Top positive review
Churchill Becomes Prime Minister in the Face of Almost Certain Disaster
December 27, 2017
Usually, movie tie-in books are a sorry lot lacking substance and depth in handling their subjects. Not so with this solid volume authored by the film's screenwriter. It packs a lot of pertinent information into its 265 pages, and for those not familiar with the historical background to the film, I think it would prove invaluable. The only problem with the book, if it is indeed a problem, is that the author is arguing a thesis which I doubt the facts support. Let me review the organization of the book first before tackling the thesis.
The first chapter sets the historical stage with a discussion of the departure of Neville Chamberlain from serving as Prime Minister in the wake of his policy of appeasement toward Nazi aggression and war breaking out in Europe. The next chapter is a compact but quite effective discussion of Churchill, his background, disasters such as Gallipoli in the First War, reputation for recklessness, and his nearly a decade out of office. Nonetheless, it is to Churchill that Chamberlain and his Foreign Minister, Lord Halifax, turn to assume the role of Prime Minister as disaster increasingly rears its head. Few, including the King, are particularly happy with Winston, but most recognize he is the man to lead Britain during this difficult crisis.
His principal antagonist is Lord Halifax who almost immediately begins trying to undermine Churchill. He is devoted to the idea that immediate negotiation, rather than Winston's determination to fight if necessary. is the only way to avoid a destructive conflict with Hitler. The duel intensifies between the two, but Churchill always has strong public support and that of his War Cabinet coalition partners, the Labour Party and the Liberals, The situation becomes particularly worse with the near fall of France and the need to evacuate the core of the British army from Dunkirk.
It is at this point that Churchill makes his maiden speech as PM to the House--the famous "blood, toil, tears, and sweat" call to action. The author is particularly effective in analyzing this speech in terms of Winston's rhetorical tactics and how he prepared one of his speeches. However, Halifax and his allies continue to pressure Winston to at least explore possible negotiations with Hitler via Mussolini. Churchill is totally opposed to this tactic, and this is where the author lays out his argument that Winston eventually was beaten down to the point of giving serious consideration to this idea.
No historian of which I am aware has ever argued this thesis. Rather, the uniform picture has been a resolute Churchill unwilling to compromise on negotiations and almost defiant. I noticed that in the film, Winston was portrayed as almost a beaten man in these cabinet debates--now I understand why. The author offers no proof to support his argument (most developed in the Epilogue) and a lot of speculation. To me, Churchill was playing for time to see what the French would do and if the Dunkirk evaluation would be successful (it was to the tune of 330,000 troops saved). He did not want to totally reject possible negotiation, or at least give that impression, but it simply was never a reality for him. After consulting with his 25 cabinet minister, he gives the famous "on the beaches" speech and routs Halifax and moves ahead to defend his country, as only he could.
I have no problem with the author propounding his thesis because the rest of the book is so effective. The author has really done a thorough job of research as the 36 pages of notes attest. It is difficult to see how anyone could have prevailed as PM in May 1940--but this book gives us some important insights into Churchill and how he was able to do it.