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Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory, 1941-1945 by Martin Gilbert (Houghton Mifflin: $40; 1,417 pp.)

March 22, 1987| David Eisenhower | Eisenhower is the author of "Eisenhower at War, 1943-1945" (Random House)

This book is the seventh installment of the authorized biography of Winston Churchill, a project begun by Churchill's son Randolph 25 years ago and carried on since Randolph's death in 1968 by Prof. Martin Gilbert of Oxford. Though there are several volumes to come, it is likely that Gilbert's "Road to Victory" will stand as the most important book of the series.

Volume VII is an engrossing history of Churchill's crucial role in the grand alliance of World War II from Pearl Harbor to VE Day. "Road to Victory" is deliberate in pace and rich in detail. Gilbert aims to bring Churchill alive through his words and writings; toward this end, he utilizes Churchill's official and private papers, numerous papers and reminiscences of Churchill's wartime colleagues, the Royal Archives and government archives in Washington, Moscow and London which contain the records of Churchill's wartime meetings. Because of this undertaking, students and general readers alike have a new standard reference on Churchill and his rise from British war leader into world statesman.

Along the way, Gilbert significantly enhances Churchill's image as a humanitarian and man with fascinating sidelights, such as Churchill's correspondence with his wife Clementine, King George VI and others. The meetings and correspondence, the travels and reminiscences enable the reader to look over Churchill's shoulder and observe the events of the century first hand.

The book opens in the days shortly after Pearl Harbor at a crucial turn in the fortunes of war on all fronts. At that moment, the Russians have launched an all-out counteroffensive in the Moscow area and are inflicting a major defeat on Hitler's armies. Suddenly, the eventual Russian victory on the Eastern Front has become conceivable, the victory that will make possible the Anglo-American liberation of Western Europe. Meanwhile, the Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor bringing the United States into the war against the Axis. "This widening of the war," Gilbert writes, "was a deliverance from more than two years of British isolation, weakness and omnipresent danger of defeat." And soon it is apparent that the issues confronting Churchill have been transformed; British survival is no longer in doubt; the questions are not whether but when and how the Axis will be beaten and the shape of the postwar world to follow.

On the 12th, Churchill leaves London for Washington and three weeks of talks with Roosevelt and the Americans, the first of eight such conferences covered in this book which are interspersed with accounts of Churchill's face-to-face meetings with Stalin, the summits at Tehran and Yalta, and Churchill's countless meetings with the French, Belgians, Turks, Yugoslavs and Greeks. Churchill's statesmanship is the focus of the book--a fact underscored early on by Gilbert's scant account of the British surrenders at Singapore and Tobruk. These setbacks diminish British prestige, but Churchill easily survives a Parliamentary vote of confidence, spurring Aneurin Bevan to muse about the prime minister who "wins debate after debate and loses battle after battle." Plainly, Churchill's main job now is coalition politics and as a coalition politician, he is Britain's indispensable link with America and America's bridge to the Soviet Union.

As Gilbert shows, Churchill's role as statesman is more complex than his former one. Mobilizing the British in the Battle of Britain had been one thing, goading two powerful allies in the direction of victory and an acceptable peace would prove to be another. Moreover, Churchill's aims are more complex and conflict somewhat. Churchill knows that British safety has traditionally depended upon a balance of power among diverse and powerful states in Europe. On the other hand, by personal conviction--fortified by his allies the Americans and the Russians--Churchill is committed to the total defeat of Nazism. This means the total defeat of Germany, an aim that can only be brought about by tremendous military campaigns resulting in the destruction or demoralization of much of Europe capped by the "measureless disaster" of Russian invasion and barbarism (overlaying) "The culture and independence of Eastern Europe." Churchill must thereafter walk a tightrope, balancing American-British-Russian solidarity and total war on Germany with measures to salvage the "cluster of feeble states" that will surround England after the war. His task is hard and thankless, but the stakes are huge. Churchill's effort is nonstop, and throughout, he resembles, in the words of one of his favorite songs, "a wandering minstrel I, a thing of threads and patches. . . ." But as Gilbert shows, Churchill on the whole succeeds as best he can, his success attributable to three things: Anglo-American unity, Allied-Soviet cooperation, and Churchill's energetic diplomacy on behalf of the smaller states of Europe.

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