The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Alone 1932-1940
Published August 1, 1989 | August 1989 issue
By William Manchester
Little, Brown and Company
Photographs, 756 pages
This is a terrific book. It's a terrific book because it sheds further light on the origins of World War II, presents fascinating material on the inner workings of the British and French governments in the crucial years leading to the conflagration, and suggests that "Munich" was perhaps not the most significant in a series of sorry attempts to appease Adolf Hitler. But mostly this is a terrific book because its central character is so unique and captivating. Even though you know how the book endswith Winston Spencer Churchill named prime minister of Great Britain on the day the Nazis invaded the Low Countries and Franceyou cannot put it down. Manchester succeeds in crafting an enduring portrait of Churchill.
Of course, Churchill has received his due as a wartime leader, but his contributions in the prewar years have been largely unknown and unappreciated. During those years, he was not a member of the Baldwin and Chamberlain Tory governments; he was, instead, a back-bencher frequently vilified by the conservative leadership. Their antipathy was aroused, in part, by Churchill's accurate assessment of the true nature and intentions of Nazi Germany, gleaned from a vast personal network of sources and informants, and his aggressive advocacy of a commensurate military buildup in Britain. Such a buildup was resisted by Tory leadership, some of whom, incredibly, believed they could achieve an Anglo-German alliance.
Through those years, Churchill stood nearly alone, isolated and ignored, joined only occasionally by the likes of Anthony Eden, Duff Cooper, Harold MacMillan and Harold Nicolson, warning of the potential danger of Nazi Germany. Meantime, dissension and distrust mounted between Britain and France-the bulwarks of democracy; both governments were occasionally paralyzed and came close to abandoning the other; and when, in the wake of the capitulation at Munich, Hitler simply overran the remainder of Czechoslovakia, the die was cast, particularly because the Allies did not conclude an alliance with the Soviet Union.
The Nazis invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, and on Sept. 3 Britain declared war on Germany. In Parliament that day, Churchill delivered one of his stirring speeches.
"This is not a question of fighting for Danzig or fighting for Poland. We are fighting to save the whole world from the pestilence of Nazi tyranny and in defence of all that is most sacred to man. This is no war of domination or imperial aggrandisement or material gain; no war to shut any country out of the sunlight and means of progress. It is a war, viewed in its inherent quality, to establish, on impregnable rocks, the rights of the individual, and it is a war to establish and revive the stature of man We look forward to the day, surely and confidently we look forward to the day, when our liberties and rights will be restored to us, and when we shall be able to share them with the peoples to whom such blessings are unknown."
Shortly thereafter, Chamberlain asked Churchill to join the cabinet as first lord of the Admiralty, a fitting title and a position Churchill had occupied during the First World War.
Just as intriguing as Churchill's participation in the events that led to the Second World War was his personal method of "doing business." Reportedly, he began his day at 8 a.m. with a scotch and soda, a weak one we are told. Lunches and dinners were long, elaborate affairs (it was customary to dress for dinner in Churchill's circle) with Churchill holding forth on a wide range of subjects. There were daily afternoon naps, and the real work was accomplished between 10 p.m. and two or three in the morning, when Churchill dictated and revised speeches, newspaper articles and books with the assistance of a frazzled and perhaps exhausted staff. This schedule, by the way, continued more or less intact through the war. Needless to say, his stamina and powers of concentration were extraordinary.
In addition to political and publishing pursuits, Churchill was a serious painter, bricklayer, landscape architect and a bit of a pilot. But he was not perfect. Manchester relates errors of judgment and inattention to pressing issues that clearly are difficult to reconcile with Churchill's overall brilliance. But Manchester's heart is not in dwelling on these lapses and shortcomings, and neither is mine. Churchill was one of a kind, perhaps the outstanding leader of the century.