- [Who] Could by industrious valor climb To ruin the great work of Time, And cast the kingdom old Into another mold. . . .
- Marvell, Horatian Ode Upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland
Writers of history have always been good at second guessing; in large measure it is their trade. These days the history of the Second World War is currently being rewritten by certain young British historians, who are eager to show that it was all a dreadful mistake, and the British should have stayed out and allowed the Germans and Russians to fight each other until exhausted, thereby preserving the Empire and keeping the Americans from taking over.
In such a thesis, the heroes are the sometime appeasers— Neville Chamberlain, Stanley Baldwin, Neville Henderson, Viscount Halifax, Sir Samuel Hoare, Sir John Simon, and the others who sought to placate Adolf Hitler and keep the Germans turned eastward in search of new countries to conquer. The villain, naturally enough, is Winston Churchill, whose great speech of defiance—”we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender. . . .”—was no more than “sublime nonsense. “The verdict is John Charmley’s, in Churchill: The End of Glory, the American edition of which was published late in 1993 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
It was nonsense, the argument goes, because in June, 1940, with French resistance crumbling and the victorious Wehrmacht setting up operations along the English Channel coast, the only way that Hitler could be stopped was by getting the United States involved. To do that, it would be necessary to mortgage all one’s imperial wealth and possessions to the Americans, who would surely take advantage of the situation to become the dominant power, happily drain Britain of her resources, and leave her bereft of empire, prosperity, and amour-propre. To quote Charmley again, “It was certainly better to be an American rather than a German protectorate, but given that the war was being fought to preserve Britain’s independence and a balance of power, that reflection was of little comfort to many Englishmen.”
Neville Chamberlain and the Conservative leadership realized that Britain couldn’t afford to wage another world war, and that even if the war were won she would wind up in hock to the Yanks—who in Mr. Charmley’s words “were, in fact, foreigners who disliked the British Empire even more than did Hitler. “So the Tory leadership did their best to conciliate the Fuhrer, and when that failed and they were obliged to declare war, they planned to sit tight and do nothing that might cause trouble. But that didn’t work, either, so when Hitler invaded and overran France and the Low Countries, they were prepared to face up to the facts of life and seek to arrange a peace agreement.
Alas, Winston Churchill wouldn’t let them get away with it. Filled with romantic dreams of glory and sentimental nostalgia for the 19th century, the far-flung battle line, and dominion over palm and pine, he insisted that Britain was in the war to defeat Nazi Germany, and there was no alternative to military victory. Not only did he think it would be “certainly better to be an American rather than a German protectorate, “but he was sufficiently deluded to believe that acquiescence in a Nazi-dominated Europe would be unthinkable, that no treaty with Hitler would be worth the paper it was printed on for very long, and that an England that might be permitted to carry on under Adolf Hitler’s sufferance would be no England worth living in at all.
So, instead of seeking an agreement that would have enabled Britain to hold onto its cash reserves and keep its Empire intact, Churchill insisted on the expenditure of “blood, toil, tears and sweat” in order to “wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us” in pursuit of “Victory—victory at all costs.”
Thus misled, the British people stood up to Hitler long enough for the United States and the Soviet Union to join the fray, with the result that Nazi Germany was defeated. The price of national honor turned out to be financial bankruptcy, loss of the Empire, the end of British status as a world power, Soviet domination of eastern Europe, and American leadership of the Free World—in short, the End of Glory.
So argues John Charmley, in a revisionist biography whose 649 pages of text and 52 pages of double-columned notes belie the fact that it is in inception and execution a partisan tract, with an animus against its subject that will grant him absolutely nothing. The Winston Churchill of this volume is an almost unmitigated disaster to his country. To find this book’s counterpart one must turn to the debunking biographies of the 1920’s, or Lytton Strachey on Cardinal Manning, or John T. Flynn on F.D.R., or perhaps H.L. Mencken on Woodrow Wilson.
That Sir Winston was a flawed human, who made mistakes, that he was no stranger either to ambition or to egocentricity, has long been known. But that he recognized the evil of Nazi Germany almost at once when others did not, and led his island nation in a heroic fight to preserve its freedom, and in so doing—and in no merely metaphorical sense—saved the Western world, has been generally conceded.
