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Martin Gilbert, Churchill and America (London: Free Press, London, 2005, $30.00, 528 pages, ISBN 0743275543)—François Kersaudy, Université de Paris I

 

This is a supremely attractive book for three reasons at least. First and foremost, it deals with a thoroughly worthwhile subject; Churchill is on record as having stated that his association with America began on the day of his father’s marriage and continued uninterruptedly for the next ninety years. Second, the fact that the author is none other than Sir Martin Gilbert, the supreme connoisseur of Churchillian lore, adds scholarly weight to the undertaking, while guaranteeing that no document even remotely relevant to the subject will pass unnoticed. Last but not least, this worthwhile and scholarly endeavour is presented in highly readable form, thanks to a superb style of writing and to the judicious choice of dividing the narrative into forty-one short chapters. As each one of them resuscitates countless samples of Winston Churchill’s inimitable prose, the reader is sure to embark on a fascinating and eventful journey.

It’s a highly instructive journey as well. In it, one learns that Churchill was inordinately proud of his American ancestry and that he was much impressed from the start by the hospitality and entrepreneurial spirit of the American people, though repelled by the vulgarity of their press. One learns that the man who had most influenced his oratory was none other than Bourke Cockran, one of his mother’s American friends (the exact nature of the friendship being carefully glossed over). The author also explains that early on, Churchill had envisaged various systems whereby the English-speaking peoples could be brought together, ranging from close cooperation to common citizenship. One discovers that the First World War gave him an early opportunity to put his ideas into practice, greatly helping to win the war in the process, and also, of course, that his First World War ventures in Anglo-American cooperation were to stand him in good stead at the outset of the Second. The reader will likewise understand that neutral America’s extensive (and probably decisive) assistance to Britain during the twenty-eight months of her solitary struggle against Hitler was largely the fruit of Churchill’s influence and exertions. Furthermore, the reader will ascertain that Churchill, who was convinced that America’s “sullen and selfish isolation” after the First World War was greatly responsible for the outbreak of the Second, took great pains to ensure that the process would not be repeated after 1945. Also included are the fact that his post-war efforts to that effect were occasionally successful (his Iron Curtain speech having largely inspired the Truman Doctrine, and his Zurich speech the Marshall Plan), but more often disappointing, as American initiatives from Potsdam to the Suez crisis clearly showed that successive U.S. presidents had little use for the Winstonian ideal of intimate trans-Atlantic cooperation. The narrative also proves convincingly that for all Churchill’s fascination with the United States, he never for a moment lost sight of Britain’s ultimate interests.

The reader of this book might easily gain the impression that most strategic and diplomatic initiatives presented by Churchill to Roosevelt were purely his own, when in fact they were the result of lengthy deliberation on the British side—and often very far removed from Churchill’s initial conceptions. Conversely, an overenthusiastic Churchill was prone to come up with wild strategic schemes which he not infrequently tried to foist upon his American allies, as well as with over-hasty diplomatic initiatives to please these selfsame allies (breaking with de Gaulle being one vivid instance). Fortunately for all concerned—and for Churchill’s everlasting fame—he was rescued from the former by his more professional chiefs of staff, and from the latter by his more temperate cabinet ministers.

It is exceedingly difficult to find fault with such a superb book, unless one ventures into small details; for instance, Admiral Mountbatten did not travel with Churchill to the United States in January 1952 (he only came on board for dinner with Churchill on December 31st, the day before the Queen Mary’s departure from Southampton), but that is trivial. Hopefully, a French translation will enable the monolingual French reader to enjoy this fascinating book in a not-too-distant future.

Cercles2006
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