Sir Winston Churchill, (1874-1965), British leader. English on his father's side, American on his mother's, Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill embodied and expressed the double vitality and the national qualities of both peoples. His names testify to the richness of his historic inheritance: Winston, after the Royalist family with whom the Churchills married before the English Civil War; Leonard, after his remarkable grandfather, Leonard Jerome of New York; Spencer, the married name of a daughter of the 1st duke of Marlborough, from whom the family descended; Churchill, the family name of the 1st duke, which his descendents resumed after the Battle of Waterloo. All these strands come together in a career that had no parallel in British history for richness, range, length, and achievement.
Churchill took a leading part in laying the foundations of the welfare state in Britain, in preparing the Royal Navy for World War
I, and in settling the political boundaries in the Middle East after the war.
In World War II emerged as the leader of the united British nation and
Commonwealth to resist the German domination of Europe, as an inspirer of
the resistance among free peoples, and as a prime architect of victory. In
this, and in the struggle against communism afterward, he made himself an
indispensable link between the British and American peoples, for he foresaw that the best defense for the free world was the coming together of the English-speaking
peoples. Profoundly historically minded, he also had prophetic foresight:
British-American unity was the message of his last great book, A History
of the English-Speaking Peoples.
His dominant qualities were courage and imagination. Less obvious to the public, but no less
important, was his powerful, original, and fertile intellect. He had intense
loyalty, marked magnanimity and generosity, and an affectionate nature with
a puckish humor. Oratory, in which he ultimately became a master, he learned
the hard way, but he was a natural wit. The artistic side of his temperament
was displayed in his writings and oratorical style, as well as in his paintings.
He was a combination of soldier, writer, artist, and statesman. He was not
so good as a mere party politician. Like Julius Caesar, he stands out not
only as a great man of action, but as a writer of it too. He had genius; as
a man he was charming, gay, ebullient, endearing.
As for personal defects, such a man was bound to be a great
egoist; if that is a defect. So strong a personality was apt to be overbearing.
He was something of a gambler, always too willing to take risks. In his earlier
career, people thought him of unbalanced judgment partly from the very excess
of his energies and gifts. That is the worst that can be said of him. With
no other great man is the familiar legend more true to the facts. We know
all there is to know about him; there was no disguise.
He was born on Nov. 30, 1874, at Blenheim Palace, the famous
palace near Oxford built by the nation for John Churchill, 1st duke of Marlborough,
the great soldier. Blenheim, named after Marlborough's grandest victory (1704),
meant much to Winston Churchill. In the grounds there he became engaged to
his future wife, Clementine Ogilvy Hozier (b. 1885). He later wrote his historical
masterpiece, The Life and Times of John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough,
with the archives of Blenheim behind him.
His father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was a younger son of
the 7th duke of Marlborough. His mother was Jennie Jerome; and as her mother,
Clara Hall, was one-quarter Iroquois, Sir Winston had an Indian strain in
him. Lord Randolph, a brilliant Conservative leader who had been chancellor
of the exchequer in his 30's, died when only 46, after ruining his career.
His son wrote that one could not grow up in that household without realizing
that there had been a disaster in the background. It was an early spur to
him to try to make up for his gifted father's failure, not only in politics
and in writing, but on the turf. Young Winston, though the grandson of a duke,
had to make his own way in the world, earning his living by his tongue and
his pen. In this he had the comradeship of his mother, who was always courageous
In 1888 he entered Harrow, but he never got into the upper
school because, always self-willed, he would not study classics. He concentrated
on his own language, willingly writing English essays, and he afterward claimed
that this was much more profitable to him. In 1894 he graduated from the Royal Military College at
Sandhurst. He then was commissioned in the 4th Hussars. On leave in 1895,
he went for his first experience of action to serve as a military observer
and correspondent with the Spanish forces fighting the guerrillas in Cuba.
