The Indispensable Man

By Black, Conrad | New Criterion, December 2018 | Go to article overview

The Indispensable Man


Black, Conrad, New Criterion


Like all of Andrew Roberts's histories, Churchill is massively researched and exquisitely written. (1) The author's sharp sense of humor is often in evidence and warmly complements Churchill's own. As a chronology of an exceptional life, this is a very fine book that bears comparison with the generally best-regarded single-volume lives of Churchill by Roy Jenkins and Geoffrey Best. (It would not be fair to anyone to bring in Sir Martin Gilbert's eight-volume official biography, with many accompanying volumes of relevant documents.) Disclosure requires that I mention that Andrew Roberts is a good friend of many years, and that we have written many positive reviews of each other's books. If I were not conscientiously able to write a good review, I would have declined the assignment.

Churchill's complicated relations with his parents, rather unloved upbringing (except for his nanny, the admirable Mrs. Everest), tempestuous school career--throughout which he defied sadistic school masters who caned him fiercely but to no effect--are all fairly well known, but this author adds touches that are the fruit of surpassing research. It was generally known that Winston Churchill's mother, Jennie Jerome of New York, had had an affair (like many other attractive women) with the then-Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII. It was not so well known that she had an elevator installed in her home to convey the ample royal caller effortlessly to her private quarters (after the death of Winston Churchill's father, Randolph, in 1895, aged forty-five).

Churchill's early life and fast-moving career are familiar to many, but nowhere better described than in Roberts's book: the dashing soldier and war correspondent (often simultaneously) in India, South Africa, on the Nile, and in Cuba; the astounding self-acquired knowledge of British, American, and classical history, and English and classical literature; and the ability, which he retained well into his eighties, to recite verbatim vast swaths of stirring prose and poetry. His talent for publicity and his confident and aggressive personality landed him quickly in politics, and into the House of Commons in the waning days of Victoria. Churchill knew everyone who served as British monarch from Victoria (r. 1837-1901) to the present; every leader of his Conservative Party from the Marquess of Salisbury, in office 1880-1902, to Margaret Thatcher, who relinquished the leadership in 1990; and every president of the United States, though a few very casually, from Theodore Roosevelt to Richard Nixon, a period covering 1901 to 1974. He was a prominent figure and household name in Great Britain and much of the British Commonwealth, and ultimately the whole world, for sixty-five years. When he finally earned the long-sought office of prime minister, in the most dangerous circumstances in the country's history, on May 10, 1940, it was after thirty-nine years in Parliament and nine different cabinet positions, including the Exchequer, Home Office, colonies, trade, war, munitions, air force, and the largest navy in the world in both world wars (though it was surpassed by the United States in 1942).

As Roberts reminds us, Churchill was unsuccessful in a number of those positions, but never incompetent. He acquired a vast administrative and legislative experience and by that time had been considered for decades one of Britain's greatest orators. Roberts enumerates a long list of Churchill's serious errors in public life, before and after his elevation in 1940. These include his opposing the vote for women; his handling of much of the Gallipoli operation and perhaps the entire concept (which led to 250,000 casualties in a failed effort to break open the Dardanelles in 1915); his treatment of Ireland and India; his keenness for reversion to the gold standard; his support of Edward VIII in the abdication crisis, his mismanagement of the Norway campaign; his assistance of Greece in 1941; his gross underestimation of the military strength of Japan; his faith in Italy as "the soft underbelly" of Hitler's Europe; his advocacy of peripheral campaigns in the Dodecanese, Norway, Trieste, and Sumatra; and his deporting the alleged Soviet deserters back to Russia at the end of the war (another 1. …

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