Essays & Reviews

Churchill’s Trial: Winston Churchill and the Salvation of Free Government

Larry P. Arnn, President of Hillsdale College, has recently published an important new book, Churchill’s Trial: Winston Churchill and the Salvation of Free Government. This book distills decades of reflection on Churchill by Arnn, who served for several years as research assistant to Martin Gilbert, Churchill’s official biographer (the two men remained close friends and colleagues until Sir Martin’s passing).  Arnn seeks to discover if there was an underlying theme in Churchill’s lengthy public life and voluminous writings, a theme that encompasses both domestic and foreign affairs, and that transcends the tacking of the politician and statesman (Churchill’s critics called it opportunism).  There is, but I leave it to you to read the book and discover for yourselves.  From the standpoint of strategy and diplomacy, however, a few key themes stand out, by no means exhausting the topic.

Contrary to those who regard Churchill as a warmonger and a militarist, the striking lesson is that he had an economical approach to strategy.  His was not the economy of a bean-counter or systems analyst, but that of someone who fully appreciated the human and material costs of modern warfare and who feared its destructive consequences for civilization and constitutional government.  This included the costs in peacetime of wrong-headed military spending (however necessary right-headed military spending was).  He would deter war, certainly great-power war, if at all possible, through right-headed military spending (and a sensible foreign policy). If war could not be deterred, he would fight it in the most economical way, in terms of life and treasure, to bring the war to the right conclusion and to mitigate its effects. Arnn writes:

Churchill uses the term strategy . . . often as a synonym for economy in several senses, and so he shows us the profound connection among three distinct things. The right kind of war fighting protects the needs of politics in part because it is economical. Wars fought strategically are cheaper, in both men and material. They happen faster, and so they economize the time spent in conflict. They demand less from the liberal society, which depends upon a vibrant and large private life not consumed by public needs. Therefore they preserve the kind of economy in which individuals may flourish and care for themselves, their families, their communities, and their nation. In protecting the ground of economic strength, they protect the foundation of free politics.

What exactly is an economical strategy?  When it pertains to the strictly military art, the art of the general, Churchill explained: “Battles are won by slaughter and maneuver. The greater the general, the more he contributes in maneuver, the less he demands in slaughter.” The battles that are “masterpieces of the military art, from which have been derived the foundation of states and the fame of commanders, have been battles of maneuver.” These often employ “some novel expedient or device, some queer, swift, unexpected thrust or stratagem.” Often the victor suffers few casualties, and this is the “contribution” of the general. He brings not only “massive common sense and reasoning power, not only imagination, but also an element of legerdemain, an original and sinister touch, which leaves the enemy puzzled as well as beaten.” It requires the right mixture of caution and aggression, with a flair for deception and innovation, and the ability to think amidst the pressure of battle.  To be sure, slaughter on the battlefield sometimes cannot be avoided (think of Blenheim and Malplaquet, fought by Churchill’s ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough), but slaughter must not be for its own sake (to win a particular battle) but in larger service of economy, considering the best course for winning the war as a whole.

At an even higher level than that the military art is that of grand strategy – “The distinction between politics and strategy diminishes as the point of view is raised,” Churchill famously wrote.  “At the summit, true politics and strategy are one.”  Grand strategy is guided by an “overall strategic concept” (a term of which Churchill found American generals particularly fond).  War is emphatically a business for statesmen, however much battles and military strategy are the work of generals. “There are many kinds of maneuvers in war, some only of which take place upon the battlefield.” There are maneuvers “in time, in diplomacy, in mechanics, in psychology; all of which are removed from the battlefield, but react often decisively upon it…” Their object is to “find easier ways, other than sheer slaughter, of achieving the main purpose.” “The maneuver which brings an ally into the field is as serviceable as that which wins a great battle. The maneuver which gains an important strategic point may be less valuable than that which placates or overawes a dangerous neutral.”

Grand strategy also involves assertion and restraint, in the proper mixture. Because Churchill was famous for war, we forget the many occasions upon which he exercised or counseled restraint. The boldness of the Dardanelles campaign in World War I was matched by a sense of restraint in opposing the attacks from the trenches across no man’s land (chewing barbed wire, as he put it). Before both world wars, when the dangers were first coming into view, Churchill’s first reaction was reluctance to make alliances and give guarantees to France. In 1912 he would make no agreement “tying us up too tightly with France and depriving us of that liberty of choice on which our power to stop a war might well depend.” In 1925 he would undertake no obligations of “an unlimited nature”; instead he would proceed “in stages, by regional agreements and by the maintenance of good understanding between various groups of powers” within the framework of the League of Nations.  The first step was to figure out what worked for Great Britain.

Later, in 1954, during his second stint at Prime Minister, he refused to become involved in Indochina as part of a proposed intervention with the United States (this is a long and complicated story, and President Eisenhower actually counted on British resistance to buttress his domestic position against American intervention).  This reflects another of Churchill’s underlying strategic themes: that of setting and following priorities, according to the overall strategic concept. In this case, “War on the fringes,” he argued, was dangerous. The Russians (the term he preferred to the Soviets) and their Chinese allies were strong there and could mobilize the enthusiasm of “nationalist and oppressed peoples.” There the Russians had everything to gain “without the loss of a single Russian soldier.” The local war, after all, would be fought by the Vietnamese Communists and quite possibly, as in Korea, by the Chinese – but it could also escalate, by Russian choice or the pressure of events, into global nuclear war.  Churchill would not risk a nuclear attack upon Great Britain in exchange for Southeast Asia, and he would not undertake a war in which the British and Americans were using their own soldiers against proxy troops the Russians would not miss. Rather, he would talk with the Russians: “conversations at the center,” he called it, rather than “war at the fringes.” These talks would be designed to impress upon the Russians the power of the West and the futility of military confrontation. They must not lead to “appeasement” or to “an ultimatum.”  These conversations might come to nothing, but they would be “better understood” by the British people than a war in Asia. Meanwhile, the most important thing was the “close alliance of the English-speaking peoples and the continued effective cooperation of Great Britain and the United States.”

