Winston Churchill, Myth and Reality
What He Actually Did and Said
Richard M. Langworth
Jefferson (North Carolina): McFarland & Company, 2017
Hardcover. vi+250 p. ISBN 978-1476665832. $50
Reviewed by Antoine Capet
Université de Rouen
Anyone remotely interested in twentieth-century British history cannot have failed to come across various ‘Churchill anecdotes’, smile at his many ‘witticisms’ and feel embarrassment at his more offensive ‘racialist’ or ‘reactionary’ pronouncements and actions, as they are too often presented. Everyone seriously interested in Churchill Studies knows Richard M. Langworth’s life-long devotion to the pursuit of truth as far as what he really did and said is concerned. The ‘blurb’ reminds us that he ‘founded in 1968 the Churchill Study Unit and its journal, Finest Hour, which he edited for 35 years’. Never despairing – like Churchill – he now continues as Senior Fellow for the Churchill Project at Hillsdale College (Michigan) the Sisyphean, thankless and never-ending – but essential – task of refuting the sometimes only uninformed, sometimes deliberately malevolent stories which have never ceased to circulate about the great man.
‘It is the purpose of this book to set the record straight’ , he writes in conclusion of his fascinating examination of one of the most contorted aspects of the Churchill mythology: his Iroquois blood, since together with his son Randolph and his grandson [‘Young’] Winston they themselves more or less encouraged people to believe in it, though it rested only on rumor and was finally demonstrated, in 1999, to have been impossible after a close scrutiny of the supposed evidence adduced [Chapter 1]. The format of Winston Churchill, Myth and Reality is both straightforward and effective: one follows him more or less chronologically through the various episodes of his life which have given rise to controversy – perfectly legitimate or artificially built up, with some borderline cases where a verdict of ‘not proven’, one way or the other, is in order in the current state of our knowledge.
A previous book, which went through several editions and reprints,(1) contained a copious list of anecdotes and declarations which were attributable to Churchill beyond doubt – but also a substantial section of many which were not, sometimes with the name of the real author if known. One of the central premises of that book, which also pervades the present one, is that all too often journalists and well-meaning people repeat some ‘fact’ or ‘joke’ read elsewhere without checking: a case of laziness which is a venial, if irritating, sin – nothing to compare with the mortal sin of malevolently distorting the truth in order to harm Churchill’s reputation. The ‘myths’ in question here are often, alas, of the second type – but fortunately they are often the easier to demolish, since the malignant intentions of the originators are generally apparent to all. As for the harmless but unsubstantiated ‘repetitious canards’, as Langworth calls them , they are more awkward. ‘The absence of proof does not make a story untrue, but it does not establish it, either’, he argues with impeccable logic .
Overall, however, we feel that the onus of proof is on those who print or reprint these ‘Churchill stories’ – otherwise ‘anything goes’. An excellent case in point is to be found in Chapter 2 : ‘Jennie’s Indiscretions, Jack’s Parentage’. While there is plenty of evidence that Lady Randolph Churchill, née Jennie Jerome, Winston Churchill’s mother, had many lovers, it is obviously impossible to prove that, as an Irish novelist wrote, she ‘had slept with 200 men’ . Likewise, how can one prove that Jack, Winston Churchill’s younger (and only) brother was not Lord Randolph Churchill’s son, as was argued in 1969 in a biography, with the predictable result that ‘British tabloids, even more scurrilous than the American, gleefully took up the story’ ? Even a lawsuit, won by Jack’s son, who later refused to submit to the indignity of DNA tests when they were introduced, was not enough to kill the rumor, since new potential fathers constantly turn up in the tabloids – not to speak of the Internet, now a particularly obnoxious pedlar of prurient gossip.
Chapter 3 examines the accusation that Churchill was a ‘school dunce’ . Langworth’s point is that ‘young Winston was a problem learner’ , which is not the same thing. The ‘problem’ is excellently identified a few pages later, after a discussion of Churchill’s years at Harrow School: ‘Young Winston did not have a learning disability, nor was he obtuse. He simply studied hard only when the subject interested him’  – as was demonstrated by his enthusiastic immersion in the new practical and military subjects taught at Sandhurst.
