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A Gentleman of History

In war or peace, Winston Churchill's cigars were never far from his hand.

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He was rarely drunk, however. "All I can say is that I have taken more out of alcohol than it has taken out of me," Churchill famously remarked. Even drunk, he was usually in top form. Indeed, Labour Party M.P. Bessie Braddock once had the misfortune of accusing Churchill of drunkenness in public. "You're drunk!" she scolded. "Yes," he retorted, "and you are ugly, but tomorrow I shall be sober."
Churchill might just as well have said that he has taken more out of tobacco than it has taken out of him. In an essay from his book, Thoughts and Adventures, titled, "A Second Choice," he wrote, "I remember my father in his most sparkling mood, his eye gleaming through the haze of a cigarette, saying, 'Why begin? If you want to have an eye that is true [and] a hand that does not quiver...don't smoke.' But consider! How can I tell that the soothing influence of tobacco upon my nervous system may not have enabled me to comport myself with calm and courtesy in some awkward personal encounter or negotiation, or carried me serenely through some critical hours of anxious waiting? How can I tell that my temper would have been as sweet or my companionship as agreeable if I had abjured from my youth the goddess Nicotine?" Churchill was, of course, quite particular about how he got his nicotine. Cigars were the only way. He disliked cigarettes very much. Once when his valet declined Churchill's offer to join him for a cigar, telling Churchill that he smoked only cigarettes, Churchill chuckled and said, "Too many of those will kill you."
The years of leisure at Chartwell during the 1930s grew steadily more anxious for Churchill. He watched with great concern the unimpeded rise in Germany of what he would later call "the foulest and most soul destroying tyranny ever to blacken and stain the pages of history." In his six-volume The Second World War, Churchill wrote, "There can hardly ever have been a war more easy to prevent than this second Armageddon."
Unfortunately, Churchill's persistent warnings and vital political counsel went largely unheeded during the rise of Nazism. He was ridiculed as a "warmonger" and ostracized by all parties. Appeasement reigned. When war broke out, however, Churchill was the obvious choice in the minds of most people to lead Britain into battle. On May 10, 1940, he was appointed prime minister. Of this moment, Churchill wrote after the war, "As I went to sleep at about 3 a.m., I was conscious of a profound sense of relief. At last I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene. I felt as if I had been walking with destiny and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial." He added, "I was sure I should not fail."
Late May 1940 was, in many ways, the decisive period of the Second World War. Pearl Harbor and Hitler's invasion of Russia were, of course, vital, but had Britain faltered in the early going and concluded a peace with Hitler, there would have been no place from which to launch an invasion of the Continent. America would not likely have become involved in the European war. And Hitler would have been able to use more of his army in subduing the Soviet Union. By the end of May, however, Belgium and France had been almost completely overwhelmed by the German blitzkrieg, and Britain narrowly averted defeat herself by evacuating, in great haste, some 200,000 British soldiers from the closing jaws of the German Wehrmacht at Dunkirk, on the coast of France. In the wake of this "colossal military disaster," rumors abounded that some of Churchill's ministers were willing to negotiate with Hitler.
Churchill recognized that such a course would mean the enslavement of Britain along with the rest of Europe. It simply could not be permitted to happen. So, on May 28, in a brilliant political coup de grace, Churchill forced the issue with his ministers and in one rhetorical flourish put to rest all cowardly defeatism. Martin Gilbert recounts this historic meeting in his unrivaled one-volume biography, Churchill: A Life. After admitting to his cabinet that he had weighed "whether it was part of my duty to consider entering into negotiations with That Man," Churchill next listed everything that would befall Britain in consequence. He then spoke with fire in his eyes: "I am convinced that every man of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender. If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground." The ministers were instantly united. "I am sure," Churchill later wrote, "that every Minister was ready to be killed quite soon, and have all his family and possessions destroyed, rather than give in."
Following the meeting of May 28, three events stand out as pivotal in the defeat of Germany in the Second World War: the air battle over Britain in the summer of 1940, the entry of America into the war and Hitler's invasion of Russia in 1941. Churchill understood the profound significance of each of these events as they arose. In preparation for the Battle of Britain, Churchill said, "Hitler knows he must break us on this island or lose the war." Churchill also well understood that the air Battle of Britain was the prelude to a cross-channel invasion by the German army. He hoped to defeat the German Luftwaffe over Britain and thereby prevent a land invasion, but, he told the public, "should the invader come to Britain...we shall defend every village, every town, and every city. The vast mass of London itself, fought street by street, could easily devour an entire hostile army. And we would rather see London laid in ruins and ashes than that it should be tamely and abjectly enslaved." In the event, such sacrifice was not necessary. The Royal Air Force successfully defended Britain.