What is happening now, however, is that as memories of those days and the emotions they evoked have ebbed, a new school of historians has come forth, whose members never knew the sound of air-raid sirens or the drone of buzz bombs, heard the Führer’s voice over the wireless pledging vengeance upon England, or sang “There’ll Always Be an England. “What’s so great about having saved the Western world from the Nazis? they want to know. Why wasn’t Adolf Hitler allowed to go his own way unhindered, and the people of Continental Europe left to fend for themselves? What did the deaths of millions of European Jews, Slavs, and others matter in the scheme of things?
Revisionist history-writing is, of course, no new phenomenon. These days it is characteristic of the British right; in the 1960’s and 1970’s the revisionists were from the political left. What is common to all such activity is the intent to effect a violent reversal of the reigning historical consensus, whatever that may happen to be at the time. The young historians of the New Left in the 1960’s and 1970’s were busily proving that the Cold War was a conspiracy of American imperialism, and the Marshall Plan no more than a scheme for the economic victimization of the Third World. The motive for all this was obvious: it was a way of protesting against the war in Vietnam. What better way to do that, if one were a historian, than to demonstrate that one’s elders were self-serving hypocrites, who used pious platitudes to cloak cynical aggressiveness and economic buccaneering?
To say this is not to contend that there is no place for revised interpretation of the past, or that the reasons why people say and believe that they have acted at various junctures in history are necessarily sacred. Unexamined assumptions, half-truths, fallible judgments, and special pleadings have ever been the way of humankind. At the same time, though, if there is one thing that may be learned from the study of historiography, it is that the needs and the values of the historian’s own time play an important part in the interpretation of the past. Nor need one be an historical relativist to acknowledge the difficulties of any attempt to put oneself in the place of the historical figures of a different era, and to see the world and their place within it as they viewed such things. Human nature itself may not change very much, but the terms whereby that nature expresses itself can differ profoundly from one era to another.
The revisionist impulse, however, involves more than merely an impulse to interpret the past anew. There is, after all, a considerable difference between recognizing that the assumptions of an historian’s own day are bound to color any assessment of the past, and setting out to write history with the fervent conviction that all previous efforts to interpret the subject one is scrutinizing were no more than willful distortions of truth, compounded of mythology and self-congratulation, and therefore crying out for unmasking.
What propels the dedicated revisionist is the urgent desire to upset the applecart, and to play the role of fearless exposer of the previous generation’s historical evasions, clever distortions, and crafty cover-ups. Add to this a soupçon of épater le bourgeois, and you have not only John Charmley and today’s young Brits, but the writing of history as a species of patricide.
The current World War II revisionism is emanating principally from political conservatives—Charmley describes himself as a right-wing Thatcherite. No breathtaking imaginative leap is needed to recognize why this might be so. Great Britain is not only no longer a major political and military power, but in industrial and economic position it has receded to the second rank. The British Empire, the dissolution of which Churchill announced he had no intention of presiding over, is not of transcendent importance in the global scheme of things.
Meanwhile the Cold War that followed the destruction of the Axis Powers in World War II has ended; the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain have been dismantled, and East and West Germany have resumed existence as a single nation. In effect the economic and cultural malaise that surfaced in the late 19th century, reached crisis proportions in 1914, and thereafter for some eight decades divided the Western world into opposing armed camps, has finally resolved itself. This is not to say, of course, that there will not be new crises, but these are likely to be of a different sort and draw upon different alignments of forces.
Over the course of that 80-year period there were various switches in national allegiance, but the one abiding tie throughout the entire time was that between Great Britain and the United States. However tardy, the U.S.may have been in entering both wars, and despite momentary divergences such as the Suez affair in 1956, there has been a continuity in cultural, social, and, in the last analysis, political outlook that has been as deep-seated as it has been pervasive. Its existence was demonstrated again during the Falkland Islands episode of 1982.
What has happened, however, is that Great Britain’s status within what Churchill called “the English-speaking peoples” has changed from one of senior partner, to co-equal, and then to subordinate. At the close of the first decade of the 20th century, the British Empire seemed to be at its grandest—an island kingdom of some 38, 000, 000 exercising economic and political suzereignty over an empire of some 350, 000, 000 constituting a quarter of the world’s population. But the head start in industrialization and the political stability that had enabled Britain to establish and maintain its empire had ceased to provide the necessary competitive edge. Not only were other empires being carved out, but the natives were getting increasingly restless.
