Perhaps second only to Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill is one of history’s most written about figures. England’s greatest statesman, he lived a long (90 years) and eventful life, extending from the reign of Queen Victoria to the space age. Historians, politicians, and knowledgeable laymen usually fall into one of two camps regarding Churchill. One camp considers him an overrated, warmongering, reckless, and unpleasant personage. Others consider him the savior of western civilization, and one of the world’s preeminent writes and orators.
Boris Johnson, currently the Mayor of London, falls solidly in the latter camp. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson discusses the major points of Churchill’s life, laying out the critics’ arguments against Churchill’s legacy and then clearly showing, with wit and reason, why the critics are wrong.
Nearly everyone is aware of Churchill’s involvement as Prime Minister of Great Britain during World War II, and of his reputation as a staunch defender of the British Empire against the Nazi regime. While some maintain that Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin were most responsible for the defeat of Hitler, Johnson makes the case that without Churchill, from the German invasion of Poland in 1939 until Pearl Harbor, Hitler would have conquered Russia and enslaved the entire European continent. It was Churchill’s single-minded determination that prevented England from reaching a disastrous accommodation with Hitler and that kept England in the war until joined by the US.
Along with his triumphs, Churchill made a number of serious misjudgments and blunders throughout his career. Johnson recounts those incidents, acknowledging Churchill’s shortcomings but pointing out how even his errors were characteristic of the man: bold and based on his beliefs. Churchill’s name is forever associated with the disastrous attempt to invade Turkey through the Dardanelles at Gallipoli. Johnson acknowledges that Churchill was the father of that plan, but rightly points out the soundness of its underlying rationale and the fact that it was the faulty execution, not the plan itself, that fell short.
Critics often accuse Churchill of having been a war lover with disregard for the consequences of his decisions. Johnson’s view, carefully laid out, is that Churchill was personally brave but abhorred war. Once committed, though, he was relentless in the pursuit of victory and weighed the potential casualties against the greater evil resulting from defeat.
Churchill, as Johnson points out, also made many positive contributions to his country and the world. Though he was born into the aristocracy, Churchill demonstrated a life-long concern for the common man, pushing through Parliament a number of social welfare reforms, including minimum wage, unemployment insurance, and land reform. Johnson also highlights Churchill’s powers of thought, persuasion, and oratory, which are evident in Churchill’s voluminous writings and speeches. Churchill was awarded the Noble Prize in Literature, an honor well-deserved in Johnson’s eyes.
Churchill fans will find much to savor in The Churchill Factor. Critics with open minds will find much to consider, and might even find that they agree with many of Johnson’s arguments.