Strategy, Winston Churchill, and the power of positive thinking
[by Lynn C. Rees]
Winston Churchill had terrible parents.
Randolph Churchill was a Tory meteor who shot brightly across British politics only to die of syphilitic inanity by age 45. The elder Churchill’s attitude towards his firstborn was cold and dismissive: while he may never have said anything as chilly as Arthur Wellesley’s mother (“my ugly boy Arthur was food for powder and nothing more”), Randolph Churchill agreed with Ann Wesley’s sentiments enough to pack young Winston off to Sandhurst to become cannon fodder.
Jennie Jerome was an American heiress who spent most of her time pursuing (and being pursued by) high London society. Winning Mum of the Year was item 113 on her 100 item todo list. When his mother finally allowed him to develop a personal relationship with her deep into his twenties, Churchill described their relationship as more brother-sister than mother-son.
Churchill reacted to his parental deep freeze by idealizing mum and dad. If the beacon of maternal love in Churchill’s memoirs will never be mistaken for the real Jennie Jerome Churchill, Churchill ignored the incongruity. If the romanticized father he worshipped bore only a slight resemblance to the real Randolph Churchill, Churchill’s desire for the approval of this shade conjured by his own vast imagination was enough to spur him to great deeds. Asked later in life what his greatest regret was, Churchill surprised one interviewer by wistfully wishing that Randolph Churchill had lived to see his son’s career success. Churchill even had a dream starring Randolph Churchill in 1947, 50 years after his father’s died. His father’s ghost appeared and interrogated Churchill about happenings in the world since his death. Churchill got to most of early 20th century history but, tellingly, he didn’t have enough time to tell his father of his key own role in those events before the dream ended.
Churchill’s eager over-imaginings not only gave him wonderful parents but other equally sustaining fictions. Churchill believed in (and almost willed into existence) a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland that was as strong and vital in the early 20th century as it was under Pitt or Temple. In reality, the Britain of Churchill’s time was a run-down and dispirited shadow of glory, more fixated on bread and butter at home than dash and destiny abroad. In Churchill’s imagination, the Britain of 1940 was a Tyrannosaur among sheep. In reality, it was a dodo among eagles and bears.
Lawrence Freedman has argued that Churchill’s strategy in 1940-1941 is vastly different from the strategy contemporary strategic studies holds up as an ideal. His strategy was the triumph of hope over experience, one of the great fantasy spectaculars of the 20th century. His soldiers were tired, his people were dispirited, his aircraft carriers carried biplanes, his generals were mulish, and his empire was restive. The only anchors in reality for Churchill’s strategy were the inability of Nazis to march over or part the English Channel and American reluctance to see faltering Britain replaced by revanchist Germany. All else was theater.
Churchill won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1953. This is revealing: Churchill was a better writer than orthodox strategist. His delusions were as larger than life as his correct notions were. But Churchill’s resort to grand narrative was far more successful than strategic orthodoxy can capture or comprehend. More often than not, the strength of conviction behind a strategy’s more tenuous elements wins more in war than its tenuous connection to reality warrants.
Churchill’s strategy in childhood consisted of holding on to a series of deluded and contradictory beliefs about his parents in the hope that something good would turn up. Churchill’s strategy in World War II consisted of holding on to a series of deluded and contradictory beliefs about the British Empire in the hope that something would turn up. Self-appointed strategic professionals often diagnose a possible strategic outcome as impossible only to be confounded when someone clings to impossibility until the possible turns up. Mere clinging has a long and distinguished record of unmasking the impossible as only the improbable under the wrong circumstances and the all too probable under the right circumstances.
October 8th, 2013 at 12:00 am
This is a good post. Concur WC was a better writer than orthodox strateegerist, but did that not work to his benefit. Lord knows it seems to have worked to ours. Our lack of orthodoxy, as a virtue? And optimism, never to be underestimated, sir.
Gray’s Strategy Bridge arrived today—along with Freedman’s Stratety—though Lord knows when I’ll I’ve time to read…
October 8th, 2013 at 12:39 am
Samuel Johnson also read as Stillman does—“A book may be good for nothing; or there may be only one thing in it worth knowing; are we to read it all through?” – How Whit Stillman Reads a Book, The American Conservative
Just do what I do, poke around, read what interests you, don’t read all of it, read all of it….