At least from the days of the Boer War onward, the evidence that the Empire was in trouble was there to read. The transformation in relative importance was taking shape throughout the period 1880—1914; the First World War made it obvious; the Second World War confirmed it; and the decades of the Cold War completed the process. Colonial empires have not coped very well over the past half-century, and without the wealth of a colonial empire to sustain it, the United Kingdom was unable to retain its position. Militarily, economically, and to a certain extent culturally—though, and this is important, not for the high culture—the United States has become by far the more powerful partner.
To appreciate the effect of the above upon certain young Englishmen of right-wing persuasion, it is important to keep in mind that this shrinkage of wealth and power took place at the same time that the British ruling class was losing its hegemony over government and finance. Although undeniably facets of the class system still remain, the period from the First World War onward has seen a formidable democratization of British life. As David Cannadine demonstrates in The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (1990), the old British establishment’s control was far more massive than that in any other European nation, and its erosion thus all the more traumatic.”Between 1880 and 1914, the world that [young British patricians] had been brought up to dominate and to control had emphatically turned against them. And between 1914 and 1918, it was turned completely upsidedown.”
World War II and the Labour government put the finishing touches on the transaction. To quote Cannadine, “In the world of Wilson and Callaghan, Heath and Foot, public life in Britain was less aristocratic than it had been in the days of Attlee. And in the rampantly petty-bourgeois world of Thatcher, where self-made men are her ideal, the old territorial class appears—with very few exceptions—at best anachronistic and at worst plain irrelevant.”
What all this meant was that wealth, education, and family connections no longer provided automatic entree and status, whether for a young gentleman or, as often happens, a young scion of the middle class equipped with a university education and covetous of rising to privileged station. Indeed, for the latter it is likely to be an especially dismaying business. To have worked so hard to attain elevation to the establishment, and then to find that it no longer runs the show! It is like sneaking under what looked like a circus tent, only to find that a revival is going on inside.
Is it any wonder, then, that a young English academic historian of Tory sentiments and loyalties, entering upon a career at a time when the Cold War drew to an end and a realization of the diminished status of Britain seemed to coincide with the greatly reduced status of the old establishment, might look around for a target, a scapegoat upon which to heap all one’s resentment of the lowered expectations and worsened estate? And that, having no personal memories of what Churchill called his countrymen’s “finest hour” and reviewing what happened from a perspective dominated by dissatisfaction at the diminished present, he would find precisely that target in the person of the statesman who led his country at the time of greatest peril, and who did indeed, however unwillingly, “preside over the dissolution of the British Empire”? That in fact it had been going on at an accelerating pace for more than a half-century before Churchill became prime minister was irrelevant. To adapt a Latin tag, post hoc, ergo propter hoc— Churchill was in place when the mortgage came due, therefore he was to blame for borrowing the money.
It is this frame of mind that accounts for the emotional fervor which seems to be producing not only John Charmley’s indictment of Churchill and his earlier apologia for Neville Chamberlain and his umbrella diplomacy, but a spate of revisionist works of history calling into question the values and assumptions on which the conduct of British affairs were based during the greater part of the 20th century.
Not surprisingly, there has been an attempt to refurbish the tarnished reputations of those historical figures such as Chamberlain and Lord Halifax who, whether by intention or general debility of spirit, sought to delay or to avoid coming to grips with the menace of Nazi Germany. Andrew Roberts’ biography of Halifax, The Holy Fox (1991), for example, depicts that sad-eyed temporizing Tory as a much-maligned statesman: “it was largely due to his unceasing efforts for peace that Britain could enter the war as the champion of wronged and outraged Civilization”!
It was also due to Halifax and his associates that every effort to stop Hitler before he could play havoc with that Civilization was thwarted, and that anyone who desired to do so was resolutely kept out of office. It was Halifax who visited the Third Reich in 1936 and made it quite clear to Hitler himself that Great Britain had no objections to the Anschluss of Austria, the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, and the enforced annexation of Danzig. Some “champion of wronged and outraged Civilization”!
