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In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War (review)

From: The Journal of Military History
Volume 70, Number 2, April 2006
pp. 551-552 | 10.1353/jmh.2006.0082

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The Journal of Military History 70.2 (2006) 551-552

In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War. By David Reynolds. New York: Random House, 2005. ISBN 0-679-45743-7. Photographs. Illustrations. Notes. Index. Pp. xxiv, 631. $35.00.

Over forty years ago, A. J. P. Taylor perceptively remarked that Churchill's The Second World War badly needed critical examination. It was long in coming. The opening of Churchill's papers has finally made possible a careful, scholarly critique. David Reynolds, well equipped from his previous work to tackle this complex subject, has done so with great skill and complete success. In Command of History is one of the most important books yet produced about Churchill.

The outlines of the story have long been known—Churchill wrote to put his own spin on the history of the war and give himself and his family financial security, and he wrote with a great deal of assistance. Reynolds adds depth and detail to the story. Churchill, enjoying iconic stature, treated publishers in a manner that ordinary authors can only dream of and made his family very rich in the process. His "Syndicate" of assistants was an open secret, but Reynolds points out that perhaps the most important member of it was the least acknowledged—the powerful Cabinet Secretary, Sir Norman Brook, who smoothed Churchill's way (especially over the use of official documents) and prevented Churchill's account from clashing too much with current Whitehall policies. Brook was motivated not only by his admiration for Churchill but by his sense that the memoirs were really a quasi-official history of Britain's war—sure to be much more widely read and influential than the ponderous Cabinet Office official histories.

But the most important part of Reynolds's story is not his fascinating reconstruction of exactly how the memoirs were assembled but his sharp analysis of what Churchill was trying to impress upon the historical record. Looking at Churchill's wartime actions and statements and then at how and why those were massaged for his memoirs has long been an interesting exercise for historians, but it has never before been done with such sophistication for the memoirs as a whole, and the results are illuminating. It has, for example, long been clear that Churchill paid little attention to the complex Burma campaign (and that such attention as he paid was not always helpful). It is nonetheless startling to learn that only after Field Marshal Sir William Slim personally protested the failure even to mention Fourteenth Army in Closing the Ring did Churchill incorporate a rather pro-forma acknowledgment of it in Triumph and Tragedy. Of course the whole war in the Far East had been disappointing to Churchill and he was disinclined to dwell on it.

When this and dozens of other episodes, great and small, have been scrupulously dissected, what new conclusions emerge? About the war, relatively few. Churchill remains the arresting figure he has always been—dynamic, often wrong, but the indispensable leader who saw Britain through the worst crisis in its modern history and led it to its last, terribly costly, imperial victory. The postwar Churchill, however, appears in a different light, carefully reconstructing the story to support his continuing political ambitions, Britain's desire to remain a Great Power, and his own personal lodestar, the Anglo-American "Special Relationship" (a Churchillian construct that still mesmerizes his successors). He shaped popular perceptions of the war for a generation, and the influence of his memoirs lingers still—perhaps especially in the United States. Whether that has been entirely gain for the English Speaking Peoples is another question.

Raymond Callahan

Newark, Delaware