A Question Of Character

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Last month a curious new book appeared. Churchill: The End of Glory , by the English historian John Charmley, examines Britain’s wartime leader and finds him a disastrous failure.

In a fluent, knowledgeable narrative, Charmley explains that his subject threw away the British Empire through his obstinate insistence on the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. The author does express a rueful admiration for the old war-horse’s bamboozling the citizenry into thinking it was worth fighting on after France collapsed in 1940 (the “we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets” speech is “sublime—nonsense—but sublime nonsense”). But once Hitler, frustrated in his attempts to reduce Britain, turns on Russia, Charmley really has no patience with Churchill’s refusal to make peace on what surely would have been very good terms.

Instead the prime minister pigheadedly persevered, in the process truckling shamefully to Stalin and, worse still, to the United States. (The worst we hear of Hitler is the pro forma acknowledgment that he “plunged Europe into chaos.”)

I read the book with increasing bafflement. Charmley’s thesis about Churchill’s bellicose fecklessness might have made sense had Great Britain recklessly provoked Switzerland into a war and then lost. But Nazi Germany? Churchill’s “sublime nonsense” seems pretty close to the mark: “Behind us … gather a group of shattered States and bludgeoned races: the Czechs, the Poles, the Norwegians, the Danes, the Dutch, the Belgians—upon all of whom the long night of barbarism will descend, unbroken even by a star of hope, unless we conquer, as conquer we must; as conquer we shall.”

But even though it was written in a moral vacuum, there is something cheering to be gleaned from Charmley’s puzzling and frustrating book—just as there is from the most puzzling and frustrating article in this issue. The latter is vexing not because of the author’s beliefs but because of his subject. Gen. Joseph Hooker spent months bragging that he would get Robert E. Lee just where he wanted him, and then did—only to lapse into dazed inanition until Lee destroyed his army in perhaps the single most stunning victory of the Civil War.

The good news from these two doleful texts is the simple fact that character matters. History can seem so dark and fierce a torrent that it is often hard to imagine how a single individual might deflect it from its course. We sometimes think that the slaughter in The Wilderness was inevitable, and the closepacked, bloody months before Petersburg—that Grant had to bring sheer mass to defeat the nimble Lee. But Hooker had already done it. The skill was there; the character was wanting. And much as Charmley regrets it, he has to acknowledge that it is the same story with Churchill, albeit with a very different outcome. For a few sunny, terrible weeks in the spring of 1863 and the spring of 1940 the fate of a nation rested on the energy and determination of one person. In both cases it was the individual who made the difference.