Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Churchill in Command

Is it just me, or are we all having Churchill withdraw symptoms?  Ok, maybe it is just me.  But in any case here is a really cool book I just started reading. 

Reynolds, David. 2007. In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War. Basic Books. Available at: http://www.amazon.com/Command-History-Churchill-Fighting-Writing/dp/0679457437 [Accessed May 26, 2009].

It is about how Churchill went about writing his history of the Second World War. I've just gotten through the first hundred pages. I thought it would be pretty dry stuff, as the first two chapters are about the legal wrangling Churchill went through and have access to his official papers and to avoid paying taxes on sales of things which he wrote during the war and which would, consequently, have been subject to the extraordinarily high wartime tax rates. But even these chapters have revealed something of substance in regard to the text itself.

One thing that is often noted is how much of the book seems to revolve around Churchill quoting himself and his own memos. It sometimes reminds one of Roosevelt's (TR, not FDR) account of the Spanish-American war which one critic said should be called "Alone in Cuba," it has so many references to his own writing. It turns out there is a reason for that, or at least another reason for that.

Normally cabinet ministers were not allowed to quote from confidential Memos they read while in office. Churchill had in the writing of The First World War had an exception made for the memos a minister had written himself. There was one other exception: a cabinet minister whose reputation had been impugned would have the right to access and partially publish confidential memos to clear his name.

If Churchill had quoted a non-Churchhill memo or cabinet document then any other Cabinet member or possibly even members of Parliament or bureaucrats would have the right to access" documents that he thought might clear his name. Therefore, to the extent Churchill referred to memos that were not written by his own hand he opened the door to having more government documents released. This was something the church will want to avoid out of his respect for government confidentiality, but, also because the current prime minister would also have grounds for vetoing publication. So, it turns out that the reason Churchill quotes himself so much owes as much to his desire to avoid legal and political complications as it does to his own ego.

The greater substantive point of the book though is about how Churchill's memoir shaped our understanding of World War II, and particularly of the causes leading up to it. So far, there are no grand lies exposed as much as a subtle shading and direction of attention. His account of the interwar period focuses attention on mistakes made in the 1930s by conservative leaders and draws attention away from the "contributions" of Ramsay McDonald (socialist leader from 31 to 35) and leaders in the 1920s (when Churchill himself was still in office).

The book also highlights how the history was shaped by Churchill's present. He begins work on the gathering storm soon after he has given his famous "Iron Curtain" speech in Fulton Missouri. The book is written intentionally to invite comparison to the contemporary confrontation with the Russians (or, to avoid anachronism, the Soviet Union).

Finally, the book also sheds light on Churchill's career after the war. In particular, it takes a new look at the famous Iron Curtain speech mentioned above. While it is remembered as a clarion call to the cold war, Churchill's main intention was to bolster a transatlantic alliance. Reynolds argues, "rather than prolonging an Anglo-American axis to wage the cold war, Churchill was invoking the threat of World War III to justify a special relationship."

I think this highlights an important theme in his thinking, the importance of friendships and long-term alliances among like-minded nations as the foundation for peace. This can be contrasted with the institutional -- internationalist view which views such particular and exclusive relationships as undermining international institutions. As close, personal friendships and make us violate our abstract ethical principles -- as Gandhi would argue -- favoritism and friendships among nations can make us violate international legal rules and principles. It is interesting that this emphasis on friendship between the English-speaking peoples (as Churchill referred to them) drew as much fire as his Cold War alarmism. "Churchill's thesis about Anglo-American relations was the most contentious part of his speech. In the first few days, it provoked strenuous criticism from liberal such as Eleanor Roosevelt on the grounds that Churchill was calling for a transatlantic military alliance that would break up the United Nations." (Page 44).

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