Rejoining his regiment, he was sent to serve in India. Here,
besides his addiction to polo, he went on seriously with his education, which
in his case was very much self-education. His mother
sent out to him boxes of books, and Churchill absorbed the whole of Gibbon
and Macaulay, and much of Darwin. The influence of the historians is to be
observed all through his writings and in his way of looking at things. The
influence of Darwin is not less observable in his philosophy of life: that
all life is a struggle, the chances of survival favor the fittest, chance
is a great element in the game, the game is to be played with courage, and
every moment is to be enjoyed to the full. This philosophy served him well
throughout his long life. In 1897 he served in the Indian army in the Malakand expedition
against the restless tribesmen of the North-West Frontier, and the next year
appeared his first book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force. In
the same year, 1898, he served with the Tirah expeditionary force, and came
home to seek service in General Kitchener's campaign for the reconquest of
the Sudan. Once again young Churchill managed to play the dual role of active
officer and war correspondent. As such he took part at Omdurman in one of
the last classic battles of earlier warfare; cavalry charges, a thin
red line of fire against clouds of fanatical dervishes. The Battle of Omdurman
was the end of a world. Once more Churchill wrote it up, and the whole campaign,
in The River War (2 vols., 1899), a fine example of military history
by an eyewitness. He made enemies among the professional soldiers by his frank
criticisms of army defects. He entertained himself by writing a novel,
Savrola (1900), which curiously anticipates later developments in history,
war, and in his own mind.
On the outbreak of the South African War in 1899, he went
out as war correspondent for the London Morning Post. Within a month
of his arrival, he was captured when acting more as a soldier than as a journalist,
by the Boer officer Louis Botha (who subsequently became the first prime minister
of the Union of South Africa and a trusted friend). Taken to prison camp in
Pretoria, Churchill made a dramatic escape and traveled via Portuguese East Africa back to the fighting front in Natal.
His escape made him world-famous overnight. He described his experiences in
a couple of journalistic books and made a first lecture tour in the United
States. The proceeds from the tour enabled him to enter Parliament (M. P.'s
were not paid in those days).
On Jan. 23, 1901, Churchill became member of Parliament
for Oldham (Lancashire) as a Conservative. But he had returned from South
Africa sympathetic to the Boer cause, and his army experiences had made him
extremely critical of its command and administration, which he proceeded to
attack all along the line. The tariff proposals of Joseph Chamberlain completed
his alienation from the Conservative party, and in 1904 Churchill left the
party to join the Liberals. In consequence he was for years execrated by the
Conservatives, and was unpopular with army authorities.
As Liberal M. P. for Northwest Manchester and for Dundee, he was in a position to share in the long
Liberal run of power and to take his place in one of the ablest British governments
in modern times. As undersecretary of state for the colonies he played a considerable
part in making a generous peace with the Boers. In 1906, he published the authoritative
biography, Lord Randolph Churchill (2 vols.), and in 1908, My
African Journey, a first-class example of his lifelong flair for journalism.
In this year, 1908, he married and, in his own words, "lived happily ever
afterwards." By his marriage to Clementine Hozier there were one son (Randolph)
and four daughters (Diana, Sarah, Mary, and one who died in infancy).
As president of the board of trade (1908-1910) and
home secretary (1910-1911), he contributed largely to the early legislation
of the welfare state. He helped to create labor exchanges, to introduce health
and unemployment insurance, to prescribe minimum wages in certain industries,
and to limit working hours. As first lord of the admiralty (1911-1915),
he was in a key position, as German naval power rose to its peak and modernization
of the British fleet became an urgent necessity. Churchill's collaboration
with Admiral Lord Fisher to this end was historic: it produced the changeover
to oil-fueled ships from coalburning vessels, the creation of a naval air
service, and the first development of the tank. With war approaching, Churchill,
on his own responsibility, kept the fleet fully mobilized.
With the German onrush through neutral Belgium in 1914,
he led a naval detachment to Antwerp, but failed to stem the tide. In 1915
he made himself responsible for the campaign to force the Dardanelles, with
the aim of pushing Turkey out of the war, of linking up with Russia, and of
taking the Central Powers in the rear. The campaign foundered, partly through
bad luck, partly through lack of experience in combined operations. Churchill
was made to take the responsibility, and when a coalition government was formed
in May 1915, the Conservatives made it a condition that he should be dropped
as first lord of the admiralty.
