CCLaP Fridays: The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965, by William Manchester and Paul Reid


Winston Churchill. The very name is iconic. With his squat build, his omnipresent cigar, the bowler hat and cane, and his bombastic rhetoric, he is a political personality every bit as beloved and controversial as Lyndon Baines Johnson and Thomas Jefferson. Defender of the Realm is the long-awaited third volume of William Manchester’s epic biography, The Last Lion. The previous volumes, Visions of Glory, 1874-1932 and Alone, 1932-1940, were written solely by William Manchester. The history behind the history, and Paul Reid’s chance meeting with Manchester, gets explained in the Author’s Note. Reid covered a reunion of the Marine Corps unit that Manchester belonged to. This led to a friendship between the two newspapermen. With Manchester’s blessing, he continued the research and writing of the final volume. Manchester had the research in place and approximately 100 pages already written before meeting Reid. Reid then took steps to finish the volume, oftentimes restructuring entire portions of the work. One can add this as a non-fictional counterpart to recent works of literary resurrection (like The Pale King by David Foster Wallace, The Original of Laura by Vladimir Nabokov, and Memory of Light by Robert Jordan). On a purely stylistic basis, it is reassuring that I wasn’t able to parse where William Manchester ended and Paul Reid began. For the sake of clarity, I will refer to Manchester and Reid, since both are the book’s co-authors.

Covering the years 1940 to 1965, we witness the final third of Churchill’s long life. Discussing Churchill’s prolific consumption of alcohol and cigars, Manchester and Reid note that despite these unhealthy excesses, Churchill died in his nineties. The book begins with the struggles in Parliament between the appeasement faction led by Neville Chamberlain and the pro-war faction led by Churchill. The story begins amidst the Phony War and Nazi Germany prepared to swallow France.

While the countless histories about the Second World War can be seen as daunting, the best way to appreciate and understand this global conflict is with a general overview. William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is a good enough place to start. Manchester’s own American Caesar, his biography of General Douglas MacArthur, tells a compelling story of the charismatic, arrogant, and controversial five-star general and a blow-by-blow account of the Pacific Theater. (William Manchester fought in this theater.) One of the books I read by Manchester was The Arms of Krupp, a popular history of the German arms manufacturers. In terms of broad-stroke general history, The Glory and the Dream provides a capsule history of the United States from the Bonus Army protests of the Great Depression all the way to the approach of Watergate. Granted, this is a decades-old popular history and there will be a fair share of historical discrepancies and dated interpretations. Like a classic film with archaic special effects, the reader will should appreciate it as a literary classic. Mesmerized by Manchester’s combination of verbal pyrotechnics, you-are-there journalistic immediacy, and his subtle balance of the personal and the epic make it a master class in how to lay out the Grand Narrative of Modern American History.

Defender of the Realm comes at Churchill’s personal history from the British perspective of the Second World War. The Pacific Theater remains far in the background, with U-Boat attacks in the Atlantic, the Blitz, and American reluctance to join the United Kingdom as Churchill’s immediate problems. Unlike the United States and President Roosevelt’s four terms, the British reacted with trepidation to Churchill’s usurpation of rule. It was a palace coup of sorts, with the pro-war faction muscling out Chamberlain by getting enough votes in the Parliament. After Churchill became Prime Minister, he brought together a coalition government, bringing in members of Labour, and becoming Minister of Defense. On top of his dual roles in government, Churchill suspended elections for the duration of the conflict.

How Churchill ran the government also requires one understand Churchill, the man. Manchester’s previous volumes go into more detail, but the Cliff’s Notes version will suffice for this review. Churchill’s career in public service began when he was a cavalry subaltern during the reign of Queen Victoria. A veteran of the Boer War, Churchill’s ideas about warfare would seem strange to modern readers. He hated war, but he relished combat. He was a staunch agnostic (and vocalized his anticlerical views, especially if the cleric happened to be a leftist), but believed in achievement through sheer willpower. A child of aristocratic upbringing, he never drew his own bath, drove his own car, or “paid custom” for services rendered. He belonged to the same social class as Bertie Wooster, yet wanted to see the children of the working classes rule Britain after the Second World War. A staunch imperialist, constantly butting heads with the staunch anti-imperialist Roosevelt, he struggled to preserve the British Empire and its cultural, legal, and social legacy. It was not to be.

While Churchill was a staunch imperialist whose knowledge and appreciation for non-white races was at best naive and at worst condescending, he cut a more complex figure than his Victorian values let on. (His racist views are called into account when he underestimates Japanese military prowess.) Like his ardent agnosticism, he supported the Beveridge Program, which was a political arrangement that laid the groundwork for a national health insurance and other elements of the welfare state. (Card-carrying members of the Tea Party might want to reread that sentence.) Following the Allied victory of World War Two, Britain was broke, bombed, and bewildered. Unable to sufficiently enforce its rule over its global empire, the British Empire’s sun set as the American superpower rose. Churchill, booted out as Prime Minister in 1945, waged a rhetorical battle with the Clement Attlee’s Labour. Rations continued, numerous aspects of society became nationalized and regulated, and things remained dour under austerity rule. Sitting on the front bench in the Commons, Churchill harangued Attlee’s socialist policies, not because of their aims, which he agreed with, but with their chronic mismanagement.

Despite his many positive attributes, Manchester and Reid aren’t shy about pulling punches. Churchill’s tantrums, his arrogance, his stubbornness, and his recklessness could make him seem like the worst possible leader at the worst possible time. We see Churchill lobby for his foolhardy Mediterranean gambits while the Americans lobbied for the invasion of Normandy. When he became Prime Minister, Britain truly was alone. Fighting Nazi Germany after France had fallen and the Soviet Union still in a pact with the Nazis. Even when the United States allied itself with Britain, augmented by the materiel supplied by the Lend-Lease Act, U-boats took down hundreds of thousands of tons every month. Manchester and Reid’s subtle shifts from intimate government meetings, candid journal entries, to the global scale of the conflict create a monumental panorama. One is also struck with the essential nature of a world conflict. Supply chain management. From the factory to the ship to the battlefield, the troops needed to be armed, fed, transported, and supplied with consistency. Patton needed gas. The Germans invading the Soviet Union didn’t pack winter uniforms. U-boats sinking ship after ship.

Manchester and Reid excel in seamlessly blending the macro with the micro. Since it is popular history and not an academic tome, Defender of the Realm reads like a thriller. While the momentum is lost following World War Two and Churchill’s loss to Labour in the 1945 election, the tone becomes more topical and conceptual. Churchill, a longtime anti-communist, has to refit his political ideology amidst the German defeat and the threat of Soviet hegemony in Europe. Manchester and Reid provide ample evidence that the groundwork for the Cold War began in 1943 with the Anglo-American-Soviet Alliance a fragile thing, Churchill becoming depressed that Roosevelt shrugged away his warnings about Stalin’s intentions for conquering Eastern Europe.

In the end, Defender of the Realm transcends the genre of political biography and creates a compelling portrait of Churchill: warrior, statesman, imperialist, agnostic, writer, ideologue, and family man.

Out of 10/8.9, higher for fans of political biography.

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