The Churchill Legend

Last week a Palm Beach friend, a country club Republican, gave me a copy of the Weekly Standard. She urged me to read “A World in Crisis, what the thirties tell us about today” by its opinion editor, Matthew Continetti. The predicate of this overly long article seems to be that the fate of the universe hinged upon a little-known traffic accident involving Winston Churchill on the upper east side of Manhattan in the early 1930’s. Unlike a Thomas Hardy novel, in this instance a chance mishap worked out for the best. Or so Continetti would have the reader assume.

Churchill was crossing Fifth Avenue at 76th Street in the late evening of December 13th, 1931 on his way to Bernard Baruch’s apartment for a pow-wow, when he looked the wrong way, crossed against the light, and was sideswiped by a car going 30 mph. The hapless statesman spent over a week in Lenox Hill hospital recovering from a sprained shoulder, some facial lacerations, and a mild concussion, all of which required a doctor’s prescription for “alcoholic spirits especially at meal times.”

Mr. Continetti mentions “the granularity of history”, whatever that means. “…If the car had been traveling just a little bit faster, the history of the twentieth century would have been irrevocably altered.” True enough, but for the better or the worse? That is the question.

Being a patriotic, informed and self-respecting American, I would normally not be caught in the same room with the Weekly Standard, anymore than I would waste time reading National Review online or be a subscriber to Commentary Magazine. All of them are members of the same Neocon,  faux conservative fraternity, which hijacked Washington, starting with H.W. Bush, in the aftermath of the Cold War and demolished any hope of a “peace dividend”. The Neocons and their dupes have been been beating the drums for U.S. “exceptionalism” and for global military confrontation ever since.

In varying degrees, Washington’s elected and unelected officials of every stripe and hue–from Bubba Bill Clinton and Madeleine “it’s worth it” Albright to G.W. “Charlie McCarthy” Bush and Dick “Edgar Bergen” Cheney to Drone Attack Obama and Hillary The Obliterator–all have danced to that same annoying drumbeat. In terms of career advancement, it has indeed been worth it for them. For the country, on the other hand, the results have been disastrous. These include inter alia the predictable 9/11 terrorist blowback from Arab nationalist/religious fanatics, and the ruinous, dead-end, unfunded wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At present, the overriding Neocon project is the destabilization and bombing of Iran, in a manner similar to Iraq. Collaterally, the aim is to promote a fratricidal explosion in Lebanon, thereby tearing that beautiful country asunder, while continuing to provide a blank checkbook and cluster bombs to the enterprise of Zion. All of this incendiary madness is supposed somehow to be in the best interests of the United States, even including the horror of 9/11 itself, the latter serving as a wakeup call to the dangers of Jihadism. What it actually amounts to is treason and gross stupidity.

A lot of people, like my Palm Beach friend, have been bamboozled or have not thought the matter through. They fail to realize that fighting fire with gasoline is generally not a good idea and that Islamic extremism is a logical byproduct of the Tel Aviv-Washington alliance. Hence, the slow-motion downfall of the world’s “indispensable nation” is now upon us. It reminds me of the sad state of Little England in the aftermath of the Second World War, thanks to the myopic leadership of Sir Winston.

But what was the brainstorming premise of that article by Continetti? Only this: that the 1930’s were dangerous times, much like our own, and it took the astute, magnificent Winston Churchill to come to humanity’s rescue and make things right. “A few people in December 1931 recognized the growing danger. The patient at Lenox Hill Hospital was one.” Oh dear. What utter bilge.

The totemization of Sir Winston Churchill has been a fact of life for a long time, and the Neocon opportunists have grabbed him as one of their own. The great English man of letters, Malcolm Muggeridge, wrote a famous article about Churchill’s totemization for Esquire in June 1961. Then in 1968, three years after Churchill’s death, Muggeridge wrote another piece for the same magazine, in which he stated:

In all the immense literature about the 1939-45 war, one may observe a legend in process of being shaped. Gradually, authentic memories of the war–of its boredom, its futility, the sense it gave of being part of a process of inevitable decomposition–fade in favor of the legendary version, embodied in Churchill’s rhetoric…creating the impression of a titanic and forever memorable struggle in defense of civilization. In fact, of course, the war’s ostensible aims–the defense of a defunct Empire, a spent Revolution, and bogus Freedoms–were meaningless in the context of the times.

It is always the Second World War, the presumed “good war”, which one links with Churchill and for which he has been glorified to the skies. So what if that car had been traveling faster down Fifth Avenue in 1931, and knocked the boozy British bulldog into the next world? What then? Could this world have escaped the Second World War altogether? And would that escape have been a good thing for humanity as a whole? We can only speculate. My answer to the first question is “most likely” and to the second, “without a doubt”.

We do know that the “good war” resulted in approximately fifty-million fatalities world wide, that it left Europe a starved and blasted continent, destroyed the far-flung British and French Empires, brought the Soviets into the heart of Europe for more than forty years, and handed China over to Mao Tse-Tung, among other things. Not necessarily a good scorecard.

