The Last Lion (William Manchester)

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  On the Saturday before Parliament's Munich debate, Winston was at Chartwell, vigorously slapping bricks into place and awaiting a visitor, a twenty-six-year-old BBC producer, unknown then but destined to become infamous in the early 1950s. He was Guy Burgess, who with Philby and Donald Maclean--all three upper class, all Cambridge men--would be cleared to review the U.S. government's most sensitive documents, including the Central Intelligence Agency's daily traffic and dispatches from Korea. In fact they would be Soviet intelligence agents. Burgess's notoriety lay far in the future that sunbright morning, however, when Churchill, in a blue boilersuit (a forerunner of his wartime "siren suit"), left his bricks to greet his visitor, a trowel still in one hand. The meeting was purposeless; Winston had been scheduled to give BBC listeners a half-hour talk on the Mediterranean, but when the Czech crisis erupted he had asked that the program be canceled. Burgess was keen to meet him anyhow, however, and Churchill, feeling that was the least he could do, had agreed.

In the beginning he was gruff. He complained, Burgess recollected afterward, that he had been "very badly treated in the matter of political broadcasts and that he was always muzzled by the BBC.... He went on to say that he would be even more muzzled in the future, since the BBC seemed to have passed under the control of the Government." According to Burgess, Winston said he had just received a message from Benes--he always called him "Herr Beans"--asking for his "advice and assistance." But, he asked, "what answer shall I give?--for answer I shall and must.... Here am I, an old man without power and without party. What advice can I give, what assistance can I proffer?" Burgess stammered that he could offer his eloquence. Pleased, Winston said: "My eloquence! Ah, yes...that Herr Beans can rely on in full and indeed"--he paused and winked--"some would say in overbounding measure. That I can offer him, But what else, Mr. Burgess, what else can I offer him?" Burgess, usually garrulous, was tongue-tied. Moment succeeded moment, but could think of nothing to say. He saw a great man, the scourge of fascism, caged by frustration. Then Churchill spoke. "You are silent, Mr. Burgess. You are rightly silent. What else can I offer Herr Beans? Only one thing: my only son, Randolph, who is already training to be an officer."

Throughout 1938 Churchill's warnings had grown more and more persistent, and less and less effective. His mots were seldom passed along now because his targets, the "Men of Munich," as Fleet Street called them, were believed to have prevented a general European war. In almost any gathering, it would have been indiscreet to remark: "Have you heard what Winston says about Neville? 'In the depths of that dusty soul there is nothing but abject surrender."' Or: "Churchill says the Government had to choose between war and shame. They chose shame. They will get wit too." Yet some hit home. Malcolm MacDonald, son of Ramsay and minister for the colonies and Dominions under Chamberlain, recalls with discomfort but also amusement how, during a speech on the future of Palestine, he was moved to say that "I cannot remember a time when I was not told stories of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, the birthplace of the Prince of Peace." And as he paused for breath Churchill muttered: "I always thought he was born in Birmingham."
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Less than two months after Munich, Churchill entered his sixty-fifth year, and some parliamentarians, including friends, thought he was beginning to show his age. On Monday, December 5, the House of Commons received its long-awaited report on the preposterous attempt to court-martial Duncan Sandys. Everyone was exonerated; 'misunderstandings were blamed. Churchill rose. He started brilliantly, and everyone, Nicolson wrote, was "expecting a great speech." Then:

He accuses Hore-Belisha of being too complacent. The latter gets up and says, "When and where?" Winston replies, "I have not come unprepared," and begins to fumble among his notes, where there are some press-cuttings. He takes time. He finds them. But they are not the best cuttings and the ones he reads out tend to excuse rather than implicate Hore-Belisha. Winston becomes confused. He tries to rally his speech, but the wind has gone out of his sails, which flop wretchedly. "He is becoming an old man," says Bill Mabane beside me.

It wasn't age, and he was capable of rebounding. The fact is that he was simply attempting to do too much. Indeed, the wonder is that he found time to appear in the House at all. His writing schedule continued to be punishing, and even as he struggled to meet it, Grace Hamblin recalls Chartwell was being inundated by a blizzard of invitations to speak. As the taste of Munich turned to ashes, people wanted to see and hear the vindicated Ishmael. He was sensible enough to decline these, though some were tempting: the League of Nations Union, the Oxford Union (from its young president Edward Heath, a future prime minister), and a Jewish Youth Rally for National Service ("because of your courageous defence of freedom and denunciation of Nazi-ism [sic] you are held in the very highest esteem by all sections of Jewry"). He even turned down a dinner invitation from General Edward L. Spears, a fellow officer in Flanders twenty years earlier, explaining that "It is absolutely necessary for me to be in the country every possible night this year in order to complete the history I am writing."

