Churchill's Lessons

This summer, having completed several projects, I permitted myself a literary pleasure of the highest order: Taking up Churchill’s memoirs of World War II for my bedtime reading. I have read all six volumes twice previously, and in seeking certain quotes have taken up a volume, located the quote, but then found it impossible to put down without re-reading the entire volume. Why do these tomes have such a fascination for me? After all, we know how the story ends. But, do yourself a favor. Next time you are in a used bookstore, see if you can't find these volumes and add them to your library. They are a treasure.

Churchill was a genius and that genius is evident on almost every page. His hope for the British nation, that this would be their finest hour, flowed quite naturally from the realization that this was Churchill’s finest hour. He had been wrong about Ireland. Wrong about India. But, when the most important crisis in the history of Britain came, he was right. Just as importantly, so many in Parliament had been wrong for so long about the threat of Hitler and the Nazis, that when Churchill became Prime Minister on the morrow of Germany’s attack on the Western Front in May 1940, his moral authority was supreme within the counsels of the government.

In addition to Churchill’s gifts as a writer – and it is good to remember that he won the Nobel Prize for Literature – his tale reveals much about politics and leadership that remain relevant in every age.

It is difficult to imagine the pressures Churchill faced and it is highly doubtful he could have met them without the benefit of a feature of British parliamentary government that we lack in the United States. Given the enormity of the crisis at hand, and despite the fact that his party had a large majority in the House of Commons, Churchill formed a government of national unity. The Greeks announced yesterday that they, too, would form such an all-party coalition government in the face of their economic crisis. Our American constitutional framework, with its separation of powers, knows no such expedient. That lack is a thing to be regretted.

Leading a government at any time entails meeting competing demands and adjudicating diverse interests and objectives. Still, the pressures Churchill faced were stunning. To take only one example, Britain’s fleet faced two competing demands at the start of the war, the need to protect convoys in the North Atlantic and the need to aid in the defense of Egypt, Malta and the trade routes between the UK and the Mideast. When Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, the British fleet was needed to protect convoys of arms to Russia through the Arctic Ocean where they were threatened by German aircraft and ships working from Scandinavia. As the threat of war with Japan loomed, the need to send naval support to Singapore emerged. How to weigh these different, competing needs? How many ships could Britain afford to lose on the Arctic convoys? Even the best laid plans went awry through the fortunes of war. For example, Churchill dispatched two great battleships, the Prince of Wales and the Repulse, to the Far East to help ward off the Japanese threat. On December 9, 1941, two days after Pearl Harbor, they were both sunk off the coast of Malaya. In the event, Those early setbacks for the U.S. and British navies proved to be something of a blessing: The day of the battleship had past, though no one knew it at the time, as the aircraft carrier became the dominant weapon in the naval arsenals of both countries. Resources would have been wasted trying to protect battleships whose utility was no longer dominant.

The strength of the alliance between the United States and Great Britain, nurtured at the top by Churchill careful and solicitous courting of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was one of the principal factors in the successful prosecution of the war. When the two first met during the war, at Argentia Bay in Newfoundland, Churchill arranged for the two men and the two navies to participate in joint Sunday services to emphasize the bonds of faith and language and culture the two nations shared. Churchill himself chose the hymns: “For Those in Peril on the Sea,” “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” and “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” That meeting produced the Atlantic Charter which still reads very well.

One example will suffice to illustrate the effects of the alliance. Churchill was staying at the White House in June, 1942 when word reached him of the fall of Tobruk, where more than 30,000 British troops had surrendered to a smaller force. Churchill writes,

“I did not attempt to hide from the President the chock I had received. It was a bitter moment. Defeat is one thing; disgrace is another. Nothing could exceed the sympathy and chivalry of my two friends. [Harry Hopkins was with them.] There were no reproaches; not an unkind word was spoken. ‘What can we do to help?’ said Roosevelt. I replied at once, ‘Give us as many Sherman tanks as you can spare, and ship them to the Middle East as quickly as possible.’”

The President sent for General George Marshall and soon the tanks, for which the U.S. Army troops were waiting, were on their way to reinforce the British armies in the Desert.

Another key theme of the volume is the need for civilian control of the military. This is not only a first principle of a free government, it is necessary to the successful prosecution of war. Too often, in our own day, politicians are likely to say, “Oh, I would never over-rule by commanders in the field.” This criticism has been leveled recently at President Obama over his decision to remove all but a few U.S. troops from Iraq. But, military leaders have a partial view and political leaders must survey the entire landscape. As the Allied armies converged on Germany in the spring of 1945, Churchill unsuccessfully urged General Eisenhower to slightly amend his battle plans to reach Berlin and or Prague before the Russian armies. Eisenhower declined to adjust his military plans, with well known and very unhappy consequences for the post-war world.

