The Hero and His Superpower

By Leebaert, Derek | Army, March 2011 | Go to article overview

The Hero and His Superpower


Leebaert, Derek, Army


The Hero and His Superpower Churchill Defiant Fighting On, 1945-1955. Barbara Learning. Harper. 384 pages; index; $26.99.

The term superpower was used by an American professor in 1944 to identify a new category of strength - a state that combined an armed global presence with a readiness to act in defense of worldwide interests. Its prototype was the British Empire and Commonwealth. This imperial entity contained more territory and people than did the two other powers of the wartime "Big Three," the United States and the Soviet Union. Even in 1945, the sixth year of Britain's exhausting struggle, Japan would have faced a terrible foe had Hiroshima and Nagasaki not compelled a sudden surrender: Alongside its U.S. ally, the Empire was ready to hit the Home Islands with four British battleships, more than a dozen aircraft carriers, and millions of men from Britain and the Commonwealth.

Seemingly overnight, however, this imperial eminence and clout dwindled faster than anyone imagined. By 1956, due to White House pressure, humiliated, Britain had to retreat from its military intervention at Suez. Having threatened to undermine the pound should Britain not withdraw immediately. President Dwight D. Eisenhower nonetheless graciously observed that the British were still his "right arm." It was a description of British power that would have been an insult 10 years earlier, and preposterous 10 years later. What occurred in the decade after 1945 is a case study of superpower decline. These years also include the riveting ones of Winston Churchill's final time in office. Both events make Barbara Learning's Churchill Defiant worth the attention of political-military decision makers as well as of students of leadership.

Prime Minister Churchill was stunned to be defeated by the Labour Party in July 1945 while at the Potsdam Conference with Joseph Stalin and President Harry S Truman. Churchill then served as leader of the Opposition until October 1951, thereafter returning as prime minister until 1955, then handing power to his chosen successor Anthony Eden, who would be compelled to resign after the Suez debacle.

Altogether, these years may be the most personally revealing of his long life. Scrambling to compensate for Britain's diminishing strength, he tried to align the British Empire and Commonwealth with America's newly expanding worldwide interests. At the same time, he was fighting off his Conservative Party rivals before they finally nudged him from 10 Downing Street at age 80, by then nearly "ga ga," as Eden unkindly remarked. Despite such highstakes drama, these years are essentially neglected in all the writing on Churchill - he might as well have left the world stage with the Axis' defeat in 1945.

Churchill Defiant helps to fill the gap in our understanding of one of the 20th century's preeminent leaders. Learning is a talented biographer whose similarly well-written profiles include John F. Kennedy's early years, a "missing history" of Jacqueline Kennedy, and the lives of such stars as Katharine Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe and Orson Welles. This is helpful experience for a Churchill biographer - Learning can distill the cinematic quality of how this colorful, protean hero spent six years fighting his way back from electoral defeat in 1945 to return to the center of world events - altogether ready in 1951 to reassert Britain's might in the world. But the world had changed. To this end, Churchill Defiant also offers a glimpse of how leaders of a declining superpower become lost in time.

Limited scope is both the strength as well as the weakness of Churchill Defiant. Devoting the first half of her book to Churchill's years out of office and the second to those back in 10 Downing Street, Learning gives too much attention to the strange political maneuverings of Churchill's last rumblings for immortality, at least as they play out at home. The "insider baseball" of British politics becomes taxing - chapter after chapter concerns internal Conservative Party quarrels and betrayals with men such as Salisbury, Macmillan, Butler and Crookshank, about whom we know little and therefore care less. …

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