When times are hard, the party of defeat never lacks volunteers. As the news of bombings and kidnappings pours in from Iraq, interrupted only occasionally by a few encouraging facts, regiments of journalists and politicians are advising the Americans and their allies to forget their war aims, surrender any hope of an Iraqi democracy and withdraw as soon as possible. Meanwhile, George W. Bush insists that, despite everything, he's not giving up.
As Sir Martin Gilbert lectured on Winston Churchill at the University of Toronto on Thursday night, it was impossible to avoid thinking about the talk of failure that now afflicts the West. Churchill also faced imminent disaster, lived through month after month of discouragement, and at times felt surrounded by defeatists.
Lord Halifax, the foreign secretary he inherited, has been damned as an appeaser by history but was then considered wise as well as experienced -- in fact, a steadier, more judicious statesman than Churchill himself. In 1940, Halifax argued that Britain should sue for peace immediately in order to get better terms than would be available once Hitler conquered France. Many in the British leadership class, sharing that opinion, had to be persuaded otherwise.
Gilbert, the official biographer of Churchill, was delivering the Barbara Frum lecture, a memorial to a brilliant Canadian journalist who died in 1992. His lecture, and the book version of it, carry a wonderful title, Continue to Pester, Nag and Bite: Churchill's War Leadership.
In 1941, when cabling a British diplomat who was trying to keep Yugoslavia from joining Hitler's side, Churchill urged his man to keep pestering, nagging and biting at the pro-Nazi leaders in Belgrade. Those words also sum up Churchill's own style: Determined, persistent, thorough, unrelenting. It would be hard to imagine any leader who could not learn from the example of Churchill, as lovingly described by Gilbert.
After four decades of study, this remarkable scholar probably knows his man as well as any writer has ever known a major world leader. For Gilbert, God is in the details; or, if not God, at least empathy. He tells us, for instance, that in each of the three offices Churchill used in London during the war there was a bedroom alcove, where he took his late-afternoon nap, always 90 minutes long, which separated the two working days he crammed into each 24 hours. Focusing on the intimate details of Churchill's life, Gilbert helps his readers understand emotionally a great man's methods and accomplishments.
The Second World War was, of course, far more clearly defined than the current struggle and in many ways, much harder; Churchill had to direct it as bombs fell around him. But he was not unlike Bush in his belief that he was fighting an evil ideology rather than a race or religion. He was making war on a concept that, in Gilbert's paraphrase, perverted "all that was decent, humane, modern and constructive in human society." Not an unfamiliar notion in 2004.
Churchill often found refreshment in the unconscious comedy provided by transcripts of German radio propaganda. "I love to read the lies they tell of all the British ships they have sunk so many times over, and to survey the fools' paradise in which they find it necessary to keep their deluded serfs and robots." Today Churchill would be an addict of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which produces daily translations of lies spread to serfs and robots by hired hacks of the Arab dictators.
For a long time, Britain's situation was desperate, but Churchill had to avoid letting his frustration infect his relations with ministers, generals and the others he depended on. It took his wife to remind him that leadership requires kindness as well as resolve. What she said, in a letter perhaps only she could have written, might well be absorbed by every desk-thumping executive who believes that intimidated subordinates do better work. Clementine Churchill suggested, on the contrary, that Churchill needed to treat those who worked for him with respect. "You are not so kind as you used to be," she wrote one day in 1940. "You can sack anyone & everyone. Therefore with this terrific power you must combine urbanity, kindness & if possible Olympic calm." He appears to have taken her advice to heart.
As Gilbert rightly says, leadership against global terrorism requires qualities different from Churchill's, qualities which various leaders are now learning on the job and slowly putting into practice. Even so, in the hope that some aspects of Churchill's war leadership may be useful "in the present conflict," Gilbert dedicates his lecture to Bush and Tony Blair. Thinking about that, readers in 2004 may pause ruefully over Gilbert's account of Churchill's national-unity government. He brought his old enemies, appeasers such as Halifax and Neville Chamberlain, to his side; later he drew Labour Party leaders into his government. "Let pre-war feuds die," he wrote. "Let us keep our hatreds for the common enemy." That's something that politicians of today, above all the Republicans and Democrats in the U.S., have either forgotten or never learned.