealth and treasures of India, they gave India Anglo-Saxon law and administration. They left India with the foundations for a modern society. He was reluctant to let go to this colonial tradition because he believed that the countries demanding independence were not ready, and that Britain could still provide the investment and guidance necessary for their eventual evolution into free states. Many critics look at Africa and say that the colonial abandonment was indeed premature, and that a more gradual, determined, and progressive turnover might have been more appropriate.
Rejecting Churchill out of hand because of this defense of empire is revisionist history at its worst. He grew up in the Age of Empire and within a 19th century moral and ethical world. His absolute belief in the destiny of Britain which helped motivate the country to resist Hitler’s onslaughts and to ultimately defeat him was the same belief that was behind his defense of empire. His extraordinary perspicacity failed him at the moment of independence – he could not see that the colonial era’s time had indeed come – but that should not be held against him. For most of his long life, his solid, honest, and committed beliefs were important for Britain, for Europe, and for the world.
Would Winston Churchill be an anachronism today? Would his absolute certainty, unshakable rectitude and resolute convictions be considered relics of kings, court, and divine right? Would his belief in empire and its civilizing mission be considered patronizing, retrograde, and ignorant of diversity and cultural legitimacy?
Most certainly yes. Yet the failure to understand the value of the moral and ethical principles which underlay Churchill's leadership is the problem today. Men of such resolute conviction who base their governance on rational inquiry, philosophical conviction, historical review - i.e. who lead on a foundation of principle - will always govern best. Today's politicians are elected either thanks to their mastery of 'the issues'; or more likely their demagoguery. This was not always so. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Lincoln were leaders in the mold of Churchill. Lincoln perhaps more than any other embodied the same moral resoluteness, conviction, and political courage of the Prime Minister. More recent presidents have been close to the ideal.
George H.W.Bush embodied American noblesse oblige. Member of a wealthy New England family, son of a Senator, fighter pilot in WWII, and political leader for decades – Congressman, Ambassador, and head of he CIA – Bush embodied the notion of service. He served because it was his duty and responsibility. No one accused Bush of personal ambition. He is rightfully proud of his record, and a man who has always shown a respect for family, faith, and country. Whatever he did right or wrong as President, no one can take away his principal legacy. He was a good man.
Ronald Reagan was also a man of principle, good humor, and rectitude. Although he was savaged by the Left for his vision of ‘A Shining City on a Hill’ and ‘Morning in America’, no one doubted his sincerity. He really did believe in the greatness of America and its moral purpose in the world. He stood up to the Soviet Union not out of political posturing, but because he honestly felt that it real was evil. It was godless, autocratically dismissive of individual worth and importance, hegemonic, and dangerous. It was as far removed from the Enlightenment vision of the Founding Fathers as he could imagine. It was a socially, economically, and spiritually retrograde regime and must be stopped.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was also a man of the American aristocracy and imbued with the same sense of noblesse oblige as George Bush. Roosevelt led America to victory in World War II. He helped the country out of the Great Depression, and despite his patrician roots, built the foundation for American social liberalism. There was never a doubt that Roosevelt believed in what he was doing, was committed to the people of the United States, and moved by duty not ambition.
All of these world leaders made political mistakes. Ronald Reagan may have overstepped his authority in Nicaragua and Iran-Contra. Roosevelt distorted the private market and the consequences of his emphasis on big government are still being felt. Churchill has been criticized for persisting in his Victorian views of Empire long after the world was being altered by independence and nationalism. Yet few can doubt the honesty, principled purpose, and sincere commitment of these men.
Like it or not Vladimir Putin has a clear, principled vision of the restoration of Imperial Russia. The new Russia like the old will be proudly Slavic, Orthodox, authoritarian, and powerful. Putin's vision includes no tolerance for ethnic or religious separatism; no patience for Western whining about the 'nation-state', their invention and one totally unsuited to a world which will be defined by borders which more closely reflect those of the 19th century than the 21st.
Like it or not, ISIS and its radical Muslim counterparts also have a clear vision, foundational principles, rectitude, conviction, and ambition. There is no doubt in their minds that a Muslim Caliphate where religion is not just an aspect of the State; it is the State.
President Obama seems flummoxed at best by the new world order. Trapped in an antiquated vision of American exceptionalism and an almost spiritual belief in liberal democracy, he sits by while the world's borders are redrawn, unimaginable political alliances are formed, and American influence declining.
Candidates like Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders have at least demonstrated some sense of principle and rectitude, and therefore are good for America and for the political process. They help to resuscitate the legacies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Even more importantly they put the idea of leadership back in its proper perspective. They are by no stretch of the imagination Churchillian leaders. They are not even the best America has to offer; but at least one can see a glimmer of honesty in them.
Roosevelt and Churchill were both patriotic, courageous, and visionary. They embodied the values enunciated by Cato the Elder more than 2000 years ago in his curricula for the education of Roman leaders – honesty, courage, honor, justice, compassion, intelligence, and dignity – values which have characterized great civilizations since Mohenjo-Daro and Mesopotamia.
‘Values’ have come under attack by the progressive Left, for being too Western, white, Christian, and male. Personal integrity based on a well-defined set of moral standards is, they say, considered retrograde and antithetical to secular social progress. Yet such moral and ethical principles should be the foundations for leadership.