Review

Churchill

by Paul Johnson

The vast mountain range of literature about Winston Churchill
has sprouted another foothill. Paul Johnson’s biography, as
you might expect from a Briton, is full of unstinting admiration
for Churchill the person as well as the political figure. His
faults and failures are duly noted but almost always excused, and
there are spots where the amount of credit piled upon him strains
credulity a bit. But all in all, the story of his adventurous life
is told succinctly and colorfully. We get to know Churchill as a
human being, not just as a face on the front page of wartime
newspapers. For those unwilling to burrow through the huge
Churchill literature, this slim volume will provide a good basic
account, albeit from the pen of a fervent admirer and fellow
countryman.

Winston Churchill (1874-1965), born to wealth and privilege, was
an indifferent student at Harrow, but his energy and boundless
ambition carried him easily into Parliament at the age of 26 and
kept him there through two world wars, the first of which dealt him
a humiliating setback, but the second of which he was a major
factor in winning.

Churchill’s dogged advocacy of the disastrous Dardanelles
campaign in World War I very nearly ended his political career. In
typical Churchillian fashion, he first accepted the blame and then
got up from the floor, dusted himself off, and went back to the job
of keeping British world power in tiptop shape. Johnson gives a
workmanlike summary of Churchill’s lonely interwar campaign
to wake his country up to the menace of Nazism, his assumption of
power in the war’s darkest hour, and his five brilliant years
of leadership. All the famous Churchillian quotes are recycled:
“Blood, toil, tears and sweat,” “This was their
finest hour,” “Never before have so many owed so much
to so few,” “Give us the tools and we will finish the
job,” and a number of others less celebrated but just as
effective. When someone remarked that his defeat in the British
election of 1945 might actually be a blessing in disguise,
Churchill remarked laconically, “It appears to be very
effectively disguised.”

Johnson correctly singles out Churchill’s mastery of
words, both written and spoken, as a major love of his life and a
crucial factor in making him famous. He also lets us in on his own
personal encounters with Churchill. As a boy of 17, he asked the
great man for the secret of his success in life. Churchill
responded: “Conservation of energy. Never stand up when you
can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down.”
Johnson cannot resist adding, “He then got into his
limo.”

In Johnson’s prose, Churchill’s political colleague,
David Lloyd George, becomes “LG,” and Churchill’s
wife Clementine is “Clemmie.” These touches sometimes
give his book the air of a series of close-up snapshots taken by a
good friend. Churchill is described as a man who never held
grudges, had a ready wit, and found peace of mind in his
late-in-life hobby of painting, all of which are certainly true.
Although mentioned, his drinking habits, long the subject of
worldwide gossip, are never emphasized.

Johnson goes so far in his admiration as to give Churchill some
of the credit for the success of the Normandy landing in June 1944
and speculates that Churchill “scented victory” in the
war as early as the following August. His long and close
relationship with Franklin D. Roosevelt is given very short shrift.
He faults Roosevelt for his failure to realize the looming danger
from postwar Stalinist Russia, adding that Churchill was actually
relieved when Harry Truman succeeded to the Presidency upon
Roosevelt’s death. He feels that Churchill would not have
hesitated a moment to use the atomic bomb against Germany had that
been necessary. Johnson’s only serious charge against
Churchill’s World War II leadership is his blindness toward
the importance of moving strongly against Japan.

Johnson’s answer to the basic question, “Did
Churchill save Britain in World War II?” is an unequivocal
“Yes.” No one can quarrel with that. His book is a
concise and closely argued brief for the defense of a great man who
surely needs no defense even at a historical distance of 44 years.
His five years of wartime leadership were most certainly, in his
own memorable words, that nation’s “finest
hour.”

Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on December 27, 2010

Churchill
by Paul Johnson

  • Publication Date: October 26, 2010
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics)
  • ISBN-10: 0143117998
  • ISBN-13: 9780143117995