BOOK REVIEW: ‘Churchill at Sunset’

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CHURCHILL DEFIANT: FIGHTING ON, 1945-1955
By Barbara Leaming
Harper, $26.99, 368 pages

 

Winston Churchill’s last decade of active life, from age 70 to age 80, has been generally ignored or passed over - supposedly tactfully, by his many admirers. The conventional wisdom is that the Grand Old Man stayed in the political arena far too long, indulged in Victorian-era, grandiose daydreams and that he was far out of touch with the realities of a new nuclear world, where Britain was dwarfed by the competing superpowers.

Barbara Leaming fully acknowledges the elements of truth behind this prevalent view. But in her very welcome new book she also draws attention to the remarkable surge of achievements of Churchill’s later years. Far from weeping crocodile tears at his determination to hang onto political power and stay active in the gladiatorial arena till the last possible moment, we should be deeply thankful that he did.

Churchill, could easily, as Ms. Leaming vividly portrays, have retired full of years and honor at the end of World War II. A dukedom was quite literally his for the taking. His visit to Hitler’s bunker, where his great archrival, the scourge of mankind, had finally taken his own life and then been immolated would have been a fitting conclusion to the greatest national and wartime leader Britain has ever known in its long history.

But Winston Churchill was a man of flesh and blood as well as a legend of history, and the fray of democratic, parliamentary politics was in his blood. He led his Conservative Party into the 1945 general election and was devastated when it was swept out of office in the greatest popular landslide in history. “Cheer up, it may be a blessing in disguise,” Churchill’s magnificent, indomitable wife, Clementine, told him. “If so, it is most effectively disguised,” he replied.

But Clemmie was right: As Paul Johnson, another sympathetic recent biographer, has pointed out, returning to office in 1945 would have probably finished off the exhausted Churchill in a couple of years. Instead he was able to recuperate at leisure: A lifelong Francophile, he adored the French Riviera and gambling at its casinos.

With a huge team of researchers and even ghostwriters, he wrote his magisterial - though incontrovertibly biased - six-volume “History of the Second World War.” The first and greatest volume of that history, “The Gathering Storm,” incorporated his great 1930s speeches about the dangers of appeasing Nazi Germany. It has rightly been called the greatest philippic in the history of the English language.

While still in opposition and supposedly powerless, he prophetically called for the two great pillars of the Western democratic world that have assured world peace ever since. In his now legendary March 1946 speech at Fulton, Mo., with President Harry S. Truman present, he identified the Cold War and named the Iron Curtain that had slammed down across half of Europe from Stettin in theBaltic to Trieste in the Adriatic. He was the prophetic visionary of NATO.

And speaking at the University of Zurich in Switzerland in September 1946, he declared that a historic reconciliation had to take place between France and Germany to rebuild the shattered ruins of European civilization. A generation of great French and German leaders headed by Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer brought that to pass exactly as he said.

When Churchill returned to power in 1951, Britain only had enough financial reserves left to buy three weeks of food imports. Churchill declared a policy to “set the people free” and dismantled the monstrous and disastrously inept edifice of rationing and socialism that the postwar Labor Party government - the most incompetent domestically in modern British history - had erected. He laid the edifice for more than 20 years of continued prosperity and economic growth and for a 13-year surge of uninterrupted Conservative leadership with three general election victories in a row. He also presided over Britain’s rise to thermonuclear-power status

What is most remarkable is that Churchill pulled off all these achievements while being grossly underestimated as a senile has-been by the inner leadership of his own party. Ms. Leaming vividly describes the endless, usually sordid little intrigues that Anthony Eden, Churchill’s supposedly loyal heir-apparent, endlessly indulged in to bring the old man down. Churchill, with a political guile gained during half a century at the apex of British politics, outmaneuvered him and called his bluffs every time.

Ms. Leaming has produced a splendid book about Britain’s last lion. Even in winter, he never lost his roar.

Martin Sieff is chief global analyst for the Globalist and a columnist for Fox News.

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