Churchill, Winston (1874–1965)

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IN WAR AND PEACE, 1939–1955


British politician, prime minister from 1940 to 1945 and 1951 to 1955.

After a long and controversial career, Winston Churchill became prime minister in May 1940, just as the German offensive in the west began. His inspiring leadership during the following year in which Britain stood alone against Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) was crucial in preventing a Nazi victory in World War II. After Russia and the United States entered the war in 1941, Churchill was one of the three leaders of the "grand alliance" that eventually defeated Germany in 1945. For these reasons, since 1945 Churchill has been popularly regarded as the most important figure in modern British history.

Churchill was a complex and fascinating figure, and his talents and drive were admired as much as his ambition and judgment were mistrusted. His industriousness, inquisitiveness, and ingenuity made him the master of any topic that he addressed or any government department that he was appointed to. As a cabinet minister he was an exasperating colleague, full of ideas and constantly intruding into areas outside his own responsibilities. His character and style revealed many childlike qualities: belligerent without malice, generous to opponents once defeated, fascinated by new inventions, and rushing in a whirlwind of energy from one topic to the next. He had an extraordinary command of the English language, both as an orator and as the author of many volumes of biography and history. However, his egotism, impetuousness, and lack of proportion frequently led to difficulties and sometimes to disaster. Churchill's recovery from these setbacks was due to the brilliance, audacity, stubbornness, and unfailing courage that rested upon his belief in his own abilities and destiny. He changed his party allegiance twice—on both occasions gaining swift advancement—and his individualist and buccaneering approach made other politicians wary and suspicious. He was thought to be an unprincipled adventurer, and until 1940 he was a leader with few followers.


Churchill's family background was crucial in shaping his personality and outlook. He was a direct descendant of John Churchill (1650–1722), 1st Duke of Marlborough, the brilliant general of the early eighteenth century. Winston was born on 30 November 1874 at Blenheim Palace; his father, Lord Randolph Henry Spencer Churchill (1849–1885), was the younger son of the seventh duke, and his mother was Jennie Jerome, an American heiress and beauty. Winston's American connection fostered his democratic instincts and his belief in the importance of an Anglo-American "special" relationship. Lord Randolph had a meteoric political career in the 1880s, becoming chancellor of the exchequer in 1886. However, he fell from power a few months later and then succumbed to the degenerative disease that led to his death at the age of forty-five in 1895. Winston's relationship with his parents was distant and difficult—they had little time for him, and Lord Randolph was constantly critical and dismissive of his son. Even so, Winston idolized him, and his death was a devastating blow.

Churchill did not excel at school, and rather than going to university he entered the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst in 1893. From 1895 to 1899 he served as a cavalry officer, pulling strings to get postings to wherever there was a chance of the limelight. He saw action on India's northwest frontier in 1897 and took part in the last great cavalry charge of the British army at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898. He wrote press reports during both campaigns, and his dispatches formed the basis of his first books. He had begun to earn his living by writing, and in 1899 he resigned from the army. When the Boer War broke out Churchill went to South Africa as a well-paid war correspondent, but got too close to the action and was captured in November 1899. His dramatic escape from prison in Pretoria was a bright spot during a period when the war was going badly for Britain, and it made him a popular hero. In the 1900 general election, Churchill became one of the youngest and best-known members of the House of Commons.


Churchill's first period as a Conservative member of Parliament (MP) lasted less than four years. He began by attacking his government's plans to reform the army and was one of the strongest opponents of the campaign for tariff reform launched by Joseph Chamberlain (1836–1914) in 1903. However, the Conservative defenders of free trade soon became a beleaguered minority, and on 31 May 1904 Churchill formally "crossed the floor" of the House of Commons and joined the Liberal Party. He was almost unique in doing so, and it earned him lasting antagonism from many in his former party. Whatever his motive, it was an opportune move, as the next decade was one of defeat for the Conservatives and success for the Liberal Party.

In December 1905, the Liberals formed a government in which Churchill became the undersecretary for the colonies, with sole responsibility for representing the department in the Commons. He became a Privy Councillor (PC) on 1 May 1907, a clear sign of his rising prominence. When Herbert Henry Asquith (1852–1928) succeeded to the premiership in April 1908, Churchill was promoted to the cabinet as president of the board of trade. He rapidly emerged as a radical and energetic social reformer, introducing Labor Exchanges to help the unemployed find work, and he forged a close partnership with the chancellor of the exchequer, David Lloyd George (1863–1945). In February 1910, Churchill was promoted to the prestigious office of home secretary, where again he introduced reforms.

