In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War

In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War

by David Reynolds


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Winston Churchill fought the World War II twice over-first as Prime Minister during the war, and then later as the war's premier historian. From 1948-54, he published six volumes of memoirs. They secured his reputation and shaped our understanding of the conflict to this day. Drawing on the drafts of Churchill's manuscript as well as his correspondence from the period, David Reynolds masterfully reveals Churchill the author. Reynolds shows how the memoirs were censored by the British government to conceal state secrets, and how Churchill himself censored them to avoid offending current world leaders. This book illuminates an unjustly neglected period of Churchill's life-the Second Wilderness Years of 1945-51, when Churchill wrote himself into history, politicked himself back into the prime-ministership, and delivered some of the most important speeches of his career.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780465003303
Publisher: Basic Books
Publication date: 11/27/2007
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 672
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.87(d)

About the Author

David Reynolds is professor of international history at Christ's College, Cambridge. A fellow of the British Academy, he is the multiple prizewinning author of eleven books, including the highly acclaimed America, Empire of Liberty. Many of his history films for the BBC are now available on Netflix.

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In Command of History

By David Reynolds

Random House

David Reynolds
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0679457437

Chapter One


Had churchill won the election of 1945, he would probably not have written his memoirs-certainly not in the form they did take. A further spell in office for such an exhausted man, assuming he survived, would have sapped his energy and dulled his appetite for any major writing project. But while electoral defeat made possible literary triumphs, Churchill did not retire from politics and statecraft. Such was the scale of his defeat in 1945 that he burned for political vindication, and the story of The Second World War is inextricably bound up with his zeal to keep on making history. Nor, despite expectations, did he embark straightaway on the war memoirs. He was to take the plunge only when the conditions were right, and they took time to establish. It was not until the spring of 1946 that Churchill resolved the conundrum: to write or not to write.

Between 1923 and 1931, Churchill had published six bulky and remunerative volumes on the First World War, entitled The World Crisis, which A. J. Balfour, the former Prime Minister, described as "Winston's brilliant Autobiography, disguised as a history of the universe." It seemed certain that another set of memoirs would follow the conflict of 1939-1945, and he made many comments during the war to this effect. One was recorded by his private secretary Jock Colville-a diarist with Boswellian aspirations-as Churchill mused expansively over brandy at Chequers in December 1940. He said that after the war he had no wish to wage a party struggle against the Labour leaders who were now serving so well in the coalition. "He would retire to Chartwell and write a book on the war, which he had already mapped out in his mind chapter by chapter. This was the moment for him; he was determined not to prolong his career into the period of reconstruction."

In November 1941, Churchill had a dinner conversation with William Berry, Lord Camrose-a close friend and also owner of the Daily Telegraph and Morning Post. According to Camrose, Churchill said that his intention was to retire immediately after England had "turned the corner," by which Camrose understood him to mean once victory had been achieved. He added that he was determined not to repeat the "ghastly error" made by David Lloyd George after his war premiership of 1916-1918, carrying on in office till humiliatingly pulled down in 1922. "While he did not say so," Camrose noted, "I am sure he also had in mind that he would make provision for his family. To do this he would have to be able to write."

Publishers had long been salivating about a new set of Churchill war memoirs. As early as 28 September 1939, Thornton Butterworth, who published The World Crisis, reminded Churchill that "although we are only in the early days of the war, there must come a time when authors will be able to lay down their arms and take up their pens once more." Butterworth hoped that Churchill would then write the history of the second "World Crisis" and entrust it to the publishers of the first World Crisis. He received only a curt acknowledgment from Churchill's secretary at the Admiralty. The following summer, Prime Minister Churchill was more interested by a proposal from Lord Southwood of Odhams Press for a £40,000 deal for four volumes. But with the Battle of Britain about to break, he scribbled on 2 August 1940, "I do not feel able to give this consideration yet." The following spring, the literary agency Curtis Brown, who had represented him for some years, constructed a bigger package involving Odhams and American publishers such as Houghton Mifflin, amounting to £75,000. From this point onward, such proposals received a standard reply from Kathleen Hill, Churchill's personal secretary, stating that he would make no decision about his war memoirs while in office.

