History’s Impresario

Proceedings of the International Churchill Societies 1994-95

Introduction to Arthur Schlesinger by William Manchester

IN THE summer of 1939 von Ribbentrop told Churchill, “If there’s war, the Italians will fight on Germany’s side.” After a pause Churchill replied, “That’s fair; we had them last time.”

Well, Churchill was right. But historical analogies are slippery parallels. When president-elect Kennedy was forming his government he said he had always thought of Roosevelt’s advisors as towering figures. And then in mock disdain he said, “Now I realize they were just men like you, Arthur.”

John Kennedy could be as hard on his friends as he was on himself, but in this instance he was wrong. There has never been anyone like Arthur Schlesinger. His career defies anyone else’s. There has been too much of it. He is too many men. In sum he is our premier intellectual celebrity. A prolific writer who sees history as literature, a premier exponent of twentieth century Liberalism, and a lightning rod for those who, without understanding that Liberalism is a marriage of idealism and pragmatism, scorn “Liberal” as a dirty word.

Throughout his career he has remained true to his father’s faith in reasoned democracy, his distrust of absolutes. Thus he has become the sharpest critic of shallow revisionists who manipulate, distort, and fabricate the historical record to serve their ideologies.

As the unflagging champion of political debate and the fighter for intellectual freedom around the world, he is—he always has been—a supreme advocate of those qualities we admire in Sir Winston Churchill.

It is therefore my privilege, it is my honor, to give you my old friend and colleague Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.


“History’s Impresario”

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.
Boston, 28 October 1995

I saw Winston Churchill only twice, but these two sightings left indelible memories. In 1938-39, the year between Munich and the war, I was a Henry Fellow at the University of Cambridge. I arrived in England just as Neville Chamberlain, after conceding part of Czechoslovakia to Hitler, returned from Munich, carrying an umbrella and proclaiming peace in our time. The next March the Nazis swallowed the rest of Czechoslovakia. Few Britons could believe thereafter that appeasement was the cure for Hitler. The feeling spread that war was bound to come. There followed a strange twilight time—the long hush, the ominous half-light, the eerie silence as before a cyclone strikes.

It was a fragrant spring that year, and in May, wandering along the Cambridge streets, I suddenly saw hoardings announcing that Winston Churchill was going to speak at the Cam Exchange. One had heard much about Churchill, of course. His countrymen generally regarded him as unreliable, reactionary and reckless, a brilliant man who had thrown away what might have been a brilliant political career. But these were parlous times, and I was one of several hundred people who crowded the Corn Exchange to hear him. With rolling phrases and lavish splendor of language, he denounced the menace of Nazism, calling for conscription, faster rearmament and a Russian alliance. It was a thrilling speech. I came out a convert. Britain, I thought, had a leader—if only the British had enough sense to recognize it, and him.

The next and last time I saw him was on Armistice Day 1944. 1 was in Paris and stood on a balcony overlooking the Champs Elysees while Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle led a military parade to the tomb of the unknown poilu at the Arc de Triomphe. It was moving to watch the sturdy bulldog figure of the Englishman and the tall, rather awkward figure of the Frenchman marching together with Paris reclaimed and victory at last in prospect.

I thought of this when President Kennedy conferred honorary American citizenship on Churchill in 1963. Sir Winston was too infirm to accept the honor in person, and Randolph Churchill read his father’s letter of acceptance with great dignity—resisting, as he told me later, the temptation to mimic the paternal voice. The crucial sentence in the letter was his father’s majestic rejection of the view that relegated Britain to a “tame and minor role in the world.” This sentence was obviously aimed at Dean Acheson for his statement that Britain had lost an empire and had failed to find a role. Acheson, who was present, said to me at the reception, “Well, it hasn’t taken Winston long to get used to American ways. He was not an American citizen for three minutes before he began to attack a former Secretary of State.”

Winston Churchill was unusual in many ways. He was a man of action who was also a man of words. He not only made history, he wrote history and often wrote about the history he had made. In this combination of words and action he resembled his older American contemporary, Theodore Roosevelt. Though Churchill was sixteen years younger than TR, the man of Omdurman had much in common with the man of San Juan Hill. Both were brave; both were absorbed by history, both wrote history with notable fluency and confidence. Yet Theodore Roosevelt, for some reason, did not like the bumptious young Englishman. The references to Churchill in TR’s letters are patronizing when they are not scornful. I once asked Th’s daughter, Alice Roosevelt Long-worth, why her father had such a low opinion of Winston Churchill. She replied cryptically, “Because they were so much alike.”’