There has also been an effort to rehabilitate Hitler’s Germany itself, to suggest that, while of course its excesses are to be deplored, it was not really as monstrous as depicted, and after all, it was dedicated to defeating communism.(Either that, or the revisionist simply glides over the matter. Charmley, for example, can publish a biography of Churchill running to 300,000+ words without having anything to say about Dachau, Auschwitz, Treblinka, etc.) By refusing to seek an accommodation with Hitler, Churchill and Franklin D.Roosevelt only made things worse for the Jews, Poles, and other victims of Nazi conquest. Besides, if left alone Hitler would have concentrated his aggressive impulses on the Untermenschen of Eastern Europe. After all, the Fuhrer really admired the English. Didn’t he say so himself on several occasions?
And so on. I recently read a book by yet another young British historian which advanced the thesis that it was really France, and not Imperial Germany and Austria-Hungary, that was most to blame for causing the First World War! It seems that the French had never accepted the enforced cession of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and were so bent upon recovering them that they saw the crisis over Serbia as an opportunity to get Germany involved in a two-front war. They thus encouraged the Russians to begin mobilization, knowing that once that was under way the Germans would have to begin hostilities in order to fend off an attack on themselves and their Austro-Hungarian allies.
It follows that the British, through having already entered into an agreement to coordinate their military and naval plans with France, were much to blame for the advent of the war, because they allowed themselves to get into the position of having a moral obligation to come to the aid of France if the Germans attacked. Thus the French felt safe in taking on the Germans.
It is true, of course, that France did very much want Alsace and Lorraine back, but there is little evidence to validate the theory that she was willing to go to war in order to recover them. On the contrary, French public opinion in 1914 was strongly against war. But if one is going to revise history in order to find a culprit for the decline of the British Empire, why stop with Winston Churchill alone? Why not go back and rewrite the events leading up to 1914?
The nub of the revisionist argument is that if Britain had made peace with Hitler, whether before or after the Battle of Britain, the British Empire would have remained intact and the post-1945 Communist domination of Eastern Europe and the Cold War would not have happened. What can one say to such hindsight? The idea that in order to be able to concentrate Germany’s full resources on his true heart’s desire, the destruction of Soviet Russia, Adolf Hitler sincerely wanted peace, is undoubtedly correct—provided that what is meant by “peace” is understood. Given Hitler’s temperament and ambitions, “peace” on such terms would have consisted of a period of a few years during which the Wehrmacht thoroughly crushed the Soviet Union, paused to recuperate, and then proceeded to take care of the British. Indeed, Hitler himself said as much; as Matthew Cooper notes in The German Army, 1933—1945 (1978), at a conference with his generals on July 31, 1940, the Nazi dictator told them that “decisive victory could be achieved only by the defeat of Britain, but this might be brought about by elimination of the Soviet Union, which, together with the neutralization of the United States by the power of Japan, would end all hope for the little island.”
What the approach omits, for one thing, is the nature of the war lord that Hitler aspired to be and was. The notion that such a person, having crushed Russia and made himself master of the continent of Europe and much of Asia, would have been sated, and willing thereafter to coexist peaceably with Great Britain, flies in the face of several thousand years of recorded behavior on the part of military conquerors. When one victory is achieved and one nation subdued, the war lord looks around for another target. Each specified objective is at bottom no more than a means to permit a war to be waged. Why, for example, did Bonaparte choose to renew hostilities against England within two years after signing the Treaty of Amiens in 1802? He had achieved all his supposed objectives, extended the boundaries of France beyond those of the ancien regime, regained the overseas colonies seized by the British, secured the recognition of the crowned houses of Europe. There was no real economic or political logic to Napoleon’s decision to recommence war. The warfare itself, the winning of victories on battlefields, was what he coveted.
In the same way, in order to unleash his armies, Adolf Hitler invented the pretexts for his wars. As the Führer himself put it in 1943, “I am no ordinary soldier-king but a war lord—probably the most successful in history. “If there is any hard evidence that he intended to stop finding pretexts to permit military onslaughts, no one has ever produced it.(As for what he would have done with the atomic bomb, on which his scientists were at work in the early 1940’s, one shudders to think.)
The belief that because Hitler was bent upon attacking the Soviet Union, he should have been left to do so, and that the Nazi and Communist regimes would then have proceeded to exhaust each other’s military might in a protracted war fought in Eastern Europe, is of course cherished by revisionists. It is an example of wishful looking-back at its most glittering.(I should note here that John Charmley does not himself advance this particular argument itself. One gets the idea, however, from what he has to say about the Russians later on, that he would certainly not quarrel with the notion.)
