Krauthammer on Churchill: The Indispensable Man

One of the goals of every writer should be to have those that read his work regard him brilliant. Another goal, and a far more difficult and important one, is to have that reader think brilliant thoughts while reading that work. Whether or not Charles Krauthammer’s new book Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes and Politics accomplishes this the former is relative to the reader, but it definitely accomplishes the latter.

Book%20Cover_0In his second chapter, following the requisite intro, and the requisite chapter spent describing his days of youth –playing baseball– Charles Krauthammer posits the notion that Time Magazine got it wrong when they nominated Albert Einstein “Man of the Century”. Einstein may have been vital, argues Krauthammer, and he is “certainly the best mind of the century”, but Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill “carried that absolutely required criterion: indispensability” in the 20th century, and to the 20th century.

One thought this reader had, while reading, is that provocative, bar stool discussion would have it that no person had a more prominent effect on the 20th century than Adolf Hitler. While that is arguably true, a question to that provocative notion should be, were the lessons of Hitler’s evil transgressions more transcendental than Winston Churchill’s efforts to, as Krauthammer later describes it, “slay that dragon”?

Hitler was, of course, indispensable to any study of the 20th century, in that he illustrated much of what’s wrong with human nature, and he gave us a template for how we should treat countries after war (after World War I). Hitler also provided students of history a model of unprecedented evil that we can now use as a guide to detect evil, based on the precedent he set. We will hopefully no longer allow an evil despot, that in some manner reminds us of Hitler, to rise to such levels of prominence in their country that they would be in a position to coerce its citizens to do such evil things to one another. With all these lessons and precedents regarding absolute evil, students of the 20th century say that Hitler has to be the man of that century.

It’s a provocative notion, and it would probably give Hitler the stature, and historical value, that he sought all along. How many men, and how many precedents of the 20th century, will be cited more often than those Hitler provided humanity for centuries to come? Young people, involved in bar stool discussions, love such provocative notions, for they provide all listeners the impression that the provocateur is intelligent with such shock and awe proclamations. Most of us love such impressions, when we’re younger. As we age, and move past the desire to be perceived as intelligent, and actually become more intelligent, we realize that most provocative thoughts should go through careful examination and attempts to disprove. The final conclusions we reach may not be as provocative, or as memorable, but as we age, and read, we realize that being right is more valuable than being memorable or provocative. There is no doubt that the lessons evil men leave behind are monumental in history, but too often these provocative conversations leave out the dragon slayers that should, at least, be considered as prominent, if not more so.

To say that Winston Churchill hasn’t already achieved a prominent place in history would be foolish, as most historians continue to rank him in their top five most prominent figures of the 20th century, and most left-leaning historians will rank him in their top twenty. Does he deserve even greater prominence than we’ve already allowed, however?

One of the reasons Churchill is not higher on the list, I would submit, is that hindsight has proven that he was so obviously correct in his doomsayer notions about Hitler. The idea that all of his warnings were so obviously on the mark, however, makes it almost boring to declare him the most prominent person of the 20th century.  It’s an “of course” statement that causes readers to yawn over the headline, when a more prominent listing of others, such as Einstein, proves far more provocative, compelling, and newsworthy.

Churchill was, as Krauthammer writes, “A 19th century man parachuted into the 20th,” but “it took a 19th century man –traditional in habit, rational in thought, conservative in temper– to save the 20th century from itself.” Yawn. Such lines don’t play well on the cover of a magazine to suggest that Churchill was right about Hitler, and thus he should be nominated the Man of the Century for speaking out and saving us. Especially when compared to the exciting, and revolutionary, bullet points a writer can compile with points about Einstein’s accomplishments.

Before dismissing the obviousness of Churchill’s warnings, one has to examine what he was up against while still in the British Parliament. Most of the British Parliament, and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, dismissed Churchill’s warnings. They did not want to view Hitler through Churchill’s simplistic, black and white lens. Churchill’s warnings were viewed as the impulsive, irrational, and the unreasonable views of a war hawk. Neville Chamberlain has been viewed, by right and left historians as one of the obvious fools of the 20th century, but is it a glaring headline that Churchill should be viewed as the most obvious hero of the 20th century, no, because it is just so obvious. It doesn’t require any creativity to back up. It just is what it is, as we now say.

