The Canon. The Second World War, Volume VI: Triumph and Tragedy. By Winston Churchill

May 27, 2010

Winston Churchill famously once said that history would be kind to him because he would write the history. His six-volume work The Second World War is thus portrayed not as his autobiography, but as a straight history of the war itself.

When Churchill wrote it, none of the era's national archives had been released and so for most of the work's millions of readers, what he said was the unchallengeable, canonical, version. As David Reynolds' In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War reminds us, Churchill's version was naturally one-sided and often selective, as one would expect, and, more important, was composed while he was still an active politician, dealing with many of the same people, including Stalin and Eisenhower, with whom he worked in the war. His hands were consequently tied.

When the relevant documents were released in the 1960s, the revisionists had a field day, since the discrepancies between Churchill's version and actual events became apparent. Much of the controversy revolved around Churchill's decision to fight on in 1940, and the crushing financial cost to Britain and its empire that ensued. On this issue their patriotism is touching, but also historically mistaken about Britain's ability to continue on a level playing field with the US.

Furthermore, when I came to write about Churchill, I thought that all the rows missed the key point: part of his genius was that he was one of the few people to see that America was the future superpower, the arsenal of democracy. For Neville Chamberlain, the US was "nothing but words", but for Churchill it was the "Great Republic" and Britain's saviour against Nazi domination.

In assessing Churchill's masterwork, very few people seem to have concentrated on this point. In Triumph and Tragedy, the final volume published in 1954, Churchill realises that the US has now supplanted Britain as the global hegemon. But that was surely inevitable, and without Churchill turning to America in 1940 as the only country that could rescue Britain from defeat, we would have lost. Come the end of the war he was entirely vindicated, as the overwhelming strength of the US not merely saved Britain but also made victory against both Germany and Japan inevitable, and in Western Europe ensured liberation by the democracies rather than by Stalin.

So in 1940 Churchill was doubly right: morally to fight on, and strategically in his contention that only the US could help win the war.

Churchill's version of events is biased, like all memoirs, in the author's favour. It does not tell the whole story. It excuses his mistakes, such as the failed defence of Greece in 1941 or the Singapore disaster of 1942. The revisionists are right to say that Britain lost out to the US as the leading world power. But surely that was a price worth paying, since American hegemony was surely inevitable sooner or later. This work may legitimately be challenged on many details, but its essence still stands.

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