The Case Against Winston Churchill
The Life and Afterlife of Winston Churchill
By Geoffrey Wheatcroft
During a protest over the killing of George Floyd last year, demonstrators in London targeted the famed statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square. Underneath his name someone had spray-painted the words “was a racist.” To guard against further damage, the government temporarily boarded up the statue, drawing a rebuke from Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a self-styled Churchill acolyte, who declared that “we cannot now try to edit or censor our past.”
In his new book, “Churchill’s Shadow,” Geoffrey Wheatcroft takes a literary spray can to the iconic World War II leader, attempting metaphorically at least to recast the many memorials and books devoted to Sir Winston over the years. Churchill, in this telling, was not just a racist but a hypocrite, a dissembler, a narcissist, an opportunist, an imperialist, a drunk, a strategic bungler, a tax dodger, a neglectful father, a credit-hogging author, a terrible judge of character and, most of all, a masterful mythmaker.
On both sides of the Atlantic, we are living in an era when history is being re-examined, a time when monuments are coming down and illusions about onetime heroes are being shattered. When I was a correspondent in Richmond a quarter-century ago, it would have struck me as unthinkable that the statue of Robert E. Lee on the city’s Monument Avenue would be removed, but the old general has been taken away, as have his Confederate brethren. Now even the likes of Lincoln, Washington and, yes, Churchill are under scrutiny if not attack.
Whatever we think of aging statues, we constantly edit the past, re-evaluating people and events through the lens of our current times. Sometimes that is overdue and sometimes it goes too far. None of our historical idols were as unvarnished as the memorials we build to them. The question is: What are they being honored for? Which contributions to history do we celebrate?
Lee may have been a military genius, but his contribution was leading a rebellion that tore apart his country to defend a system that enslaved millions based on the color of their skin. Celebrating him in the time of George Floyd became, at last, untenable. Churchill, on the other hand, has been venerated despite his manifest flaws, not because of them. Statues in Parliament Square and elsewhere are meant to remind us of his finest hour, not his darkest ones.
But that does not mean we should not remember the darkest, for history is not one-dimensional, nor are its protagonists. Churchill was indeed a complicated figure, one whose stirring defense of Britain at its moment of maximum peril — and by extension that of Western civilization — overshadows less worthy parts of his record.
“He led the British nobly and heroically during one of the great crises of history, and has misled them ever since, sustaining the country with beguiling illusions of greatness, of standing unique and alone, while preventing the British from coming to terms with their true place in the world,” Wheatcroft writes. “If I make much of Churchill’s failures and follies,” he adds, “that’s partly because others have made too little of them since his rise to heroic status.”
Churchill revisionism, of course, is almost as much of a cottage industry as Churchill hagiography. Books with titles like “Churchill: A Study in Failure” have appeared regularly for more than a half-century, all the way through “The Churchill Myths” last year. Nigel Hamilton just finished a three-volume series on Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated partly to the notion that the American president had to stop Churchill from bungling the fight against Nazi Germany.
Still, few have argued the case as powerfully as Wheatcroft, a longtime journalist and historian who has written books on Zionism, South African mining magnates, Britain’s Tory Party and former Prime Minister Tony Blair. He seems particularly eager to debunk flattering and partly fictionalized portrayals in movies like “Darkest Hour” or “trite and breezy” biographies like that by Boris Johnson.
“This is not a hostile account,” Wheatcroft insists, eschewing the term “revisionist” in favor of “alternative.” But other than the one bright spot in 1940, it is a withering assessment of Churchill’s life, his efforts to airbrush his legacy and the so-called Churchill cult that emerged after his death.
The bill of particulars is long, if familiar — Churchill’s disastrous Gallipoli campaign in World War I, his fervor for maintaining Britain’s overseas empire, his misguided efforts during World War II to fight in Africa and the Mediterranean rather than invade France, his deadly lack of interest in the famine in Bengal, his support for carpet-bombing German cities and his cynical deals with Stalin, among others. And of course there was Churchill’s racism, animated by theories about “higher-grade races,” which in his mind did not include Africans, whom he referred to by the N-word; Chinese, whom he called “pigtails”; or Indians, whom he dismissed as “baboos.”
By embracing legend rather than reality, Wheatcroft argues, subsequent leaders have talked themselves into military debacles out of misguided desire to be the next Churchill. “On every occasion when action has been informed by the fear of appeasement or the ghost of Munich,” he writes, “woeful failure has followed, from Korea to Suez to Vietnam to Iraq and much more besides.”
Wheatcroft is a skilled prosecutor with a rapier pen. Churchill is not his only target. He has acerbic asides for all manner of people, including Bernard Montgomery (“bombastic vanity”), George Patton (“barely sane”), Lord Beaverbrook (“a thoroughgoing scoundrel”), Tony Blair (“intellectually second-rate”), Charles de Gaulle (“arrogant and graceless”) and Adlai Stevenson (“pious liberal”), not to mention a variety of competing British historians and, for no discernible reason, Pearl S. Buck.
He is especially disdainful of supercilious Americans who created their own Churchill cult without truly understanding who he was. He traces this to John F. Kennedy, the first president to wrap himself in Churchill’s cloak, followed by Ronald Reagan, who quoted Churchill in his first Inaugural Address, and George W. Bush, who kept a Churchill bust in the Oval Office.
Only when the likes of Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani and Ted Cruz invoke Churchill does Wheatcroft come to his defense: “In his long life Churchill had done and said many foolish, sometimes disastrous and even ignoble things, but he had profound respect for constitutional government and elected legislatures, not least Congress where he had been so loudly cheered. Nothing he had ever done deserved Trump, Giuliani and Cruz.”
If it feels as though Wheatcroft gives short shrift to the profound importance of Churchill’s courageous stand against Hitler, perhaps that is because he has written his book almost as an explicit rejoinder to Andrew Roberts, who celebrated that stand so expertly in his 2018 biography, “Churchill: Walking With Destiny.”
Small wonder that Roberts has already fired back in The Spectator, deriding Wheatcroft’s attack on Churchill as “character assassination” and taking issue with various factual assertions. “Never in the field of Churchill revisionism have so many punches been thrown in so many pages with so few hitting home,” Roberts wrote. They are, of course, taking different views of the same man. Roberts’s book was described in these pages as the best single-volume biography of Churchill yet written. Wheatcroft’s could be the best single-volume indictment of Churchill yet written.
With statues, it is hard to see the complexity. Which is why we have competing books like these to help shape the debate as we edit the past."