Institute for Historical Review

Institute for Historical Review

Winston Spencer Churchill: A Tribute


No informed person could well deny that Winston S. Churchill was probably the most spectacular showman in the history of British politics, and he was surely one of Britain's greatmasters of patriotic and honorific rhetoric. But when we go beyond this into any phase of Churchill's career we enter debatable ground. Any careful study of his personality and career raises serious questions as to his personal and political integrity and the value of his public services to Great Britain.

His political career revealed no firm political principles or ideology. He shifted in his party affiliations from the Conservatives to the Liberals and back to the Conservatives. He praised Mussolini and Hitler lavishly after their totalitarian programs had been fully established and their operations were well known. He said that if he had been an Italian he would have been a Fascist, and as late as 1938 he stated that if England were ever in the same straits that Germany had been in 1933, he hoped that England would find "her Hitler." The eminent Anglo-American publicist, Francis Neilson, declared that Churchill's praise of Hitler was the most extreme tribute ever paid by a prominent Englishman to the head of a foreign state. When his "great and good friend" of former days, Mussolini, was murdered by Communist partisans and his corpse hung up head down in Milan, Churchill rushed in to a dinner party with the news, exclaiming: "Ah, the bloody beast is dead!" In World War II he declared that it was his great life purpose to destroy Hitler and National Socialism.

Churchill's shifts on Communism were equally fantastic. He had been one of the most bitter critics of Communism and its leaders, denouncing it as "foul baboonery," but during World War II he extolled Stalin as generously as he previously had Mussolini and Hitler, only to shift again as early as 1946 and demand a Cold War on Communism.

There is no convincing evidence whatever that Churchill ever proposed or supported any public measure with a primary interest in its probable effect on the welfare of Britain or humanity. He appeared to be exclusively concerned with its probable reaction on his own political career. In this he differed from Roosevelt. Even John T. Flynn admits that the latter, as a country squire, had a real sense of noblesse oblige and was interested in the well-being of the common people when helping them did not interfere with his own political ambitions. Churchill never revealed any sense of noblesse oblige. To him rank only demanded special privileges and rewards. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that he was the most vain person in the whole history of prominent public figures, a trait enduring until his death and after, when he had planned years or months in advance even the details of a pompous and dramatic public funeral.

Churchill was completely lacking in integrity with respect to his public career. He had no hesitation in uttering the most flagrant misstatements when this appeared necessary to him to promote his political ambitions or cover up his past mistakes. He did not turn aside from deceiving the British people on matters of great public import if this was required for his political self-protection. Perhaps the best of many examples was his report to the House of Commons after his return from the disastrous Yalta Conference, where he had witnessed Stalin's duplicity and mendacious greed, having already observed this at Tehran and in the atrocious violation of Stalin's promises in regard to the Soviet treatment of Poland. Churchill assured the House: "The impression I brought back from the Crimea is that Marshall Stalin and the other Soviet leaders wish to live in honorable friendship and democracy with the Western democracies. I feel that no government stands more on its obligations than the Russian Soviet Government."

It is well to remember that Churchill's great current reputation as a statesman rests entirely on events between April 1940 and July 1945. He was so thoroughly discredited as a politician by 1933 that both the Baldwin and Chamberlain governments considered that to have him in the Cabinet would be a detriment to Conservative prestige and prospects. When public issues returned again to domestic affairs in 1945, Churchill was resoundingly defeated in the General Election of that summer. As a wartime administrator he showed tremendous energy rather than organizing and directive genius. He was more distinguished for his pugnacity than for his statecraft, although there can be no doubt that he inspired the British to unite and continue the war against Hitler, but it may be questioned if unthinking resistance to Hitler after Dunkirk was the best policy for Britain. The most effective indictment of Churchill's wartime statecraft is that after gaining military victory he lost the peace to Soviet Russia.

There has been no greater fallacy than to regard Churchill as a military genius, although it is probable that no other important British leader has so loved war or worked harder to insure it when it seemed within the range of possibility. Churchill was responsible for the disastrous attempt to force the Dardanelles in 1915, which was Britain's most spectacular defeat in the World War I (except for the futile attempts to break through the German trenches). It has been said that it was a good plan if it had worked, but a truly good military plan must work out in practice and not merely be impressive on paper. Both Lord Fisher and Lord Kitchener warned against the project. Churchill was compelled to resign as responsible for the failure.