In other words, Churchill would be prepared to suffer the loss of countries, perhaps even regions, on the fringes, to protect the center. He would confront the Russians in places where the strategic calculus was favorable, and only there. Part of Churchill’s point was that the British people, a democratic electorate, would not understand the cost of a war of this kind, if it proved costly.  Also Churchill’s advice must be judged in light of the weakness of Britain at the time, which included its financial and economic weakness and also the political weakness inherent, in Churchill’s view, in the fact that the British people had shown their willingness to elect a socialist government. That calculation, too, must be taken into account by grand strategy. This episode and others like it shows Churchill’s inclination to fight when necessary or when strong, not when unnecessary and not when weak. Churchill is famous for leading his country in a fight to the death. In truth, Arnn concludes, he was the person least likely and least willing to undertake such a fight. Only when faced with circumstances like those in 1940, when in his judgment the alternative was life under the influence of Nazi Germany, was he simply unwilling to temporize, compromise, and negotiate. The Second World War was to Churchill “The Unnecessary War.” The great failure, the failure of grand strategy, was the failure to prevent it.

Churchill’s career after 1945 was devoted in large part to the prevention of another unnecessary war, one which might well mean the extinction of mankind, above and beyond the destruction of constitutional government and human freedom – but without conceding freedom as the price for doing so, or putting the West in the same horrible position as Britain found itself in 1940. That was the point of his Iron Curtain speech in 1946 (“The Sinews of Peace”). For Churchill, the world may often be divided into hostile camps, but it need not be. The conflict among nations may be recurrent, but it is not ineluctable. When Churchill asserts that the “earth is a generous mother,” he is rejecting socialism, but also he is rejecting inevitable war between man and man and nation and nation.  This required an overall strategic concept – to achieve “nothing less than the safety and welfare, the freedom and progress, of all the homes and families of all the men and women in all the lands.” These myriad homes and families must be shielded from the two “giant marauders, war and tyranny.”

With respect to this achieving this concept, or goal, Churchill recommends one kind of restraint and another kind of assertion. The restraint is both military and diplomatic: “it is not our duty at this time when difficulties are so numerous to interfere forcibly in the internal affairs of countries which we have not conquered in war.” In other words, “the homes and families of all the men and women” in these lands are not to see direct or immediate relief, at least not by force. This means that the force that tyrants employ against their own people will not be met with force from outside. The relief of the oppressed people must wait, even if their relief is part of the “overall strategic concept.” Churchill’s strategy was not then to go anywhere and bear any burden.

Churchill’s assertiveness lies in the determination of those who enjoy freedom “to never cease to proclaim in fearless tones” the good of that freedom. Democratic must say that the people in every country, all the “homes and families of all men and women in all the lands,” have the right to this freedom.  For them, and for the people “in every cottage home” in all the lands that we “have not conquered in war,” Churchill offers two things:  that the free countries will practice their freedom, and they will talk about the good of that freedom for themselves and for others.

This may not seem like much.  But the authority of government can be found only in two places: reason and force. Churchill is for reason, which is the practice of free peoples and free governments.  And he believed that if that reason is exercised in government, especially in powerful governments, that will be influential everywhere.  It may not be as quick or as decisive as the frontal assault, but the frontal assault is not possible in most or many cases, and it carries its own problems.  Here, at the highest level, maneuver, of a sort, again is Churchill’s preferred form of strategy. Moreover, Churchill believes the practice of free and constitutional government generates unity and power.  It generates strength in politics, in economics, and in science. Churchill understands that the kind of power it generates makes the modern world a more dangerous place, but also it offers boundless opportunities. The ground of military strength, for free nations, is cultivated in the activity of their freedom and the exercise of their rights. Churchill proposes to continue to practice this in the confidence that over time the strength it generates will protect the nations who practice it and offer the best hope to those forbidden it.

According to Arnn, Churchill’s preferred, method, or grand strategy, to achieve the “overall strategic concept,” in the context of the Cold War, was:

It involves a few principles that are common to his thinking about war and politics throughout his life. The free nations must understand, value, proclaim, and practice their freedom. They must bind together to constitute overwhelming force. They must keep the most potent weapons to themselves so far as they are able. They must build international organizations that are widely inclusive, if possible global. They must lead those organizations, and if they cannot lead them, they must find a way to lead anyway. They must stand against aggression consistently, but not necessarily everywhere. They must understand the places that are important. They must fight the battles that they must, but they must avoid if at all possible the battles that are presented upon unfavorable ground.

There is much more here upon which the student of strategy and diplomacy can reflect.  And of course, Churchill’s prescriptions, general and particular, were and are worthy of debate.  He might not have been willing to intervene in Indochina to pull French chestnuts out of the fire, but throughout his career he arguably expected the United States to support the British cause in regions that the United States might regard as peripheral. To American commanders during World War II, he seemed obsessed with fighting on the fringes rather than at the center, and by doing so he drained resources necessary to fight at the center, which defied the ultimate principle of economy. Sometimes, as during the American Civil War, slaughter is necessary to create the conditions for maneuver. But it surely can be said that Churchill’s works deserve inclusion in a list of the Classics.  Keeping in mind, of course, Churchill’s fair warning (expressed somewhat differently at different times): “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.”