This is the second of three posts on JPROF.com about how Winston Churchill came to write his great history of World War II, which won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955.
Churchill the Writer is likely not the image that springs to mind when you hear the name, Winston Churchill.
More likely: Churchill the Statesman; Churchill the War Leader; or Churchill the Orator.
He was all of those and more. His energy and his ego were boundless. So was his eloquence.
More than being a politician, statesman, orator, or even prime minister during Great Britain’s greatest battle, Churchill made his living — made his money — by being a writer. That fact about Churchill asserted itself mercilessly in 1946 when he found himself out of office, out of power, and without much influence over the world events that he once seemed to control.
Obliterating the obstacles
Compelling reasons for Churchill to write his much-anticipated history of World War II presented themselves forcefully by early 1946.
Churchill and the Conservatives had been voted out of office in the General Election of July 1945. Churchill was still the leader of the Tory Party but had little interest in conducting any opposition to the Labour Party. That, he would leave to others. The results of the General Election offered him a great opportunity to plan and write about the momentous events in which he had participated.
Churchill had given strong hints during his leadership days that he would make such an undertaking. Even if he had not done so, people expected Churchill to write because Churchill had always written. Churchill had famously said that history would be kind to him because he would be writing it. Now, 1946, was the time for writing.
Most compelling of all, however, was the fact that Churchill needed the money.
The Churchill family was not wealthy, and Churchill’s tastes and demands were often lavish — and sometimes extreme.
Memoirs by the great war leader would lucrative beyond anything Churchill had ever done.
As compelling as these reasons were, there were also monumental obstacles that stood in the way of Churchill’s efforts. Churchill either found a way around them or turned them to his advantage as he began plans for his multi-volume saga in the first months of 1946.
Two of the most difficult obstacles were Britain’s tax system and its Officials Secrets Act. And while Churchill dealt with these two obstacles, a third problem arose: the memoirs of others, especially Americans, who were already at their keyboards and who had been less than enamored with Churchill’s leadership during the war. This third problem eventually became an opportunity.
Immediately after the war, the British tax system would have claimed about 97 percent of Churchill’s earnings from his writing (for reasons we won’t go into at this point). With this system in place, Churchill could not have reaped the payday he wanted or needed — or, by any standard, deserved — by writing his memoirs. A way around it had to be found.
Churchill’s lawyers did just that.
They constructed a trust made up of Churchill’s family members. Churchill would give his “papers” (a euphemism for his manuscripts) to the trust for a small fee. The trust would then negotiate a deal with publishers to get the “papers” serialized and in print. It was a tax dodge that was creative and perfectly legal.
Britain’s Official Secrets Act was a tougher nut to crack. The law did not prevent former government officials from writing about their time in office, but it made documents difficult to access. Yet, there were many exceptions and contingencies in the operation of the law. Former prime ministers and cabinet officers (including Churchill) had written memoirs, and there were many precedents as to how this could and should be done.
Churchill, who had been in and out of government for nearly 40 years at that point, knew the law, knew the operation, and knew the precedents. He used his vast knowledge and his skillful presentations of what he wanted to do to his advantage. He also used his considerable stature as the nation’s war leader as a compelling argument to any government minister or bureaucrat who might try to impede his progress.
There was yet another card that Churchill played when he needed to. In America, books about the war were already beginning to appear. The first most notable one was by Harry Butcher, a former CBS executive: My Three Years with Eisenhower. Butcher, a member of Ike’s staff, described the difficult Anglo-American relationships that leaders on all sides had papered over because of the war. He also had unflattering things to say about Churchill. Eisenhower distanced himself from Butcher’s book, but the criticisms still stung the former prime minister.
Butcher’s book and the favorable reviews it received were the first in a line of tell-all books and articles where Americans took to task the British in general and Churchill specifically for their conduct during the war.
Churchill used these criticisms to emphasize the point that he should be allowed to tell his side of the story. His argument fell on sympathetic ears among Brits who resented American post-war critiques as well as their presence on British soil during the war.
In the end, no one wanted to be seen as trying to keep the former prime minister from telling his story.
But there was yet another obstacle for Churchill to overcome: himself.
The General Election defeat had taken a toll on him psychologically. He had gone into a deep depression that had created doubt about what role he could still play in the world. Criticisms of his war leadership added to these doubts. How he would be remembered — his reputation — was increasingly under fire causing him to wonder if there was a way back to the top for him.
In the spring of 1946, he sailed for America to escape the hurley-burley of political Britain. Churchill had planned a few public appearances and had accepted an invitation to speak at Westminster College in the tiny town of Fulton, Missouri. The invitation came with the encouragement of President Harry Truman, who wanted Churchill to speak in his home state. In that speech, Churchill summed up the state of the world at that time: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent (of Europe).” The “iron curtain” phrase was not original with Churchill, but his use of it at that particular moment made headlines. The phrase became an apt descriptor of how the West viewed the Soviet sphere of nations.
It might not have been so had not Moscow reacted so quickly and negatively to it. A three-column, front-page editorial in Pravda a few days after the speech denounced Churchill; that was followed by similar articles in the next few days. Sometimes your enemies can be your best friends.
Churchill left England a broken, washed-up politician. He returned a statesman.
As David Reynolds wrote in his compelling In Command of History:
” . . . by the spring of 1946 Churchill had found a new voice — indeed, a new life. Rejected as a national leader, he was once more a world statesman.” (p. 49)
It was with that voice that he was ready to write.
David Reynolds, In Command of History
See the 2005 New York Times review of David Reynolds’ book, In Command of History by Max Boot.
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