ew figures in history have been so mythologized as Winston Churchill, though recently much more in a negative than in a positive light. The Internet is spawning more conspiracy theories about him half a century after his death in 1965 than even the Fascists, Communists, psychotics, and his own domestic political opponents managed to do while he was alive. Since the death of Churchill’s official biographer, Sir Martin Gilbert, in 2015, Churchill has needed a representative to destroy the vicious myths to which his reputation is constantly being subjected. Richard M. Langworth is that person, and his Winston Churchill, Myth and Reality is the book.
While being in no way hagiographic or starry-eyed about Churchill—and acknowledging that after a half-century in the House of Commons, commenting on every major issue of the day, the man was bound to have made many mistakes—this short book nonetheless takes apart scores of revisionist myths. Langworth, a senior fellow at Hillsdale College, works calmly and methodically, using a great deal of Churchill’s humor as well as his own. Citing all the most important and relevant contemporaneous sources, with impeccable logic and scholarly footnoting, Langworth takes a massive wrecking ball to the libels and slanders of more than a century.
Did Churchill’s mother have 200 lovers, including one who fathered Winston’s brother, Jack? No, and his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, probably didn’t die of syphilis either, but from a progressive neurodegenerative disease.
Was Churchill the schoolboy dunce he made himself out to be? Certainly not; he was almost always in the top third of his class in most subjects. Churchill voted for women’s suffrage both before and after he voted against it. He bore precisely no responsibility for the sinking of the Titanic or Lusitania and had no foreknowledge of Japanese intentions toward Pearl Harbor. Nor did he send troops to kill striking Welsh miners, or even arm the police with anything more lethal than rolled up anoraks.
Churchill’s stance on Irish independence was far more nuanced than is generally thought, having supported it while a leading member of the Liberal Party and helping to draw up the treaty that brought it about. Nor was he a warmonger before World War I, as serious historians such as Sir Max Hastings maintain. All too often Churchill’s ideological foes rip his words wildly out of context or imply they were said at different times than they were. Langworth skewers the Churchill-haters with something that occasionally approaches an attractively righteous glee.
The blame for the acknowledged disaster in the Gallipoli campaign of 1915 is rightly spread far beyond merely Churchill himself, as practically everybody on the War Council was enthusiastically in favor of it at the start. Joseph Goebbels’s depiction of Churchill as a hopeless alcoholic is forensically examined and found to be false, although Langworth happily admits that Churchill “did seem to think that it was a sign of manly vigor to suggest that he could really ‘put it away.’” Nonetheless, there is only one occasion that any objective historian has been able to find when Churchill was clearly intoxicated.
Churchill’s attitude toward the Jews and Zionism is cogently examined, and his position as a righteous Gentile is reaffirmed despite repeated attempts by anti-Semitic writers to besmirch it. Similarly, Churchill’s stances on Gandhi, Mussolini, Hitler, and others are put under the historiographical microscope, and any reasonable person will agree with Langworth’s not-guilty verdict.
No, Churchill’s wartime speeches were not delivered by an actor. No, he did not want to intern all refugees. He did believe in enhanced interrogation, in contradiction to what President Obama said when misquoting him in April 2009. Churchill did not have prior knowledge that Coventry was going to be bombed and so therefore could not have sacrificed the city in order to protect the secret of the Ultra decryption breakthrough. As for the idiotic suggestion in the new movie Churchill—easily the worst war film of the past two decades (in a crowded field)—that Britain’s wartime premier opposed the Normandy landings, Langworth gives chapter and verse proving that he supported them from mid-1943 onward.
One loathsome myth that has been assiduously propagated recently, especially by Indian nationalist and British left-wing writers, is that Churchill was responsible for the loss of 3 million lives in the Bengal famine of 1943. Langworth investigates this with great care, as befits its gravity. The huge number of genuine causes of the tragedy are instanced, and the gaping holes in the revisionists’ cases are pointed out. The horror of the situation is not downplayed by Langworth, but any idea that Churchill behaved disreputably is comprehensively dispelled.
Further myths that Churchill did not want to bomb Auschwitz or the railway lines leading to it, that he sold out Eastern Europe at Yalta, that he favored a preemptive nuclear war against the Soviet Union, and that he would have voted for Britain to remain in the European Union during the Brexit referendum are carefully considered before being shot down mercilessly, alongside many other such canards.
One is left with the impression of a statesman who undoubtedly sometimes made wrong decisions, but almost always from good motives. Of the evil, drunken, genocidal maniac that the revisionists love to reprise, there is absolutely no evidence from the mountainous archival material available, including 1 million documents in Churchill’s own comprehensive archives alone.
“I would have made nothing if I had not made mistakes,” Churchill told his wife in 1916, which might serve as a cheering moral for the rest of us. The things he got wrong, Langworth eloquently shows, were infinitesimal compared with the importance of the things that he—and almost he alone—got right.