Come on, who says you have to read any other way than the way you want to read? We are autodidacts, aren’t we? What is lacking in discipline has to be made up with creativity.
A load of BS but I can’t really read any other way so I have to make it a virtue.
October 8th, 2013 at 1:39 am
The venerable sage Mullah Nasruddin was once condemned to death for certain witty and satirical sayings that disturbed the local Shah.
Nasruddin immediatly offered a bargain: “Postpone the execution one year,” he implored the Shah, “and I will teach your horse to fly.” Intrigued by this, the Shah agreed.
One day thereafter, a friend asked Nasruddin if he really expected to escape death by this maneuver.
“Why not?” answered the divine Mullah. “A lot can happen in a year. There might be a revolution and a new government. There might be a foreign invasion and we’d all be living under a new Shah.
Then again, the present Shah might die of natural causes, or somebody in the palace might poison him. As you know, it is traditional for a new Shah to pardon all condemned criminals awaiting execution when he takes the throne.
Besides that, during the year my captors will have many opportunities for carelessness and I will always be looking for an opportunity to escape.”
“And, finally,” Nasruddin concluded, “if all fails and worst comes to the worst, maybe I can teach that damned horse to fly!”
October 8th, 2013 at 2:01 am
Yes and no. Sometimes it takes the eccentric on the rooftop to see the whole landscape. Do the math. Britain can’t win. The USA can’t lose. Britain has to get the USA to come in and win it. How? Mere arithmetical cumulation of utility won’t do it. This is democratic warfare, not the icy cabinet warfare of the Hanoverian era. By being brave and picturesque, by casting the contest in shades of courageous good against pernicious and duplicitous evil. By creating an image, by appealing to sentiments that may strike a chord. It worked. It worked because it was in large part true. Also, you say, well, we will likely lose. But then what? Give up? Cut a deal? Only in movies do the credits roll and you all go home. Countries sometimes lose. If your perspective is centuries, if the ages of Pitt and Marlborough are as real to you as the age of petrol motors and radar, then you see that HOW you lose matters, if lose you must. To go down in a fiery blaze, to go down and make a legend, may mean some day there will be a resurrection inspired by the glorious and romanticized doom. To go to the cement barricade at the end of Downing Street, with an SMLE and shoot at the Germans until they kill you, to leave a blood soaked epic for the painters and poets of latter years, that is a higher strategic rationality.
October 8th, 2013 at 3:50 am
Churchill’s weird and neglected upbringing is weird to us, but for the higher aristocracy from which he sprang, it was more or less the norm for his class and had been for centuries. Victorian morality, the Queen notwithstanding, was a middle-class/lower gentry phenomena of the mid 19th century and did not typically apply to the private lives of the titled landed elite and their squirearchy cousins, dominating their rotten boroughs and local affairs. While public indiscretions were to be avoided, private lives were often a scandal, as were the family relations of the Hanoverian Kings. Extreme detachment between parents and child was the rule – it was why you had nannies and governesses for small children and the great boarding schools to whip the savages into a ruling elite of gentlemen. Like the agoge, the British system worked and it worked so well that the nascent American Eastern Establishment copied it with places like Phillips and Choate and used them to assimilate the children of noveau riche pirates like Vanderbilt and Stanford so that they got the “right” values.
Note that George H. W. Bush, Phillips alum, was the youngest naval fighter pilot in WWII. Note his son while a pilot like his old man, did not fly to the sound of guns in his turn.
Decay of asabiyah, as T. Greer might point out.
October 8th, 2013 at 1:20 pm
One thing about Churchill that is unique is precisely the failure of the British educational system to work on him. The point was to break the child and young man down and then rebuild him as an English gentleman. Churchill refused to break down. He managed to be an individualist despite everything the system could throw at him. He never developed a spirit of understatement and self-deprecation, for example. And his place in the elite was never secure because he did not start out with much money. He and his mother, his business partner as well as his “sister,” relentlessly promoted his career, political, literary and financial, to a degree others saw as excessive and embarrassing. It is funny that to us he seems the embodiment of the old England, but to his contemporaries he was a modern, hustling, Americanized adventurer who was upsetting all the apple carts of old England.
