Harold Laski profiles the British leader whose iron will galvanized Britain and saved Europe from Nazism.
London, November 30
No citizen of Great Britain with any love for his country is likely to underestimate the debt it owes to Mr. Churchill. He took over the command of its fortunes when they were at a lower ebb than at any other time since Austerlitz. Save for the support of the other members of the Commonwealth, for a year our people stood alone. After the collapse of France men stood waiting to see Britain surrender. On any showing–numbers, equipment, the power to take the initiative, skill in the art of war on land, preparation, organizing technique–the advantage was on the German side.
Labor welcomed Mr. Churchill as Premier, but for some time his accession to power aroused no enthusiasm among the cohorts of his own party; when he entered the House of Commons for a debate, the applause he received on the Tory benches was formal. Yet within a few months his energy and his courage had awakened among the people a spirit of resolution which no enemy could break. He brought a unity of heart to the nation, a determination to de rather than to surrender, which, as in the weeks of the Battle of Britain, made a Nazi victory unthinkable. To the outside world, the fate of Britain might seem to hang by a thread, to its own citizens, confidence in triumph was born in the hour when, beyond its shores, defeat seemed most inevitable.
That is Mr. Churchill’s triumph, and it is no other man’s. Admit, as he would be the first to admit, that our people, in the air and on the sea, in field and factory, achieved the impossible, it was still by reason of his consummate leadership that they achieved it. Disaster made no difference; and not since the grim days of Bonaparte had a Prime Minister so dread a tale of disasters to tell. Night after night our cities were relentlessly blitzed; day after day men and women, red-eyed with fatigue, staggered half dead to their work. There was in that year a spirit of courage and fellowship and unbreakable faith which may have been equaled in the historical record but has never been surpassed.
Mr. Churchill saw, little by little, the awakening of the world to what was at stake. He laid the foundations of that Anglo-American partnership which the treachery of Japan sealed at Pearl Harbor; he achieved on June 22, 1941, one of those supreme gestures which make man the master of his fate when, in his sonorous utterance, he wiped out at a stroke the long and miserable tale of Anglo-Soviet misunderstanding and atoned so amply for his errors of 1917-20. Persistence, faith, unremitting zeal–these he displayed in a measure that made us all forget his faults and remember only that, if we followed him, the doom of Hitler and Mussolini was not a dream for which we could ache but an event which we could fulfil.
I do not underestimate the debt we all owe to the Russian people and, not less, to the iron will of its inflexible leader. I measure with a humble gratitude the contribution, first in resources and then in men, of the United States, and the degree in which the foresight and magnanimity of their President made their mobilization both possible and effective. If anyone says that we have bought time with millions of Russian lives in one theater of war and with millions of Chinese lives in another, I respectfully assent. If I am asked to agree that without Stalin and Chiang Kai-shek, without Franklin Roosevelt, and, if I may so phrase it, without the spirit which has come to the common peoples from a tradition as old as Pericles–if I am asked to agree that without these Winston Churchill would have failed and Hitler and his gangsters would have bestridden a beaten London as they bestrode a beaten Paris, I assent at once. But I assent adding–and as an Englishman adding with pride–that he did not need to hear the call of their voices; rather, in a long and bitter campaign, it was Mr. Churchill who called upon them, in speeches that have become a part of the imperishable testament of British freedom, to take their stand by his side. It is his glory that he understood the challenge of the enemy, and did not shrink from the battle implied in that challenge, when others sought to pretend that they could discern in the savage nightmare of a gangster’s barbarism the principles of a creative compromise. When the last word is said against Mr. Churchill, this can always be said in his behalf, that from 1933 there was never a moment when he was willing to betray by pretense what we all knew was a cause entitled to demand all that we have and are.
I say this of Mr. Churchill partly because I think it is his due and partly because it is the perspective in which any proportionate analysis of his position must be set. His greatness in these years has been in the fulness with which he has symbolized the resistance of the nation to those forces which sought to destroy not merely its independence but the very idea of freedom–the condition upon which that independence remains possible.
But it is important to remember that Mr. Churchill’s greatness has a special context of its own. In essence he remains a Whig aristocrat of the eighteenth century. What little of liberalism there is in his composition is the aristocrat’s compassion for the misery he sees before him, not an intellectual adaptation to a world in which he sees both the inevitability and the validity of change. Freedom, for him, is set in the background of a half-articulate assumption that his class has a permanent lien on power. That is why he has never understood the meaning of the Russian Revolution. That is why he was so tragically wrong in the Spanish civil war. That is why there were long years in which he wholly misconceived the nature of Italian Fascism. It is because Mr. Churchill is, at bottom, an eighteenth-century Whig that he has no intimate grasp of what is happening in India, that he so badly mishandled the general strike in 1926, that he can see the value of measures of social relief but not the necessity of measures of social transformation. The world he likes to dwell in is still the world of the panoplied magnificence of which we read in diaries like that of Greville. For him the soldier who wins a great battle–he is not the descendant of Marlborough for nothing–the orator who hears the music of Parliamentary cheers, the statesman who “shapes the whisper of the throne,” each of these is the inner and ultimate source of historical change.
He has loyalty and magnanimity and imagination, all of them the aristocrat’s virtues. So he keeps men in his service whose incapacity he himself suspects, much as a great lord keeps on the footman when he is past his work. So he salutes Stalin, because the man who fights on his side can be forgiven almost everything if he confronts the immediate danger with courage. So he can see, as a narrow, business man’s mind like Mr. Chamberlain’s could never see, that in danger is an exhilaration which takes ordinary men beyond themselves to a level of action where heroism becomes just part of the normal day’s work. And he has generosity. For all his impatience and gusts of anger and reckless hostility to new ideas, he likes a man who stands up to him, and respects the critic who fights for his point of view. Like the aristocrat, too, he thinks in the rhetorical terms of drama, with a sense, always, at the back of his mind that the phrases he uses must be matter which, a century from now, the historian will find quotable. He cannot understand the man who shuns the conflicts of the market-place, the brooding, philosophic type who looks beyond the moment to grasp the causes of things.
