British historian Andrews Roberts discusses his magnificent new biography of Winston Churchill, including his political incorrectness by contemporary standards, his views on “Christian civilization,” his relations with FDR and Stalin, his ability to speak to the ages, and his affirmation of liberty for all people.
Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy, as well as president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy. We’re based in Washington, DC, but I’m sitting in suburban Alexandria, Virginia today on the federal holiday Columbus Day with the wonderful opportunity to speak with British historian Andrew Roberts about his outstanding biography of Winston Churchill, Walking with Destiny, which, I was just explaining to Andrew, brought me into a sense of mourning that the book had to end. I enjoyed it so much, and thank you so much for joining us.
Roberts: Thank you. It’s a delight to be on.
Tooley: Churchill is, amazingly, a little bit out of fashion. And today, obviously, there have been the attacks on some of his statues. I’d be curious on the status of his statue in London as of today. But why is he out of fashion, and why should he always be relevant no matter what time or culture we find ourselves in, in terms of this being a man whose accomplishments and whose voice speak to the ages and not just to Britain in the mid-20th century?
Roberts: It’s very good question, Mark. He’s out of fashion because of his views on race. He was born in 1874 when Charles Darwin was still alive, and he conformed to the view that was held by the scientific community at the time, that the white races were in a sort of hierarchy, at the top of a hierarchy of races. Something that we know today to be completely absurd and, indeed, obscene. But something that was taken for granted by the scientific establishment of the day, and for the most of the early part of his life. And so, his stance on this led him, unfortunately, to make what we would today consider to be totally unacceptable racist jokes. And the fact that he actually stood up for the native peoples of the British Empire, the fact that he protected them down in South Africa against the Boers, the fact that he fought to protect them in the northwest frontier of India and in Sudan and so on, and abolish slavery there in Sudan, all of these things seem to matter nothing at all to the radicals today who want to destroy his statue, or at least if the statue is too powerful and strong, like it is in Parliament Square, to deface it and write graffiti on it. So, it’s a case really of unhistorical and, in my view, extremely ignorant attacks.
Tooley: And is it true that in many ways Churchill is more widely and deeply admired in America than he is in Britain, or is that not the case?
Roberts: I think that is the case. In fact, yes. I mean, he’s considered, he always gets to the top of all of the polls whenever there’s a vote on who’s the greatest Englishman who ever lived. Winston Churchill always wins completely, regardless of this new sense of the sort of radical assault on his reputation because most people, of course, are able to see the historical context for what it is. But in America, you’re not hung up on the rather obscure sides of the attacks on Churchill’s reputation about what he did with striking miners in Tonypandy in Wales in 1911, for example. That kind of thing doesn’t seem to, thankfully, worry Americans. And by the way, it shouldn’t either, because the myths about what he did in 1911, I go into it in my book, are completely miles away from the truth. So, you’re able to have your distance of 3000 miles and see the wood for the trees. You’re able to actually notice the important things about Churchill and not get hung up with the trivial things.
Tooley: Now, Churchill was not necessarily personally devout in terms of his religious faith, as you make clear in this book. But he did have a spiritual sense of certainly Britain and of the empire and more widely of Western civilization, which he often referred to as Christendom. So, he seemed to have a sense that Christianity had, at the very least, culturally shaped the civilization that he was defending.
Roberts: Oh, very much so. No, absolutely. He described himself as a bit like flying buttress in that he supported the church, but from the outside. And he had a strong view of an Almighty. And although if you look theologically sort of closely into it, the primary duty of the Almighty was to look after Winston Churchill.
Tooley: Which He did.