Churchill was deeply absorbed in his own career, and his social life revolved around politics. He had little time to spare for romance, but in 1908 he met Clementine Hozier, and they were married on 12 September. She came from an aristocratic background, but there was little money and she was brought up in modest circumstances. Churchill was devoted to Clementine, and does not seem to have had any interest in other women after their marriage, which produced one son and four daughters, one of whom died in infancy. Clementine often gave her husband sound advice, which he usually ignored. Family life could be stormy: there was much affection but also frequent emotional rows, and Churchill's relationship with his three older children—especially with his son, Randolph—became difficult as they entered adulthood in the 1930s.

On 24 October 1911, Churchill was unexpectedly moved from the Home Office to become first lord of the admiralty, the minister responsible for the Royal Navy. This was not a demotion: the admiralty was a key post at this time, due to the naval challenge from Germany and the antagonisms that were to lead to war. Churchill threw himself into his new task with typical enthusiasm, and his advocacy of a larger construction program led to a struggle with Lloyd George over the 1914 budget in which both men threatened resignation. Churchill built on the earlier reforms of Admiral John Arbuthnot Fisher (1841–1920) and did much to energize and strengthen the fleet, including encouraging the early naval air service.

When war came in July 1914 he used his initiative to mobilize the fleet and prevent the chance of a surprise attack, but then recklessly attempted a futile defense of Antwerp. He recalled Fisher from retirement to act as the navy's senior officer, but their relationship deteriorated as Churchill interfered in operational decisions. The breaking point was Churchill's diversion of resources from home waters to support his pet project of knocking out Germany's ally, the Ottoman Empire, through an attempted invasion at Gallipoli. In May 1915, Fisher's resignation forced Asquith to create a coalition government with the Conservatives, who insisted upon Churchill's removal from the admiralty. He spent six unhappy months in the unimportant post of chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, while the Gallipoli campaign turned into a humiliating disaster. Although this was not his fault, Churchill shouldered much of the public blame for the fiasco. His political career appeared to be over, and he sank into a depression that was only slightly lifted by his discovery of painting, which became a lifelong source of relaxation. Marginalized and unpopular, he resigned from the government on 11 November 1915, and for several months in 1916 served as a battalion commander on the western front.

Churchill was one of the few leading Liberals to support Lloyd George when he ousted Asquith from the premiership in December 1916. In July 1917, Lloyd George felt secure enough to offer Churchill a government post, despite a chorus of Conservative disapproval. He served as minister of munitions from July 1917 until January 1919, as secretary for war and air for the following two years, and then as colonial secretary from February 1921 until the fall of Lloyd George's government in October 1922. During this period he forcefully advocated intervention in Russia against the Bolshevik government, but this was another policy failure that tarnished his reputation. By the time the coalition government was overthrown by a revolt within the Conservative Party, Churchill was detached from the Liberals and without any clear party connection. In the general election that followed in November 1922 he was also defeated at Dundee, the Scottish seat that he had represented since 1908. Once again, Churchill seemed to be in the wilderness and without a political future.


Churchill remained out of Parliament for two years, during which time he moved back toward the Conservative Party. This was a logical consequence of the rise of the Labour Party and the continuing decline of the Liberals, for since 1918 antisocialism had become Churchill's main theme. In the general election of October 1924, Churchill returned to the House of Commons as Conservative MP for Epping, a safe seat in the north London suburbs, and he held this seat for the rest of his political career. Many Conservatives continued to have reservations about this former coalitionist, but even those who had welcomed his return were staggered by the next development. The Conservatives had won a landslide victory, and the prime minister, Stanley Baldwin (1867–1947), offered Churchill the prize position of chancellor of the exchequer. He held this post throughout the government until its defeat in 1929. The chancellorship was one of the happiest phases of Churchill's career, but he never made the mark here that he had in his previous posts. His budgets were ingenious but had little impact on the level of unemployment. Despite some doubts, Churchill followed orthodox opinion and restored Britain to the gold standard in 1925, but the adoption of the prewar exchange rate was a mistake that added to Britain's economic stagnation. He was sidelined during the General Strike of May 1926, due to fears that his pugnacity would inflame the situation. Despite being chancellor, he was never likely to succeed Baldwin as Conservative leader—he continued to oppose the protectionist tariffs that most Conservatives wanted, and was constantly suspected of plotting with Lloyd George to revive the former coalition.

