Commentary Magazine


The “Vital Force” of Winston Churchill

In 1935, British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin refused to appoint Winston Churchill to a cabinet post. Asked to explain himself, Baldwin responded: “If there is going to be a war–and who can say there is not–we must keep him fresh to be our war prime minister.” The historian Max Hastings notes that Baldwin said this with a hint of jocularity, but he seemed to understand it was also quite true. Five years later, Leo Amery wrote: “I am beginning to come round to the idea that Winston with all his failings is the one man with real war drive and love of battle.”

While Churchill was always conscious of his own image, this aspect of his personality was ingrained and authentic. That is one of the clearest conclusions to be drawn from the summer exhibit on display at New York’s Morgan Library and Museum, “Churchill: The Power of Words.” There, among a fine collection of Churchill’s writings, speeches, and correspondence plus a 20-minute audio-visual presentation of excerpts of Churchill at his most inspiring, is a true gem. The exhibit includes a school report card for young Winston. His grades were mostly fine, but among the notes written by his instructors was the following, next to “General Conduct”:

Very bad–is a constant trouble to everybody, and is always in some scrape or other. He cannot be trusted to behave himself anywhere. He has very good abilities.

Churchill was always someone you’d rather have with you than against you. But the rest of the exhibit, which runs through September 23, contains fascinating glimpses into the gifted statesman. And it is a worthwhile project as well, because amidst our romantic view of Churchill’s belligerent brilliance, an important point often gets lost: Churchill’s words changed the world.

In an era of perhaps fetishized diplomacy, Churchill should loom larger than ever. Almost immediately upon replacing Neville Chamberlain as prime minister, Churchill had to turn the Dunkirk evacuation from a retreat into a triumph of the British fighting spirit. No sooner had he accomplished that then he had to convince the French not to surrender while nudging Franklin Roosevelt to defy Congress and help the war effort. “I shall drag the United States in,” he once remarked matter-of-factly to his son. And so he did.

A thematic current of Roy Jenkins’s biography of Churchill is Churchill’s belief, from a very young age, that he was destined for greatness. The Morgan exhibit shows a letter he wrote to his mother, in which he admits to being “more ambitious for a reputation for personal courage than of anything else in the world.”

To be surprised by anything about Churchill is a surprise itself–another reason such exhibits leave their mark. Jenkins warns readers in his introduction that his will be no “revelatory” biography: “Churchill in life was singularly lacking in inhibition or concealment. There are consequently no great hidden reservoirs of behavior to be tapped.” Hastings begins his book with a similar note, suggesting that “We have been told more about Winston Churchill than any other human being.”

And yet, Churchill’s reputation is a suit of armor–a few nicks and dents from battle, but none visible from afar and none compromising the integrity of the structure. Churchill’s career in government does not lack for mistakes–and in some cases, near mistakes that were avoided by the judgment of his generals. But the big things he got right, and though the West would not have won the war without the United States, it may very well not have won without Churchill staving off defeat and wrenching the very best from his country in order to give America a cause to save.

When the war was over, few had the strength or will or foresight to understand the nature of the Cold War that was in part the legacy of victory–but Churchill did. Out of power, he forged an alliance with the United States in peacetime that has endured until today, and shaped the West’s response to the growing threat of Communism, leading to another triumph that, too, endures to this day. Churchill was feared by all the right people–and trusted, respected, and admired by the right ones, too. There is no one on the world stage today who fits this description, and so there is a bittersweet element to the exhibit as well.

But most importantly, the exhibit honors Churchill the way he would want to be honored. As he wrote in 1938:

Words are the only things that last forever. The most tremendous monuments or prodigies of engineering crumble under the hand of Time. The Pyramids moulder, the bridges rust, the canals fill up, grass covers the railway track; but words spoken two or three thousand years ago remain with us now, not as mere relics of the past, but with all their pristine vital force.

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