The Dardanelles failure seemed the end of his political
career. He took up painting as a hobby and a consolation, and he remained
devoted to it for the rest of his life. His accomplishment in the art should
not be underestimated. In 1916 he went back to the army, gallantly volunteering
for active service on the western front, where he commanded
the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers. But his energy and ability could not be dispensed
with, and Prime Minister Lloyd George called him back to become minister of
At the end of the war, Churchill became secretary of state
for war and also for air (1919-1921). In this post he pushed through
army reforms and the development of air power, and became a pilot himself.
He involved himself in much controversy by backing the efforts of the counterrevolutionaries
against the Bolsheviks in Russia. As secretary of state for air and colonies
(1921-1922), he took a leading part in establishing the new Arab states
in the Middle East, while supporting a Jewish national home in Palestine as
an act of historic and humanitarian justice. He was also closely concerned
in the negotiations to establish the Irish Free State, and thus earned further
Having lost his seat in Parliament in the 1922 elections,
Churchill lived in the political wilderness for the next two years. He was
able to go forward with his memoirs, The World Crisis (5 vols., 1923-1929),
a large canvas. After various attempts to form a central, antisocialist grouping,
he went back to the Conservative party in time to become chancellor of the
exchequer in Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin's government (1924-1929).
He was least happy in this office and ill at ease with economic affairs. During the whole of this disastrous period of 1929-1939,
Churchill was out of office. During these years of political frustration he
wrote his major works: Marlborough (4 vols., 1933-1938); the
first draft of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples (4 vols.,
1956-1958); a vivid and characteristic autobiography, My Early Life
(1930); a revealing and suggestive book, Thoughts and Adventures
(1932); and a volume of brilliant, if generous, portrait sketches,
Great Contemporaries (1937). He also began to collect his speeches and
newspaper articles warning the country of the wrath to come.
No one would take heed of his reiterated warnings of the
folly of attempting to appease Hitler and of the necessity to bring together
a "Grand Alliance" against the aggressor powers before it was too late. Baldwin and Chamberlain were too solidly entrenched in power to shift. Churchill tried to rally the right-wing Conservatives
against Baldwin's liberal Indian policy, and he backed Edward VIII against
Baldwin at the time of the king's abdication in 1936. These weapons broke
in his hands, and only lost him support. Appeasement went on to the bitter
When war came in 1939, Churchill was inevitably recalled,
as first lord of the admiralty. The signal went round the fleet, "Winston
is back," a quarter of a century after his first going to the post. But
the first wave of German military power overwhelmed Poland in September, and
in the spring of 1940 the tidal wave overwhelmed northwestern Europe, followed
shortly afterward by the fall of France.
On May 10, 1940, in the midst of this cataract of disasters,
Churchill was called to supreme power and responsibility by a spontaneous
revolt of the best elements in all parties. He, almost alone of the nation's
political leaders, had had no part in the disaster of the 1930's, and he really
was chosen by the will of the nation. For the next five years, perhaps
the most heroic period in Britain's history, he held supreme command,
as prime minister and minister of defense, in the nation's war effort. At
this point his life and career became one with Britain's story and its survival.
At first, until 1941, Britain fought on alone. Churchill's
task was to inspire resistance at all costs, to organize the defense of the
island, and to make it the bastion for an eventual return to the continent
of Europe, whose liberation from Nazi tyranny he never doubted. He breathed
a new spirit into the government and a new resolve into the nation. Upon becoming
prime minister he told the Commons: "I have nothing to offer but blood,
toil, tears, and sweat: You ask, what is our policy? I will say:
It is to wage war, by sea, land, and air, with all our might. You
ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory."
Meanwhile he made himself the spokesman for these purposes
among all free peoples, as he made Britain a home for all the faithful remnants
of the continental governments. These included the Free French, for Churchill
had himself picked out Charles DE GAULLE as "the man of destiny." But
Churchill's personal relationship with President Franklin D. ROOSEVELT was
Britain's lifeline. Britain had lost most of her army equipment in the fall
of France and during the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from
Dunkirk in June. Roosevelt rushed across the Atlantic a supply of weapons
that made a beginning.