Churchill’s history, like TR’s, was narrative history of the old school, though Churchill, it must be added, was much the better and more careful historian. He saw the past as a grand dramatic spectacle dominated by great men. And he saw the present in the context of the past—as he saw the past as a means of shaping the present. “A good knowledge of history,” he wrote in his youth, “is a quiver full of arrows in debate.”

Aneurin Bevan, his most eloquent and effective critic in the House of Commons, once recalled the secret session speech Churchill made at the time of the sinking of the French fleet in 1940. “He was tremendous,” Nye Bevan wrote. “History itself seemed to come into that chamber and address us. Nobody could have listened and not been moved. This was his #rte. There has never been anybody who could speak for history as Churchill could.” He was, Bevan said in a phrase Churchill himself might have envied, “history’s impresario.”

Churchill saw history as humanity’s ultimate judge and jury. He saw himself too as under the judgment of history—a chastening reflection that both nerves and sobers serious statesmen. Perhaps, as Maurice Ashley has suggested, history for Churchill took the place of the afterlife, in which he did not believe. Leaders and their actions, Churchill thought, would receive their final judgment “before the Bar of History.” Relying on his own double talent, he sometimes called on the man of words to vindicate the man of action. “History will bear me out,” he once said, “particularly as I shall write that history myself.”

Today Winston Churchill himself stands before the Bar of History. It is not clear whether he supposed that history could render final verdicts. After all, he himself had no hesitation about revising the verdicts of earlier historians. His biography of Marlborough thus rejected the negative judgments pronounced on the great Duke by Thomas Babington Macaulay. As Churchill wrote in the preface to his first volume: “In this work I am compelled…to meet a host of sneers, calumnies and grave accusations.” I don’t know whether Churchill would have endorsed Oscar Wilde’s proposition, “The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.” But he had no hesitation in rewriting history himself

AND now people are rewriting his history. No one should be shocked by this. Churchill would not have been. Sir William Deakin recalls that Churchill’s attitude toward his war memoirs was: ‘this is not history— this is my case.” The historian, like everyone else, is a prisoner of his own experience and at the mercy of his own preconceptions. “No man,” said Emerson, “can quite emancipate himself from his own age and country, or produce a model in which the education, the religion, the politics, usages, and arts of his time shall have no share. Though he were never so original, never so willful and fantastic, he cannot wipe out of his work every trace of thoughts midst which it grew”

The historian is professionally bound to recognize his biases and do his best to transcend them; but in the end he cannot escape himself As times and problems change, so do historical perspectives. The result is the constancy of fluctuation in historical judgment. Reputations rise and fall like stocks on Wall Street, determined by supply and demand equations of a later age. Nor does time always stabilize historical verdicts. The great Dutch historian Pieter Geyl wrote in Napoleon: For and Against “It is impossible that two historians, especially two historians living in different periods, should see any historical personality in the same light. The greater the political importance of a historical character, the more impossible this is.” History, Geyl concluded, is “an argument without end.”

But second opinions are not necessarily wiser than first. Many motives—besides purity of historical analysis—may animate historical revisionism. Revisionism may sometimes reflect later developments, as young historians, persuaded of the wickedness or folly of American intervention in Vietnam, read such wickedness or folly back into U.S. policy in the Cold War and even in the Second World War. Revisionism may sometimes serve political interests, as when isolationist historians argue that Franklin Roosevelt maneuvered America into the Second World War, even that he permitted the destruction of the American fleet at Pearl Harbor; or when left-wing historians absolve Stalin of responsibility for the Cold War and blame it on Truman.

And revisionism may be fueled simply by boredom with regnant orthodoxies. It may be fueled by a quest for novelty and originality and by the parricidal impulse that sometimes afflicts scholars seeking to advance themselves by trampling on the bodies of their elders. It is very often fueled by the lack of personal experience or of historical imagination that leads young scholars to fail to appreciate the urgencies and uncertainties that precipitated decisions taken before they were born. “It is very difficult to remember,” as E W Maitland once said, “that events now in the past were once far in the future.” Now Churchill himself, and his leadership during the Second World War, are summoned before the Bar of History. He has not been without critics before. But the present assault comes from historians who have dug deep into the archives and whose arguments are not simply rhetorical or polemical or political but are fortified by documentation. A forerunner in this campaign was the historian David Irving, who unearthed interesting materials, especially from Nazi sources in Germany, but Irving’s work, though often useful, is tainted by suspicions of pro-fascist sympathies.

