May 2010

The man who managed the war

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Winston Churchill’s foremost quality was his strength of will, according to Max Hastings, renowned British author of many widely acclaimed books of military history. In his superb new book, Winston’s War, Hastings relates how the great statesman and warrior used his rhetorical, military and diplomatic skills to triumph as Prime Minister in the first three years of World War II, and then shows how, from 1943 to 1945, events and Churchill’s own misjudgments often worked against him.

When Churchill became prime minister in 1940, many in the nation’s ruling class thought his administration would not last long and were skeptical of military victory. Numerous political leaders thought it inevitable that the country would negotiate with Hitler. Hastings says Churchill “survived in office not because he overcame the private doubts of . . . skeptics, which he did not, but by the face of courage and defiance that he presented to the nation,” primarily in the seven public speeches he gave over the BBC in 1940. Yet despite the usual view that 1940, when Britain stood alone, was the pivotal year for the country’s survival, Hastings believes that 1942 “was the most torrid phase” of Churchill’s wartime leadership. By that time, with crushing military defeats and bombardments from the air, the British people were weary of war.

Hastings is even-handed in his appraisal of Churchill. No other British statesman could have dealt as skillfully with President Roosevelt and the American people as he did, and Churchill was aware earlier than most that Russia must be an ally of his country. On the other hand, there was Churchill’s monumental egotism. He believed, for example, that he was exceptionally prepared to lead armed forces, although he had neither military staff training nor experience with higher field command. And he could be intolerant of evidence unless it agreed with his own instincts, though he could usually be reasonable at least on major decisions.

Hastings’ compelling and nuanced narrative not only weaves the complex story of Churchill’s military and diplomatic strategy, but also depicts his relationships with the British people, other politicians and his commanders in the field, as well as Allied leaders. There are glimpses into his personal life, and Hastings’ many sources include Churchill’s own six-volume history of the period (which Hastings calls “poor history, if sometimes peerless prose”). This very readable and insightful overview of Churchill’s wartime achievements deserves a wide readership.

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