After the Conservatives went into opposition in 1929, Churchill drifted apart from the rest of the leadership. This was partly because he needed to restore his finances, which had suffered heavily in the stock market crash. Churchill was well paid for lecture tours, especially in the United States, and for his newspaper articles and books—which included his history of World War I, The World Crisis, and a life of his ancestor , Marlborough, each in several volumes. He spent much of his time writing at the manor house of Chartwell in the Kent countryside, which he had bought in 1922 without consulting Clementine. During the "wilderness years" of the 1930s, Churchill became an infrequent attendee at the House of Commons, apparently mainly interested in attacking the Conservative leadership. Not surprisingly, his motives were questioned and he was met with hostility. In fact, the issues he took up during the 1930s were the result of strong convictions, but his views over India seemed outdated (he was opposed to the native population having a significant role in the central government) and his warnings about Germany and the need for rearmament appeared alarmist and likely to increase tensions rather than reduce them. Baldwin's support for political reform in India caused Churchill's resignation from the Conservative leadership in January 1931, while still in opposition. He was therefore not included in the National Government formed in the economic crisis of August 1931, and remained out of office until 1939. From 1931 to 1935, Churchill led the resistance of the Conservative right wing against the proposed legislation on India, losing much of his political credibility in the process. The lowest point came in December 1936, when his lone support for King Edward VIII (1894–1972) in the abdication crisis led to him being howled down in the House of Commons; once again, his career seemed to be over.

Churchill's wild statements and ill-judged tactics over India reduced the impact of his more sober warnings of the dangers of German rearmament and Hitler's ambitions. He was consistent in urging swifter British rearmament, especially of the air force, and his speeches were strengthened by the information that sympathizers in the armed forces and civil service secretly passed to him. His opposition to the government's policy of "appeasement" was less consistent than his memoirs later suggested, but by the time of the Czech crisis in 1938 Churchill had become a rallying point for dissenters. In the immediate wake of the popular Munich agreement, he was under considerable pressure, and there were moves against him in the Epping constituency. However, after Hitler exposed the pact as a sham by occupying Prague in March 1939, Churchill's prestige and popularity rose as the credibility of the prime minister, Neville Chamberlain (1869–1940), ebbed away. When war came in September 1939, Chamberlain had no choice but to offer a key post in the Cabinet. Churchill returned to the admiralty; it was a sign of his rehabilitation that the signal "Winston's back" sent to the fleet increased morale and confidence.

IN WAR AND PEACE, 1939–1955

During the months of "phony war" in the winter of 1939–1940, the navy was the most active and effective service. Churchill's popularity rose, and when the failures of the Norway campaign forced Chamberlain to resign on 10 May 1940, he was the only credible replacement. Churchill combined the posts of prime minister and minister of defense, and formed a new coalition government that included the Labour Party. For the next five years he concentrated all of his efforts upon winning the war and largely ignored domestic politics, although he became leader of the Conservative Party in October 1940 after the unexpected collapse of Chamberlain's health. Churchill felt that his whole life had been a preparation for this moment of national peril, and that he was "walking with destiny." As France collapsed in the summer of 1940 and Britain faced bombing and possible invasion in the autumn, Churchill's resolute leadership was of vital importance. He was frank and realistic, while making it clear that the contest was not simply between nations, but a struggle with evil for the future of the whole world. Through a series of powerful broadcasts and speeches, he came to personify the will to fight on regardless—"we shall never surrender." His individualist career and detachment from party was now his greatest asset, and his determination and strength of character made him the one indispensable figure. His popularity remained high throughout the war, an instantly recognizable figure with his constant cigar, spotted bow ties, walking stick, and famous two-fingered "V for Victory" sign. As well as rallying public morale, Churchill energized the administrative and military machine: "action this day" was his response to critical issues. He could be demanding and abrasive to work for, but was also decisive and inspirational, producing a stream of ideas.