History for him is the dramatic movement from peak to peak. It is a gorgeous pageantry, a spectacle in which the crowd cheers the great heroes and hisses the villains. The slow, patient accumulation of knowledge which issues, at long last, in the sweeping generalization means nothing to him until the great moment when the decisive conquest can be displayed, when the map of the hinterland announces that the geographer can stand, like Cortez, in proud mastery on the mountain summit he has climbed. He would have understood Alexander and Caesar, Drake and Chatham and Napoleon. To command men greatly, to be the big figure in the big play, this, for Mr. Churchill, is life enriched, life made complete and whole, life fulfilled.
In my own view, then, Mr. Churchill is one of the great anachronisms of our time. The war he is waging is not the war that history has staged. He fights Hitler as Marlborough fought Louis XIV, as Pitt fought Napoleon. The immense social forces which have gone to make this war are as outside his consciousness as the principles of the Russian Revolution are outside his understanding. He is not really interested in a post-war world in which the foundations are revised. Partly that is because, like the typical Whig aristocrat, he sees all politics in terms of people on his side of the House of Commons or on the other side; he is unaware of the impersonal forces of history. He can understand Mr. Bevin, but not trade unionism; Herbert Morrison, but not socialism, Lloyd George, but not liberalism. His insights are always concrete and not abstract.
His imagination is visual, and the thing which influences him is always the thing before his eyes. He can sympathize with all the earnestness of his generous nature with East Enders in London whom the blitz has rendered homeless; he cannot feel in the same way for unemployed miner: in Wales or displaced shipwrights in Jarrow. He can put all his mind and heart into the things that interest him: the plan of a battle, for instance, or a hill of which he is going to take charge. But it is difficult to win his attention for something remote from his own sphere of action.
Like all the men of our time whose roots are in the Grand Whiggery of the eighteenth century, Mr. Churchill is an intense individualist. If it be said that in that, period, between 1906 and 1914, when his fortunes were associated with the Liberal Party, he was one of the most ardent supporters of an “advanced” program, there are, I think, two answers. First, because he is a great adventurer, whatever Mr. Churchill does he is compelled to do intensely; since there had to be action in those years, he supported the call for action with all his strength. And, secondly, no one who examines the speeches of his Liberal period can fail to note in him then the son of Lord Randolph Churchill; their spirit is that of Tory democracy, which in its turn was the child of Disraeli and the Young England of the forties. The real Winston Churchill is imperialist, paternalist, in favor of a strong government which shelters the weak from the blasts of life. But he is not concerned to build a world in which the weak can stand by themselves. An equalitarian society has no interest for him. He would hate a world which found no room for the romantic exploits of the empirebuilder. His temperament makes him transform every argument into a battle, and once he has engaged his forces, while he loves the game, he is desperately anxious for victory.
He deploys the forces of a Britain whose bargain with fate he conceives, in its large outlines, to have been finally made. Its magnificent past enthralls him so that he cannot go beyond it for his inspiration. Each of its institutions, each, indeed, of its possessions, is for him like some dear family heirloom with which he cannot bear to part. And he finds it difficult to admit as a colleague anyone who does not think in these terms. He can understand Cobbett, because in that stout old agitator was concealed an ardent Tory. But Shelley or William Morris, the Webbs or Bernard Shaw, these and their ideas breed in him at once a sense of profound mistrust. They can reject the past he cherished without a single sigh of regret; or like Mr. Shaw they can laugh at his idols without any emotion of sacrilege.
Mr. Churchill has not a speculative mind; with him a theory begets not interest but suspicion. His habits of thought have been formed in the House of Commons, where the men on the front benches argue either to keep power or to achieve it. Even his books are nothing so much as speeches; and his vast life of Marlborough cannot be judged unless it is regarded as a massive reply to a vote of censure. So that the future of Mr. Churchill turns above everything on the issue of whether the problems faced by Britain are soluble within the framework of its traditions. If they are, Mr. Churchill will end his career in a blaze of glory. If they are not, he may well come, like the Duke of Wellington after Waterloo, to seem like some splendid but obsolete survival of a vanished epoch. His best friends will wish that, as the war closes, he will retire to write a history which in interest would rival Thucydides; but I think those are more likely to prevail who urge upon him that the man who won the war must at least inaugurate the peace. He will not yearn to profit by his own solemn warning that a great war minister seldom succeeds in the epoch which seeks to consolidate his victory.
His weaknesses are monumental; no honorable opponent can fail to recognize that his virtues are monumental, too. He has always had courage; he has always seen the virtue of audacity where audacity was called for; he has always hated wrong where he could see that wrong had been inflicted. Throughout his life he has been a loyal friend and a generous foe. He has had imagination and pity in that grand manner to which he was born. He has always met danger without flinching, and the more dark the hour the more proudly he has faced its threats. He has loved life in every aspect that called for the soldier’s virtues. He has known, as few men have known, how to evoke the best in those who served him. I do not think the future historian will grant him that supreme quality which makes perhaps half a dozen statesmen in the last four centuries the decisive architects of a new world. But I think he will say of Mr. Churchill that in one of the most splendid hours in the history of his country no man did more to safeguard its strength and maintain its dignity.