Churchill suggested that the year’s delay between the Munich Pact and the inevitable war worsened Britain’s position, in direct opposition to Chamberlain’s assessment. That year, between Munich and World War II, was spent exhausting diplomacy with détente, blockades, and anything and everything the world could use to achieve “peace in our time”. Churchill also claimed that, in that year’s delay, Hitler could have been removed from power by a grand coalition of European states to prevent World War II from happening.

That suggestion, that in some cases waiting too long can worsen one’s position, would rear its ugly head before Hitler’s body even went cold, when U.S. General George S. Patton’s warned General Eisenhower about Russia. Eisenhower, presumably recognizing that Patton’s warnings were not unfounded, responded that Americans were simply too war-weary to make any moves against Russia. The suggestion would later haunt the world in the 21st century, with Iraq in 2003, in a manner some would suggest the reverse of the Churchill suggestion, saying that we acted too impulsively, and the suggestion will probably haunt nations around the world for many more, because the human instinct is to avoid war at all costs, no matter how black and white, and simplistic, and obvious the need for action becomes.

Was the 2003 war in Iraq obvious and essential? In hindsight, it appears that that answer is no, but what is obvious to us now may not have been if we hadn’t acted. To illustrate this point, most of those politicians, that sat on the other aisle of George W. Bush at the time, supported and expanded upon the cause for war. Was the reason for their support based on evidence they saw, that normal citizens had no access to, or did they want to avoid the glaring spotlight that sitting on the Neville Chamberlain side of history can have among hindsight historians?

In later writings, “Churchill depicted Chamberlain as well-meaning but weak, blind to the threat posed by Hitler, and oblivious to the fact that (according to Churchill) Hitler could have been removed from power by a grand coalition of European states. Churchill suggested that the year’s delay between Munich and war worsened Britain’s position, and criticized Chamberlain for both peacetime and wartime decisions. In the years following the publication of Churchill’s books, few historians questioned his judgment.”{1}

It may appear redundant to call an historian a hindsight historian, since history is only documented in hindsight, but some historians simply document the facts of the era. Other historians provide hindsight commentary to historical events that may not have been as clear to the historical figures of the day, but these historians provide the unlimited omniscience that hindsight provides. Hindsight historians may document Churchill’s warnings as obvious now, but most hindsight historians will not tell you how popular Neville Chamberlains “peace in our time” efforts were at the time.

It’s easy for hindsight historians to now write that we shouldn’t have been “so stupid” as to allow the attack on Pearl Harbor to occur, when so many signs pointed to its eventuality. It’s easy for them to look at the decade preceding the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, to declare that we were obviously naïve in trying terrorists as criminals rather than wartime adversaries. It’s also easy for them to write that that the call to war in Iraq, in 2003, was impulsive based on our inability to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. What’s not so easy, however, is for those figures that were involved in that history, while it occurred, to stick their neck out and speak out against the conventional wisdom of their day and declare that it’s “weak and blind” to continue to follow the conventional line of thinking. Hindsight historians now slightly diminish Churchill’s role in 20th century, because it is now so obvious that Hitler was the epitome of evil. To read through an objective telling of the history, however, it obviously wasn’t so obvious at the time.

As Krauthammer wrote in Things That Matter:

“And who is the hero of that story?  (The story of the 20th century’s ability to defeat totalitarianism, and leave it as a “cul-de-sac” in the annals of human history.)  Who slew the dragon? Yes, it was the ordinary man, the taxpayer, the grunt who fought and won the wars. Yes, it was America and its allies. Yes, it was the great leaders: FDR, de Gaulle, Adenauer, Truman, John Paul II, Thatcher, Reagan. But above all, victory required one man without whom the fight would have been lost at the beginning. It required Winston Churchill.”{2}

Krauthammer, Charles.  Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes and Politics.  New York, New York:  Random House, 2013.  Print.


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