Geoffrey Best has written a formidably good book about Churchill’s military core. He begins with the hussar sub- altern, as well as the great Duke of Marlborough his ancestor, before he goes near politics. He reconstructs the standards of conduct that were common form among the aristocracy and the officer class with whom the young Winston Churchill grew up, and explains how they continued to guide him all through his military and political life. There were things one did not do; no gentleman would do them. There were accepted laws and customs of war, universally respected by civilised states, even if they were not yet enshrined in print. Churchill went on record himself that he would never wish to do anything that was dishonourable.
How, then, does he come to be described nowadays, in careless talk, as a war criminal? Dr Best admits that in 1914 his hero wrote to his wife about how glad he was that war had broken out: a shocking view today, but what was to be expected of him then. Best shows what posts and what responsibilities Church- ill held during the Kaiser’s war (they included a few weeks under fire in the trenches of the Western Front) and what his still more important roles were in the war against Hitler and Hirohito. As prime minister and minister of defence, he was answerable for the bombing campaign against Germany, and he bore a share in the decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan. His weakest link, from a legal point of view, turns out to have been his insistence on the preparation of mustard gas as a beach defence when England was threatened with invasion in the winter of 1940-41: plenty of mustard gas was secured (from the USA) and safely stored, but never used. The chiefs of staff persuaded him that to use it would be ineffective as well as illegal.
The bombing campaign had a basic justification: it was not for those who had bombed Warsaw, Rotterdam, Coventry, Belgrade to smithereens to complain when the same medicine was doled out to Hamburg, Cologne, Berlin, Dresden. Yes, the Germans began it. So far as Dresden is concerned, the place was an important centre for the German armament industry and a key knot in communications towards the eastern front; there is no need to follow Dr Goebbels in multiplying the casualties manyfold and describing the attack as an assault on an unarmed cultural jewel. Over the atomic bombs, what weighed with Churchill was a report from the intelligence staff that assured him of casualties of about a million-and-a-half service dead if a full-scale invasion of Japan was mounted.
Dr Best has had training as an international lawyer as well as a historian, and has written already an outstanding single-volume study of Churchill (2001). He is well equipped to discuss Churchill’s methods of office organisation to run warfare, and opens up as well a less familiar aspect of his career as a director of strategy: his efforts, after 1945, to turn atomic energy towards peaceful rather than military usages. Here he ran into an obstacle that not even his genius for politics could overcome, half-American though he was: American national pride. He and F. D. Roosevelt had made an agreement that Great Britain and the USA would continue to co-operate in the atomic field; but they made it in secret, and Roosevelt’s successors Truman and Eisenhower repudiated it. The British therefore felt they had to build their own bombs; and all Churchill’s efforts to nullify the nuclear weapon ran into the sand, as did his efforts to secure useful summit talks with the Russian leaders after Stalin’s death.
Churchillolators may not find this book’s dispassionate tone wholly to their liking; it shows the rest of us what made a great man tick.