Historically it presupposes that Great Britain could be certain that a German assault on the Soviet Union would turn into a knockdown, dragout affair that would be exhausting to conqueror and conquered alike. But in 1940 and 1941 that was scarcely a permissible assumption. What with the overwhelming success of the Nazi blitzkrieg in Poland in 1939 and in Norway, France, and the Low Countries in 1940, as contrasted with the abysmal performance of the Red Army against Finland in 1939—40, the probability of a rapid German conquest of the Soviet Union, at relatively little cost in manpower and equipment, was quite high. That Churchill and his military advisers could have foreseen the massive resistance that Russia was able to put up, and the ensuing three-and-a-half year bloodletting, is most unlikely.
“Barbarossa, “the German onslaught against Russia, was three-pronged: a northern thrust aimed at Leningrad, a central thrust through White Russia against Minsk, Smolensk, and ultimately Moscow, and a southern thrust through the Ukraine toward the Crimea and the Caucasus. Hitler’s generals urged him to give primacy to the drive on Moscow, rather than to throw badly-needed divisions and equipment into the drive southward. They reasoned that to capture Moscow would not only give them possession of the Soviet Union’s political, economic, and military center and the heavy industrial facilities around and to the east of the capital, but by destroying the center of the Russian communications system bring about a virtual paralysis of the enemy’s ability to resist effectively. Hitler, however, refused to give priority to the capture of Moscow until too late in the summer, and then was unwilling to divert forces from the southern front to augment the attack. Even so, German spearheads eventually reached within ten miles of Moscow.
Had the Wehrmacht been able to use in the Barbarossa offensive even as many as half of the 51 divisions and equipment then deployed in Western Europe, and had the Luftwaffe been freed from the need to defend against British air attacks on the cities of Germany, it is quite likely that there would have been ample forces to take Moscow and to drive on to eliminate much of the heavy industry located beyond it. As Cooper points out in The German Army, 1933—1945, “ If the advancing armies could achieve the line Leningrad-Moscow-Rostov before the winter [of 1941—1942] made further movement impossible, before the divisions from the Far East could move west, and before the Soviet mobilization machinery could produce too many field divisions, victory would indeed be possible.”
So the fact that when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, the British, though without a bridgehead on the continent, were still very much in the war and tying down almost one-fourth of the Wehrmacht’s divisions and no small portion of the German air force clearly had a formidable impact upon the German failure to destroy the Soviet Union’s powers of resistance in the swift, lethal campaign that Barbarossa was meant to be. Thus the hypothesis that Great Britain could have made peace and then allowed the German and Soviet war machines to wear each other out in eastern Europe will not stand up to scrutiny.
If. . . . It is so tempting to isolate a single factor, a single action not taken or decision not made, without regard to its full historical context, and to say that if only this or that had been done, all would have turned out differently. The assumption is that whatever else happened both before and afterwards would have stayed in place unchanged. But history doesn’t work that way. One action causes a compensating action, which in turn results in another, and so on.
Even if it is assumed that Hitler would have been willing to allow Great Britain to go its own way once the Soviet Union had been conquered and subdued, which is a very great deal to assume, is it likely that a humiliated and demoralized United Kingdom could have held onto its overseas possessions for very long? What would have been the response of Canada to England’s knuckling under? Would it have remained a loyal part of the British Empire? What would have happened when the Japanese moved upon the British territories and possessions in southeast Asia? And what of India? Would it have been content to stay quiescent?
How long would the Suez Canal, that vital link between the United Kingdom and its overseas possessions, have stayed under British control? Britain was also engaged in a war with Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Italy. It is true that the Italian army had shown little aptitude for desert warfare in North Africa, and Germany had been forced to send an Afrika Korps to its rescue. But that Hitler would have stood by for very long once the Duce renewed his designs upon the British protectorates in North Africa and the Middle East seems improbable.
Moreover, the Spain of Francisco Franco, emboldened by Britain’s acquiescence and with Hitler’s encouragement and blessing, would surely have demanded the cession of Gibraltar. How long, therefore, would the Mediterranean Sea have remained open to the British Navy and to British commerce? And how long would it have been before the industrial might of a victorious Germany, able now to draw upon the full resources of a conquered Europe, created a Luftwaffe of overpowering strength and a submarine fleet that could erase British shipping from the high seas?
