Friday, December 3, 2010

Why We Love Winston Churchill

My Churchill Doulton mug. There are entire books now about Churchilliana. Check eBay and Amazon if you are interested.

I've just been reading my umpteenth book about Winston Churchill, the greatest man of the 20th century, and arguably one of the greatest men in Western Civilization, since he, alone, gave the free world the courage to save itself from the horrors of Hitler.

Churchill: The Unexpected Hero by Paul Addison, is one of the most revisionist and critical biographies I've read of Winston Spencer Churchill. The book was published by the Oxford University Press in 2005 and its author is determined to puncture any and every myth he can about Churchill the patriotic hero. And yet, as the book progresses, the author, like a reluctant lover, is seduced by Churchill's charms.

The English aristocracy loathed Churchill for working for his living (unlike most aristocrats, he did not inherit an income, so out of talent and necessity, he worked as a writer, something that later won him the Nobel Prize for literature) and for being "brash" and "American" (his mother was Jennie Jerome of New York). His conservative colleagues were used to spending their evenings at their clubs, making up cruel remarks about those friends who were not in the room and ignoring any crisis that took place between Friday and Monday when they were at "the weekend" on their country estates. Churchill's mother told him that one of her ancestors had been a full blooded Seneca Indian squaw. Behind his back, one of his best friends said Churchill had "nigger blood."

The working class, too, was suspicious of Churchill. They called him an old fogey and a Victorian aristocrat.

In the end, he earned the love of all in his island nation for being neither aristocrat nor working man, but something even better: entirely himself. A man whose ability for work was so astonishing, he had otherwise distinguished British civil servants running in their hallways to complete tasks described on memos he sent that were stamped (in red) ACTION THIS DAY.

Well, the life of his country was at stake, so a little urgency might be forgiven. Even in an Englishman.

No one else in the world spoke like Churchill. He knew the power of words to charm and the power of words as propaganda. At the beginning of the war, Captain Talbot, the Director of Anti Submarine Warfare, questioned the statistics he was using of U-Boats sunk in the Atlantic. In response Churchill said:

"There are two people who sink U-boats in the war Talbot. You sink them in the Atlantic and I sink them in the House of Commons. The trouble is that you are sinking them at exactly half the rate I am."

Churchill later had Captain Talbot transferred to another job.

When FDR's right hand man, Harry Hopkins, attended the Allied conference in Casablanca:

"He was disturbed to find Churchill in bed enjoying a bottle of wine for breakfast. 'I asked him what he meant by that,' Hopkins recorded, 'and he told me that he had a profound distaste on the one hand for skimmed milk, and on the other hand no deep-rooted prejudice about wine, and that he had reconciled the conflict in favour of the latter.'"

He liked his foreign minister, the dashing if dull Anthony Eden, but one day when Eden spoke to the House of Commons, Addison reports, Churchill told a friend that Eden " ... had used every cliché except 'God is Love.'"

After dinner, throughout the war, he liked to enjoy a movie. Then, at about midnight, he put in three more hours of work, much to the dismay of his colleagues. One night, he was told that Hitler's right hand man, Rudolf Hess, had parachuted into Scotland. He responded:

"Hess or no Hess, I'm going to watch the Marx Brothers," he said.

His countrymen adored him. In a playground in Stockton-on-Tees, some children were heard singing in 1941:

When the war is over Hitler will be dead,
He hopes to go to heaven with a crown upon his head.
But the Lord said No! You'll have to go below,
There's only room for Churchill so cheery-cheery-oh.

In the evenings during the War he stopped wearing black tie (as was the custom among his class) and had his wife design for him his "siren suit" to his own specifications. It was a velour one piece thing, something like a flight suit only not nearly as attractive, that he could wear in the evening and then sleep in, and then, if necessary, arise in mid-sleep and dash into an air raid shelter in, and not have to stop and grab a dressing gown to cover the fact that he slept in his altogether.

He was, like Albert Einstein, a fully formed unique. He saw a big picture that no one else even imagined. He spoke like no one else. He thought like no one else. During World War I, after he was demoted to a small command in the trenches, he conceived the idea of the tank. And it was the tank, plus the help of the USA, that finally brought an end to that horrible conflict.