We do know that Churchill–abetted by President Roosevelt and U.S. Ambassador to France, William C. Bullitt, as his sub rosa partners–was in the forefront of promoting and instigating the outbreak of war in Europe in the summer of 1939, utilizing Danzig and the Polish Corridor, the last unresolved issue of the Versailles Treaty, as the trip-wire. Their plan succeeded when Prime Minister Chamberlain foolishly gave Poland a blanket guarantee of the status quo, thereby terminating a negotiated settlement and making war between Berlin and Warsaw inevitable.

We do know that in July 1940, shortly after the French Army had covered the English retreat to Dunkirk, Churchill demanded the French Fleet be turned over to England. Under France’s peace treaty with Germany, the fleet was being demobilized at the naval base of Mers-el-Kébir and at the port of Oran in French Algeria. Third Republic officials rejected Churchill’s demand out of hand and later Marshal Pétain, the hero of Verdun in the Great War, assured Churchill that since the fleet had not been defeated in battle, it would never be surrendered to Germany.

Sir Winston’s response was to order the bombardment of the fleet, which was bottled up and at anchor. Operation Catapult resulted in the slaughter of 1200 French sailors, giving new meaning to the ancient phrase Albion Perfide. It boosted Churchill’s standing with Roosevelt, which was, it seems, a prime motivation for the dastardly deed.

We do know that in 1941 Churchill, looking to build upon his naval record in French North Africa, co-conspired with Roosevelt, first, to provoke Japan and, second, to withhold vital information from the Hawaiian commanders, Admiral Husband Kimmel and General Walter Short, about the imminent outbreak of hostilities. [See Betrayal at Pearl Harbor by James Rusbridger and Captain Eric Nave. And the BBC documentary “Sacrifice at Pearl Harbor”.]

London’s Far East code breakers had cracked the Japanese naval code, JN-25, and Churchill had access to it. Washington had already cracked the Japanese diplomatic code known as “Magic”. Japan’s operations were practically an open book, and remained so up until V-J day in 1945.

The “surprise” attack on Pearl Harbor turned the European conflict into a truly global war. Over 2,500 Americans were killed and almost 1,200 injured at Pearl Harbor. It was Pearl Harbor that saved Churchill’s backside. It was Pearl Harbor that rescued the Roosevelt Presidency and his failed New Deal. The relevant documents with respect to the voluminous Roosevelt-Churchill correspondence, if they still exist, remain under seal.

And yet, bizarrely, we also know that Churchill had some surprisingly positive things to say about Hitler and Germany during the 1930’s, prior to the invasion of Poland and after his stay at Lenox Hill hospital. I have recently been rereading my well-underlined copy of Francis Neilson’s  The Churchill Legend, which was privately published in 1954. It is a wonderful and fascinating book written by a great historian. It was reissued in paperback a few years ago.

To say that this book deflates Churchill is something of an understatement. It demolishes the man. In it Neilson quotes what Churchill wrote about the German leader in a letter to himself dated September 17th, 1937 and included in Step by Step, published in 1939:

“…One may dislike Hitler’s system and yet admire his patriotic achievement. If our country were defeated, I hope we would find a champion as indomitable to restore our courage and lead us back to our place among the nations.”

Along the same lines, Neilson cites another book, Great Contemporaries  published in 1937, in which Churchill states that Hitler’s life’s story, “…cannot be read without admiration for the courage, the perseverance, and the vital force which enabled him to challenge, defy, conciliate, or overcome, all the authorities or resistances which barred his path.”

But I’m now wondering about pre-1931. If the Twentieth Century could have been “irrevocably altered” by Churchill’s brush with death in a traffic accident between the world wars, then what if Churchill had never been engaged in politics to begin with? What would humanity have escaped or profited under that hypothetical circumstance? I think it is a fair question. The answer is, plenty. One has only to get a copy of The Churchill Legend and read it. Francis Neilson, who was a member of Parliament at the outbreak of the Great War, claimed to have known Churchill longer than anyone alive.

The list of disasters prior to the Second World War which Churchill presided over would include the fiasco at Gallipoli during the Great War, the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 (when Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty), and the issuance of the Balfour Declaration in 1917 by the British War cabinet, which document, it was soon realized, opened a Pandora box from which has sprung unending injustice, neocolonialism, and a Niagara of bloodshed in the Middle East.

Not that Churchill deserves sole credit for these disasters, but his fingerprints are everywhere. He was certainly involved at the highest level. Both the sinking of the Lusitania and the Balfour Declaration, by the way, were byproducts of a desperate British War Cabinet strategy to drag America into the Great War.

One gets the message from reading Neilson that Churchill’s entire public career–highlighted in both world wars of the Twentieth Century–shows evidence of recklessness, opportunism, mendacity, murder and just plain horrible judgment. Thanks to the Neocons and their vainglorious liberal interventionist sidekicks, history is repeating itself today. Conceivably, this could result in the first world war of the Twenty-First Century.

PATRICK FOY is an essayist and short story writer. He graduated from Columbia University, where he studied English literature, European history and American diplomatic history. His work can be found at