What then of the great Empire that a peace agreement with Adolf Hitler supposedly would have been saved for Britain? Every likelihood is that it would have commenced to disintegrate almost at once, and the more so because, peace agreement or no peace agreement, Britain could not have dared to employ its fleet and its resources elsewhere in the face of even the possibility of a cross-channel invasion by the Germans.
Lastly, what would have been the impact, politically and psychologically, of such a pact with Nazi Germany upon Great Britain itself? What would have been its effect upon the tradition of free speech, individual liberties, religious freedom, minority rights, and democratic government that, for all the lingering class system that still marked English society, had evolved over the course of 500 years of immunity from foreign invasion? Would England have remained the England that we knew, and that we know today?
To put the question another way, could the England that we knew, the England of Winston Churchill, ever have consented, once engaged in a war, to accept a peace treaty dictated by Nazi Germany? To contend that it ought to have done so, that it was in its long-range economic interests to have done so, is, finally, irrelevant.
Churchill had come to power, after his long years of political banishment, precisely because he embodied the national determination to stand up to the threat that Hitler’s Germany constituted to British freedom. The evasions, moral compromises, and submissions of the 1930’s were over. To suggest that the people of England—as distinguished, perhaps, from the old men of the Conservative Party—would have been willing to acquiesce in what would obviously be a humiliating, craven settlement while that menace still existed, is to misread the times, the place, and the people.
In his biographical put-down of Britain’s wartime leader, Charmley spends considerable effort in developing the point that in 1945 Churchill ended up acquiescing in Russian control of Poland, which he depicts as making a hypocrisy and travesty of Churchill’s insistence upon combating Germany for attacking Poland in 1939—the implication being that in not wishing to stop Hitler, the appeasers were justified. As if there were no distinction to be made between a response to the naked and unprovoked aggression of Nazi Germany, and to the actions, however ruthless, taken to create a postwar defensive buffer of satellite states by a wartime ally whose borders had been invaded, cities devastated, and twenty million of whose citizenry had perished!
The creation of the Iron Curtain in 1945—1947, for all its potentiality for flare-ups, was basically a defensive measure. The Soviet Union’s essential strategy in the ensuing Cold War was to move in where it could, but to stop short of war. It could be, and was finally, “contained. “Hitler’s Germany, by contrast, had only one posture: military conquest, and no strategy of containment could have worked for very long.
I noted earlier that Charmley is able to equate Hitler’s domination of Europe during World War II with America’s postwar economic and political hegemony. While to be subjected to the latter is “certainly preferable, “the difference between the two is supposedly one of degree rather than of kind. With equal logic, one might say that having a wisdom tooth removed is “certainly preferable” to castration.
It is Charmley’s contention that the great error of Winston Churchill’s thinking was his sentimental reliance upon the United States of America and its president, Franklin D. Roosevelt. In so arguing, he offers a picture of the American scene during the early years of the war that is difficult for one who actually remembers the period to recognize. I quote a representative comment: “Despite the Churchillian legend, to which American participants in the war were only too happy to pay lip-service later, there was no widespread desire in June or July 1940 to help the British.”
To students of 20th-century American history, this will come as a considerable surprise. Certainly there was an articulate Isolationist contingent in the nation, particularly in the Midwest, and there would have been little support for entering the war as a belligerent at the time. But public opinion was overwhelmingly on the side of Britain; an opinion poll taken in July, 1940, indicated that seven out of ten Americans believed that a Nazi victory would place the United States in danger, and so were in favor of assistance to the embattled British. Despite the parlous condition of American arms, the War Department turned over extensive stocks of surplus or outdated arms, munitions, and aircraft to Britain. In the month of June alone, more than $43, 000, 000 worth of supplies were dispatched across the Atlantic. It wasn’t much, but it was all the United States had; as late as a year later, America’s own expanding armed forces were conducting maneuvers with make-believe weapons because the available equipment had been sent to England the summer before. Charmley to the contrary notwithstanding, the retrospective judgment of an operative in the German Abwehr military counter-intelligence service, that “In the year 1940, America saved England, “is, though overstated, a more accurate summation of what the president and a large majority of the American people desired.
