Posted: July 10, 2014
A review of The Last Lion, Winston Spencer Churchill, volume one, Visions of Glory: 1874-1932, by William Manchester
he first thesis of William Manchester's biography of Winston Churchill is that Winston Churchill was a great man. Manchester informs us that Churchill was a brilliant writer and a courageous soldier. He was a leader of intuitive genius. He was a "tribune for honor, loyalty, duty, and the supreme virtue of action; one who would never compromise with iniquity, who could create a sublime mood and thus give men heroic visions of what they were and might become." He was his country's last chance, and in the end he was his country's savior. He was truly a lion of a man.
The second thesis of Manchester's biography is that Churchill was an epiphenomenon. He was shaped by a then passing, now long departed age, and he was shaped by a peculiar upbringing. He held to fading standards; in particular, to "fading Victorian standards." He was a "romantic," and in this he was "a man of his time." His time was the nineteenth century, which was "in his bones." He became "the most eloquent defender" of that century, "the apotheosis of its ideals, the resolute champion of its institutions and values." Churchill was the epitome of something spectacular, but defunct: the product of an extinct age, and of a strange childhood. Because of that, we are told, Winston Churchill's career "would be inconceivable today." He was truly a lion, but truly the last such lion there can be.
These two theses, which sit so uneasily side by side, dominate in alternation this first volume of The Last Lion. Their incompatibility in no way diminishes Manchester's devotion to them both. Around them he has built a vast story, reaching in this first volume alone to 900 pages.
The Last Lion is sometimes moved by a plain sympathy for Churchill, and in that mood, it gets very close to Churchill's own way of looking at things. Surely that is the primary business of biography. Surely before we can judge a statesman, which is in the end why we study his life, we must let him make his own argument as well as he can. Where The Last Lion dwells upon Churchill's deeds and words, it prepares the way for us to reach conclusions about him. Therein it does a service.
That is not, however, the real motive behind this grand project. Manchester is not revealing previously unknown facts; nor, for that matter, is he condensing the existing record for a popular audience. His real purpose is to give his personal outlook on what he considers a great figure of our time. He means to do Churchill honor, but that is where the trouble begins.
In nothing does Manchester take more pride than his refusal to judge one era by the standards of another. He finds the notion of "Victorian standards" serviceable as a kind of insulation to protect Churchill from the derision of fashionable opinion today. Sure, Churchill was an imperialist, but he was influenced by older values. Sure, Churchill was a racist, but so were most people back then. Those who do not look upon these Churchillian foibles with toleration are scathed as "liberal bigots." An example will show how this method of history operates.
Churchill, as is well known, was an opponent of Bolshevism from the time the Bolsheviks seized control of Russia. Most will think that Churchill was an extreme and irrational opponent of that regime, but Manchester sets out to make the case for Churchill, beginning as early as page 27, where he quotes Churchill: ". . . I was brought up in that state of civilization when it was everywhere accepted that men are born unequal." Manchester then makes a striking claim:
This explains, in foreign affairs, the ferocity of his attacks on Bolshevism well into the 1920s, long after his intransigence had become embarrassing to the government, and in domestic politics it accounts for his distrust of Labor.
It is amazing how easily large matters can be settled. Churchill himself devoted several hundred pages of speeches to his views on socialism and Bolshevism, and of course some significant events occurred during his time that are relevant to both issues. The typical plodding historian would probably have run the risk of boring his readers by going into some of these details before announcing his judgment. He might have mentioned what was happening in Russia in the early 1920s. He might have described Churchill's own account of his views, and he might have compared that account with whatever evidence could be found to contradict or support it. A more plodding historian would probably have done a lot of looking before he settled upon the influence of outmoded values as the reason for Churchill's "ferocity" against Bolshevism.
Instead we get from Manchester this terse reference to inequality. Without supporting argument, we have difficulty deciding what exactly this reference means, because of course Churchill made some ringing declarations in favor of human equality, too. We believe that an examination of Churchill's opinions on equality would prove that he believed approximately what Abraham Lincoln believed, namely, that men are equal in some respects and not equal in others. In particular, they are equal in their rights, and justice requires that their equal rights be recognized. But all this would take some argument to establish, or to refute. From Manchester, we wait for a long time for such an argument, but we wait in vain.
Churchill gets the same treatment elsewhere. From Manchester we learn, for example, that Churchill opposed dominion status for India because he was a racist. We learn that he was fascinated by war and force because "deep within him lurked the imaginative child who had played with toy soldiers in his Mayfair nursery." We learn that he was the captive of his childhood and of the biases of the preceding generation. We are never given much in the way of evidence to support these descriptions of Churchill. Sometimes contemporary psychologists are quoted, but of course none of these scientists had any extended opportunity to examine Churchill (can one imagine Churchill on the couch?), and only one of them makes a statement directly about Churchill. Sometimes isolated anecdotes or jokes that Churchill is said to have told are quoted. But it is not Manchester's habit to bring out the evidence on both sides and try to resolve the apparent contradictions. Random glimpses of Churchill stream by page after page.
What is even more surprising than these erratic sweeps of historical judgment is that Manchester in most instances goes on to belie them later on. It turns out, for example, that eventually Manchester does mention many of the relevant facts about the Bolshevik Revolution and Churchill's relation to it. He mentions the murders and the chaos. He even calls what happened in Russia a "holocaust." As the case is laid out in detail, Churchill's actions take on increasing plausibility, and one loses sight for a time of the reactionary Victorian, conditioned by the past to respond to change in a certain way. Manchester writes:
As a conservative in the purest sense-a defender of freedom, justice, and the great achievements of the past-he saw civilization gravely endangered [by Bolshevism].
Here, then, returns the first Churchill, the great Churchill. This Churchill was a defender of justice, freedom, the great achievements of the past, and civilization; this Churchill would never compromise with iniquity; this Churchill was a tribune for honor, loyalty and duty. He opposed the Indian reforms because he foresaw the "holocaust"-again, the word is used-that would and did result when the British departed. He was fascinated by war because he understood, deeply and rightly, that "conflict, not amity, would be the customary relationship between great states." This other Churchill, this great Churchill, served principles that endure, and he saw the world as it was and as-fundamentally-it is.
We cannot say definitely what accounts for this strange and schizophrenic presentation of Winston Churchill, but it seems to indicate a division within the breast of William Manchester. He reveres Churchill and the achievements of which Churchill was part. He seems to long for the great days of old. And yet he feels irrevocably separated from those great days. There is a sad, tired fatalism that lurks between the lines of The Last Lion.
In an earlier, autobiographical work called Good bye, Darkness, Manchester recounts a dream in which the two parts of his soul meet. The one part is the young, tough, brave Marine who fought so implacably in the Pacific. The other is the balding
writer who lives in a more complicated world, and who is not so sure any more of the causes for which his other self had struggled valiantly. Indeed, Goodbye, Darknesscloses with the old Manchester crying because the last smoulderings of his younger self have been stifled. But in The Last Lion, the remnant, unextinguished embers of that Marine still warm one aspect of the story and still fight against the cold resignation that chills the rest. This incongruous warfare gives the book its interest, if, alas, it leaves the reader wondering what conclusions to draw about Winston Churchill. Churchill, we think, would have liked the Marine.