OF MORE concern today is a new generation of skeptical British scholars. The most sustained assault comes from John Charmley of the University of East Anglia in his trilogy Chamberlain and the Lost Peace (1989), Churchill: The End of Glory (1993) and Churchill’s Grand Alliance: the Anglo-American Special Relationship 1940-57(1995).

The essential thesis is that Winston Churchill was personally responsible for the decline of Britain and the disintegration of the British Empire. Chamberlain had been right in 1939. “Appeasement,” Charmley writes in his latest book, “was the only road open to a statesman who wished to preserve the power of the United Kingdom and its Empire. The British guarantee of Poland was a bad mistake, but the fatal mistake came in 1940-41 when Churchill kept on fighting when he might have negotiated a peace with Hitler and thereby saved the Empire.” In sharp contrast to all those admirers who have strenuously denied that an honourable peace could have been made in 1940 or 1941,” Charmley writes, “Churchill knew better. Peace could have been made.” But, instead of appeasing Hitler, Charmley says, Churchill decided to appease Roosevelt. The result was to deliver Britain to the Socialists, Eastern Europe to the Soviets and the rest of the world to the United States.

The third volume concentrates on what Charmley sees as Churchill’s delusions about a special relationship between Britain and America. Churchill’s assumption in staking all on an Anglo-American alliance was that it would be used “to underwrite Britain’s position as a Great Power.” But the result of Churchill’s dedication to the myth of the unity of English-speaking peoples, Charmley contends, was to reduce a once proud and independent country into a pathetic American satellite state. Recalling Harold Macmillan’s remark that the British should consider themselves the “Greeks in the new Roman Empire,” Charmley takes delight in pointing out, more than once, that in the Roman Empire the Greeks were slaves.

The improbable hero of Churchill’s Grand Alliance is Anthony Eden. In a major effort at historical reevaluation, Charmley portrays Lord Avon as the thoughtful champion of an independent British foreign policy, as the resolute defender of British interests against American priorities and as the prescient prophet who “foresaw the shape of the future better than anyone.” Eden’s great regret, Charmley suggests, is that he had not followed the example of de Gaulle. De Gaulle’s obstinacy, independence and pride may have greatly irritated Churchill and Roosevelt, but his very obstinate insistence strengthened the postwar position of his country. If de Gaulle, Eden later reflected, had seemed “contumacious, especially to our American allies, perhaps we should have learnt from it. Some of the faults of later years might have been avoided if we had shown more of the same spirit.”

The special relationship meant in practice, Charmley observes, that “America would support British interests where they coincided with her own, and only then, whilst expecting the British to tow [sic] the line whenever America wanted her to do so.” It should be no great discovery, especially for an English scholar, that nations tend to protect and pursue their own interests. In the new Charmley volume, Franklin Roosevelt emerges not so much as the villain but as the leader that Churchill failed to be: as the cool, crafty, calculating, accomplished champion of his own nation’s interests.

Charmley defends Roosevelt against the charges of naive idealism conventionally brought against him and sees him out-maneuvering and manipulating the ever-credulous and over-hopeful Churchill. He attributes to FDR “a vein of Machiavellian cunning which would not have disgraced a statesman of the old European school of Bismarck.” This is an interesting historiographical reversal:

For years historians have been portraying Roosevelt as the innocent and Churchill as the old master. Now it is true that Roosevelt and Churchill often disagreed both about the strategy of the war and the strategy of the peace. But just as it has been an error in past years to romanticize the harmonies of the relationship, so it is an error today to exaggerate the disharmonies. Both were large men, both had a magnificent sense of history, each rejoiced in what each saw as the incredible luck of occupying the great stage of history with the other. Their disagreements were tactical disagreements to be understood within the embracing framework of grand purposes, shared objectives and common ideals.

John Charmley was born in 1955, so the Second World War is almost as remote from his generation as the Spanish-American and Boer Wars were to my generation. Some attribute his critique of Churchill to the fact that he was born a decade after the end of the wan if he had only been around in 1940, they think, then he would have understood. But it seems evident that, had Charmley been there in 1940, he would have agreed not at all with Churchill, but with Neville Chamberlain on appeasement and Lord Halifax on the desirability of a negotiated peace. And indeed there would be very little history written if historians were debarred from writing about things they did not personally witness. It is not Charmley’s age that determines his slant. It is his politics.