The United States, after all, was not at war with Germany in 1940, and Roosevelt was being savagely assailed by his opponents as a warmonger who if reelected would surely plunge the nation into war. The power to declare war was vested in Congress, not the president. What Roosevelt was able and willing to do under the circumstances seems, in retrospect, quite remarkable. If there were times when even a desperate Winston Churchill expressed exasperation at the seeming tardiness of the American response to what he perceived as the common danger, most reputable historians of the period would rate Roosevelt’s efforts to support an embattled Britain as highly effective.
The fact that Americans in general, including Roosevelt, had no great admiration for Great Britain’s far-flung Empire as such is another matter; when it came down to the question of England versus Nazi Germany, there was little doubt of where U.S.sympathies lay. Otherwise Roosevelt would not have been able to do what he did.
Without question the United States profited from the sale of arms, aircraft, munitions, and other material of war to Britain, and just as in World War I, it emerged from the conflict in far better economic condition than did its allies. The effect of England’s involvement in the two wars was to bring it close to bankruptcy. The task of standing up to the enemies of the free world is an expensive business, as the United States subsequently discovered during the Cold War. Moreover, like the United States, Britain now confronts the ironic fact that the two countries that were the principal enemies, Germany and Japan, have emerged from the long ordeal in highly prosperous condition, having been spared the expense of maintaining the military deterrent to Soviet expansion. This is very much a part of the dissatisfaction prompting the revisionist impulse, and understandably so. (I’ve no doubt that as the memory of the Berlin Airlift and the Korean War fades, the revisionists of a future era will be demonstrating that the defense of the West and the containment of the Soviet Union were quite unnecessary, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization a waste of time and money. Indeed, the partisans of the New Left, in their zeal to attack our Vietnam involvement, were already saying as much in the late 1960’s and 1970’s.)
There is no point in taking up all of John Charmley’s arguments in deflation of what he considers the “Churchill Myth. “The basic thrust of the biography is that Churchill was a romantic Victorian whose egocentricity was exceeded only by his ambition. He is granted precious few statesmanly virtues. Even the notion that the reason why Churchill wanted, in 1943 and 1944, to carry the war into the Balkans was to prevent the advancing Russians from dominating all of Eastern and Central Europe is scouted. If Charmley is to be believed, Churchill had no such foresight, for he almost never took the long-range view of anything. His decisions were based on love of adventure and military audacity, not on rational calculation. The wartime prime minister comes off as a cross between Harry Hotspur and Don Quixote.
That the world, and in particular the Western world, would have been a more comfortable place to live in if it had managed to remain at peace can scarcely be doubted. The cost exacted by the failure of human beings to be wiser and more peaceable than they proved to be—close to 100, 000, 000 dead, untold billions of dollars spent on the materiel for killing them—is appalling to contemplate. Yet to single out a particular event during that time, a specific decision, and to say that if only it hadn’t happened, or had happened differently, then all or most of the catastrophe could have been avoided, is a profitless undertaking. And to contend that individuals of good will, finding themselves caught up in that terrible happening, could or should have declined to stand up to both the immediate and the long-range threat posed to themselves, their countries, and all that they believed in, is to acquiesce in the very barbarity and destructiveness itself. It was indeed a time when, in the poet Yeats’ words, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity. “Fortunately there was a Winston Churchill who saw what was at stake.
It is so tempting to look back at the eight decades of hot and cold war, and to try to argue that the whole wretched business was not worth the effort. But in essence what the argument amounts to is a fond wish that the 20th century hadn’t happened, that not only the war against Hitler’s Germany but that against the Kaiser’s Germany as well had never taken place, and that somewhere around the globe, for 24 hours of each day the sun still shone upon the Union Jack. Ernest Hemingway’s character Jake Barnes provides the proper answer for this at the conclusion of The Sun Also Rises: “ Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
If one is a young Briton of relatively limited expectations who feels deprived of proper status and forced to make one’s way in a plebeian world, it must indeed be pretty to think that it could and should all have happened differently, that by rights the Empire should still be intact, with Britannia continuing to rule the waves and the pre-1914 establishment still in control of government. But it didn’t happen that way, and scolding one’s elders for standing up to Nazi Germany in 1940 will not bring back either the British Empire or the Garden of Eden.