By day, however, he entertained visitors: French politicians, men who had held high posts in Vienna and Prague, and German anti-Nazis, many of them, like Count Lutz Schwerin von Krosigk, the Fuhrer's finance minister, members of the old Wilhelmine aristocracy. In January a high French source sent Chartwell, in great confidence, information unknown to anyone in the British government. Deuxième Bureau agents were reporting that German munitions convoys were moving across Czechoslovakia, from the Sudetenland to the Hungarian frontier. Churchill immediately took this to the Foreign Office, where it was confirmed and then dismissed as part of a program to execute maneuvers and rearm the Austrian army on "the German scale and with German weapons."

Of course, Winston could not hew to a spartan regimen. No one could work harder--while writing longer and more strenuously than ever before, he was also in one of his periods of intense bricklaying--but he had no intention of abandoning his sybaritic life-style. In the House of Commons he defended it with wit. Among the unhappiest victims of his gibes was Sir Stafford Cripps. Cripps was one of the very few on Labour's side of the House who shared Churchill's contempt for appeasement; he begged the front bench to rearm before Hitler struck. But he was also ascetic, a vegetarian, a man who shunned coffee and tea and quit smoking cigars because he thought the habit vulgar. "My God," said Churchill when told of this. "Cripps has cut his last tie with human civilization." On another, later occasion, Churchill was airborne over the Sahara Desert when his plane had to land for an emergency repair. Winston stretched his legs and gazed in all directions. "Here we are marooned in all these miles of sand--not a blade of grass or a drop of water or a flower," he said. "How Cripps would have loved it."

Churchill did not propose to slacken his pace, but experience had taught him that he could be equally productive, and more comfortable, on the Riviera. Thus, in the first week of January 1939, after an interview with Kingsley Martin of the New Statesman--"War is horrible," he told Martin, "but slavery is worse, and you may be sure the British people would rather go down fighting than live in servitude"--he was off for Maxine's Chateau de l'Horizon. Changing trains in Paris, he read in the papers that the Germans had announced a vast plan to expand their submarine fleet. Before unpacking in Cannes he wrote and cabled home a Daily Telegraph column, calling the Nazi U-boat program "a heavy blow to all international cooperation in support of public law." It meant, he said, that England was imperiled by an "avoidable danger" which could only be mastered after great "loss and suffering." The Telegraph was unread in Cannes, but a local newspaper subscribed to his syndicate, and there was a stirring in the lush villas when the same paper ran an earlier piece in which Churchill pondered an Anglo-Soviet detente. Among its readers was the quondam king of England, now Duke of Windsor, and he was splenetic.

To Churchill, Edward's wrath, once majestic, now seemed more like petty whining. By now Winston had shed all illusions about the man he had championed at such cost to his career and the cause he led. There was, he noted, no depth to the man; he never read a serious book, never gave the world's affairs profound thought, and what he presented as opinion was merely narrow, ill-informed prejudice. He doted on his wife, who ordered him about, apparently to his delight. Winston was amused by Wallis's sartorial influence on her husband. On the memorable night when the Duke crossed swords with Churchill in Maxine's white-and-gold dining room he was wearing a Stuart tartan kilt. He was lucky Winston didn't leave him without a fig leaf, according to the account of Vincent Sheean, who kept notes when, as he wrote,

the Duke of Windsor and Mr. Churchill settled down to a prolonged argument, with the rest of the party listening in silence.... We sat by the fireplace, Mr. Churchill frowning with intentness at the floor in front of him, mincing no words, reminding HRH of the British constitution on occasion--"When our kings are in conflict with our constitution, we change our kings," he said--and declaring flatly that the nation stood in the gravest danger of its long history. The kilted Duke...sat on the edge of the sofa, eagerly interrupting whenever he could, contesting every point, but receiving--in terms of the utmost politeness as far as the words went--an object lesson in political wisdom and public spirit.... There was something dramatically final, irrevocable about this dispute.

According to Sheean and their hostess, those who thought of Winston as doddering should have been there that evening. Afterward Maxine wrote Churchill, "Never have I seen you in such good form.... You are the most enormously gifted creature in the whole world and it is like the sunshine leaving when you go away." England was not like sunshine to him. "People talk of how brave Winston was in 1940," Lady Diana Cooper observed, "but his highest courage, and it was his moral courage, shone through when he saw war coming, England virtually helpless, and himself impotent--when he spoke the truth and men he had entertained in his home cut him in Parliament Square." He took it; he had to take but he didn't have to like it. Writhing in the bonds of his frustration he reminded Virginia Cowles of "a mighty torrent trying to burst its dam."
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He had come to power because he had seen through Hitler from the very beginning--but not, ironically, because his inner light, the source of that insight, was understood by Englishmen. Churchill's star was invisible to the public and even to most of his peers. But a few saw it. One of them wrote afterward that although Winston knew the world was complex and in constant flux, to him "the great things, races, and peoples, and morality were eternal." Isaiah Berlin, the Oxford philosopher, later observed that the Churchill of 1940 was neither "a sensitive lens, which absorbs and concentrates and reflects...the sentiments of others," nor a politician who played "on public opinion like an instrument." Instead Berlin saw him as a leader who imposed his "imagination and his will upon his countrymen," idealizing them "with such intensity that in the end they approached his ideal and began to see themselves as he saw them." In doing so he "transformed cowards into brave men, and so fulfilled the purpose of shining armour."

