In 1,000 pages, there is inevitably much that has been covered by others. Accounts of Churchill’s appetite for alcohol are legion, and yet even so there is new material recounted here. He began the day with a glass of white wine, and continued with variously enumerated and interspersed doses of scotch and soda, Pol Roger Champagne, claret, port, brandy and, sometimes, beer. “I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me,” he once quipped.
Reid concludes that all this drinking impaired him little, and that he had an astonishing capacity to hold his liquor. Similarly, Reid avers, in opposition to many commentators, that Churchill did not suffer from a lifelong depression (what he called the Black Dog) – an opinion originally promoted by psychiatrist Anthony Storr and Lord Moran. “Nothing – not his moods, not Britain’s defeats, not the slow strangulation of the U-boat blockade, not his reluctant generals – impeded Churchill’s capacity to inspire his countrymen and to fight for their salvation. Nothing diminished his love for his family. Nothing undercut his love of life. If one accepts Freud’s dictum that mental health is the ability to love and work, Churchill possessed his full measure of mental health.”
While unashamedly admiring of his subject, Reid does not scrimp in pointing out how difficult Churchill could be, how wrong-headed on some subjects, how prone he was to commit serious errors of judgment or make a nuisance of himself when others were simply trying to do their jobs. He had little feel for the war in the Pacific, and allowed racial prejudice to underestimate the Japanese war-making tenacity. “As a Victorian gentleman, he thought little of the brown races, the black and the yellow,” Reid writes.
He could be a dreadful micro-manager, constantly interfering in matters of which he had very little knowledge. Appreciating what he thought was gallantry or a fighting spirit, he could misjudge individuals – such as Louis (Dickie) Mountbatten. He could drive close associates, such as Alan Brooke, chief of the Imperial General Staff, to utter distraction. “He [the PM] is in a very dangerous situation,” Brooke confided to his diary in October, 1943, “most unbalanced, and God knows how we shall finish this war if it goes on.” While he had unquestionably vast experience in war, Churchill could be hopelessly out of touch – both in his quaint terminology and, more important, in his appreciation of operational matters. And on new weaponry, he could be dead right – as with tanks – or dead wrong – as with the future of battleships.
To be sure, no book is perfect. Reid seemingly can’t get enough of Mollie Panter-Downes, a wartime correspondent for The New Yorker, and he quotes her more liberally than makes sense for achieving a breadth of view. Moreover, and inevitably, since so many of the best Churchill stories have already been told, at least some are bound to suffer in the retelling. The author occasionally contends with some classic sources on his subject, such as Sir Martin Gilbert, but I would have appreciated his comparing notes with more recent writers, such as Jon Meacham, David Reynolds, Max Hastings, Roy Jenkins or Carlo D’Este. And finally, Churchill mavens may tire toward the end of this long book, feeling that Reid loses some steam in the 100 or so pages that take Churchill from the end of the war in 1945 to his death 20 years later.
Still, like the great man himself, this book keeps focused on the essential, and provides another monument to the ideals of a generation that withstood a supreme challenge and did its best, sometimes remarkably, to prevail in the war against Hitler. Churchill embodied the best of his people during a time of great trial. As we look about the world today, we have precious few leaders about whom we can say as much, and this, together with Churchill’s great talents, flair and qualities of spirit, of course, accounts for our continuing appreciation and fascination with the man.
Michael R. Marrus’s most recent book is Some Measure of Justice: The Holocaust Era Restitution Campaign of the 1990s. He is a senior fellow of Massey College.