October 8th, 2013 at 5:07 pm
Funny how we try and be GOOD parents when so many with terrible ones do so well. WC’s letters to his mum at school are heartrending.
Picture yourself in cabinet after Dunkirk – most lead by Lord Halifax are making the ‘reasonable” plea to make peace. Hitler was offering good terms. You give me Europe You keep the Empire. There was no reason to see how Britain could win then. No sign that America would come in. Kennedy was sticking the knife in and America Firsters were in control. It takes a certain madness. But then when he offered the Brits Blood Sweat Toil and tears, they bought it??
BRW a bit unfair to have a go at Monty. he did change the game in North Africa, he did plan Overlord. Now he was a psycho and BTW a terrible father – his son went to my school – but not a bad general if you look at what he did. Always accused of not taking risks and did the hail Mary at Arnhem.
October 8th, 2013 at 10:57 pm
“Decay of asibiyah, as T. Greer might point out”
Hahaha! Zen, you know me too well. ^_~
Isegoria links to a review of The Last Lion that I found relevant to this discussion:
“Churchill fought the war to save the empire. Alas, his only strategy for winning the war consisted in getting the US to join the war on his side. The price the US would ultimately demand was the end of the empire.
Churchill once said that if hell would fight Hitler, he’d find something nice to say about the devil. I’m sure he meant it in jest – but it ended up being all too true. A fact Churchill saw well before the war ended and decades before the most brilliant minds in US diplomacy figured it out.
In the end, the story of Churchill is a tragedy. The very values he fought for were compromised by the Allies he ultimately chose. Far from delivering the world into the sun-lit uplands of liberty, his victory delivered most of the world into hands of horrors at least bad – likely worse – than the ones he fought…..
We’re left with a confused picture. On one hand, Churchill says,”No one has been a more consistent opponent of communism that I have for the last twenty-five years,” but “all this fades away before the spectacle that is unfolding.” On the other hand, he would later write that, “from 1942 on, he put every strategic decision in the war against Hitler under two lenses: ‘How will it shorten the war, and how will it prevent the Bear from stealing the peace.’”
If this was true, he was smart in 1942, but he lost the peace. Surely, it’s fair to judge a man against his own standards?”
October 9th, 2013 at 12:58 am
As an unabashed fan of the Manchester/Reid trilogy, I found the review refreshing, and for the most part accurate. Reid on Hopkins is probably less malice than the avoidance of controversy—for we know, even though Hiss turned out to be all Tricky Dick said, and more, the American left still carries the grudge.
That said, Reid does about as well as one could to channel Manchester…
October 9th, 2013 at 12:07 pm
“If this was true, he was smart in 1942, but he lost the peace.”
No he didn’t. Russia was bled white fighting the Germans, and only got the relatively backward and poor parts of Europe. The West got France, the Low Countries, the Ruhr, Northern Italy. In other words, the economically advanced parts of Europe fell to the Allies. Churchill and Roosevelt got a very good result. Stalin’s people bled and died to defeat the Third Reich, then the Anglo-Saxons swept in at the end and took most of the chips. That is far from “losing the peace.”
October 9th, 2013 at 1:05 pm
Work it, strategists, WORK IT! The power of positive thinking:
As the United States was drawn into the Second World War, pressure grew from a number of nations for India’s independence. Prime Minister Churchill, in Britain’s name, engaged deliberately in propaganda in the United States to persuade the American public and, through it, President Roosevelt that India should not be granted self-government at that time. Weigold adroitly unravels the reasons why this propaganda campaign was deemed necessary by Churchill, in the process, revealing the campaign’s outcomes for nationalist Indians.
In 1942 Sir Stafford Cripps went to India to offer limited self-government for the duration of the war. However, when negotiations between Churchill and his newly convened India Committee collapsed, the failure of the talks was publicized in the United States as a matter of Indian intransigence and not Britain’s failure to negotiate—a spin of the news that critically affected public opinion. Relying upon extensive archival research, Weigold exposes the gap between Britain’s propaganda account and both the official and unofficial records of the course the negotiations took. Weigold concludes that during the drafting, progress and planned failure of Cripps’ Offer, this episode in the imperial endgame revolved around Churchill and Roosevelt, leaving Indian leaders without influence over their immediate political future. – (Amazon blurb) Churchill, Roosevelt and India: Propaganda During World War II, Auriol Weigold
No, I’m not doing what you might think. As you all know by now, I am fascinated with the 50’s “beginnings” of the US as a global power, the set up of international institutions (World Bank, IMF, etc.) and the habits of mind that continue on into our foreign policy class today (well, it’s such a mess it all lends itself to intellectual spinning).