Chapter 4, ‘What Killed Lord Randolph?’ should perhaps have been placed after Chapter 2, since it also bears on the behaviour of Winston Churchill’s parents – in this case his father ‘being sexually promiscuous’, but Langworth ‘can find little evidence of this in the literature’  (and one can rely on him to have read everything on the subject). No promiscuity – no contracting of syphilis, the disease that commonly went with it at the time. Back to square one, then: if so, what killed Lord Randolph? The best answer which Langworth has found comes from Dr Mather, some twenty years after he wrote his seminal essay on the question in Finest Hour: the ‘progressive neuro-degenerative disease of the brain’ which led to Lord Randolph’s death ‘does not rule out syphilis but allows for other diagnoses such as a brain tumor to be credible’ . So, evidently, the causes of his death remain an open question – and one would be well advised to think twice before repeating the syphilis story, even though Winston Churchill and his own children always took it for granted.
Part II : ‘Young Statesman’ is a mixed bag of five chapters dealing with accusations of different seriousness at that stage in Churchill’s career – the mixed bag is not of Langworth’s doing: it comes from his opponents’ will to attack him from all possible angles. One can immediately dismiss the preposterous accusation examined in Chapter 6 – that Churchill was responsible for the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 – as Langworth easily exposes the ‘arguments’ for what they are worth. If all the marine experts who supervised the construction and launching of the ship proclaimed it seaworthy, how could a layman, be he the President of the Board of Trade, have detected its fatal flaws? A year before, as Home Secretary, Churchill had been involved in the ‘Siege of Sidney Street’, which led to the death of two burglars after he personally – he was present on the scene – asked the fire brigade to refrain from intervening in order not to risk their own lives when the building in which a group of criminals had taken refuge was set on fire. Here of course it was Churchill-the-impulsive-man-of-action at his best – or at his worst, as Langworth explains, largely siding with the critics and indirectly reproaching Churchill with imprudently giving golden arguments to his detractors: ‘It is reasonable to suggest that Churchill had no more business at the scene of the siege than he did at the D-Day landings – and apposite to remember that he was dissuaded from joining the D-Day forces only by King George VI, and only at the last minute’ .
What I like best in Chapter 5, ‘Votes for Women’, is the final sentence, coming from Mary Soames: ‘Papa supported votes for women when he realised how many women would vote for him’ . All is said: Churchill never was against the female franchise on principle – but neither was he for it on principle, either: all depended on party tactics to gain electoral advantage, perfectly illustrated by the examples from 1910 and 1928 given by Langworth. In this Churchill was an accomplished parliamentary tactician – a fact which those who despise all politicians may deplore, but certainly not a trait which makes him a benighted misogynist. With Chapters 8 and 9, however, we tackle much more serious accusations.
Chapter 8 is devoted to the thorny question of the suppression of the strike at Tonypandy (Wales) in November 1910. Contrary to Randolph, Churchill’s son, in his biography of his father, Langworth does not deny that as Home Secretary Churchill had sent troops, with orders to intervene only if the police lost control. In fact, the troops did not have to shoot, though they did at Llanelli, killing two to four strikers, in August 1911 – but the accusation that Churchill ordered the military to open fire on Tonypandy miners on strike is still rife today, whatever the incontrovertible evidence to the contrary.
Even more thorny, of course, is the Irish Question – in which Churchill was an active participant for two decades. ‘Churchill is unfairly regarded by many as a steadfast foe of Irish self-determination’, Langworth explains , even though he was a member of the Liberal or Coalition Governments, 1906-1922, which promoted Home Rule before 1914 and signed the Irish Treaty of 1922 which gave the country (at least the southern part) its independence. Chapter 9 tries to unravel the complicated threads of that paradoxical attitude, noting in passing that Churchill did not create the hated Black & Tans – though ‘he defended them despite atrocities that exceeded their remit’ .
