Churchill and Power

Published in Churchillians  By-The-Bay. Quarterly E-Newsletter, Second Quarter, 2009. Volume 1, Number 2 – Became Glow-worm

No one had more power – on paper at least – than Winston Churchill. On 10 May 1940, having become Prime Minister, he appointed himself Minister of Defence. He made up his government from all three political parties: Conservative, Labour and Liberal. In January 1942 a vote of confidence against him was defeated by 437 votes to 1. And yet…

Having studied each wartime decision with which Churchill was associated, it is clear that, again and again, he was unable to assert his power or achieve his will. At Britain’s most desperate time, with German troops advancing to the Channel coast of France – twenty-two miles from the cliffs of Dover – and German submarines sinking Britain’s merchant ships, he was unable to persuade President Roosevelt to let Britain have forty old United States destroyers, needed to keep open Britain’s transatlantic lifeline for military supplies and food. After – for Churchill – an anguished three months of telegraphic exchanges, Roosevelt finally agreed to send the destroyers in return for a 99-year lease by the United States on British naval bases in Newfoundland and the

Caribbean. In the months when it was most needed, the power of Churchill’s persuasive pen had failed.

Four and a half years later, Churchill and Roosevelt were both equally powerless in the face of the third member of the Big Three, Joseph Stalin. When, at the Yalta Conference in the Crimea in January 1945, Churchill and Roosevelt pleaded with Stalin to allow free elections in Poland once the war was over, the Soviet dictator agreed with a broad smile, and signed the necessary piece of paper. No sooner had Churchill and Roosevelt sailed away than Stalin tore up the paper, and arrested the Polish non-Communist politicians whom he had promised to allow to campaign for election.

In the early stages of the war when Britain faced invasion, Churchill’s power was curbed by events beyond his control:  first and foremost by the pre-war neglect of Britain’s air force and munitions production by the government that had excluded Churchill from any part in the decision-making process, and had mocked his warnings of the dangers that lay ahead.

Churchill was a brilliant advocate, able to use language to inspire and to persuade:  but this power failed him in June 1940, as German troops swept towards Paris, and the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, prepared to attack France in the rear. Churchill, putting pen to paper, sent a strong appeal to Mussolini, urging him not to strike the blow, and warning that if he did so, Britain would be increasingly aided in its fight by the United States. Mussolini ignored his warning. As a result, Britain had to face for two years the Italian army, navy and air force in the Mediterranean and North Africa, at great cost in lives and national effort. Churchill’s pen did not have the power to avert the long struggle on which Britain and Italy were embarked.

Not only the power of his pen, but of his arguments, found their match with the Japanese. Twice before Pearl Harbor – in April and again in August 1941 – Churchill sent a personal letter to the Japanese Foreign Minister. Its aim was to persuade the Japanese not to attack the United States. In the letter, Churchill set out in details the reasons why Japan would not be able to win such a war, “if Germany should happen to be defeated, as she was last time.” The overwhelming superiority of Anglo-American steel production once Germany was defeated was one factor Churchill stressed. His arguments, powerful and accurate as they were, were ignored. It was to take five years of brutal war before Japan paid the price.

Churchill never relished power for its own sake, understanding its limitations. ‘I cannot say I am enjoying being Prime Minister very much,’ he confided to one of his predecessors as Prime Minister, while German bombers brought death and destruction to Britain’s cities, and he was powerless to halt them.

Supreme power eluded Churchill in World War Two, but as his son Randolph wrote to him fifteen years after the end of the war, when his father was feeling low:  “Your glory is enshrined for ever on the imperishable plinth of your achievement; and can never be destroyed or tarnished. It will flow with the centuries.”

 Churchill, A Life      Churchill & America     by Sir Martin Gilbert

To receive Book Club discounts and read Sir Martin’s personal reflections and news: Subscribe to Sir Martin’s Newsletter & Book Club

Follow and share Sir Martin on Twitter @ SirMartin36 and Facebook Sir Martin Gilbert