Churchill's mood seemed to confirm this. He possessed an inner radiance that year and felt it. In his memoirs he wrote that "by the confidence, indulgence, and loyalty by which I was upborne, I was soon able to give an integral direction to almost every aspect of the war. This was really necessary because times were so very bad. The method was accepted because everyone realised how near were death and ruin. Not only individual death, which is the universal experience, stood near, but, incomparably more commanding, the life of Britain, her message, and her glory."

To him, Britain, "her message, and her glory," were very real. At times he would address his country as though she were a personage. After he had comprehended the revolution wrought at Kitty Hawk he said (to the astonishment of his companion, who had thought they were alone), "You came into big things as an accident of naval power when you were an island. The world had confidence in you. You became the workshop of the world. You populated the island beyond its capacity. Through an accident of airpower you will probably cease to exist." It sounded quaint, and it was. Churchill was not a public figure like, say, Roosevelt, who thought and spoke in the idiom of his own time. He was instead the last of England's great Victorian statesmen, with views formed when the British lion's roar could silence the world; he was the champion of the Old Queen's realm and the defender and protector of the values Englishmen of her reign had cherished, the principles they held inviolate, the vision which had illumined their world, which had steadied them in time of travail, and which he had embraced as a youth.

He was ever the impassioned Manichaean, seeing life and history in primary colors, like Vittore Carpaccio's paintings of St. George; a believer in absolute virtue and absolute malevolence, in blinding light and impenetrable darkness, in righteousness and wickedness--or rather in the forces of good against the forces of evil, for the two would always be in conflict and be therefore forever embattled. He had been accused of inconsistency and capricious judgment. Actually, it was MacDonald and Baldwin and Chamberlain who tailored their views to fit the moment. Churchill's binnacle remained true. "Death and sorrow will be the companions of our journey," he told the House of Commons; "hardship our garment, constancy and valour our only shield."

And, he might have added, grief as their reward. He was sure Britons could take it. Despite his high birth he had an almost mystical faith in the power of the ordinary Englishman to survive, to endure, and, in the end, to prevail. "Tell the truth to the British people," he had begged the shifty prime ministers of the 1930s; "they are a tough people, a robust people.... If you have told them exactly what is going on you have ensured yourself against complaints and reproaches which are not very pleasant when they come home on the morrow of some disillusion."

But in those shabby years His Majesty's Governments believed that there were some things the country ought not to know, and that their policy of duplicity--which at times amounted to conspiracy--would be vindicated in the end. Chamberlain would be the scapegoat of appeasement, and before the year was out sackcloth would be his shroud, but he was only one of many. Baldwin, for example, bore a greater responsibility for weakening Britain's defenses while Hitler built his military juggernaut. The appeasers had been powerful; they had controlled The Times and the BBC; they had been largely drawn from the upper classes, and their betrayal of England's greatness would be neither forgotten nor forgiven by those who, gulled by the mystique of England's class system, had believed as Englishmen had believed for generations that public school boys governed best. The appeasers destroyed oligarchic rule which, though levelers may protest, had long governed well. If ever men betrayed their class, these were they.

Because their possessions were great, the appeasers had much to lose should the Red flag fly over Westminster. That was why they had felt threatened by the hunger riots of 1932. It was also the driving force behind their exorbitant fear and distrust of the new Russia. They had seen a strong Germany as a buffer against bolshevism, had thought their security would be strengthened if they sidled up to the fierce, virile Third Reich. Nazi coarseness, anti-Semitism, the Reich's darker underside, were rationalized; time, they assured one another, would blur the jagged edges of Nazi Germany. So, with their eyes open, they sought accommodation with a criminal regime, turned a blind eye to its iniquities, ignored its frequent resort to murder and torture, submitted to extortion, humiliation, and abuse until, having sold out all who had sought to stand shoulder to shoulder with Britain and keep the bridge against the new barbarism, they led England herself into the cold damp shadow of the gallows, friendless save for the demoralized republic across the Channel. Their end came when the House of Commons, in a revolt of conscience, wrenched power from them and summoned to the colors the one man who had foretold all that had passed, who had tried, year after year, alone and mocked, to prevent the war by urging the only policy which would have done the job. And now, in the desperate spring of 1940, with the reins of power at last firm in his grasp, he resolved to lead Britain and her fading empire in one last great struggle worthy of all they had been and meant, to arm the nation, not only with weapons but also with the mace of honor, creating in every English breast a soul beneath the ribs of death.
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Excerpted from The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill; Alone: 1932-1940 by William Manchester. Copyright © 1988 by William Manchester. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Co. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Delta Trade edition published October 1989.