CHURCHILL’S TRIAL: WINSTON CHURCHILL AND THE SALVATION OF FREE GOVERNMENT
By Larry P. Arnn
Thomas Nelson, $23.99, 240 pages
These days America never seems far from a constitutional crisis. The sudden death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has given the Cassandras on both sides ample opportunity to proclaim the end of the Republic should the other side prevail. Winston Churchill probably wouldn’t laugh at America’s perpetual existential angst — he loved the United States, after all — but he would certainly tell us to keep calm and carry on.
Indeed, few men in history had to face as many crises and failures as Winston Churchill. His nearest counterpart in America isn’t Franklin Roosevelt, but Lincoln, whose own time saw the complete breakdown of constitutional order. Yet of all the great European powers that plunged into the 20th century heedless of the butchery to come, only Great Britain emerged constitutionally intact — shrunken, humbled, and a bit disdainful of her old ways, but still Great Britain. As Larry P. Arnn shows in his new book, the British and the entire Free World have Winston Churchill to thank for that.
Mr. Arnn isn’t a historian and this isn’t a biography. Rather, “Churchill’s Trial: Winston Churchill and the Salvation of Free Government” is Mr. Arnn’s attempt to find “something consistent” in Churchill’s almost 70 years in the political arena. “If it is there, it may be of use to us today,” he writes. As president of Hillsdale College, Mr. Arnn is particularly well suited to take on this task. Hillsdale is renowned for its emphasis on the Western canon, and it is in that rich tableau that we find the ideas that defined Churchill — righteousness, statesmanship, and, not least of all, courage in the face of overwhelming odds.
Most of all, we find endurance. Americans know Churchill as a victor, so it might seem odd that Mr. Arnn focuses on his subject’s defeats and failures. The fact is, there was simply more “trials” than victories. As the First Lord of the Admiralty in 1915, Churchill tried to find a way around the stalemate in Western Europe. The result was the Battle of Gallipoli, a disaster. Churchill, as with the rest of the British high command, saw the horror of modern war in which there could be no winner.
Even Churchill’s ultimate triumph, World War II, is a failure if seen through the lens of Churchill the statesman. “He tried to prevent war with Hitler; he failed, and war still raged until Europe was broken,” writes Mr. Arnn. Ironically, Churchill always called it “The Unnecessary War.” Although Churchill had carried Britain through its finest hour, the ink on Germany’s surrender was hardly dry before British voters booted him out of office.
The election of 1945, when “the Labour Party went on to win the largest majority in the history of modern British politics up to that time,” should have marked the end of Churchill’s career. He was 70 and a national hero, even if the campaign had bruised his image. “The Times encouraged him to campaign in the 1945 election as a nonpartisan ‘world statesman’ and then retire,” writes Mr. Arnn. To which Churchill replied: “I leave when the pub closes.”
The defeats continued at home. The 1945 election marked the ascendency of the socialists, whose gradual conquest of British culture and politics Churchill had opposed all his life. In just five years, the Labour Party nationalized eight major industries. Churchill would return as prime minister in 1951, but he was unable to reverse much of what the socialists had done.
And yet as one reads “Churchill’s Trial,” the last thing that comes to mind is of a man defeated. Because not only do we know the end — or the end thus far — but we also see a man who defied the era in which he lived. Writes Mr. Arnn: “Churchill stood against the main trends and also the tempests that raged through the twentieth century.”
We forget that these trends — socialism, pacifism, appeasement — dominated the circles in which Churchill moved throughout the first half of the 20th century. Just when Western civilization had turned away from the Old World and its virtues, along comes Churchill, and thank God for it. Mr. Arnn lets us appreciate how unique and necessary he really was.
And how modern. Mr. Arnn reminds that the “crux” (Churchill’s words) of the speech he delivered at Fulton, Mo., in 1946, wasn’t to point to the “Iron Curtain” that had descended in Europe. In fact, it was to identify the “special relationship” between the United States and Great Britain as the world’s only hope for lasting peace, and not only because of our combined military might. It was also because our shared heritage required us to “proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of freedom and the rights of man.”
Those are hardly the wishes of a defeated man.
• Blake D. Dvorak is a writer living in Alexandria, Va.