The First World War (Part III) is the object of six Myths: Churchill wanted the war (Chapter 10), his actions were rash and irresponsible at Antwerp (11), he was the architect of the Dardanelles and Gallipoli debacles (12), he wanted the Lusitania sunk to get the Americans into the war (13), he wanted the United States to stay out (14), he favoured the use of poison gas (15). The accusations in Chapters 13 and 14 are of course contradictory. Concerning the sinking of the Lusitania – a British, not American ship, as too often forgotten – Langworth makes a seminal remark which could be applied to many other cases of the academic community preaching in the desert in the face of more vociferous commercial channels: ‘Scholarly testimony to the truth has been published, but lacking glitz and pathos, it tends to be ignored’ . Inevitably, therefore, it is the more sensational version – putting the blame on Churchill – which now prevails in the media. The contrary accusation that Churchill had been against American intervention in fact only appeared in 1936, in circumstances never perfectly elucidated, though Churchill always denied that he held such views, let alone expounded them to an Isolationist of Irish descent who used them to harm his standing in the United States in 1939-1940. Langworth’s dismissal of the whole story rightly relies on the decisive question: ‘Why would he at any time in the Thirties have said words which would only encourage American isolation?’ .
The poison gas affair is in a different class altogether, being largely connected with a denunciation of Churchill’s contempt for inferior races (including the Bolshevik Russians), considering their lives unimportant. Here, Langworth stresses that the oft-quoted statement, ‘I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes’ should not be isolated from its context. He carefully examines what Churchill may have meant by ‘poisoned gas’, of which there were already many varieties when he issued that minute in May 1919, and he comes to the conclusion that he did not have lethal gases in mind, but those like mustard gas which led to death only in a small number of cases (2.5%). Moreover, Churchill’s next sentence shows that his primary objective was that ‘the loss of life should be reduced to a minimum’: the idea was to use this ‘poisoned gas’ as a deterrent, what he called ‘the moral effect’ – in modern language the effect on morale.
The first three chapters of Part III, for their part, are connected with the widespread description of Churchill as a war-monger. The accusation mainly rests on two phrases from July-August 1914 taken out of context: Asquith’s scorn of Churchill’s ‘war-paint’ and Churchill writing to Clementine ‘I am interested, geared-up & happy’. The uninitiated reader may not be aware that ‘Asquith frequently put the least charitable spin on Churchill’s actions’  and the confession to Clementine is one of those notorious cases in which a few supposedly damning words are picked up from a much longer text: ‘Yet I would do my best for peace’, he continued a few lines further – which of course strongly qualifies the whole argument. At Antwerp, Churchill is accused of having staged a one-man show – whereas in fact he had the full approval of the military and naval chiefs. The pièce de résistance for Churchill’s detractors, however, evidently remains the Dardanelles. Here again, the uninitiated are an easy prey to hasty judgements which ignore the complex power game at Westminster in early 1915, with Asquith (again), Fisher at the head of the military side of the Admiralty and Kitchener at the War Office – to name only the three foremost participants – each pursuing his own agenda while initially approving of the operation, at least in public. Leaving aside the debate on the prima facie desirability and feasibility of the undertaking, the central question remains whether it was (and still is) fair to lay the blame for its failure on Churchill alone. Langworth lets Churchill speak for himself: he later – rightly – argued that men in ‘a subordinate position’ (as he was, having in practice to submit to the whims of the three men mentioned above) ‘are ill-advised to try such ventures’. ‘He never made that mistake again’ , Langworth concludes, notably when he made himself Minister of Defence in 1940.
Part IV, ‘Between the World Wars’ deals with highly-charged accusations: Churchill was an alcoholic (Chapter 16), he was a consistent foe of Communism (17), an enemy of the Jews and Zionism (18), a racist who opposed freedom for India (19), Churchill admired and offered peace to Mussolini (20) and he praised and admired Hitler (21). The first and last of these are the easiest to dismiss. Hitler? Churchill, writing in 1935 and again in 1937, still hoped that Germany’s ‘indomitable champion’ – as he had become, for better or worse, in the eyes of the world, including Churchill – would not plunge mankind in another Armageddon. ‘One may dislike Hitler’s system [which he undoubtedly did] and yet admire his patriotic achievement [which he also did, remembering Germany’s woes after 1918]’, Churchill wrote. But when his ealier article was taken up (and watered-down at the insistence of the Appeasers at the Foreign Office) in his Great Contemporaries (1937), he entitled it ‘Hitler and His Choice’ – the gist of it being that it was left to Hitler to choose between bringing renewed war and devastation to the world or assuring his place in history as a great statesman. So, as Langworth correctly writes, Churchill ‘extended the benefit of the doubt’  to Hitler – but does that denote admiration in any way?
