From the Archives: The Lion Saves His Pride
By Barbara Leaming
Winston Churchill’s first term as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, 1940 -1945, often eclipses the second, ostensibly less successful term. Like his wartime premiership, the second term from 1951 – 1955 was dominated by Churchill’s endeavors to secure peace for the West, and from it, for the entire world. However, this is often the moment when American textbooks cut him off. And as Adam Gopnik recently wrote in The New Yorker: “Churchill in Britain is revered but quarantined, his reputation held to the five years of his wartime rule.” Yet these later years have an understated relevancy to Americans and Britons alike, equally because of what Churchill sought to accomplish and what he was unable to do.
A notable obstacle was his age. By the time he first became prime minister, he was sixty-five, five years shy of the noncontributory pension age established by the 1908 Old Age Pension Act. Even though this provision was not made for aristocrat like Churchill, the perception was that, at seventy, he would retire. The Conservative loss in the 1945 general elections only reinforced the expectation; indeed, this is what even his party colleagues believed and wanted.
He prototyped our modern image of the puffy, stout old man, with a notorious twinkle in his half-lidded, bulging eyes and a perennially furrowed brow—“harrumph!” was his default countenance—in vast circulation through wartime propaganda. His hair had grown thin (not that he enjoyed much more at thirty), and he had a personal and political reputation for being grumpy, reserving his affection for a select few on select occasions. He was, in other words, a brilliant, proud British Bulldog.
Still, 1945 was supposed to be the end for Churchill, politically if not biologically. He accepted neither. Even at seventy and under the pressures of the premiership, he stayed up into the early hours (with Stalin) snarfing, drinking, smoking, despite a publicly-concealed heart attack during the war and two strokes in his public years following. Ultimately, he lived to the age of ninety in 1965, ten years after leaving office.
In Churchill Defiant: Fighting On, 1945 – 1955, Barbara Leaming has done the refreshing favor of focusing on these later years passed over by numerous biographies. The popularly known Churchill endures, with a tenacious fix on the inseparable goals of peace and getting back on top. We see little else from Leaming’s sympathetic writing, and she reveals how the triumphs and defeats of Churchill’s second term mimic the undying character seen in the first.
What both unsettled and drove Churchill was the incomplete peace of 1945, one wracked with tension between formerly allied powers. Nuclear weapons did nothing to reduce the sense of alarm. As Leader of the Opposition in the run-up to his return, it was clear what his angle would be if he were to return to the premiership. While out of office, with foreign policy negotiations taking place at the level of ministers rather than heads of government, he told close friend Violet Bonham Carter of the increasingly difficult Soviets: “If I were there, they would know very well what to expect from me.” In a moment when none save Churchill held faith in his return to office, this puts into perspective how Churchill saw himself, and he certainly meant to follow through with his purposed agenda, the aversion of another war, “the last prize [he sought] to win.” Between terms, he delivered what is known as the “Iron Curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri and coined the “special relationship” between the UK and the US, a relationship that he relied on to curb the rise of Soviet power in Europe. Throughout this emerging new world order, Churchill sought to position himself (and Britain) cooperatively, strategically, opportunistically, even antagonistically in US-Soviet relations.
Missing from Leaming’s book is the recalibration of Britain in the postwar years, and Churchill’s persistent plays at middleman give reason to pause at this omission. Britain was a sliding world power, heavily indebted to the United States at the end of 1945, and struggling to retain control over its global colonial holdings. The man who succeeded Churchill, Clement Attlee, was responsible for the beginnings of contemporary Britain; the country would be otherwise unrecognizable as a polity and society were it not for the socio-economic reform—nationalization of industries and healthcare, for starters—and the liquidation of empire that occurred over the next two decades. Leaming is so focused on Churchill that Attlee, similarly revered by Britons, remains a hovering obstacle, the nearly unnamed imposer on Churchill’s bid for a continuous premiership. Are we to believe that foreign policy was the sole focus of his declining energies, largely undertaken as a one-man show? Leaming says yes:
During the war, the Tory party had been allowed to disintegrate on almost every conceivable level. Churchill was not a party man and never had been, and from the time he became the party’s leader in 1940 he had shown no interest in overseeing its affairs. As a consequence, by 1945 there was no management, no organization, and no program. Lacking specific policies, Tories had fought the general election on the aura of the Churchill name and record.