By the autumn of 1940, Churchill was convinced that Germany
could not bring off the invasion of Britain. Secure in this conviction, he
took the momentous decision to send one of the only two armored divisions
left in Britain to Egypt, to hold the land bridge to the East. Submarine warfare
had placed a severe strain on the British navy, and Roosevelt again came to
Britain's aid with the lease of 50 destroyers. Churchill took the grievous
decision to cripple the French fleet at Oran, Algeria. He could not take the
risk of the French navy's being taken over by the Germans, for this probably
would have been the end for Britain.
The turning point of the war came in 1941, when Churchill
took advantage of his opponents' mistakes. Hitler's invasion of Russia brought
Russia into the war, and Churchill seized the opportunity of welcoming a powerful
ally with both hands. Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States
into the war, and Hitler made the mistake of declaring war on the United States.
Churchill's unforgettable speech to Congress after Pearl Harbor expressed
something of the inspiration and high resolve in the face of mortal danger
that he had given his countrymen while they had fought on alone for over a
The Grand Alliance to combat aggression that he
had had in mind from the 1930's was now a fact. Churchill made himself the
linchpin, journeying uncomplaining between Roosevelt and Stalin, though an
older man than either. It was possible now to plan the liberation of the world
from the aggressors. He and Roosevelt set forth their war aims in the Atlantic
Charter, signed aboard the U.S.S. Augusta off Newfoundland in August
1941. The first results of Allied cooperation were the landings
in North Africa, the rounding up of the Nazi forces there, and the invasion
of Sicily and Italy, "the soft under-belly of the Axis." It proved harder going than was expected, supporting Churchill's opposition to the opening
of a second front in the west. Not until the summer of 1944 were the preparations
complete for the invasion of Normandy, to break open Hitler's Europe. Churchill
had always had an acute personal interest in combined operations, and he regarded
the mobile "Mulberry" harbors as in large part his own idea. Only the
personal order of King George VI prevented the prime minister from landing
with the landing forces on D-day.
The last year of the war saw the famous partnership between
Churchill and Roosevelt dissolving. Churchill looked to the shape of things
that would emerge after the war, with the immense accession of strength to
Russia and to communism in Europe. At the summit conferences in Teheran and
Yalta, Churchill was grieved to find the president
not supporting him in his struggle with Stalin to contain Russian expansion
after the war. On the surrender of Germany in May 1945, Churchill rode around
London in the victory celebrations, but, as he wrote, there was foreboding
in his heart.
Before the surrender of Japan, Churchill's wartime government
broke up, and the Labour party won a large majority in the general election
of July 1945. Churchill was deeply affected by this blow, though it was in
no sense a vote of censure upon him but upon 20 years of Conservative rule.
He continued to enjoy esteem as leader of the opposition Conservative party.
He turned to writing a personal history, The Second
World War (6 vols., 1948-1953), and to painting, exhibiting regularly
at the Royal Academy. Though he was out of office, his prestige was a major
asset to his country. In his famous "iron curtain" speech at Westminster
College in Fulton, Mo., he warned the West against Russia's aims and the aggrandizement
of communism, making a plea for cooperation between the English-speaking peoples
as the only hope of checking it. This aroused a storm of controversy in the
United States, but events soon confirmed Churchill's view of the world picture.
On Oct. 26, 1951, at the age of 77, he again became prime
minister, as well as minister of defense. As the Conservatives held a very
small majority and Britain faced very difficult economic circumstances, only
the old man's willpower enabled his government to survive. He held on to see
the young Queen Elizabeth II crowned at Westminster in June 1953, himself
attending as a Knight of the Garter, an honor he had received a few weeks
earlier. In 1953, also, he received the Nobel Prize in literature. On April
5, 1955, in his 80th year, he resigned as prime minister, but he continued
to sit in Commons until July 1964.
Churchill's later years were relatively tranquil. In 1958
the Royal Academy devoted its galleries to a retrospective one-man show of
his work. On April 9, 1963, he received, by special act of the U.S. Congress,
the unprecedented honor of being made an honorary American citizen. When he
died in London on Jan. 24, 1965, at the age of 90, he was acclaimed as a citizen
of the world, and on January 30 he was given the funeral of a hero. He was
buried at Bladon, in the little churchyard near Blenheim Palace, his birthplace.
Back to Content Page