That Churchill drank a lot cannot be denied, and that probably made him an ‘alcoholic’ in the modern medical sense. Yet, even his worst opponents never saw him drunk – the only possible exception being at the Teheran Conference in 1943, when he had to be helped [so was Eden, by the way] back to his bedroom after a banquet with Stalin and Roosevelt. Can someone who is never drunk be called an alcoholic? – the question is as simple (or complex) as that, and every reader will have his own answer.
Again, that Churchill was ‘a closet anti-Semite’  is fairly easy to refute, as the accusation rests on (a) a short-lived exception (b) his attitude to Bolshevism. The exception is his sense of outrage after the Stern Gang assassinated his good friend Lord Moyne (Walter Guinness), Resident Minister in Cairo in November 1944: he then drew a parallel between the methods of the Nazis and those of the Zionist extremists. But this estrangement did not last. It is true that Churchill assimilated the malicious Bolsheviks and some Jews – not all the Jews, since he only had admiration for Anglo-Jewry, pious and law-abiding. What Churchill rejects is in fact those Jews – many of them Bolsheviks – who have ‘forsaken the faith of their forefathers, and divorced from their minds all spiritual hopes of the next world’, as he put it in a February 1920 article in praise of Zionism entitled ‘Zionism v. Bolshevism’.
That intellectually Churchill never had any sympathy for Marxism, Bolshevism or Communism whatever their variants – Leninism, Trotskyism, Stalinism, and later Maoism – cannot be doubted. But he was a statesman of world calibre, and as such he had to give priority to what he saw as the interests of his country – which in many cases he saw as coinciding with the interests of the world in the long run. The primary objective after 1933 was the elimination of the Nazi risk of war – and when that proved impossible in 1939, the elimination of the Nazis themselves. If the price to pay was a rapprochement with Stalin’s Russia (he was careful no longer to speak of the Soviets) – well, so be it, and he no doubt deplored the end of the Grand Alliance in 1945. But then, of course, ever a realist – Langworth says ‘optimist’  – after the war he hoped that the Cold War would only be a temporary phase.
When discussing Churchill and Gandhi or Churchill and Mussolini, we have to bear in mind that if the former is now seen as a positive hero and the latter a scoundrel, in the 1920s the viewpoint in Britain was often the exact opposite. Words like the ‘half-naked’ ‘fakir’ or ‘Roman genius’ and ‘the greatest lawgiver among living men’ are not easy to justify with hindsight – and they figure prominently in the hackneyed repertory of Churchill’s opponents. Mussolini of course was first perceived as an objective ally ‘against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism’, as Churchill put it – and later as a possible ally against Hitler, after 1933 the greater menace. Ever a realist, as we saw, Churchill was careful to cultivate the Duce’s bloated ego – never of course inwardly entertaining any illusions about him: and his worst inner judgement of Mussolini was confirmed in June 1940. With Gandhi, Churchill’s evolution followed the reverse course, and by 1935 he was ready to accept the accomplished fact of India’s coming independence and to wish Gandhi good luck in guiding the process – an evolution which is often deliberately omitted today.
Not unexpectedly, it is Part V, devoted to the Second World War, which has the largest number of Chapters / Myths: Churchill’s war speeches were delivered by an actor (Chapter 22), he wanted to intern refugees (23), Churchill said ‘We don’t torture’ (24), he let Coventry be bombed to protect secret Intelligence (25), he opposed the invasion of France (26), he endorsed carpet-bombing German cities (27), he was responsible for the 1943 Bengal famine (28), he sent Leslie Howard to keep Franco out of the war (29), Churchill said nothing about destroying the historic abbey at Monte Cassino (30), he did nothing to stop the Holocaust (31) and he wished to starve Occupied Europe (32).
