- - Sunday, May 28, 2017


By Thomas E. Ricks

Penguin Press, $28, 352 pages

What could still be left unsaid about Winston Churchill and George Orwell, two of the 20th century’s most ferociously original thinkers? They regularly outraged their contemporaries while defining Britain’s historical struggles against fascism, communism and imperialism. One measure of their legacy: We still we praise our best leaders as “Churchillian,” our most provocative writers as “Orwellian.”

Only a formidable writer like Thomas Ricks would boldly reimagine their stories through the unique lens of this superbly crafted dual biography. In introducing two very dissimilar men, Mr. Ricks argues that, “Orwell and Churchill recognized that the key question of their century (was) how to preserve the liberty of the individual during an age when the state was becoming powerfully intrusive into private life Their shared cause was to prevent the tide of state murder that began rising in the 1920s and 1930s, and crested in the 1940s, from continuing to rise.”

With definitive histories already surrounding both characters, the author succinctly covers what most readers already know about the early career of Winston Churchill. Scion of the English aristocracy, war-correspondent and sometime adventurer, young and middle-age Winston seemed predestined for a rise to prominence and position. In contrast, George Orwell, son of a “low-ranking bureaucrat in the Indian Civil Service,” spent his early years “in pursuit of a core theme. Ultimately, he would find it: The abuse of power. It is the thread that runs through all of his writings, from his early works to the very end.”

So too the intriguing theme of this book: The curious synergy of Top Dog and Slum Dog. Churchill, the Top Dog, was a staunch Tory aristocrat with a sneaking sympathy for the common man. Orwell, the Slum Dog, was a traditional British socialist who sympathized with the downtrodden; yet he would eventually coin the immortal phrase, “All animals are equal but some are more equal than others.”

Despite his more-than-equal creature comforts, Churchill’s ostracism to the British political wilderness of the 1930s was a trial of heart and soul. His repeated warnings about the rise of Hitler and German rearmament were consistently ignored, his facts disputed and his motives questioned. His ultimate destiny seemed especially unlikely since the reigning zeitgeist had placed its faith in disarmament and appeasement. Even British soccer players competing against Germany during the Berlin Olympics of 1938 “gave the Nazi salute during the playing of the German national anthem .at the specific request of the British Foreign Office.”

Students of World War II will appreciate Mr. Ricks’ account of history’s tidal waves leading to the stunning recall of Churchill as man of the hour. His greatest speeches are excerpted, including the famous battle cry, “We shall fight on the beaches We shall never surrender ” delivered just after the Dunkirk evacuation. The emotional reaction from one Londoner, “I remember being very frightened indeed Until I heard the speech that Churchill made on the radio about fighting on the beaches. I suddenly wasn’t frightened anymore.”

His book is also strengthened by the deep experience Mr. Ricks wields as a former military correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. His sharp-eyed recounting of why Churchill was such an effective wartime leader will command the attention of future students, practitioners and strategists.

As World War II ended, there was little reason for Orwell to think that his stature as a writer would outlive his rapidly worsening health problems. But “Animal Farm” was published in 1945 and “1984” in June, 1949. Their combined effect was an intellectual breakpoint that sold millions, changed minds and made history.

According to its publisher, “1984” was, “the most powerful anti-Soviet communism tract that you could find anywhere.” Although Orwell died less than a year later, he had shown by his new dialectic (e.g., “Big Brother,” double-think” “memory hole”) and prophetic warnings that tyranny could arise from the left as well as the right. “Churchill, reading ‘1984’ for the second time in February 1953, told his doctor, ‘It is a very remarkable book.’”

Ever since, Orwell’s book has inspired Soviet-era dissidents and become an “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” for its 13 Chinese translations, where “political terror still survives and why ‘1984’ remains valid today.” But how can Orwell also be a hero to neoconservatives like Norman Podhoretz and leftists like Christopher Hitchens? In a surprisingly moving epilogue, Thomas Ricks concludes, “In most places and most of the time, liberty is not a product of military action. Rather, it is something alive that grows or diminishes every day, in how we think and communicate, how we treat each other in our political discourse, in what we value and reward as a society, and how we do that. Churchill and Orwell showed us the way.”

What could still be left unsaid about Winston Churchill and George Orwell, two of the 20th century’s most ferociously original thinkers? 

• Kenneth Allard, a retired Army colonel, is a military analyst and author on national-security issues.

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