After the 1945 election, however, the offers started flooding in. King Features, one of the world's leading newspaper syndicates, reminded him of their interest via a telegram sent at 6:36 P.M. on 26 July, before Churchill had even gone to the Palace to resign. That night, Emery Reves, who had handled foreign rights for many of Churchill's prewar articles, sent urgent telegrams from New York assuring Churchill that he could arrange the best possible terms for the memoirs and articles: "Could come [to] London for negotiations anytime." Curtis Brown sent equally importunate letters pressing their services. But Churchill was not to be tempted. The standard reply from Hill stated that Churchill was "not undertaking any literary work at the present time."

There were several reasons for Churchill's coyness. Having lost job, home, and reason for living in a matter of hours, he needed time to recover. In August 1945, the accumulated exhaustion of five years took hold. Also important was his tax status. On legal advice, Churchill had officially ceased to exercise his "professional vocation" as an author on 3 September 1939-the day he became First Lord of the Admiralty. Although his wartime speeches were published in six volumes between 1941 and 1946, all the editorial work was done by a journalist. Churchill was able to claim that he had not resumed his profession as an author. Thanks to this tax loophole, the substantial income earned by the war speeches was not subject to income tax at the punitive wartime rates. Any return to writing, even a single article, could jeopardize that favorable status, both in the present and retrospectively.

In secret, Churchill had already half promised any war memoirs to the London publishers Cassell and Company. On 24 November 1944, Churchill wrote to Sir Newman Flower, the head of Cassell's-who in the 1930s had published his four volumes on the first Duke of Marlborough-stating that "I shall be very pleased to give your firm a first refusal, at the lowest price I am prepared to accept, of publishing rights in serial and book form . . . in any work I may write on the present War after it is over." This was hardly a firm commitment. Churchill made clear, "I undertake no obligation to write anything," and, even if he did, "the lowest price I am prepared to accept" gave him plenty of room to refuse an unattractive offer.

In the weeks after the election, Churchill's intentions about the war memoirs remained unclear. According to Sir Edward Bridges, the Cabinet Secretary, on 28 July, Churchill "said he was not sure whether he would write his memoirs of the present war." He "thought he would do so but the work would not be completed for four or five years." On 7 August, Lord Camrose noted: "At the moment, he has decided that he will not publish his account of the war direction in his lifetime." And on 31 August, Churchill told Charles Eade, the editor of his war speeches, that he had received an offer of £250,000 ($1 million) from America for the memoirs and was confident he could write them in a year. But his present idea was that they should not be sold and published until some ten years after his death. Laughing, he said that he would quite like to have £250,000, but "in fact, I should get only 250,000 sixpences." Given current rates of income tax and surtax, Churchill faced the prospect of paying nineteen shillings and six pence in every pound (97.5 percent) of his literary earnings to the government. He told Eade, in a quip he had been using for half a century, "I agree with Dr. Johnson that only a block-head writes except for money."

Churchill's mood that summer was often very bleak. He complained to his doctor of depression and insomnia: "I go to bed at twelve o'clock. There is nothing to sit up for." He would wake at four, his mind full of "futile speculations," unless he took another sleeping tablet. "It would have been better to have been killed in an aeroplane, or to have died like Roosevelt," he said. Nor was family life much consolation. At the end of August, Mary Churchill received a poignant letter from her mother, written among the dustcovers and mildew of Chartwell: "I cannot explain how it is but in our misery we seem, instead of clinging to each other, to be always having scenes. I'm sure it's all my fault, but I'm finding life more than I can bear. He is so unhappy & that makes him very difficult." Winston was totally undomesticated. He had little understanding of the difficulties of daily life outside the official cocoon, complaining about the lack of meat, staff, and so on. For her part, Clementine was highly strung and needed frequent rests from her husband's emotional and practical demands. In a few days, she told Mary, "we shan't have a car. We are being lent one now. We are learning how rough & stony the World is."

The only ray of light was that Churchill spent most of September on vacation in Italy, staying in villas placed at his disposal by Field-Marshal Sir Harold Alexander and General Dwight D. Eisenhower. On 5 September he wrote to his wife, "I feel a great sense of relief which grows steadily, others having to face the hideous problems of the aftermath." Alluding to her comment on Black Thursday, he now struck a more positive note: "It may all indeed be 'a blessing in disguise.'"