Despite the anxieties of war, Churchill never lost his sense of humor. The autumn of 1940 was a grim time. France had fallen and while much of the British Expeditionary Force had escaped at Dunkirk, they had got out with their lives, not with their equipment and Britain was virtually disarmed apart from the Home Guard, those men too old to fight on foreign fields but willing to defend their hearth and home. The Soviet Union and the United States were not yet in the war. Many expected the Germans to invade the island nation at any moment. Churchill writes of the Home Defense, “I intended to use the slogan, ‘You can always take one with you.’” After the liberation of Rome in 1944, Churchill went to the Eternal City to meet with the political elements in hopes of forming a national government for Italy. Churchill recalls the scene: “’What is your party?’ I asked one group. ‘We are the Christian Communists,’ their chief replied. I could not help saying, ‘It must be very inspiring to your party, having the Catacombs so handy.’”

Churchill was a keen observer of what we might call the American national psyche. In the immediate aftermath of the Japanese onslaught in December, 1941, Churchill went to Washington to discuss the vastly changed circumstances of the war: On the one hand, with the U.S. now in the war, there could be no doubt about its eventual outcome. But, on the other, many of the allies’ immediate difficulties became much worse, especially the shortage of equipment, the need for convoys along the American coast, to say nothing of the opening of the vast Pacific as a war theater. Churchill had long meeting with the President and his staff and stayed at the White House over Christmas. He writes:

At Washington intense activity reigned. During these days of continuous contact and discussion, I gathered that the President with his staff and his advisers were preparing an important proposal for me. In the military as in the commercial and production spheres the American mind runs naturally to broad, sweeping, logical conclusions on the largest scale. It is on these that they build their practical thought and action. They feel that once the foundation has been planned on true and comprehensive lines all other stages will follow naturally and almost inevitably. The British mind does not work quite in this way. We do not think that logic and clear-cut principles are necessarily the sole keys to what ought to be done in swiftly changing and indefinable situations. In war particularly we assign a larger importance to opportunism and improvisation, seeking rather to live and conquer in accordance with the unfolding event than to aspire to dominate it often by fundamental decisions. There is room for much argument about both views. The difference is one of emphasis, but it is deep-seated.

The secret of Churchill’s genius as a war leader lay not only, or even primarily, in his vast knowledge of military matters. Nor even in his capacity for innovative military thinking: The idea of building synthetic harbors on the Normandy beaches to facilitate the supply of the Cross-Channel invasion troops was his. A gale destroyed one of the harbors but the one at Arromanches was the port through which most of the supplies came, as the Germans had wrecked the harbor at Cherbourg before surrendering it. No, the true secret was his sense of leadership. It is found on many pages of his volumes, but his thoughts upon assuming the Prime Ministership in May 1940 are so pithy and brilliant and should be read by anyone who aspired to or gains political leadership. Let’s give Churchill the last word:

“In my long political experience I had held most of the great offices of State, but I readily admit that the post which had now fallen to me was the one I liked the best. Power, for the sake of lording it over fellow-creatures or adding to personal pomp, is rightly judged base. But power in a national crisis, when a man believes he knows what orders should be given, is a blessing. In any sphere of action there can be no comparison between the positions of number one and number two, three, or four. The duties and the problems of all persons other than number one are quite different and in many ways more difficult. It is always a misfortune when number two or three has to initiate a dominant plan or policy. He has to consider not only the merits of the policy, but the mind of his chief; not only what to advise, but what it is proper for him in his station to advise; not only what to do, but how to get it agreed, and how to get it done. Moreover, number two or three will have to reckon with numbers four, five, and six, or maybe some bright outsider, number twenty. Ambition, not so much for vulgar ends, but for fame, glints in every mind. There are always several points of view which may be right, and many which are plausible. I was ruined for the time being in 1915 over the Dardanelles, and a supreme enterprise cast away, through my trying to carry out a major and cardinal operation of war from a subordinate position. Men are ill-advised to try such ventures. This lesson had sunk into my nature.

“At the top there are great simplifications. An accepted leader has only to be sure of what it is best to do, or at least to have made up his mind about it. The loyalties which centre upon number one are enormous. If he trips, he must be sustained. If he makes mistakes, they must be covered. If he sleeps, he must not be wantonly disturbed. If he is no good, he must be pole-axed. But this last extreme process cannot be carried out every day; and certainly not in the days just after he has been chosen.”


Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here

Advertisement