THE LAST LION: DEFENDER OF THE REALM, 1940-1965
By William Manchester and Paul Reid
Little, Brown and Co. $40, 1,232 pages
For nearly 24 years, history aficionados have been looking forward to the final volume of William Manchester’s biography of Winston Churchill. The wait was worth it.
Manchester’s two previous volumes, “The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932” and “The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Alone, 1932-1940,” were thorough, well-written and reasonably balanced. Happily, “The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965” mostly follows that pattern.
Though the book tends to get bogged down in minutia, journalist Paul Reid has done an admirable job of finishing the epic work started by Manchester, who died in 2004. Those who want a detailed account of Churchill’s two terms as prime minister and leadership during World War II will find this book a literary feast.
The authors break some new ground and also do an impressive job of synthesizing information from disparate primary and secondary sources. Mr. Reid, a former reporter for The Palm Beach Post, has done extensive new research that leads him to different conclusions than Manchester had about key aspects of Churchill’s life and career.
In the earlier volumes, Manchester concluded that his subject was a moderate drinker who almost never let his alcohol interfere with his work. However, based on his review of medical records and diaries, Mr. Reid concludes that Churchill was “blessed with a remarkable constitution, one which disposed of alcohol with exceptional efficiency.” He adds that “slides into outright drunkenness were extraordinarily rare for Churchill, though they occurred.”
Manchester, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, also thought his subject suffered from mental illness. Mr. Reid contends that Churchill suffered from the normal stress that comes from running a country during wartime and his mood swings were no different from those most people suffer.
He suggests that the former prime minister “attained what the American humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow called ‘self actualization,’ the condition at the top of Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs,’ where he found creativity, morality, spontaneity, and the ability to parse problems, accept facts, and refute prejudices.”
Churchill is justly praised for his early warnings about the dangers of Adolf Hitler and for his moral leadership during World War II. However, the portrait that emerges in “The Last Lion: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965” is also somewhat nuanced.
The authors note (in a section no doubt written by Mr. Reid) that “despite the fact that Churchill was prone to sentimentality, was mercurial, and at times lacked strategic military sense, he had through intuitive leaps and careful analysis during the 1930s, arrived at an astonishingly accurate forecast of the calamity that had since befallen Europe and England. The events of September 1939 had proved him England’s most sober statesman as well as its most prophetic.”
Because of these traits, Churchill has long been admired on both the left and right sides of the political divide, albeit more often on the latter.
During the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush praised Churchill and tried to invoke his spirit when discussing the response to the terrorist attacks, and he kept a bust of Churchill in the Oval Office.
While the authors do an admirable job of capturing their subject’s leadership style, they are stronger when assessing military strategy and recounting the details of key battles. History buffs looking for a more complete assessment of Churchill’s leadership prowess (and a more concise look at his life) would do well to read Roy Jenkins’ 2001 work, “Churchill: A Biography.”
Mr. Jenkins, a former member of Parliament and Cabinet member who held some of the same positions as his subject, including chancellor of the Exchequer, understands and assesses the challenges Churchill faced as only someone who has walked in his shoes can. He also is extraordinarily adept at placing his subject in the broader context of British history.
Nevertheless, readers seeking a more general assessment of Churchill will find much to savor in “The Last Lion: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965.” It’s a worthy finale to an exhaustive portrait of one of the last century’s true titans.
Claude R. Marx regularly reviews books for publications such as the Boston Globe and the Weekly Standard. He is writing a biography of William Howard Taft.