Commentary Magazine

Churchill, by Paul Johnson

By Paul Johnson
Viking, 192 pages

Of Winston Churchill, Paul Johnson writes that his “orations, in print, usually carry all the resonance of his voice with them: they are magnificent prose, too.”

One can reverse the point and apply it to Paul Johnson. His writings are like his speaking; he reads his lectures from a text, but with animation. He holds the podium to give him four points of anchor—feet and hands. He sways back and forth. He comes up on his toes. His voice rises and grows from the strength of his chest, eyes twinkling, body and voice keeping time together. It is like hearing someone read very well to schoolboys.

The first and striking feature of Johnson’s new biography of Churchill is the manner of its writing, which works very well for writing about Churchill. The first chapter is called “Young Thruster,” and it begins with thrust: “Of all the towering figures of the 20th century, both good and evil, Winston Churchill was the most valuable to humanity, and also the most likable.”

The book undertakes a seemingly hopeless task: to tell the story of Churchill in 166 pages. Winston Churchill lived for just about 33,000 days, which gives Johnson little more than one page for every 200 of them. He served in Parliament for 55 years, which gives Johnson not even three pages for each of them. He wrote many dozens of books, with his own speeches numbering more than 10,000 pages; there is little room to mention more than the fact of their existence. One hundred and sixty-six pages means 31 pages about World War II and only 12 about the Great War.

The pace of the book is thus relentlessly fast, and mostly this works very well. Johnson covers the amazing achievements of 1940 mainly by naming and explaining the “ten reasons” why Churchill was effective in running a war, among them his ability to use the hard-earned wisdom from the failures of his early career. He learned that if he was to take responsibility for something, he must have the authority to manage it. Johnson points out that Churchill took over at a terrible moment, with Britain under genuine threat of destruction by Germany, and its arrival had proved he had been right about Hitler’s intentions all along. And Churchill could talk as few ever have; he had the power of high and inspiring rhetoric, and he had the power of intimate  and familiar reasoning with millions over the radio. He seemed to know their fears, and so he  could summon their courage too.

These points by Johnson are well chosen and elaborated and provide a guide that will be valuable to anyone who wonders why Barack Obama seems hopeless at war or why George W. Bush, for all his firmness, did not gain respect even when victories began to come.
In some ways, the speed of the book is a failing. There is not enough space, for example, to place a man of Churchill’s controversial positions, and several of his failures, in context. Because of this thinness, one does not quite see how a great man could be prone to such error, misfortune, or seeming arbitrariness.

One example: Churchill lost his leading position in the Conservative party in the 1930s after long service at the top of British politics. Although he stayed in the wilderness during the period of appeasement toward Hitler, he ended up there initially over his view of imperial policy, first toward Egypt, then toward India. The government of Stanley Baldwin had joined the Socialist and Liberal parties in taking the first steps toward self-rule in those countries, and Churchill opposed the whole array of them. This opposition Johnson presents as simply a mistake. He even attributes Churchill’s actions at this time to the bad fortune he suffered in the stock market in the 1929 crash: “His confidence had been shaken, and in his bruised condition he began to make political mistakes again.” Johnson does not lay out the reasons Churchill gave for his position on India, nor does he explain that they were essential to Churchill’s thoughts on empire dating back to his first days in public life. More than that, they were connected to his understanding of his own country—its strength, its survival, and its mission in the world. It may be that Churchill was mistaken about India, but if so, he was mistaken in a big way and for a long time.

Johnson also says that Churchill “changed his persona completely” on the matter of the budget for the British navy when he was chancellor of the exchequer in the 1920s. Churchill pushed for lower military expenditures and for a “Ten Year Rule” that did not allow for the possibility of major conflicts for a decade. This may have been a mistake, as Johnson plainly feels it is, but it was not at all discontinuous from the positions Churchill had taken previously and the principles he had espoused and would continue to espouse for most of his life. In one of his greatest early speeches, he foresaw in 1901 the disaster of modern war and its tendency to destroy the liberal society:

But now, when mighty populations are impelled on each other, each individual severally embittered and inflamed—when the resources of science and civilisation sweep away everything that might mitigate their fury, a European war can only end in the ruin of the vanquished and the scarcely less fatal commercial dislocation and exhaustion of the conquerors.

Churchill plainly said in this speech that when war comes or is imminent, overwhelming force should be deployed and any economy of force is false economy. But whenever possible, every kind of government expenditure, especially military expenditure, should be constrained. This was fully in concert with Churchill’s view that both statesmanship and generalship in the modern world must be judged by their ability to defend the liberal society against the totalitarian threats it faces at home and abroad, in war and in peace.
One of the most illuminating aspects of making a study of Churchill as a public figure is to see how foreign and domestic policy come together in his work, how the enemy he perceived abroad—scientific tyranny of the Left and the Right—has its counterpart at home in the socialist and bureaucratic state. As one would penetrate the borders of the nation, the other would undermine its constitution. As one would subjugate by raw force, the other would subjugate by inducement and then by force. These themes were developed in Churchill’s writings over decades from basic ideas that were clear early in his life. One does not get a sufficient sense of this in a book so hurried.

Still Johnson’s Churchill can be forgiven this. It can be forgiven in part because of the spirited way it represents rightly so much about Churchill. It can be forgiven also for the way its words are able to convey the grandness of Churchill, a life so large as to be almost impossible to describe in any space.

Anyway, one does not so much forgive these points as one forgets them under the charm of the book. The longest biography ever written is of Churchill; if one wants the whole story, one can go where Paul Johnson himself refers the reader, to Martin Gilbert. A scholar can, if he is a great scholar, tell the story of Churchill in detail and capture it whole. That is a massive labor, and Gilbert has accomplished it; his work is now up to 24 volumes, with another seven planned.

Johnson’s book is of a different sort, not a narrative but an impression, in which one large soul reflects with love and conviction the emanations of another soul of the largest kind. Johnson’s intent is clear on every page, and nowhere more so than in his closing with five more “lessons” from the life of Churchill: aim high; work hard; do not let mistakes get you down; avoid the meanness of life; cultivate not hatred, but joy.

One way to write a short book of quality about the whole of Churchill’s life is for the author himself to be an extraordinary character who uses details drawn from his own life and experience to illuminate the broader subject. That is how Paul Johnson’s Churchill comes to be a thing of value.

About the Author

Larry P. Arnn is president of Hillsdale College. He worked in the late 1970s as research director for Martin Gilbert.

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