Once again, the accusations are of varying gravity – there being no comparison between the old unsubstantiated claim of the BBC hiring an actor with Churchill’s consent and the more recent story that Churchill deliberately let the Indians of Bengal starve while he had the food and the ships to carry it: the food may be a moot point, but the desperate shortage of Allied tonnage is not. Of equal gravity is blaming Churchill for the failure to bomb Auschwitz after indisputable evidence of the mass murders was shown to him in June 1944. As in the case of Bengal in 1943, Churchill in fact immediately asked for full reports on what could be done. The Royal Air Force and United States Army Air Force chiefs argued that they simply had no aircraft available considering the heavy engagements in Normandy – and Churchill had to accept that the operations in France were indeed the priority. The refusal to allow food to reach Occupied Europe is altogether different. Since time immemorial the conventions of war have had it that feeding the population is the responsibility of the occupier. The accusation is that Churchill stuck to this inhumane position with the hope that the starved peoples would rise against the German occupier. In fact, though Langworth does not mention it, France and Belgium were full of German propaganda posters with women and children saying ‘Churchill, tu nous affames’ (Churchill, you starve us), thus putting the blame on him. The Germans had of course understood what Churchill never ceased to argue: that any food relief given to the Occupied Europeans would only release as much for Hitler’s armies.
I particulary enjoyed Chapter 24, for three reasons: (a) I had never heard of Churchill’s association with torture – to condone or condemn it – in the Second World War; (b) I did not know the excellent quotation taken from Martin Gilbert: ‘Clearly, I [Churchill] cannot make headway against the parsons and the warriors at the same time’ ; (c) in it, Langworth demonstrates that he is no mere hagiographer, since he in fact concludes that – pace President Obama – Churchill must have condoned it, notably in the ‘London Cage’ – of which I had never heard either. In contrast, Langworth defends Churchill against an accusation which I had never heard – that he was personally responsible for the internment of the Jewish refugees from Nazism in May-June 1940. Of course the ‘Collar the lot’ panic of post-Dunkirk Britain is well documented (and was denounced almost immediately in British progressive circles) – but it is a different thing altogether to blame Churchill for yielding to it, the more so as all the ‘enemy aliens’ were not Jewish. In reality, by August he was already pushing for the widest possible policy of release. Also little known is the fairly recent controversy over the bombing of the Monte Cassino Abbey during the campaign to reach Rome in the winter of 1943-1944. Here, Churchill is accused of having kept silent over the destruction of this ancient monument – whereas in fact he bowed to General Alexander’s argument that the stronghold blocked the only wide road to Rome.
In contrast, the Coventry, terror bombing of Germany and Normandy Landings stories are well-known ones – with a recent film, which was released too late for Langworth to have been able to ridicule it as it deserves to be, renewing interest in the Prime Minister’s supposed obdurate opposition to the last. On the bombing of cities, Langworth shows how a phrase really used by Churchill, ‘make the rubble jump’, can be submitted to distortion. One embarrassing latter-day supporter of Churchill recently argued that the West should ‘make the rubble dance’, i.e. retaliate against ISIS by massive bombing. But when Churchill said that further bombing of Germany would only ‘make the rubble jump’, he meant that after a time it becomes pointless – in other words he did not share the enthusiasm of people like ‘Bomber’ Harris. Likewise, for the Dresden bombings of February 1945 ‘Churchill has received most of the blame’  – when in fact they were specifically requested by Stalin in person at Yalta. Langworth of course does not argue that Churchill was against bombing German cities – but that he insisted that they should be against legitimate military targets, not indiscriminate raids of terror against the civilian population.
‘The Coventry story makes dramatic reading and offers melodramatic appeal to conspiracy theorists’, Langworth writes. Indeed the mere idea that Churchill deliberately sacrificed the city in November 1940 in order to avoid revealing to the Germans that British Intelligence had cracked their codes is a godsend to authors of sensational tales. ‘But’, he concludes after a masterly survey of the abundant evidence, ‘like so many Churchill myths, it has no truth in reality’ . Another good theme for these authors is the tragic death of the famous actor Leslie Howard while flying back from Lisbon on 5 June 1943: he is variously described as a secret agent charged by Churchill with negotiating Franco’s continued neutrality or as the victim of an impersonation scheme, sacrificed by Churchill to protect his own life; excellent – but alas entirely fantastic – elements for a best-selling thriller.
