Best Defense

Churchill, the political war leader

Americans have a hard time understanding cabinet governments, especially coalitions of parties that have little in common. Presidential governments have fixed terms and broad powers, especially in national security. Few great leaders presided over fractious cabinets and rebellious parliaments. Churchill was one.

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By Charlie Stevenson
Best Defense guest columnist

Americans have a hard time understanding cabinet governments, especially coalitions of parties that have little in common. Presidential governments have fixed terms and broad powers, especially in national security. Few great leaders presided over fractious cabinets and rebellious parliaments. Churchill was one.

But instead of seeing him as most historians have depicted him, on a pedestal, untarnished by deal-making and free from political constraints, it is better to see him as a skillful political leader, accommodating his rivals and piloting his government and country through treacherous waters. And it’s important to recognize that his hold on political power was precarious on several occasions during the war.

A new book by Jonathan Schneer, Ministers at War, tells that story. Churchill became prime minister after Neville Chamberlain lost a no-confidence vote in Parliament and in the dark days of 1942 faced two more against himself.  The first he won in part by offering a cabinet post to one of his rivals, Stafford Cripps, the second because of missteps by the opposition. He promised a National Government including Labour and Liberal members and maintained it throughout the war. His first War Cabinet, a small group with no other administrative duties except his own as minister of defense, consisted of two Conservatives who had favored appeasement and continued to urge a negotiated peace with Hitler and two Labour leaders who never forgot Churchill’s earlier anti-socialist rhetoric and policies. One of the ironies of this story is that the Labour ministers were consistently more loyal to Churchill and the Cabinet than the Tories.

He made changes during the war, at times expanding the War Cabinet to eight, but kept the party balance. He used its meetings to inform, cajole, flatter, and soothe his colleagues, but he also heard them out. He faced two primary rivals, Cripps and Lord Beaverbrook, who at various times talked quite openly of replacing him. Schneer quotes numerous diaries and letters revealing how close to open revolt many of his colleagues were.

Another myth punctured by Schneer is that Churchill dominated the cabinet and always got his way. For example, he favored retaliatory bombing of German civilians in response to Nazi atrocities following the Heydrich assassination but bowed to the moral arguments of his cabinet. He also reluctantly went along with Cabinet pronouncements about creating a social security system “from the cradle to the grave.”

As the defense minister, Churchill was hard-driving, self-assured, often unresponsive to the advice of others, easily fixated on grand but dubious schemes. But another book, Warlords , by Simon Berthon and Joanna Potts, gives an example of his almost obsessive oversight. The authors quote an October 2, 1941 minute to the head of Britain’s MI6. The Prime Minister was concerned that Britain share useful information gained from its breaking of German codes, without of course revealing that fact. The Germans had just launched a major operation against Moscow. Churchill wrote: “Are you warning the Russians of the developing concentration? Show me the last five messages you have sent out to our missions on the subject.”

Churchill wasn’t satisfied with a simple report. He wanted proof. That’s good management.

Both books conclude that Churchill was a great leader. The details show how that greatness was earned – by diligence and skillful politics.

Charles A. Stevenson teaches at Johns Hopkins’ SAIS and has written books about American foreign policy and civil-military relations.

Wikipedia

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. @tomricks1
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