The Last Lion: Defender of the Realm

Article excerpt

Winston Churchill was one of the central statesmen of the 20th century and, almost 50 years after his death, remains a subject of enduring fascination. Part of the current interest in this venerable figure can be attributed to two superb biographies written in the 1980s by historian William Manchester: The Last Lion: Visions of Glory and The Last Lion: Alone." These two books examined the first two-thirds of Churchill's life.

Unfortunately, after completing the second volume, Manchesters health declined and the rest of the project stalled. So great was public interest in the long-delayed final volume that it was the subject of a front page story in The New York Times.

Eventually, in 2003, Manchester asked his friend Paul Reid to complete the trilogy. Now, nearly a decade later, Reid has published The Last Lion, the final piece of this monumental undertaking. Reid starts when Churchill was appointed prime minister in May 1940 and follows him through his death in 1965. While most of this volume is appropriately devoted to World War II, it also includes the vast expansion of the British welfare state following the war, the start of the Cold War and the enormous dangers it carried, and the loss of the British Empire.

Reid has written a thorough and complete analysis of these years, and it is a worthy finale to the first two volumes. Exhaustively researched and carefully written, it draws on a full range of primary and secondary materials. This book will be essential reading for those who enjoyed the first two volumes and those with a deep interest in understanding this seminal figure and his place in history.

Reid does a wonderful job of capturing Churchill in all his complexity. He gives Churchill great praise for his personal courage and inspirational leadership during the dark days when Britain stood alone, but he is equally clear about Churchills poor strategic judgments, such as the efforts to defend Greece and Crete, the Allied assault on Anzio, and the decision to send the battleship Prince of Wales and battle cruiser Repulse to the South China Sea without adequate air cover (where they were promptly sunk by the Japanese). He highlights Churchills naivet in dealing with Soviet Premier Stalin in the early years of the war, but praises his prescience in anticipating Stalins land grab in Eastern Europe at the end of the conflict. Reid also gives welcome attention to aspects of the war such as Churchills fear that the United States might decide to put its primary emphasis on defeating Japan regardless of the Germany first understanding he shared with Roosevelt that have received little attention in other books.

But the book is far longer than necessary, and even readers with a deep interest in the subject may feel overwhelmed. Partly, this is the result of the enormous amount of trivia that finds its way into the text. …