He was born on November 30, 1874, at Blenheim Palace. The magnificent home in which he was born had been a gift from the nation to his great ancestor John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, in recognition of his great victory over the French at the Battle of Blenheim. It was entirely fitting that Churchill was born there, for he had some of the most aristocratic blood of the English nobility flowing through his veins, being descended from both the Churchill and the Spencer families. He himself held no noble title, for his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was the third son of the 7th Duke and so did not inherit the dukedom. Still, Churchill was as pure a member of the aristocracy as could be, at least on his father's side. His mother's side was rather different, for she was as American as Churchill's father was English. Jennie Jerome, beautiful and vivacious in the extreme, came from a New York family that had made a fortune on Wall Street.
So, at the moment of his conception, Churchill was a fusion of Britain and America. He would come to be known as the great defender of the British Empire and a final embodiment of Victorian values. Yet he always valued his American heritage, relishing the fact that ancestors of his had served in George Washington's army and the rumors that his mother was partly of Iroquois descent. He saw the alliance and shared heritage of Britain and America, along with the Dominions of the British Empire, as the creator and guardian of liberty in the world. His epic multi-volume work, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, is a testament to his belief.
Churchill always intended to follow his father's footsteps into politics, but in the last years of the 1890s, he was a British soldier in the service of Queen Victoria, fighting bravely on the Northwest Frontier of India, in the Sudan against the Dervishes, and in the Boer War, always in the thick of the fray but never suffering so much as a scratch. He became a war hero, especially famed for his daring escape from a Boer prison camp. Upon returning to England from South Africa, he made use of his celebrity to campaign for and win a seat in Parliament in 1900. He would remain in Parliament, with only a brief interruption in the 1920s, until 1964.
Churchill was a man of principle rather than party. He was first a Conservative, then went over to the Liberals over the issue of free trade, then went back to the Conservatives after concluding that it was the better bulwark against creeping socialism. His policies cannot be firmly labeled as either right-wing or left-wing in any real sense. He cherished tradition, was an avowed imperialist, favored free trade, was certainly an imperialist and a "law and order" man, and despised socialism. But he also pushed legislation to help the unemployed and was a key figure in the passage of the "People's Budget" in 1910, which sharply raised taxes on the wealthy to fund programs for the disadvantaged. Churchill was his own man and did not feel bound to obey the dictates of imagined political ideologies. I rather wish more of our modern politicians would follow his example.
For half a century, Churchill was one of the major figures in British politics, exerting enormous influence on both domestic and foreign policy and holding virtually every Cabinet position at one point or another. As First Lord of the Admiralty, he prepared the Royal Navy for the conflict with Germany that indeed broke out when the First World War erupted in 1914. In other offices, he oversaw the creation of the constitution of South Africa, negotiated the agreement that gave birth to the Republic of Ireland, and tried to organize stronger international opposition to the rise of communism in Russia. Of course, given his long presence in British politics, he made his share of mistakes, as when he oversaw a disastrous British return to the Gold Standard as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the mid-1920s.
Churchill went into the "political wilderness" in the 1930s due to his opposition to the independence of India and his frequently publicized concern over German rearmament. He rejected the idea of Indian independence not only out of a loyalty to the Victorian image of the British Empire, but also out of fear that the different religious communities within India would commence slaughtering one another the moment British power on the Subcontinent vanished. Sadly, events proved his fears all too real. His desire to maintain British control of India, however, was fundamentally rooted in his refusal to believe that Indian peoples could govern themselves and, in this case at least, placed him on the wrong side of history.
Very much the opposite was true when it came to Germany, however. During most of the 1930s, it seemed that only Churchill and a very few supporters in Parliament truly understood the deadly menace represented by the rise to power of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in Germany. Men like Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain refused to acknowledge the threat, their minds turned only towards their personal political advantages rather than the good of the nation. They operated under the false impression that if they simply pretended the threat didn't exist, then it would somehow go away. Churchill knew it wouldn't go away and bent his energies through the 1930s towards raising public awareness of the danger and discrediting those calling for appeasement.
When war finally did come in 1939, everyone saw that Churchill had been right all along and he was brought into the government as First Lord of the Admiralty. Seven months later, as the German onslaught against France and the Low Countries commenced, Churchill was made Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, achieving his lifelong dream.
I have always been mesmerized by the description he penned in his memoirs of how he felt at that moment:
I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial. . . I was sure I should not fail.
In the days following Churchill's assumption of leadership, the armies of the British and the French, along with their Belgian and Dutch allies, were catastrophically defeated by the German blitzkrieg. The British army only escaped total destruction by the miracle of Dunkirk. Churchill tried desperately to persuade the French to keep fighting, but though they still possessed considerable military power and might have continued the war from North Africa, the French political leaders were demoralized and beaten men. They elected to seek terms from Hitler rather than continuing their resistance. The nightmare of Vichy France was born.
Churchill wouldn't follow their example. Under his unswerving eye, the British went into battle. In the skies over Britain itself, the Royal Air Force fought fiercely against the vaunted Luftwaffe to maintain air superiority. At sea, the Royal Navy battled against U-boats in the Atlantic, the Italians in the Mediterranean, and the warships of the Kriegsmarine in many theaters, doing honor to the memory of men like Francis Drake and Horatio Nelson. And in the deserts of North Africa, the gallant British Eighth Army fought tooth-and-nail against the German and Italian army of Erwin Rommel.