The final part, on ‘Postwar Years’ starts with two Myths connected with the Soviet Union: that Churchill sold out Eastern Europe (Chapter 33) and that he favoured preemptive nuclear war (Chapter 34). Now, of course, all depends on what one means by ‘selling out’. A deliberate betrayal, for personal or national advantage? – Evidently not. A failure to diminish totalitarian rule in Europe? – ‘A sad but incontrovertible fact’ , Langworth concedes after arguing that post-Stalingrad, there was nothing that he could do against Russian / Soviet domination in Eastern Europe. As for ‘Nuking Moscow’ (the title of Chapter 34), the evidence that Churchill ever advocated it is based on unreliable sources, notably Lord Moran’s Diaries, which have been shown to be an ex post facto montage rather than a faithful reflection of what Churchill said to him on particular dates. Perhaps Chapter 36, which continues with Churchill’s position on post-war foreign affairs – this time the process of European Integration – should have been placed immediately after Chapter 34. The controversy has of course been re-ignited by the two camps in the 2016 Brexit campaign trying to demonstrate that Churchill would have been on their side. Langworth does not fail to adduce the conclusive argument, which may displease the anti-Brexiters, but rests on irrefutable logic: ‘Why…did Churchill forestall British involvement in the movement after returning as Prime Minister in 1951?’ . In fairness to them, Langworth does not omit the possible objection that the world of 2016 – and Britain’s position in it – were not the same as those of 1951-1955, adding that Churchill might have adapted to the changed circumstances. But the fact remains that his staying out in the 1950s is a reality whereas his possible attitude in 2016 is pure conjecture. Therefore, ‘improper use should not be made of him now’, Langworth wisely advocates .
The other two chapters bear on his personality and private life: the myth that Winston and Clementine had an unhappy marriage (Chapter 35) and that he cared nothing for ordinary people (Chapter 37). Once again, Langworth makes a common-sense remark when he writes ‘No marriage survives without bumps’  – and authors of ‘sensational revelations’ seize on these bumps (extensively documented by their daughter, incidentally) to feed their stories based on hearsay, innuendo and the convenient use of the word ‘perhaps’, always imagining the worst. On the other hand, we have the sure facts of their numerous letters which, though sometimes alluding to the ‘bumps’ – but never with acrimony – overwhelmingly confirm their life-long devotion to each other. Did Churchill have ‘the common touch’ (the title of the final chapter)? Well – ‘Churchill was a Victorian, with most of the attitudes of his class and time toward what they sometimes called the lower orders’ , but he was often able to overcome this hurdle, notably with his numerous secretaries, who soon perceived his fundamental benevolence after a short period of adaptation to his sometimes gruff manner. His real difficulty was his inability to engage in small talk – but this equally applied to the upper-class people whom he met.
These detailed discussions of the most common myths are supplemented by Appendix I, ‘Minor Myths, Fables and Things That Go Bump in the Night’ – my favourite one being that ‘Churchill Considered Becoming a Muslim’ . And any serious author contemplating writing on Churchill would be well advised to read Appendix II, ‘Red Herrings: Mythological Churchill Quotes’, before repeating the unsubstantiated old tales like ‘Winston is Back!’ (Admiralty, September 1939), Attlee: ‘the sheep in sheep’s clothing’ or ‘the heaviest cross I have to bear is the Cross of Lorraine’ (1943). The text proper is complemented by a number of useful maps (the Dardanelles), interesting photographs (some from the author’s own collection), facsimiles (the supposed secret correspondence with Mussolini) and amusing cartoons where appropriate.
Anyone who has ever tried to write even only a short article on Churchill will know the difficulty, with so many sources of sometimes contradictory and often unverified information. The mass of reliable data and references which Langworth has accumulated before giving us here state-of-the-art discussions and conclusions on all the topics of controversy which have at some stage appeared in print – and now on the Internet – is absolutely remarkable: both the work of a lifetime and a labour of love. His critics will say that he systematically gives Churchill the benefit of the doubt (which in fact is not always the case, as we saw) – but then, why leave the field to those, far more numerous for unavowable commercial or political reasons, who take the opposite course?
Unreservedly recommended to all academic libraries for their Twentieth-Century History and British Studies sections, the book should also be required reading in all Schools of Journalism in the hope that the irritating Churchill ‘canards’ will one day disappear from the media.
(1) Churchill by Himself : The Life, Times and Opinions of Winston Churchill in his own Words. London: Ebury, 2008 / New York: PublicAffairs, 2008. (Paperback reissues. Ebury, 2012 / New York: Rosetta Books, 2015).
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