He is unabashedly a right-wing Thatcherite. In his new book he occasionally interrupts his narrative to give vent to his prejudices. FDR’s New Deal, he writes in language that would please Newt Gingrich, was “little more than a veil for government interference in the lives of individuals on an unprecedented scale, both through ‘agencies’.. .and through so-called ‘progressive’ taxation, which deprived individuals of the opportunity to pass on their wealth. In foreign affairs it meant an end to imperialism and protectionism, indeed to any barriers which stood in the way of the imposition of ‘Americanism’ on an unsuspecting world.” As for Britain joining Europe, Charmley is a vigorous Euroskeptic. “It is more than time,” he writes, “that historians (and the rest of us) stopped treating the lucubrations of Gladwyn Jebb, Harold Macmillan, old uncle Ted Heath and all with respect which they scarcely deserve.”

Right-wing Tories never really trusted Churchill, nor does Charmley. And his obsession with Churchill leads him to neglect longer-range factors that shape history. Churchill was a remarkable man, but he was not the single architect of the decline and fall of the British Empire.

IT IS true enough that personalities do play a role in history. In December 1931 Churchill, crossing Fifth Avenue in New York City between 76th and 77th Streets around ten-thirty at night, looked in the wrong direction and was knocked down by an automobile—a moment, he later recalled, of a man aghast, a world aglare. “I do not understand why I was not broken like an eggshell or squashed like a gooseberry.” Fourteen months later Franklin Roosevelt, sitting in an open car in Miami, Florida, was fired on by an assassin; the man beside him, the Mayor of Chicago, was killed. Would the next two decades have been the same had the automobile killed Winston Churchill in 1931 and the bullet killed Franklin Roosevelt in 1933? Would Neville Chamberlain or Lord Halifax have rallied Britain in 1940? Would John N. Garner have produced

the New Deal and the Four Freedoms? Suppose in addition that Lenin had died of typhus in Siberia in 1895 and Hitler had been killed on the western front in 1916. Would the 20th century have looked the same? Individuals do make a difference in history.

But they don’t make all the difference. In blaming so much on Churchill, Charmley neglects the economic, social, cultural and demographic factors that determined Britain’s rise and decline in the world. He fails to show that alternative policies, whether Chamberlain’s or Eden’s, could conceivably have maintained Britain as a great power or could conceivably have preserved the Empire in an age of worldwide revolt against colonialism. He fails to show how a Britain, divorced not only from the United States but from Europe, could conceivably sustain an independent role in world affairs. As for his anti-Churchill sniping along the way, I have no doubt that other historians will come along, as Churchill did in his defense of Marlborough, “to deal with the host of sneers, calumnies and grave accusations.

N THE meantime, let us not be too agitated by the rise of revisionism. Revisionism is essentially a tendency to challenge established historical explanations. No one should be surprised by this phenomenon. Every war in American history has been followed in due course by skeptical reassessments of supposedly sacred assumptions. So the War of 1812, fought at the time for the freedom of the seas, was later ascribed to the expansionist ambitions of congressional war hawks; so the Mexican War became a slaveholders’ conspiracy. So the Civil War was pronounced a “needless war,” and Lincoln has even been accused of maneuvering the rebel attack on Fort Sumter. So too the Spanish-American War, the First and Second World Wars and the Cold War have, each in its turn, endured the revisionist touch.

It is useful to remember that, on the whole, past exercises in revisionism have failed to stick. Few historians today believe that the war hawks caused the War of 1812 or the slaveholders the Mexican War, or that the Civil War was needless, or that the House of Morgan brought America into the First World War, or that Franklin Roosevelt schemed to produce the attack on Pearl Harbor. Still revisionism is an essential part of the process by which history, through the posing of new problems, the employment of new perspectives and the investigation of new possibilities, enlarges its reach and its insights.

History, as Pieter Geyl said, is indeed an argument without end. But if anyone is likely to survive that argument and come out unscathed and on top, it is that impetuous, imperious, fallible, glorious man, history’s impresario, Winston Churchill.

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The International Churchill Society (ICS), founded in 1968 shortly after Churchill's death, is the world’s preeminent member organisation dedicated to preserving the historic legacy of Sir Winston Churchill.

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