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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Reading List: The Last Lion

Manchester, William and Paul Reid. The Last Lion. Vol. 3. New York: Little, Brown, 2012. ISBN 978-0-316-54770-3.
William Manchester's monumental three volume biography of Winston Churchill, The Last Lion, began with the 1984 publication of the first volume, Visions of Glory, 1874–1932 and continued with second in 1989, Alone, 1932–1940. I devoured these books when they came out, and eagerly awaited the concluding volume which would cover Churchill's World War II years and subsequent career and life. This was to be a wait of more than two decades. By 1988, William Manchester had concluded his research for the present volume, subtitled Defender of the Realm, 1940–1965 and began to write a draft of the work. Failing health caused him to set the project aside after about a hundred pages covering events up to the start of the Battle of Britain. In 2003, Manchester, no longer able to write, invited Paul Reid to audition to complete the work by writing a chapter on the London Blitz. The result being satisfactory to Manchester, his agent, and the publisher, Reid began work in earnest on the final volume, with the intent that Manchester would edit the manuscript as it was produced. Alas, Manchester died in 2004, and Reid was forced to interpret Manchester's research notes, intended for his own use and not to guide another author, without the assistance of the person who compiled them. This required much additional research and collecting original source documents which Manchester had examined. The result of this is that this book took almost another decade of work by Reid before its publication. It has been a protracted wait, especially for those who admired the first two volumes, but ultimately worth it. This is a thoroughly satisfying conclusion to what will likely remain the definitive biography of Churchill for the foreseeable future.

When Winston Churchill became prime minister in the dark days of May 1940, he was already sixty-five years old: retirement age for most of his generation, and faced a Nazi Germany which was consolidating its hold on Western Europe with only Britain to oppose its hegemony. Had Churchill retired from public life in 1940, he would still be remembered as one of the most consequential British public figures of the twentieth century; what he did in the years to come elevated him to the stature of one of the preeminent statesmen of modern times. These events are chronicled in this book, dominated by World War II, which occupies three quarters of the text. In fact, although the focus is on Churchill, the book serves also as a reasonably comprehensive history of the war in the theatres in which British forces were engaged, and of the complex relations among the Allies.

It is often forgotten at this remove that at the time Churchill came to power he was viewed by many, including those of his own party and military commanders, as a dangerous and erratic figure given to enthusiasm for harebrained schemes and with a propensity for disaster (for example, his resignation in disgrace after the Gallipoli catastrophe in World War I). Although admired for his steadfastness and ability to rally the nation to the daunting tasks before it, Churchill's erratic nature continued to exasperate his subordinates, as is extensively documented here from their own contemporary diaries.

Churchill's complex relationships with the other leaders of the Grand Alliance: Roosevelt and Stalin, are explored in depth. Although Churchill had great admiration for Roosevelt and desperately needed the assistance the U.S. could provide to prosecute the war, Roosevelt comes across as a lightweight, ill-informed and not particularly engaged in military affairs and blind to the geopolitical consequences of the Red Army's occupying eastern and central Europe at war's end. (This was not just Churchill's view, but widely shared among senior British political and military circles.) While despising Bolshevism, Churchill developed a grudging respect for Stalin, considering his grasp of strategy to be excellent and, while infuriating to deal with, reliable in keeping his committments to the other allies.

As the war drew to a close, Churchill was one of the first to warn of the great tragedy about to befall those countries behind what he dubbed the “iron curtain” and the peril Soviet power posed to the West. By July 1950, the Soviets fielded 175 divisions, of which 25 were armoured, against a Western force of 12 divisions (2 armoured). Given the correlation of forces, only Soviet postwar exhaustion and unwillingness to roll the dice given the threat of U.S. nuclear retaliation kept the Red Army from marching west to the Atlantic.

After the war, in opposition once again as the disastrous Attlee Labour government set Britain on an irreversible trajectory of decline, he thundered against the dying of the light and retreat from Empire not, as in the 1930s, a back-bencher, but rather leader of the opposition. In 1951 he led the Tories to victory and became prime minister once again, for the first time with the mandate of winning a general election as party leader. He remained prime minister until 1955 when he resigned in favour of Anthony Eden. His second tenure as P.M. was frustrating, with little he could to do to reverse Britain's economic decline and shrinkage on the world stage. In 1953 he suffered a serious stroke, which was covered up from all but his inner circle. While he largely recovered, approaching his eightieth birthday, he acknowledged the inevitable and gave up the leadership and prime minister positions.

Churchill remained a member of Parliament for Woodford until 1964. In January 1965 he suffered another severe stroke and died at age 90 on the 24th of that month.

It's been a long time coming, but this book is a grand conclusion of the work Manchester envisioned. It is a sprawling account of a great sprawling life engaged with great historical events over most of a century: from the last cavalry charge of the British Army to the hydrogen bomb. Churchill was an extraordinarily complicated and in many ways conflicted person, and this grand canvas provides the scope to explore his character and its origins in depth. Manchester and Reid have created a masterpiece. It is daunting to contemplate a three volume work totalling three thousand pages, but if you are interested in the subject, it is a uniquely rewarding read.

Posted at January 31, 2013 23:40