Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

A hero of our time and a lion in defense of liberty

Winston Churchill, by John Keegan, Lipper/Viking Books: 208 pp., $19.95 Churchill: Visionary, Statesman, Historian, by John Lukacs, Yale University Press: 202 pp., $21.95

October 13, 2002|Geoffrey Best | Geoffrey Best is the author of numerous books, including "Churchill: A Study in Greatness," "Mid-Victorian Britain" and "Humanity in Warfare."

Two more good books about Winston Churchill, and no doubt there are many more to come. The man himself was extraordinary, and no other statesman of the 20th century performed in so many of its dramas. Sir Martin Gilbert, a veritable Hercules of our profession, has been at it since 1968 and, after 23 volumes of biography and documents, he still hasn't finished. Less monumental biographies are available in all sizes. Last year's crop was Roy Jenkins' 1,000 pages and my own 370: in British terms, "long" and "medium-size" respectively. To my surprise, the Claremont Review described mine as "short." How, then, will these much shorter works by John Lukacs and John Keegan be assessed?

In "Churchill: Visionary, Statesman, Historian," Lukacs offers the reflections of a wise, experienced, philosophically minded historian, long fascinated by Churchill and never tired of contemplating his place in history. His is a book to make readers wish to read a biography, while Keegan's brief biography may make readers wish to read a longer one. Keegan manages to incorporate almost everything that really mattered in Churchill's life into a very readable narrative soundly founded on the history his hero moved through and, to some extent, made.

Each acknowledges, as all other Churchill-watchers have done, that the man is ultimately unclassifiable, un-sum-up-able. Seeking in their different ways the heart of the Churchillian mystery, they converge on two fundamentals: his roots in History, and his love of Liberty.

Not only did Churchill know a lot of history, write history and make history, he was possessed by a conviction that the history of Britain displayed the development of good principles of government -- accountability, freedom of the press, rule of law and so on -- which had been spread around much of the world through the British Empire and Commonwealth and its amazing byproduct, the United States; both of them, empire and America alike, great political institutions working for good in the world. This was the source of his belief in the "special relationship" and the cause of his confidence, in the desperate dark days of 1940, that the United States would wake up to the fact that Hitler's Germany was antithetical not only to the values of Britain and its empire but to the values of America as well.

With America's entry into the war in 1941, his confidence appeared to have been justified. But he never understood how differently the special relationship was valued on the other side. He was mortified to discover that America's war aims and postwar policy included the dissolution of the British Empire. This, he felt sure, was not for the greater good of humankind. Looking at what has happened since then in some of the lands of its precipitate deconstruction, perhaps we might agree. The other fundamental these authors join to pinpoint was Churchill's human "decency": the quality dear above all else to Churchill's contemporary, George Orwell. Given his egotism and willfulness, Churchill possessed an essential decency that was not always easy to see. But it was deep and constant, for all that it was set in an old-fashioned paternalist mold. Having had a rotten childhood himself, he made sure his children had a good one. He was a loving and faithful husband, albeit a sometimes maddening one. Keegan strikingly defines him as a "libertarian." He was one of the founders of the British welfare state, he stood up for workers' rights against their employers (but not against the state!), he readily sympathized with underdogs, he was passionate about the liberties of the subject and the protections provided by the rule of law, and in World War II his determination to save the liberties of the British was matched by an equal determination to retrieve the liberties of the peoples of Western Europe "now gripped and tormented in a base and cruel servitude."

Although fascinated by war (and, thank God, good at conducting it), Churchill was aware of his addiction and devoted most of his years as an international statesman to peacemaking. He liked winning, whether it was in argument or battle, but, once he had won, his inclination was to be generous and charitable. Lukacs rightly makes much of this, reminding us that the moral and motto of his six-volume memoir-history, "The Second World War," was: "In War, Resolution; in Defeat, Defiance; in Victory, Magnanimity; in Peace, Goodwill."

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|