Ephemeral stuff, but what a perfect discussion for a post about imagination, myths, positive thinking, and strategy.
And I know during that busy early anti-communist period lots of people were mucking around, communist and cold warrior alike. Planted stories, suggested stories, whispered stories, all those spinning emotional worlds on display….
In particular, how did the American military–or parts of it (so-called coindinistas, I am looking at you)–become so fascinated with the small war tactics of the “end of empire”? How did this come down to us today? Are there connections? Did the Americans of the day somehow mistake a public image, some of it carefully stage managed, and internalize it and bring it forward to current doctrine in a twist of history? I argued right, left and center in the comments to an article at SWJ that blamed the Americans for inventing the small warrior superiority of the British, I was sure it was a mistake of the Anglo-American foreign policy, a complicated tangling together of strands of Atlanticism that must be left over culturally in both armies. If the authors are correct (there were a couple articles), what about this period and its affects?
October 9th, 2013 at 1:09 pm
And speaking of emotional “habits”, the origins of which might be forgotten, how did this affect the American drafters of the so-called “AfPak” strategy.
Er, sorry. Sometimes I want to read broadly and other times I want to dig into something, dig up all its roots….
October 9th, 2013 at 1:09 pm
Some of this zen and I discussed in the comments of his post on Nixon and the Nixonian century.
October 9th, 2013 at 1:20 pm
Between 1942 and 1945, the British government conducted a propaganda campaign in the United States to create popular consensus for a postwar Anglo-American partnership. Anticipating an Allied victory, British officials feared American cooperation would end with the war. Susan A. Brewer provides the first study of Britain’s attempts to influence an American public skeptical of postwar international commitment, even as the United States was replacing Britain as the leading world power. Brewer discusses the concerns and strategies of the British propagandists–journalists, professors, and businessmen–who collaborated with the generally sympathetic American media. She examines the narratives they used to link American and British interests on such controversial issues as the future of the empire and economic recovery. In analyzing the barriers to Britain’s success, she considers the legacy of World War I, and the difficulty of conducting propaganda in a democracy. Propaganda did not prevent the transition of global leadership from the British Empire to the United States, Brewer asserts, but it did make that transition work in Britain’s interest. –
(Amazon blurb) To Win the Peace: British Propaganda in the United States During World War II, Susan A. Brewer.
No, I haven’t gone all “Pankaj Mishra” on you. That guy, LOL! I am being true to the Anglosphere concept (LEX! JIM BENNET!).
What I mean is a different strategic story needs to be told (of course I will love the Freedman book, it seems made for my tastes, doesn’t it?), one rooted in the individual, one where we don’t need to pretend that serious errors of Anglosphere history were anything other than what they were.
Given my intellectual online “radicalization” via the “South Asian” papers (once again, I am no Arundhati Roy, ugh!), I sometimes forget that there are British people that kind of lost their history in the contemporary fights over colonialism and anti-colonialism. There is an Indian oral historian that is collecting stories and displaying them online. If you have any family connection to the subcontinent, tell us your story of grandfathers and grandmothers and great aunts and great uncles and the story is collected.
At this level, it’s family stories and everyone belongs. Everyone.
New strategic stories. It’s not the cold war anymore, we don’t need to pretend about certain failures of the past. We can be honest now and we can be human about it.
Eh, I like to play around with ideas.
