Many have proclaimed Winston Churchill the greatest statesman of the 20th century. His determination and inspiring speeches played a key role in saving Britain and even Western civilization in the darkest hours of WWII. He was a complex man: demanding, insensitive, ruthless, yet at times generous and apologetic, with a natural affinity for children and animals. He was interested in science and technology but in many ways remained an upper-class Englishman of the late 19th century. He is, in short, a biographer’s dream.
The first two volumes of William Manchester’s biography of Churchill were widely acclaimed. Manchester died in 2004, but not before tapping award-winning journalist Paul Reid to finish the third volume in the trilogy. The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965 covers Churchill’s first days as Britain’s prime minister (and his return to the office in 1950), the Second World War, the beginnings of the Cold War, the writing of his memoirs and his death.
When Churchill became prime minister in 1940, he had prepared for the moment in many ways for six decades. Yet it is important to remember that his selection was not a popular choice. He was aware of his reputation for changing sides on issues and his history of questionable strategic judgments, so he moved quickly toward reconciliation as he made his choices of War Cabinet officers. In the early days of the war, he reached out many times for help from the United States and received nothing but a sympathetic ear. Even after the U.S. entered the war, it was Churchill who made special efforts to keep the “Big Three” working, more or less, together.
Churchill had no fondness for war. He hated the carnage and regarded the glorification of war as a fraud. But, the authors write, “War’s utility was altogether another matter.” Churchill once told his private secretary, John Colville, that those who say that wars settle nothing were talking nonsense because “nothing in history was ever settled except by war.”
As the authors put it, “Churchill did not simply observe the historical continuum; he made himself part of it. . . . He did not live in the past; the past lived on in him.” This third volume of Manchester’s trilogy took almost 20 years to write, but the narrative never falters. It is a triumph and definitely worth the wait.