Is there anyone, ever, who has lived such a complete life as Winston Churchill? The closest I can come up with is Theodore Roosevelt. Churchill lived 90 years, and every decade of his life would fill the biography of a lesser man. At 1151 pages Churchill: Walking with Destiny feels like you just skimmed over his life.
I heard Roberts on a podcast and wanted to read this biography. There was new source material: The wartime diaries of King George VI, the recently-discovered diaries of Ivan Maisky (the UK Soviet Ambassador), and papers from Winston’s children. This new material is interesting but doesn’t change the biography very much.
Andrew Roberts likes his subject, but shows him warts and all. There were plenty of mis-steps in Churchill’s life and they’re recounted here. But it’s interesting how every disaster becomes a blessing in disguise. I found it amusing to see how disliked Churchill was by his own political party and that of the opposition. Churchill was a big self promoter and was an entertaining speaker. (I was reminded often of President Trump.) Churchill stood firm when everyone was sure he was wrong. Churchill was proven right time after time.
Churchill’s partnership with Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin is told in some detail. Churchill hated Stalin only slightly less than Hitler and yet had to deal with Stalin as an ally or lose WW-II. Roosevelt was much easier to work with. I didn’t realize Churchill was a big crier. No wonder he said, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” He seemed to have an endless supply of tears.
I didn’t have any issues with Roberts’ biography, other than it was too short. But there are multi-volume biographies available including Churchill’s books on WW-I and WW-II (which I’ve read, and loved).
Amazon Book Preview of “Churchill”
Excerpts From My Kindle
This book explores the extraordinary degree to which in 1940 Churchill’s past life had indeed been but a preparation for his leadership in the Second World War. It investigates the myriad lessons that he learned in the sixty-five years before he became prime minister – years of error and tragedy as well as of hard work and inspiring leadership – then it looks at the ways that he put those lessons to use during civilization’s most testing hour and trial. For although he was indeed walking with destiny in May 1940, it was a destiny that he had consciously spent a lifetime shaping. – location 465–470
‘I pity undergraduates,’ he was later to write, ’when I see what frivolous lives many of them lead in the midst of precious fleeting opportunity. After all, a man’s life must be nailed to a cross of either Thought or Action – location 1324–1326
Beatrice Webb, the leading socialist thinker, in her diary on 8 July 1903. ’First impression: restless, almost intolerably so, without capacity for sustained and unexcited labour, egotistical, bumptious, shallow-minded and reactionary, but with a certain personal magnetism, great pluck and some originality, not of intellect but of character. – location 2451–2453
More of the American speculator than the English aristocrat. Talked exclusively about himself and his electioneering plans … “I never do any brainwork that anyone else can do for me.” (That was obviously a joke, but the humourless sociologist took it seriously.) ‘But I dare say he has a better side, which the ordinary cheap cynicism of his position and career covers up to a casual dinner acquaintance,’ she continued. ‘No notion of scientific research, philosophy, literature or art, still less of religion. But his pluck, courage, resourcefulness and great traditions may carry him far, unless he knocks himself to pieces like his father.’ – location 2453–2459
Marsh asked Lady Lytton for her advice. ‘The first time you meet Winston you see all his faults,’ she told him, ‘and the rest of your life you spend in discovering his virtues.’ – location 2823–2824
F. E. Smith – location 4173
Lloyd George’s mistress noted that ‘It seems strange that Churchill should have been in politics all these years, and yet not won the confidence of a single party in the country, or a single colleague in the Cabinet.’ This was to be true right up to the moment he became prime minister. His mercurial enthusiasms, brilliant apercus, sudden about-turns, willingness to embrace unpopular causes and just as bravely reject popular ones made it hard to follow him. Only his cousin Freddie Guest and Jack Seely did. Without a following in the Commons, Churchill was expendable. – location 5730–5735
In 1945, Churchill admitted privately, ‘The biggest blunder of my life was the return to the Gold Standard.’ The almost total unanimity of the financial experts in favour of it, when set alongside the views of the admirals about the convoy system, and those of the generals about how to fight both the Boer War and Great War, led Churchill seriously to doubt the wisdom of experts. – location 8293–96
‘I doubt, however, whether Democracy, or Parliamentary Government, or even a General Election would make a decisively helpful contribution… It must be observed that economic problems, unlike political issues, cannot be solved by any expression, however vehement, of the national will, but only by taking the right action. You cannot cure cancer by a majority.’ – location 9036–38
Life is a whole, and good and ill must be accepted together. The journey has been enjoyable and well worth making. Once.’ – location 9241–42
‘There is nothing new in the story,’ Churchill told the Commons in May about Britain’s failure to rearm. ‘It is as old as the Sibylline Books. It falls into that long, dismal catalogue of the fruitlessness of experience and the confirmed unteachability of Mankind. Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong – these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.’ – location 10157–62
Thus it is wrong to think that the British Establishment wholeheartedly supported Churchill’s premiership in the darkest days of the Second World War: it tolerated him for the lack of a viable alternative and because he was still popular with the public. It also refused to acknowledge that many of the defeats for which he was being blamed were directly attributable to the failure to heed his warnings and adopt his rearmament proposals in the 1930s. At a deeper level, he could not be forgiven for having been proved right about their flagship policy of those years: appeasement. – location 18529–33
‘At the bottom of all the tributes paid to democracy is the little man,’ Churchill said, ‘walking into the little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper – no amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of that point.’ – location 21793–95
By 1950, between twelve and fourteen million Germans had moved from those historically German territories to lands behind the new German border, the largest movement of people in modern European history. – location 22152–53
Over his 1,900 days as prime minister and minister of defense he had traveled 110,000 miles abroad by ship, train and plane, taking him to Cairo four times, Washington and Moscow thrice, Quebec twice, as well as Bermuda, Tehran, Casablanca, Italy, Normandy, Paris, Malta, Yalta, Athens, Belgium and Berlin. – location 22876–78
‘Writing a book is an adventure,’ Churchill said on receiving the Times Literary Prize that November. ‘To begin with it is a toy, an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then a master, and then a tyrant, and then the last phase is that, just as one is about to be reconciled to one’s servitude, one kills the monster.’ – location 23517–21
- They had prevented Alexander getting to Tunis the first time, when he could easily have done so.
- They had done at Anzio what Stopford did at Suvla Bay: clung to the beaches and failed to establish positions inland as they could well have done.
- They had insisted on Operation Anvil, thereby preventing Alexander from taking Trieste and Vienna.
- Eisenhower had refused to let Monty, in Overlord, concentrate his advance on the left flank. He had insisted on a broad advance, which could not be supported, and had thus allowed Rundstedt to counter-attack on the Ardennes and had prolonged the war, with dire political results, to the spring of 1945.
- Eisenhower had let the Russians occupy Berlin, Prague and Vienna – all of which might have been entered by the Americans’ (Colville, Fringes pp. 674–5).
– location 43089–94
In 1960, when he started writing his memoirs, Lord Ismay told President Eisenhower that an objective biography of Churchill could not be written until at least the year 2010. It was indeed not until the present decade that the last pieces of the archival jigsaw – King George VI’s and Ivan Maisky’s unexpurgated diaries, Lawrence Burgis’s verbatim reports of the War Cabinet meetings, Churchill’s children’s private papers, and much more – finally became available to researchers. Fifty years after Churchill’s death, it is at last possible to paint him in something approaching his true colours. – location 24850–54