His second vital role was in constructing the wartime alliance. Through a correspondence that had begun in 1939 and several face-to-face meetings, he forged a close relationship with the American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945). This led to vital American financial and material support in the lend-lease program begun in 1941, and American assistance with protecting the transatlantic convoys that brought the food and munitions needed to continue the war. Defeating Hitler had absolute priority, and when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Churchill swiftly welcomed the Soviets as an ally. After the American entry into the war in December 1941, much of Churchill's attention was given to inter-allied diplomacy and summit meetings. From 1941 to 1944, British efforts were concentrated upon North Africa and then the Mediterranean theater, as Churchill once again vainly sought the "soft underbelly" of the enemy. In the closing stages of the war, Britain's role began to be eclipsed by the growing strength of the superpowers, and Churchill became increasingly concerned about the Soviet Union's postwar intentions.

When Germany surrendered in May 1945, Churchill was feted as the national savior. His defeat in the general election in July was a shock and bitter disappointment, but he was seen as a war leader rather than a peacetime reformer, and the Conservative Party was deeply unpopular. The outcome was a landslide victory for the Labour Party, and a depressed Churchill became leader of the opposition. During the next few years he spent much time writing his war memoirs and traveling, and his international prestige remained huge. He was concerned by the hardening Soviet grip upon Eastern Europe and feared an American return to isolationism; his "iron curtain" speech at Fulton, Missouri, on 5 March 1946 gave early warning of the communist threat and marked the coming of the Cold War. Churchill left much of the detailed work of the revival of the Conservative Party to the able lieutenants that he had appointed, and endorsed the new party policy despite his doubts about it.

Postwar economic problems and the resulting austerity program were the main cause of Churchill's return to power in October 1951 with the small parliamentary majority of seventeen. He set out to show that the Conservatives could govern moderately, accepting almost all of Labour's measures and spending extensively on the welfare state and the housing program. This was the beginning of the period of "affluence," with prosperity bringing an end to wartime controls and a rise in consumerism, although generous settlements of industrial disputes contributed to difficulties later in the decade. Churchill believed that his wartime prestige would enable him to negotiate with the Soviet leadership, and he relentlessly pursued the mirage of a three-power conference to achieve détente. He suffered a stroke in June 1953 that was concealed from the public, but despite a good recovery his powers were clearly fading. He repeatedly postponed making way for his heir apparent, Sir Anthony Eden (1897–1977), but was eventually pressured into standing down. Churchill resigned as prime minister on 5 April 1955. He had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1953 and a year later accepted the Order of the Garter, becoming Sir Winston Churchill, but he declined other honors. His final years were a slow decline marked by depression; he retired from the House of Commons in October 1964, and after a severe stroke died on 24 January 1965, receiving a state funeral.

See alsoChamberlain, Neville; Edward VIII; Hitler, Adolf; Stalin, Joseph; World War I; World War II.


Primary Sources

Churchill, Winston S. My Early Life: A Roving Commission. London, 1930. Autobiography covering his life up to 1900.

——. The World Crisis 1911–1918. 5 Vols. London, 1931. History of World War I.

——. Marlborough: His Life and Times. 4 Vols. London, 1933. Biography of Churchill's famous ancestor.

——. The Second World War. 6 Vols. London, 1948–1954. War memoirs combined with a history.

——. A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. 4 Vols. London, 1956–1958. Combined history of Britain, the British Empire, and the United States.

Secondary Sources

Addison, Paul. Churchill on the Home Front, 1900–1955. London, 1993. A study of Churchill's domestic political career.

Ball, Stuart. Winston Churchill. London, 2003. Recent succinct biography.

Best, Geoffrey. Churchill: A Study in Greatness. London, 2001. Good medium-length biography.

Blake, Robert, and Wm. Roger Louis, eds. Churchill. Oxford, U.K. 1993. Essays on many aspects of Churchill's career.

Charmley, John. Churchill: The End of Glory. London, 1993. Controversial revisionist account, critical of Churchill's wartime priorities.

Churchill, Randolph S. (Vols. 1 and 2); Gilbert, Martin (Vols. 3–8). Winston S. Churchill. 8 vols. London, 1966–1988. The hugely detailed official life, begun by Churchill's son; the first five volumes also have companion volumes of documents.

Gilbert, Martin. Churchill: A Life. London, 1991. Single volume summary of the official life.

James, Robert Rhodes. Churchill: A Study in Failure 1900–1939. London, 1970. Stimulating analysis of Churchill's career up to World War II.

Jenkins, Roy. Churchill. London, 2001. Substantial life written by an experienced senior politician.

Ramsden, John. Man of the Century: Winston Churchill and His Legend since 1945. London, 2002. Discussion of Churchill's reputation in his lifetime and since.

Stuart Ball

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