In regard to World War II both English and American experts have indicated that Churchill's interference in strategic decisions was often disastrous. General Albert C. Wedemeyer has pointed out that Churchill and Roosevelt really ran military operations like a pair of Indian chiefs conducting a scalping party, with little consideration of the ultimate military or political outcome. Churchill's constant demand to concentrate the Allied attack against the "soft underbelly of Europe"-a sort of return to the Dardanelles fantasy- was properly discredited by the impressive manner in which General Kesserling defended the Italian sector of the soft underbelly under the greatest handicaps, defeated in the end mainly by the treachery of Hitler and his SS underlings.

It is held even by restrained admirers of Churchill that we must at least give him credit for saving Britain. One might ask: saving Britain from whom and from what? Hitler was a worse bootlicker of Britain than the Kaiser and the cornerstone of his foreign policy was to achieve a permanent understanding with Britain. Even after Dunkirk, where he deliberately permitted the British to escape, he offered Britain a generous peace and told his generals that he would put the German Wehrmacht, air force and navy at the service of Britain to preserve the British Empire. Real statesmanship would have dictated Churchill's agreeing to a stalemate with Germany in June 1941, and letting Germany and Russia bleed each other white and thus remove the threat of dictatorship from either the Right or the Left. This was what wise Americans like Herbert Hoover, Robert A. Taft, and Harry S. Truman recommended at the time. But Churchill was just getting too much joy and thrill-"having too much fun," as Roosevelt put it-out of being an active war leader to consider for a moment retiring to the role of an observer, even if this was probably the only way to assure British safety and the preservation of the Empire. He condemned England to four more years of costly and brutal warfare, failed to protect eastern and central Europe from Russia and Communism, and made inevitable the liquidation of the British Empire.

Churchill led in the denunciation of the alleged horrible atrocities and brutalities of the Nazis, but his record is surely no better. He rejected Hitler's proposal at the outset of the War to ban all bombardment of non-military objectives and launched this barbarous form of bombing on 11 May 1940, with an attack on the helpless university town of Freiburg. He announced that he would stop at no type or extent of brutality and terrorism to crush Hitler and he made good his word. He directed the terrible incendiary bombing of Hamburg, and was solely responsible for ordering the needless destruction of the beautiful city of Dresden, the most ruthless, despicable and indefensible major atrocity of World War II, in which the losses of life and property were far greater than in the case of the American bombing of either Hiroshima or Nagasaki. He approved and ordered the application of the Lindemann Plan for the saturation bombing of Germany which, for stark brutality in both conception and operation, matched any of the alleged Nazi "extermination" measures. This plan ordered concentration of British bombing on the homes of the poorer or working classes whose houses were huddled close together so that more innocent civilians could be killed per bomb that was dropped.

In his remarks at the funeral of Mr. Churchill, former President Dwight Eisenhower laid main stress on Churchill's achievements as a "friend of peace." It would be no exaggeration to say that this was not unlike J. Edgar Hoover paying a special tribute to Al Capone as a friend of law enforcement. Even his British admirers have conceded Churchill's lifelong and inordinate love of war. No other British public figure worked as hard to bring Britain into World War I as did Churchill. This has been admitted in the recent book, Twelve Days, by the English writer George Malcolm Thomson on the crisis of 1914. It is common knowledge that Churchill was the leader of the British war party from 1936 onward, having told General Robert E. Wood in that year that: "Germany is getting too strong; we must smash her." He not only cooperated with the war party in Britain but also worked closely with Bernard Baruch and the other powerful warminded Americans.

Perhaps the best summary appraisal of Churchill's personality comes from the distinguished British publicist, F.S. Oliver:

From his youth up Mr. Churchill has loved with all his heart, with all his mind, with all his soul, and with all his strength, three things: war, politics and himself. He has loved war for its dangers, he I oves politics for the same reason, and himself he has always loved for the knowledge that his mind is dangerous -dangerous to his enemies, dangerous to his friends, dangerous to himself. I can think of no man I have ever met who would so quickly and so bitterly eat his heart out in Paradise.

The significance of Churchill's career for this and later generations was admirably summarized by the British journal, The European:

In terms of personal success there has been no career more fortunate than that of Winston Churchill. In terms of human suffering to millions of people and destruction to the noble edifice of mankind there has been no career more disastrous. In that sad paradox lies the tragedy of our time.

From The Journal of Historical Review, Summer 1980 (Vol. 1, No. 1), pp. 163-168. This piece was reportedly extracted from an item published (and perhaps reprinted) in a libertarian periodical issued by students at California State University, Northridge.

Harry Elmer Barnes (1889-1968) was one of the most influential American scholars of the twentieth century. The best single volume about his life and work is Harry Elmer Barnes: Learned Crusader  (1968).