October 9th, 2013 at 1:52 pm
Hi Doc Madhu,
For the Roosevelt administration, the issue of India – to the extent it was an issue – was not anti-commmunism or self-government, but Imperial Preference, as in the rest of the Empire. Cordell Hull wanted US foreign policy to be to reverse the global economic damage of Hawley-Smoot and various autarkic regimes and move the world to freer trade. The British and French empires were in the way, being in essence, an international system of protectionist regimes that put US exports at a disadvantage. This is why the Atlantic Charter talks stressed to Churchill the price of American alliance would be the opening up of British commonwealth and colonies to American trade. American anti-imperialism in this period was rooted in commercial imperatives ( really future imperatives, as exports were a miniscule part of GDP at the time though there were already growing concerns about strategic resources, namely rubber and oil, even in the 20’s)
October 9th, 2013 at 4:30 pm
” No sign that America would come in”
Isolationists and Neutralists and some Progressives were hard at work trying to keep the US out of the war, but FDR was always firmly behind the alignment that made up our wartime alliance.
He got the Neutrality Act watered down so he could impose an embargo on Italy after they invaded Ethiopia, gave the famous “Quarantine Speech” in 1937, and by the end of 1939 enabled an Anglo-French arms purchasing pipeline based out of Washington.
It began out of political necessity. FDR made some crucial economic policy mistakes when he first came in office and had to play catch up by agreeing to some monetary and trade deals with France, the UK, and the USSR in the mid 30’s. Also, to add to Zen’s comments, the influential treasury secretary Henry Morgantheau, certainly no fan of the Germans, was intent on making the interbellum reforms in monetary policy a worldwide system.
Finally, FDR had to deal with the threat of destabilization and sabotage with vague fascist ties which probably set him against the Axis very early on.
October 9th, 2013 at 7:42 pm
Churchill’s original dilemma:
Churchill’s fallback plan, fighting the Bolshies to the last American, was even more problematic:
Given Bolshie weakness in 1918-1919, it was the best time to stamp out that regime. Given the weakness of the outside intervening powers, it was also the worst time to stamp out that regime. Pi?sudski, Ludendorff, and others besides Churchill had opportunities to crush the viper’s brood in the nest and passed for reasons that made political sense at the time. Future Cold Warriors, including Poles and Germans, would have voted for expelling the Bolshies from the Kremlin then but the future rarely gets a representative vote in political questions.
What was Churchill to do? That he kept British meddling in Russia going for as long as he did was miraculous. Was he supposed to spread
FreikorpsBlack and Tans over northern Russia and pray for victory? He couldn’t even hold on to a small island right next store to his own that England had been meddling with since 1171. They were playing defense against domestic Reds in the end anyway.
To expect this nation, which had never intervened on a large scale in Eurasia before and who pre-August 1914 would have thought American intervention in north Russia in 1919 as likely as American intervention in the northern hemisphere of Mars in 1919, to have carried out an anti-Bolshie crusade, strains credulity. In the tension between Promised Land and Crusader State, the U.S. has to walk a fine line between going out in search of monsters to destroy and keeping its fractious population together. The U.S. at the end of WWI was far more concerned with keeping the Promised Land free of Red infection than Crusader Stating in the frozen north.
Fascism, as the Peiping Regime’s current success shows, is a far more dangerous proposition for English-flavored republicanism than Leninist-Stalinism. Fascism has enough economic flexibility to be more dynamic then Leninist-Stalinist attempts at central planning and enough authoritarianism to achieve short-run political concentration than 20C liberal regimes have difficulty achieving. It has elite appeal because it offers the prospect to Western elites of gaining control over their messy masses while keeping all of their toys without necessarily having to hide their dachas in the woods.
Chamberlain had tried to deter Fascism by using an aggressive arms build up to intimidate Hitler. After the outbreak of war, the plan was to besiege Germany by placing it under land and sea blockade and waiting it to crumble again. It is appropriate that siege comes from the Latin sedere meaning “to sit”: sitzkrieg was an appropriate strategy. Hitler’s larger strategy of Lebensraum was a response to counter the specific conditions of 1919-1920 blockade-induced famine by carving an autarkic economic block out of Europe that could match the West in economies of scale and resist Western sieges of central Europe. Fortunately for him, the West left a large hole in the middle of their anti-Nazi cordone sanitaire and let him cause more mischief than Germany’s resources warranted based purely on its balance sheet.
