The Churchill cult has a lot to answer for: In England and the United States virtually every foreign policy disaster or near-disaster of the last six decades – from Suez to Viet Nam to Iraq – has been justified with pious invocations of Churchill’s prescient warnings against appeasement and his wartime leadership. So a book challenging the Churchill cult is sorely needed. Alas, Pat Buchanan’s new cut-and-paste tome doesn’t so much critique the Churchill cult as invert it, giving us less a debunking of religion than a Black Mass that turns a familiar ritual upside down. Instead of Churchill as the great hero and repository of wisdom we get Churchill as arch-villain responsible for all that went wrong in the early 20th century, from the outbreak of the two World Wars and the degradation of British power.
The problem with the Churchill cultists is that they subscribe to an extreme version of the great man theory of history: history-making is ultimately about willpower and leadership, with scant attention to the reality of material forces and mass movements. Buchanan shares this view of history, disputing only whether Churchill’s leadership was meritorious or flawed. For Buchanan, Churchill is responsible not only for his own actions but also for those of his adversaries. The problems with this line of thinking can be seen in a Buchanan’s account of Hitler’s decision to invade Russia (arguably the biggest blunder of his career): “Thus, by his refusal to even consider a negotiated peace, or armistice, Churchill caused Hitler to commit his fatal blunder: invading Russia.” (p. 366, italics added). There you have it: Hitler had no willpower or decision making ability of his own, he was simply a puppet forced to act in response to Churchill’s machinations. If historians like John Lukacs can be criticized for narrowing down historical causation to the actions of a few statesmen (Churchill, Hitler, Roosevelt, Stalin), then Buchanan represents the reductio ad absurdum of this approach: all of history is the action of only one man, Churchill alone.
What would a proper critique of Churchill look like? Instead of focusing merely on Churchill’s actions, it might be useful to see him as a symptom of some larger cultural patterns. His blinkered imperialism has already been discussed in an earlier post. Two other aspects of his worldview are worth emphasizing:
1) His romantic militarism. Churchill came of age during the era of Kipling and Henley, of muscular Christianity and late imperial romanticism. Throughout his life he had a remarkably naïve, Boy’s Own penny-dreadful love of derring-do; he was callously indifferent to any sense of the moral enormity of modern mass slaughter. Thus in 1914 he told Violet Asquith, “I know this war is smashing and shattering the lives of thousands every moment and yet – I cannot help it – I enjoy every second.” In 1915 he told Margot Asquith: “My God! This is living History. Everything we are doing and saying is thrilling – it will be read by a thousand generations, think of that! Why I would not be out of this glorious delicious war for anything the world could give me.”
2) His record of bad judgement. In British elite circles, Churchill was widely distrusted in the 1930s. This was not so much because his critics were blind to reality as the simple fact that he had a long history of irresponsible alarmism. He had been banging the drums for war all his life and, when put in positions of power, tended to make ghastly mistakes (Gallipoli being the most famous). If Churchill is to be seen as a mythical figure he was less Cassandra than the Boy Who Cried Wolf.
3) His antipathy towards the working class. It’s worth recalling that, once his usefulness as a war leader was done, Churchill and his party were unceremoniously turfed our of office in 1945. In his memoir Street Fighting Years, Tariq Ali recalls a speech made Richard Kirkwood at Oxford in 1965 which helps explain why a large chunk of the British electorate were so quick to get rid of Churchill as soon as Hitler was defeated: “Kirkwood pointed out to a stunned audience that Churchill had been decisively rejected by the British working class in 1945, after his biggest triumphs. He then went through a list of what he described casually as the more notorious of ‘Churchill’s crimes’. The catalogue, it must be admitted, was impressive. It was Churchill who had been the most vociferous proponent of armed intervention against the Russian Revolution in 1917; it was he had had justified the use of troops against the Welsh miners at Tonypandy; led the siege of Sidney Street in East London against a couple of anarchists; played the provocateur during the General Strike of 1926; backed the Greek far-right against the Resistance in 1944; and opposed the independence of India. It was for his consistent and long record of vindictiveness and hostility towards workers throughout the world that he was being mourned [by the British elite].”