Churchill cared about Churchill. He was determined to return “to the summit,” the top-level talks between the Soviet, American, and British heads. Even his own Conservative colleagues felt overwhelmed by his foreign policy measures while he was in and out of office:
[Cranborne] worried that under Churchill’s leadership the postwar Conservative Party was fast becoming a kind of dictatorship. …In important respects, Churchill was a lone wolf who disdained the pack. Cranborne regarded the Fulton speech as typical of Churchill’s lifelong tendency to act without concern for his colleagues’ opinions or his party’s best interests. As far as Cranborne was concerned, this was the sort of high-handed, self-serving behavior he and Churchill’s legion of other critics had long fervently complained of.
Regardless of accompanying consequence or political circumstance, he was a man on a mission, often a lonely one. Quite selfishly, he managed to stay on top of the Conservatives, though both the Labour and Conservative parties pursued their respective agendas.
It was not that Churchill was entirely unsupported by Conservatives, but there were many within the party who unsuccessfully sought his resignation on several occasions. Churchill’s critics still had in mind the events that had given him the premiership in the first place: the resignation of Neville Chamberlain. Stepping down in the midst of crisis, Chamberlain had been under immense pressure to defeat Nazi Germany when Britain stood alone among superpowers to combat the Axis, and he failed. Now with hindsight in 1945 – 1955, expectant for Churchill to resign, one could see that Chamberlain had blundered, whereas Churchill was simply aged. Ironically, no one perceived “crisis” in 1945 to be the same as in 1940 but Churchill, and his circumstances were not like Chamberlain’s. To remove Churchill involuntarily and incur the instability of the Conservative Party without him as head was a daunting prospect, and the Labour Party was more than ready to gain additional ground with the British people. As for questions of Churchill’s age and health, his younger heir apparent, Anthony Eden, did not fare much better in these years; he was plagued by a stomach ulcer that required several surgeries while he served. And Churchill, with a victorious war under his belt, international popular support and recognition, and the unignorable charisma and temper, was certainly not one who could be removed by a disgracing motion. There was no way to be rid of him without his own complicity.
So despite opposition, Churchill was to remain at the head of the party, forever seeking his way back to the top. At crucial moments leading to the 1951 general election, he was able to perform, much in the same manner as always:
To his party’s delight, he voted in every division, gave marvelous speeches, and spiced his remarks with jokes and raillery. Afterward, rather than go home, he would make a show of devouring a huge breakfast that began with eggs, bacon, sausages, and coffee, followed by a large whisky and a cigar.
The performance may seem a clichéd attempt at business as always, but Churchill continued to outlive expectations for retirement, and he worked hard for what he wanted. The win from this election was a big step, and he returned to office as Prime Minister once more. Still, while Leaming rightly points to the further descent into bankruptcy as a contributing factor to the narrow winning margin for Conservatives, the dearth of political context persists throughout the narrative. She stays with Churchill, one man with one objective, and never shifts her focus; he never shifts his ambition. Instead, attention goes to his very personal story—the meetings, private conversations, travels, illnesses, and the “battlefield” of the Cold War that came back into sight.
At the close of the story, Leaming’s villain is neither other Conservatives nor the Soviets, but rather the Eisenhower administration, notably the president himself and Secretary of State Dulles. The termed “special relationship” between the American and British heads of government was unquestionably conceived with the recently deceased FDR in mind. But despite the Anglo-American alliance, Churchill was blocked by Truman and Eisenhower, in turn, as their policies switched from cooperation to open rivalry with the USSR. During the war, Churchill and Roosevelt had become so close that Churchill jokingly referred to himself as “Roosevelt’s lieutenant” in their personal correspondence. Still, as the war went on, Roosevelt and Churchill’s respective postwar visions inevitably began to diverge. The division continued to grow with Truman, and Churchill himself was replaced at Potsdam, the apex of superpower negotiations in Europe, and suddenly estranged from top-level determination of political events. The critiques of age and senility were not exclusive to critics in Britain, and Truman’s administration had worked to distance itself from Churchill and marginalize his role. With Eisenhower it was to be worse. When they had last met during Churchill’s first term, Churchill and General Eisenhower clashed over the Allied advance and occupation of Germany. Churchill, fearful of Soviet influence in Eastern Europe and the “iron curtain” to come, had called for a more aggressive advance of the Western Allies to meet the Soviets in Berlin; Eisenhower had withheld. By the American 1952 election, this decision had returned to haunt the presidential candidate on campaign; the Soviets’ power in Germany and elsewhere had overgrown:
At times in his campaign statements, Eisenhower seemed almost to be trying to convince himself as much as anyone else that he had not simply been duped by Stalin. He could get away with making these and related claims so long as Churchill’s 1945 telegrams to him were not in public circulation. That would change as soon as Churchill published volume six of his war memoirs, it being his custom to print the relevant correspondence verbatim.
