The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History.
by Boris Johnson.
New York: Riverhead Books, 2014.
Hardcover, 400 pages, $28.
Reviewed by John P. Rossi
Is there a need for yet another book on Winston Churchill? My university library with a modest number of volumes has 298 books dealing with Churchill in one capacity or another. Haven’t we exhausted the topic?
Apparently not. Boris Johnson, the highly unconventional mayor of London, thinks a new study is called for. And what he delivers in The Churchill Factor is a brilliant and exceptionally readable reassessment of this most important figure of the twentieth century.
The Churchill Factor is certainly different. It is not in any sense a traditional biography, taking the reader from Churchill’s birth in 1874 to his death some ninety years later. Instead it is an original and highly entertaining appraisal of a man whose active career spanned sixty years and included important roles in England’s last imperial conflicts—including the re-conquest of the Sudan and the Boer War—as well as the two World Wars and the Cold War. He knew or met every important political figure of his time: from Gladstone, Lord Kitchener, Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Stalin, Charles de Gaulle, and Dwight Eisenhower to John Kennedy. It was a career without parallel. Born in the middle years of Queen Victoria’s reign, he died just as the Beatles’ conquest of the world was beginning.
Johnson argues that it is time for a new assessment of Churchill because he is in danger of being taken for granted today as one those mythic figures the younger generation cannot fully grasp. At a time when there is a revival of the old economic interpretation of history, Johnson also notes that Churchill’s career is “a resounding rebuttal to all Marxist historians who think history is the story of vast and impersonal forces.”
What Johnson does is to break down and analyze those aspects of Churchill’s career that made him unique: his mastery of the English language (Churchill’s vocabulary Johnson estimates at 65,000 words), his phenomenal energy, prodigious memory, and the ruthlessly focused journalism that enabled him to make a living. As Churchill himself once noted, he lived from mouth to hand instead of hand to mouth. Johnson argues that Churchill worked to harness the demons that drove him, especially the need to live up to the memory of his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, who regarded young Winston as a feckless failure. Johnson also believes that Churchill was one of those creative depressive personalities that had to be constantly in action. Thus his collection of hobbies: painting, bricklaying, landscaping the grounds of his beloved Chartwell, keeping a menagerie of animals including goats, swans and exotic goldfish, as well as his constant literary output—all were ways to keep his “black dog” at bay.
In one of the book’s best sections, Johnson argues for Churchill’s indispensability during those dark days of the summer of 1940 when France was defeated and Britain stood alone. Churchill was resolute in defying Nazism because he saw it as his mission to lead the resistance to “that man,” as he often derisively referred to Hitler. He had, after all, recognized the evil significance of Hitler as early as 1932. Churchill told one of Hitler’s admirers, the flunkey Putzi Hanfstaengl, that anti-Semitism might be a good starter but a bad ender. In a passage that says much about Churchill’s sense of decency, Johnson notes that Churchill further stated, “what is the sense of being against a man because of his birth?”
It is possible now to see how easy and even tempting it would have been in 1940 for England to have made a deal with Hitler. Britain would be allowed to keep its fleet as Hitler professed his admiration for the British Empire and what it stood for. Churchill would have none of that. And, never forget, there were many political figures ready to do so, including Churchill’s Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, a man many observers thought should have succeeded Chamberlain when he fell from power. The RAF’s defeat of the Luftwaffe in the summer of 1940 was, as the Duke of Wellington said of the battle of Waterloo, “a near run thing.” But it was the first time that Hitler had been stopped. And along with Churchill’s decision to sink the fleet of his French ally at Mers el Kebir in the dark days of July 1940, Churchill sent a message to the rest of the world, especially the United States, which was holding back sending arms, that England would fight on. Johnson regards the summer of 1940 as Churchill’s “finest hour.” Churchill himself, when asked what year of his life he would like to relive, said: “1940, always 1940.”
Johnson is not blind to Churchill faults. He devotes a chapter to the various blunders of Churchill’s career: the ill-conceived Gallipoli plan, his support for Edward VIII’s decision to marry Wallis Simpson, and his refusal to accept a degree of autonomy for India in the 1930s, which Johnson regards as among the most grievous of his mistakes. But Johnson observes that one of the key reasons for Churchill’s ability to bounce back from setbacks is that, aside from Gallipoli, which truly haunted him, he did not internalize his defeats. He soldiered on.
When he was gradually bypassed by FDR and Stalin during the last stages of World War II Churchill moved on to new issues. As early as the last months of World War II, he began warning the West, as he had with the rise of Hitler, that a new threat from the Soviet Union was emerging. With his Iron Curtain speech Churchill laid out the broad outlines of the West’s response to Soviet Communist expansionism. A case can be made that aid to Greece and Turkey, the Marshall Plan, and NATO, the major plans of the West’s response to the Soviet threat, all sprung from his clear spelling out of the menace that Stalin’s Soviet Union meant to the West. But unlike many of the anti-communists who followed him, Churchill did not believe that the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe would last. He told de Gaulle in 1946, when Soviet power seemed at its peak, that “after the meal would come the digestion,” which Churchill believed would not be ultimately successful. He did not live long enough to see the outcome of the Communism’s indigestion but, as with his early awareness of the evils of Nazism, he was right once again.
Johnson notes that Churchill was also the godfather of the United Europe movement, describing him as “a sponsor, a witness, rather than a contracting party” because he still believed in the British Empire and the special relationship with the United States. What Churchill had in mind was not the United Europe that emerged with national decisions countermanded by some supranational body in Brussels but something more along the lines of de Gaulle’s Europe of the Fatherlands. In retrospect he appears to have been right on that issue also.
Johnson’s book is a gem. With his analysis of the various factors that made Churchill such a fascinating and important figure, he has produced a book that can be enjoyed by both scholars and the general reader. I am sure more Churchill studies will follow but Johnson’s The Churchill Factor will remain a standard for a long time.
John P. Rossi is Professor Emeritus of History at La Salle University in Philadelphia.