Roberts: Which He certainly did on a number of occasions. Yeah, the number of times that he had near death experiences is quite extraordinary. And on one occasion, when he left the dugout in the front trench during the Western Front offensive in the First World War and the German whiz bang high explosive hit the trench five minutes after he left it and decapitated everyone inside, he said that he felt that he could hear invisible wings beating over him, which is obviously a very strong Christian image. He believed that Jesus Christ was the most ethical person. He thought that the Sermon on the Mount was what he called “the last word in ethics.” But because of some Victorian atheist writer called Winwood Reade, which he read when he was in his early 20s in northern India, he was unable to bring himself to believe that the Savior was divine. And so, that key point at which he needed to sort of cross over to become a Christian was something that he always balked at.
Tooley: He at times enjoyed the pageantry and ceremony of Christian worship, especially the more majestic hymns.
Roberts: He used to burst into tears at them all the time. Weddings, funerals, he would be, as he said, “I’m a great blubberer.” Church had the effect actually very often of making him blub. Although, having said that, so did lots of other things. A military parade would have him in tears. The story of a noble dog walking through the snow to its master would have him in tears, too. Sometimes he cried during chiefs of staff meetings in order to try to get them to change their mind and follow his advice. So, yes, church did have an effect on him, but so did lots of other things. I think that’s the best way really to sum up his, but he was always, as I say, he was always a great admirer and respecter of the Christian religion that he never for a moment doubted the centrality to Western civilization of the Judeo-Christian traditions.
Tooley: Perhaps among the many reasons that Churchill and FDR connected so well was both coming from aristocratic backgrounds. Of course, Churchill’s mother was from New York herself, like FDR, and also their common Anglican heritage. Was their relationship more practical or was it also personally warm and personally appreciative?
Roberts: It was extremely personally warm, yes. From the moment they met each other the second time. The first time they met had been during the First World War and frankly, Roosevelt, as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, wasn’t so important that Winston Churchill, who thought himself tremendously important at that time, took much notice of him. But the second time they met, when FDR was president, they got on like a house on fire. They had much the same kind of sense of humor. As you say, they came from the same aristocratic background. They came from much the same political background, of course, because the Tory democracy of Winston Churchill did overlap in many ways with the New Deal kind of politics that FDR was espousing. And they enjoyed alcohol, although actually funny enough, Churchill did not like the cocktails that FDR mixed for him in the White House. He much preferred other kinds of alcohol. But nonetheless, they enjoyed eating and drinking together. They enjoyed jokes. They enjoyed history. They were both fascinated by the Navy, of course, Churchill having been a First Lord of the Admiralty. And by far and away the most important thing, of course, was the practical side of it, which is that they had to get on with one another because they were the two closest allies in a war against the evilest tyrant the world had ever seen.
Tooley: As you know, many, especially American conservatives, portray FDR as naive in terms of Stalin and the Soviet Union and Churchill was wise by comparison. But if I understand your portrayal of Yalta and other issues, both FDR and Churchill were practical in terms of recognizing Stalin had Eastern Europe with his overwhelming troop strength and you could only make the best deal you could get, was that basically your view?
Roberts: Yes, I go into this in some detail in chapter 30 of my book where really, if you’ve got the Red Army with a million troops in Poland, there’s very little that can actually physically be done to get rid of them. And especially after the Russians had lost 27 million in the course of the Second World War. And of course, the British and American publics were very pro-Russian. They called Stalin “Uncle Joe.” It was an incredibly difficult political situation for them. But Churchill was tremendously brave I think in his Iron Curtain speech on the 5th of March 1946 within a year after the war in pointing out the dangers posed by Stalin in Eastern Europe. And although at the Yalta Conference back in February 1945, he had to really put up, he and FDR had to put up with trying to do their best and believe Stalin, who was quite clearly lying to them about the integrity and independence of Poland, nonetheless their alternatives were strictly limited.
Tooley: And as you point out, Churchill’s so-called “naughty agreement” with Stalin essentially saved Greece from the fate of the rest of Eastern Europe by giving Britain a 90% advantage in that country, which Stalin oddly seems to have respected.