At Lake Como, between painting fifteen pictures, he regaled his companions with recollections of 1940 and 1941, such as the "magic carpet" of Dunkirk and his first wartime meeting with Roosevelt, off Newfoundland. These had been brought to mind by his blue-bound minutes and telegrams from the war, which he had read avidly throughout the flight from England. He seemed scarcely to take his eyes off the pages, except when rekindling his cigar. "They are mine," he told Moran. "I can publish them." But that did not mean he would. On 2 September, he said that he wasn't in the mood for writing and, echoing his remarks to Charles Eade, added that "I shan't write while the Government takes all you earn. Dr. Johnson said that only a fool wrote when he wasn't paid for writing." He took the same line with the International News Service, whose European manager, J. Kingsbury Smith, pursued Churchill throughout his vacation, begging for even five minutes face-to-face. "I never thought it would be so difficult to catch up with a gentleman to whom I was authorized to offer one million dollars," he said. Smith finally cornered Churchill in the lobby of the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo on 1 October, only to be told it was hardly worth being an author if nineteen and sixpence in the pound went to the government.

back in england, Churchill found the domestic situation much improved. Thanks to Clementine, the family's new home at 28 Hyde Park Gate was ready, and the renovation of Chartwell was under way. Opportunities were also opening up to make money. Life magazine, the great American picture weekly, was one of his suitors for the war memoirs, and it proposed a feature article about Churchill's paintings. Life's photographers paid several long visits to Chartwell, capturing Churchill, the house, and his studio, and their labors provided the magazine's cover story on 7 January 1946, an eight-page article with color reproductions of eighteen paintings, mostly from his 1945 trips to France and Italy. Apart from posing and proofreading, Churchill did nothing on behalf of the article, thereby preserving his tax status. In return, $20,000 (£5,000) was deposited in his bank account in November.

Another money-spinning opportunity emerged in October 1945, again without prejudice to Churchill's tax position. On 17 October, Clement Attlee told Churchill that the Labour Cabinet had decided to lift the ban on disclosing the proceedings of the secret sessions held by the Commons during wartime. In most cases, secrecy had been imposed to avoid giving the Luftwaffe notice of the dates and times of future sittings, but Churchill had delivered five major secret speeches during the war and immediately approached Life, which offered $50,000 to publish them-only "a pig in a poke," remarked Life's owner, Henry Luce, "to keep a position in the meat market." They would be "worth the space plus the money if, in some sense, Churchill becomes 'our author.'" On 20 December, Churchill saw Charles Eade to discuss editing the speeches as another book published by Cassell's. He told Eade that the last volume of his war speeches had brought in £3,500 and reckoned that the secret session speeches should make more, perhaps £5,000.

Life had intended to use three of the speeches, but in the end printed only two (at no reduction in fee), for fear of saturating the market for Churchilliana. It published the speech of 23 April 1942, offering a tour d'horizon of the global war, in its issue of 28 January 1946, followed on 4 February by the address of 10 December 1942 about France and the North African landings. Churchill had submitted the texts for official approval, and Sir Edward Bridges, the Cabinet Secretary, asked him to omit three unflattering pages about Charles de Gaulle, currently President of France, from the second speech. It was, however, the April 1942 speech, from which Bridges had requested no cuts, that caused a major fuss.

The British and Australian press seized on Churchill's (brief) references to the surrender of Singapore in February 1942. Particularly inflammatory were his comments that "the 100,000 defenders of Singapore surrendered to 30,000 Japanese after five or six days of confused but not very severe fighting" and that "it does not seem that there was very much bloodshed." In Australia and Britain there were calls for an official inquiry into the debacle in the Far East in 1941-1942, but the British government had no desire to open this can of worms. A public postmortem into the Malayan campaign could set a dangerous precedent, Attlee told Ben Chifley, the Australian Prime Minister, on 31 January. If Singapore, then why not "other disasters such as Tobruk, Crete and Hong Kong"? The "strong feelings aroused might well be inimical to Commonwealth solidarity." Chifley entirely agreed and followed Attlee's public line: what mattered was to learn lessons rather than apportion blame.


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