Churchill, once he came to power, needed cannon fodder for his crusade since reliable British manpower reserves didn’t exist (they had India but it wasn’t reliable if reliability is measured in pliability to British political interests). As Randolph Churchill wrote of his father:
After Pearl Harbor, Churchill spent the next years trying to use the Americans to Black and Tan the Soviets (When it was suggested he continue to court the Americans gently after Pearl Harbor, Churchill quipped, “Oh! That is the way we talked to her while we were wooing her. Now that she is in the harem we talk to her quite differently!”)while pursuing increasingly obsolete British colonial interests, much of which centered on trying to use American boys to force the Ljubljana Gap in the mountainous “soft underbelly” of Europe. Towards the end of the war, Stalin teased Churchill by proposing a joint Ljubljana Gap operation. Churchill reddened. Among practicing geopoliticians, this is the equivalent of BURN!!!. (He curiously opposed a landing on the one piece of Mediterranean-facing geography that provided a clear path to the North European Plain AKA where every major war since Charles the Rash had been decided).
FDR had a general sense of where he was going. Spheres of influence legitimized in his League of Nations++ (originally the Four Policeman, now the Security Council P5). Replacement of direct European colonial administration with indirect American dollar diplomacy. American financial and economic domination. &tc. But FDR’s practice was chronic deviousness to keep open all options until the moment was right i.e. he didn’t want his left hand to know what his right hand was doing. He also assumed he’d be around to handle Uncle Joe. He was wrong and whatever plans he had followed him to the grave. While Stalin had overseen committees to plan Soviet domination down to the last detail since 1942, Roosevelt’s preference for preserving his freedom of action in the face of uncertain American domestic politics left his successor with little planning (for all that it may have been worth).
Like Hannibal, we know how to win a battle but not how to use it, primarily because the use creates domestic fractures at home (the original rationale for “no entangling alliances”). Foreign sirens from Churchill to Chalabi have proven adept at exploiting the void. For Churchill, Truman proved more amenable to becoming a Black and Tan than FDR. Ike, who know Churchill, used Suez to ensure America would never be Black and Tanned again. Given British weakness and his general strategic ineptitude, Churchill played a weak political hand as well as he could. He achieved a lesser victory than he hoped but a notable goal nonetheless: better an American poodle than a German cur.
Everything else, as FDR intended, became our problem. Vae victoribus.
October 9th, 2013 at 10:07 pm
“Everything else, as FDR intended, became our problem. ”
But then when did it become not our problem? In the first Iraqi war, under BushI, we once again became the Black and Tans of the Kuwaitis, and later under BushII, when he opened up the U.S treasury to private corporations, we sort of became a privatization version of the Black and Tans, again in Iraq.
What do you think is next? We become a privatized version of the Black and Tans for China in the Pacific? Or do you think the sheep in Congress will ever stop jumping of the cliffs, like the rest of the lemmings, in the business of getting elected? 🙂
October 10th, 2013 at 1:53 pm
Good points, Zen. I should have been more clear in my comments (like that is ever going to happen with my stream of online babbling). I was thinking more about propaganda and mythology than what really happened. Basically, what Lynn said. No, really, I’m not just saying that to sound more smarter or anything!
October 10th, 2013 at 9:16 pm
This is a fine piece, the point of which is simple (and colorfully illustrated by Marshall’s story), the ultimate strategic wisdom of-Don’t Give Up, Keep Fighting, ’cause you never know! That is one of those things that everybody knows, but have to keep learning; that nobody forgets but must constantly be reminded of.
Hey Zen, did you ever get around to reading Conquest by Hugh Thomas? You gotta read that.
October 11th, 2013 at 3:04 am
RE: comment 17 – I am considering creating a portfolio. It will be called “comments by Lynn Rees that deserve to be their own blog posts.”
October 11th, 2013 at 6:51 pm
RE: comment 17 – I am considering creating a portfolio. It will be called “comments by Lynn Rees that deserve to be their own blog posts.”
they tend to look like an outline for a book not just a blog post
Churchill wasn’t just protecting obsolete British possessions, but he was a constant advocate of the time honored British peripheral strategy. They honed it through their use of naval power against easy colonial targets, and it was an appealing option given their disastrous experiences in direct conflict in World War I. In addition to the European “soft underbelly”, he was also interested in a campaign through Norway which may or may not have lead to nowhere.
This was in contrast to the American charge-up-the-hill way of war.
And by that time we had the mass and concentration and the ways and means to plow through the front door.