For a year that seemed to last forever, from the French surrender in June of 1940 to the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941, Britain stood alone. When pressured by some of his Cabinet colleagues to consider a peace agreement with Hitler, Churchill angrily replied that "[i]f this long island story of ours is to end, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground." He bore the British war effort on his shoulders almost through sheer force of will alone. The British people were given hope that, with Churchill at the helm rather than the spineless nonentities like Baldwin and Chamberlain, there might be a chance of victory, or at least survival.
And Britain did survive. Hitler's two terrible miscalculations - invading the Soviet Union in June of 1941 and declaring war on the United States following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December of that year - assured the ultimate defeat of Nazi Germany. It would take years and many millions of casualties, but the ultimate outcome of the war was no longer in doubt. Once Russia and America were in the war, of course, Britain's decline into second-rate status was sadly assured. Churchill did what he could to prevent or at least delay it, but even he could not win an appeal against the judgement of history. This should not detract from his glory in the slightest, however. After all, had Churchill not come forth to lead the British in their finest honor in the summer of 1940, Hitler's triumph would have been assured. By saving Britain, Churchill also saved Western civilization.
How was it that Winston Churchill prevailed when almost every other imaginable person would clearly have failed? I think it's because he had certain strengths of character that made him unique in the world. Let me try to compile them here.
1. Churchill was a man with a deep historical perspective.
We think we live in a sort of post-historical world, in which the lessons and rules of history no longer apply, Nothing could be further from the truth, as Churchill well understood. He saw the present through the prism of the past. When he faced the threat of a Nazi invasion across the English Channel, his mind went back to the Spanish Armada of 1588 or the danger of a Napoleonic invasion of England in 1804. When he contemplated the difficulties of coalition warfare, he remembered the lessons of the Duke of Marlborough, who had to manage a coalition of British, Dutch, Austrian, and assorted German armies. When he debated the ideas of free trade in his mind, he not only studied the latest policy position papers from contemporary economists, but also study how free trade had impacted nations in the past. When he spoke of the decline of the British Empire and the peril in which it might place the world, much of his thinking arose from his extremely close reading of Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which he had studied while on duty in India as a young army officer.
One of the main sources of trouble in the world today is that our elected letters lack a historical perspective. Churchill not only understood history, but wrote it himself. He was a historian as much as a statesman and this was one of his chief sources of strength.
2. Churchill was never bound by a political ideology and could build a consensus.
We live in a ideological age, when a political leader is judged almost exclusively by where he or she sits on the left-right spectrum. Churchill defied easy characterization. His love of tradition and order certainly suggests a strong conservatism, yet his advocacy of policies to support the poor and destitute would seem to place him among the progressives. The bottom line is that Churchill was not guided by ideologies, but by principles.
This is not only admirable in and of itself, but it gave Churchill an ability to build a consensus that is extremely rare in our own time. To face the unprecedented peril of Nazi Germany, Churchill built a War Cabinet consisting of members of every political party, when the Labour Party whose policies he so despised. His Deputy Prime Minister was Clement Attlee, a man with whom he had ferociously battled before the war and would battle again after it. This didn't stop Churchill from forming a close working relationship with Attlee during the war, when both men set aside their political disagreements in pursuit of a greater good.
I have often thought that, had George W. Bush followed a similar tack in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, our country would have avoided much of the trouble it has subsequently gotten itself into.
3. Churchill valued tradition but refused to be bound by it.
There is no question that Churchill was a traditionalist. He said that he would much rather have lived in the court of Louis XIV than in the 20th Century. He was one of the greatest champions democracy has ever known, yet his mind refused to budge from the world of aristocratic privilege into which he had been born. His adherence to the values of a bygone age struck many of his contemporaries as ridiculously outdated, yet they formed the core of an iron personality that gave him the strength to stand up to Hitler.
He professed to despise aircraft, preferring the stately methods of sea travel, yet he earned a pilot's license, championed the creation of the Royal Air Force, and was an innovative strategic thinker in matters of aerial warfare. He did not like the internal combustion engine, wishing he could simply travel by horse and buggy, yet that didn't stop him from being the brainchild behind the development of the tank. Even though he valued tradition and tried to preserve it, he never let it blind him to what needed to done in order to defeat the evil of fascism.
4. Churchill absolutely refused to give up.
On October 29, 1941, amidst the turmoil of the Second World War, Churchill found the time to go to Harrow School, where he had once been a young student, and give a speech to the assembled boys. He said, "Never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor or good sense, Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy."
Churchill never gave up. When he assumed the mantle of leadership in Britain in the spring of 1940, most men probably would have given up, but the thought never entered Churchill's mind. His fortitude, built upon the foundation of a historical perspective, a refusal to be bound to a political ideology, and a cherishing of tradition and a willingness to buck it when necessary, made him the infinitely strong statesman that he was.
Add to it a ferocious intelligence, a skill in rhetoric and oratory that seemed to come from grander times, and a charisma that somehow made him a natural leader, and it's easy to see how Winston Churchill was able to become one of the greatest heroes in the history of the world.