The successful defense of Britain, however, was not sufficient to win the war. The eventual intervention of the United States was necessary. And equally important was Hitler's unprovoked invasion of Russia. On June 22, 1941, the first day of the invasion, many of Churchill's colleagues believed that the Russians would be defeated quickly. Churchill saw matters differently. Gilbert writes, "Churchill listened to their [his colleagues'] arguments, then closed the discussion with the words, 'I will bet you a Monkey to a Mousetrap that the Russians are still fighting and fighting victoriously, two years from now.'" "Monkey" and "Mousetrap" were gambling terms. In plain terms, Churchill was offering odds of 500 to 1 that the Russians would be fighting victoriously two years after Hitler's invasion.
The Russians did indeed hold out, and the following spring, Churchill mocked Hitler in one of his radio broadcasts for the troubles the Germans were having in Russia: "Thus he drove the youth and manhood of the German nation forward into Russia. Then Hitler made his second grand blunder. He forgot about the winter. There is a winter, you know, in Russia. For a good many months the temperature is apt to fall very low. There is snow, there is frost and all that. Hitler forgot about this Russian winter. He must have been very loosely educated. We all heard about it at school. But he forgot it. I have never made such a bad mistake as that."
All of the necessary elements combined in due course, under the careful command of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin, to produce final victory in Europe on May 8, 1945. Two weeks after VE Day, the Labour Party in England refused to participate in the wartime coalition government and Churchill was, consequently, obliged to call for a general election. Two months later, Churchill was voted out of office as prime minister. As he wrote in his memoirs, "All our enemies having surrendered unconditionally or being about to do so, I was immediately dismissed by the British electorate from all further conduct of their affairs." This monumental act of ingratitude was met by Churchill with the utmost graciousness. On the day of his defeat, Churchill expressed his gratitude to the public: "I thank the British people for many kindnesses shown towards their servant."
The years after the war were relatively quiet for Churchill. He did return as prime minister to serve from 1951 to 1955. And he devoted his energies to seeking a "summit" (he coined the term) and an understanding with the Soviets. But his time after the Second World War was mainly spent in the more leisurely manner that he spent in the years prior to the war. He was often at Chartwell and spent much of his time writing and painting. Painting was a tremendous consolation to Churchill in the twilight of his life. As he wrote in Thoughts and Adventures, "Happy are the painters, for they shall not be lonely. Light, color, peace and hope, will keep them company to the end, or almost the end, of the day."
Churchill was also as active as ever as a writer in the postwar years. He wrote his massive six-volume history of the Second World War, and was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1953 for his collected works and speeches. He also completed his four-volume A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Churchill continued to enjoy life, as well. He had plenty of friends and companions. His cigar smoking did not abate considerably with the onset of old age. Nor did his drinking. And on this steady diet of Champagne, tobacco and good friends, Churchill lived to the very ripe old age of 90. He died on January 10, 1965.
Winston Churchill was the rarest of men. He was courageous, commanding and wise. He was a man of great self-command and self-discipline. But he was also a man of unapologetic epicurean tastes. He combined boundless energy and concentration with a wonderful zest for life to an extent that is rarely, if ever, seen today. As one biographer, Robert Lewis Taylor, wrote in 1955 of Churchill's face, "It is the strong well-nourished face of a man who long ago decided to drink what he pleased, gorge at will, suit himself in any way it seemed convenient, and in general to follow lines of self-centered behavior popularly supposed to stamp the countenance with a look of weakness. It is a free enterprise face, somewhat gothic in feeling." And even today, Churchill's "heroic visage stands out in healthy contrast among the cautious, remorseful drinkers"--and smokers--among us.
Peter Welsh is a writer and a program officer at the John M. Olin Foundation in New York City. He is also a member of the International Churchill Society, P.O. Box 385-W, Hopkinton, NH 03229.
jose acosta galena pk , texas, usa, December 21, 2012 2:42pm ET
excellent editorial.
jose acosta galena pk , texas, usa, March 18, 2013 10:29am ET
Thank you for the recent copy you sent to my home I had an active paid for account but some how I never heard from you guys again after a couple on months were sent to me,can you possibly look into this and let me know what happened to my subscription??
David Savona March 18, 2013 10:49am ET
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