This documentation placed Churchill in better standing for, as Leaming puts it, “openly battling Eisenhower on two fronts, the past and the present, for the verdict of history and for the diplomatic leadership of the West.” One of the most notable stances that Churchill maintained throughout his career was his opposition to appeasement (“I told you so”). This mantra evolved into a conviction that he was the only one who could effect the changes needed for the world; Eisenhower saw differently. To further demonstrate the growing distance between president and prime minister, Leaming explains “the assumption in London had been that Dulles must be behind Eisenhower’s more extreme foreign policy positions.” Dulles acted as the mediator or go-between in what was once a personal relationship. Public appearances aside, in those final years it was difficult for Churchill to maintain that special relationship.
Churchill pressed the importance of “summit talks,” but Eisenhower and Dulles continued to divert him. Churchill managed this stand-off with the same political acumen and maneuverability that he used to navigate opposing voices in Britain. Independently-minded as ever, Churchill played all of his opponents:
Churchill faced a huge problem at home. He had not told the Cabinet beforehand about his new summit pitch, and he expected they would raise objections and cause delays. So, though he had assured the Americans that he would wait until he reached London, he decided to contact the Soviets from the boat. Cabinet ministers would no doubt be incensed when they learned what he had done, but by then it would be too late to stop him. The scheme had the further advantage of boxing in the Cabinet in the event of a favorable response from Moscow. At that point, ministers would find it difficult to block Churchill without endangering themselves politically.
In this recourse, we see the wartime political manipulator return. If there was doubt that Churchill had not retained his, this stunt, in particular, that pitted Prime Minister against Salisbury, the Lord President of the Council. Albeit ambiguously blurred between cleverness and senility, Churchill’s methods demonstrated his thorough understanding of power and how to exploit others’ desires for it. He circumvented internal and external opposition, justifying his means by his expected ends.
Regrettably, the end he desired was not to come. Time was on the side of his opponents, and the futility of his efforts grew with age. The closing chapter, ominously entitled “The ‘R’ Word,” is where Leaming’s admiration of his extended battle reaches its zenith:
When Churchill refused to retire in 1945, his decision had flowed from everything that was essential to his character; so had his subsequent decisions to fight on. At the beginning of 1955, the decision that confronted Churchill was different, harder. This time, rather than ride the wave of his obstinacy, he had to overcome it. He had to crush his lifelong refusal to accept defeat. He had to conquer the primal survival instinct that had allowed him to spring back so many times before. This time, Churchill’s battle was not really with Salisbury, Eden, Eisenhower, or any other antagonist. It was with himself.
To save his own pride, Churchill’s self-importance had to be maintained; thus, in turn, he would save the lion’s pride, the lands of the world that his role oversaw. And at eighty, he retired. Leaming’s subtitle, “Fighting On,” is what Churchill’s opponents would have described as “hanging on.” The difference between these positive and negative descriptors, and even the success of first-term, Allied victory contrasted with the failure of second-term, postwar summit talks, largely comes down to external circumstance. This may seem oversimplified, but in this unilateral biographical account, we rest on the qualities—dignity, passion, vision—that give these final political years the distinct and admirable Churchillian mark from World War II. Although at times, Leaming explores this with an almost mawkish bias, the message is clear. He was no stranger to insuperable odds, and he approached his second premiership with the same determination as the first. There is, indeed, a sympathetic and familiar story in Churchill’s final years at the top: the old guard, on its way out, feverishly fighting until the end. And Churchill lasted with admirable integrity. It remains possible to respect all that he embodied and accomplished and, like his own contemporaries, feel that his time was at its end. In these terms, Churchill’s legacy is one that is synonymous with exceptionalism.
For Leaming, I almost held up the “V” sign.
Ivan Lett works for Yale University Press and is a freelance writer living in New York.