He created the code-breakers at Bletchley Park who, early in the war, found the secret to the German Enigma code, and had the gems of the decoded German dispatches sent to him daily in a box he said was filled with his "golden eggs." He encouraged the scientists who invented radar and the U-Boat defense ASDIC for his ships. He personally approved the subterfuge of "The Man Who Wasn't There" to fool the Germans into thinking the Allies were not going to invade Sicily, something that saved thousands of lives.

And this wonderful man was so funny. Paul Addison writes:

"In February 1945, when Churchill gave a banquet in the desert in honour of King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia, he was told that the King could not allow smoking or drinking in his presence. Churchill replied that he was the host, and if it was the King's religion that made him say such things, 'my religion prescribed as an absolute sacred rite smoking cigars and drinking alcohol before, after and if need be during all meals and the intervals between them.'"

Before the war, Churchill's friend, the former Prime Minister Lloyd George, went to Germany and had a pathetic and cheery parlay with Hitler. When Churchill similarly was in Germany, researching his book on his ancestor, the 1st Duke of Marlborough, one of Hitler's minions met with him for dinner and offered him the chance to meet the "great man." Churchill said he would, but added that the man should ask Hitler what he meant by all his anti-semitism. The next day, Churchill reported that the meeting was cancelled. "And thus," Churchill later wrote, "He missed his only opportunity of meeting me."

Author Paul Addison's somewhat painful respect for Churchill simply makes me wonder at Churchill all the more. Left, right, and center: whatever one's politics, one has to respect almost magical courage and genius when it seems to pop up out of nowhere at a crucial time in history.

I remain an unabashed admirer. And, I confess to feeling a certain pride in the fact that some of his ability may have come from the fact that, as the inbred English aristocracy weakened, Churchill, with his brains and style and inner strength, got half his DNA from America. As he told a joint session of the U.S. Congress in Washington D.C. in 1941:

"I cannot help reflecting," he said with a mischievous smile, "that if my father had been American, and my Mother British, instead of the the other way round, I might have got here on my own."

Here's a somewhat strange Staffordshire toby of Churchill and Operation Overlord I own. Generals Eisenhower and Montgomery peek out from behind him. Churchill's foot rests on Hitler's head. That blue thing he's wearing is his famous siren suit.

If you are interested, the book I've been reading is:
Churchill: The Unexpected Hero, by Paul Addison. Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK. 2005. I found a copy at my local library.

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Skywolf said...

But surprisingly enough, though “his countrymen adored him,” Churchill, who at the time had an approval rating of 83%, was defeated in 1945 by Clement Attlee of the Labour party.

Robin Chapman said...

And that's a good point. After six years of wage controls, rationing, and anti-strike agreements, Britain voted to sweep in the Labour party's socialist platforms, and Labour didn't want Churchill to be part of the government. He returned again in the 1950s as PM, won a Nobel prize, was knighted by the Queen and when he died, became the only non Royal to be given a full state funeral. So I think saying he was adored by the British is putting it mildly. And it took the Thatcher government, thirty years later, to undo all the damage to Britain's economy done by that Labour government that swept out Churchill: so his philosophy was vindicated in the end. Although, as he might have said, in the end, we'll all be dead.

Skywolf said...

Well, his defeat remains one of the great mysteries in 20th century British politics. But, in addition to your theory, many argue that overall war weariness likely played a major factor in his loss. Undoubtedly, Churchill was viewed as a great leader in war time but he was also associated with this highly unpleasant period. Perhaps people needed to first grow some distance to the war before embracing its heroes in post war politics. I doubt Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower would have been elected president in 1945 (’44).

Robin Chapman said...

The astonishing highs and lows simply add to the mystical arc of this man's life. When he lost that election after winning the war his wife Clemmie told him: "It may well be a blessing in disguise." Churchill replied, "At the moment it seems quite effectively disguised."

Jon said...

Let's not forget the Churchill/Obama situation.

"By Tim Shipman in Washington 5:20PM GMT 14 Feb 2009
A bust of the former prime minister once voted the greatest Briton in history, which was loaned to George W Bush from the Government's art collection after the September 11 attacks, has now been formally handed back."

Robin Chapman said...

I think that says an awful lot.