Roberts: Well, that’s right. But I’m not sure it is so odd when you consider what the rest of the “naughty documents,” and not my words, I hasten to add, but Churchill’s and what the rest of the naughty documents of October 1944 gave Stalin in terms of Romania, Bulgaria, and other parts of Eastern Europe. And they were going to go 50-50 over Yugoslavia, of course, which did manage to stay out of the Soviet realm, and also didn’t come into the capitalist West either. Actually, it was a wonderful deal as far as Greece was concerned, and kept Greece on our side of the Iron Curtain as a democracy. But equally, Stalin could think that it worked quite well for him as well because it meant that he wouldn’t be coming up against problems in Bulgaria and Romania. And frankly, with the kind of armed forces that the Red Army had in both Bulgaria and Romania by May 1945 there was very little the West could have done about that either. So, in fact, I think it was an extremely good, a good deal for the West.
Tooley: And Churchill, as you recall in your book, but it’s also widely cited that Churchill informed his colleagues and essentially counseled his successors that Britain should never separate itself from the United States. And I suppose his successors have largely heeded that advice, possibly with the exception of Anthony Eden on Suez, which Churchill, of course, did not so much approve of, did he?
Roberts: Well, his stance was that he wouldn’t have had the courage to go in. But once he had gone in, he wouldn’t have had the courage to come out. So, yes. I mean, Anthony Eden was around that table and listening to Churchill’s advice at the last cabinet meeting on the 7th of April 1955. And if anybody listened carefully, it should have been Anthony Eden because he was going to be prime minister immediately after on the next day. But he did separate himself from the Americans. One can argue about whether or not the Americans played the Suez crisis as well as they could have, considering the dangers that were thrown up by Arab nationalism which was started in the Suez crisis, which has damaged American interests globally I think more than British. Ultimately one could argue that President Eisenhower should have been a bit more pro-Western over the Suez crisis, but very different times of course.
Tooley: Your book not so much, but other biographies have often portrayed Churchill as despairing in his final years and not appreciating his vast accomplishments. But did he truly appreciate all that he had done in terms of saving Britain and Western civilization?
Roberts: I think in terms of those two things yes. But you will have to remember that all the way through his life, and this is perhaps another of the reasons going back to your first question, why his reputation is under assault at the moment, but it has to be remembered that he was a British imperialist. He believed in the British Empire. He believed in the advantages that the colonial office was able to give to the native peoples of the British Empire. And he believed that for the vast majority of time, the vast majority of territory of the British Empire was well governed, and better government than those places had been before. And so, as a result, he was a believer in the Empire. And by 1965, by the time of his death in 1965, the Empire was as good as over. We’d given back India in 1947. We’d given back the African and Asian colonies in the 1950s and early 1960s, and so the Empire was over. And he thought of himself therefore as a failure, even though, of course, the rest of us very much see him as a great success because of the part that he played in destroying Adolf Hitler.
Tooley: And finally, Andrew, of course the critics focus on Churchill as the imperialist, but wasn’t Churchill at heart a believer in the Anglo political ethic in terms of its universality — its affirmation of liberty for all people, dignity for all people? And in that sense, Churchill is a man for every age and all cultures.
Roberts: Precisely. That’s so right. His beliefs in freedom and liberty, not just for the English-speaking peoples, but for everyone in the world, and really, those are principles that should live on and deserve to be properly proselytized. And when we look at the world today with countries like China and Russia that are essentially totalitarian, and many others as well, and threatening powers like Iran and also North Korea and so on, and I think that the message that he gave us about the superiority of democracy over every other single system that’s yet been invented is something that is as true today as it was when he said it, and will be true in the future. So, as well as his great resilience and his intellect and his humor and his foresight and so on. I think the reason that we should still be interested in him and reading his books and reading about him is because he tells truths that will live for us for as long as the English tongue.
Tooley: Andrew Roberts, author of Churchill: Walking with Destiny, thank you for a wonderful conversation.
Roberts: Thank you.