One way of understanding Winston Churchill is to recall that he was a contemporary of Rudyard Kipling -- within whose literary code a man only found his truest sense of worth and honor amid danger, conflict and the charge -- yet his life's most important work was done in the age of Hitler, the embodiment of mechanized, unchivalrous brutality, and Oppenheimer, whose science threatened to eliminate from war all romantic notions of personal heroism.
Churchill was indeed a romantic: politically conservative, he longed to turn the clock back to the time when England's preeminence was undisputed by returning to the gold standard while serving as chancellor of the exchequer and by raging against Gandhi's independence movement (Churchill called him "a seditious Middle temple lawyer . . . posing as a fakir . . . striding half naked up the steps of the Viceregal Palace . . . ") and any other threat to British colonial dominance; and while he appealed to the British sense of romance as the Empire's public leader during the darkest hours of World War II, he rose above his old-world sensibilities with a single-minded, often strategically brilliant campaign against the Nazis' threat to Western civilization.
Winston Churchill was born on this day in Blenheim, Oxfordshire, England in 1874. A descendant of the 1st Duke of Marlborough, a 17th century war hero, Churchill was the eldest son of Lord Randolph Churchill and his American wife Jennie, though he was somewhat of a disappointment to his father due to his lackluster school performance. After military studies at Sandhurst, Churchill joined the 4th Hussars as a cavalry officer and fought in 3 campaigns while sending reporting dispatches back to British papers: in Cuba in 1895; the Northwest frontier of India in 1897; and in the Sudan in 1898, where he took part in the British Army's last-ever cavalry charge.
He lost a bid for Parliament in 1899 as a Conservative candidate and went instead to the Boer War as a journalist. He returned as a national hero, having fought with the British and escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp, and upon his return he was elected to Parliament. Within 4 years he switched to the Liberal Party, and was quickly promoted through its ranks: in 1906, he was named undersecretary of state for the colonies; in 1910, at age 35, he was named home secretary, where he promoted prison reform but was criticized for calling troops in to quell a mining strike; and in 1911 he was named First Lord of the Admiralty, where he established the Royal Naval Air Service.
His first major stumble as a public figure came during World War I when, frustrated by the stalemate in Flanders, he attempted to outflank the Germans on the Western front, culminating in the tragic slaughter at Gallipoli in 1915; he was blamed for the failure. (See also 'A Matter of Great Regret'). He briefly left government to command a battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers on the Western front before David Lloyd George invited him back to serve as minister of munitions, and later, as minister of war and air (1919-20) and colonial secretary (1921-22).
He was briefly tossed out of Parliament before being reelected as a Conservative again in 1924, and he was rewarded by Stanley Baldwin for coming back to the fold with his appointment as chancellor of the exchequer. His return to the gold standard was an economic disaster, helping to stimulate the British general strike in 1925.
Away from the seat of power during most of the 1930s (his "wilderness years"), Churchill displayed his considerable rhetorical gifts by writing his History of the English Speaking Peoples among other works, warning of the impending rise of socialism and encouraging the rearmament of Great Britain. By 1937, when he made headlines for his support for Edward VIII during the abdication crisis, his influence had all but disappeared.
However, when Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement toward Hitler failed with the outbreak of World War II, it vindicated Churchill's calls for a military build-up, and Chamberlain brought him back into government as First Lord of the Admiralty once more in 1939. When Chamberlain resigned in May 1940, Chamberlain had hoped Lord Halifax would succeed him, but Halifax demurred, leaving Churchill to become prime minister and minister of war.
By this time, France and Belgium had fallen, and the Germans seemed poised to cross the English Channel; but Churchill, bulldog-faced in his old-fashioned frock coat flashing the "V" for "victory" sign for photographers, had an almost immediate impact on the spirit of the British people, with his dramatic radio addresses in which he summoned a nostalgic, defiant brand of nationalism in his listeners. Installing himself in the cabinet bunker beneath Whitehall while German rockets bombarded London, he dominated the strategic effort, sometimes driving his exasperated aides crazy with impossible demands and occasionally wrong-headed plans.
Yet his ideas kept the British in the fight, which is what he seemed to thrive on: he refused Hitler's offers of peace on his terms and mobilized the successful British air defense which became the Battle of Britain. He also theorized that the Germans would not attack by land if they believed the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force were intact, so despite being comparatively under-equipped, he initiated new fronts against the Nazis in Africa and the Middle East, both to distract the Axis forces and to show British might.
He knew he needed help, however; he publicly declared his support for Russia as a full partner against Hitler in 1941, and began to cultivate a close personal relationship with U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt, meeting him in a secret ship-born summit off the coast of Newfoundland in August 1941, and ultimately coordinating the Allied war effort in close consultation with Roosevelt and Harry Truman, his successor, after the Americans entered the War following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 by the Japanese. Together, Churchill and Roosevelt had significant influence on the bombing, blockade and subversion strategy which resulted in the Nazi surrender in 1945.
In the post-War aftermath, Churchill's spark left him, and he had not given great thought to the disposition of Europe after the War; his performance at the Yalta Conference with the other members of the "Big Three" (Roosevelt and Stalin) was uninformed and underestimating of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin's sharpness.
In peacetime, Churchill had no compass; he once confided that in the worst of war, "I could always see how to do it" but that in peace the problems seemed "elusive and intangible." He was taken by surprise, however, when the Labour Party and Clement Attlee gained power in 1945. After 6 years, with Churchill now in his late 70s serving as a lackluster leader of the opposition, the Conservatives came back into power with Churchill as prime minister in 1951, but Churchill suffered several strokes and left most of the affairs of government to his subordinates, including his successor Anthony Eden, about whom he had his doubts. He retired as prime minister in April 1955 at the age of 80. He passed on Queen Elizabeth's offer of peerage, preferring to stay on in the House of Commons, which he did with decreasing visibility until the 1964 election. He died the following year -- but Douglas MacArthur's observation that old soldiers never die, they just fade away, probably applied to Churchill better than any other important "soldier" of the 20th century.
(Apropos of nothing, a "Churchill" cocktail is made from 1-1/2 oz. Scotch, 1/2 oz. of Cointreau, 1/2 oz. of sweet vermouth, and 1/4 oz. fresh lime juice, stirred with ice and strained. For his own part, Churchill preferred a weak Johnnie Walker-and-water, apparently at all hours of the day.)