Historians spend a lot of time visiting libraries and archives, reading dusty tomes, taking notes, and writing and revising their manuscripts. A book that describes the gestation of a historical work would therefore seem about as thrilling as an in-depth account of cabinetmaking. Except, that is, when the historian in question is Winston Churchill and the book in question is a description of a war in which he played a starring role.
That is the subject that David Reynolds, a professor of international history at Cambridge University, has chosen for himself. Despite the hall-of-mirrors quality of In Command of History—a historian writing about another historian writing another book—he has produced a fascinating account that accomplishes the impossible: he actually finds something new and interesting to say about one of the most chronicled characters of all time.
In Command of History describes how Churchill produced the six volumes of The Second World War, which appeared between 1948 and 1954. That Churchill had the freedom to write was due to one of the bitterest blows of his life—the loss of the 1945 general election. During his “second wilderness years,” he turned to the pen, as he had before, to redeem his reputation, and also to pad his bank account. But he faced considerable obstacles before he could present his version of events.
For one thing, the government’s wartime files would not be opened for decades. Churchill had tried to get around these restrictions by collecting bound volumes of his “personal minutes” and “personal telegrams” while prime minister, but a good case could have been made that they were actually state property. And even if Churchill had been able to make use of his own papers, he would still have needed access to other sealed files to round out his narrative. To gain the documents he required, Churchill had to promise his successor, Clement Attlee, that he would submit his text for vetting by the government before publication. This would turn Churchill’s volumes into a “quasi-official history.”
There was still the question of whether it would be worthwhile to write at all. Under Britain’s confiscatory tax regime, Churchill would have owed 97.5 percent of his royalties to the state. “I shan’t write while the Government takes all you earn,” he growled. To get around this obstacle, his lawyers came up with a dodge worthy of Enron: Churchill would donate his papers to a trust run by his friends and family, which would sell them to publishers for a handsome sum without any tax liability and provide the proceeds for Churchill to live on. The actual writing of the book would be done for a nominal—and taxable—fee.
Churchill reaped quite a bonanza from this arrangement. His chief literary agent, the press baron Lord Camrose, negotiated lucrative deals with publishers in 15 countries and even more lucrative syndication deals with 50 newspapers and magazines in 40 countries. Churchill was to clear at least $18 million in today’s money—enough to secure a very comfortable dotage.
Though Churchill had turned 70 in 1944, he had no intention of retiring. He continued as leader of the opposition before returning to 10 Downing Street from 1951 to 1955. In the meantime he made a major international impact with speeches like the 1946 “Iron Curtain” address. This did not leave even a man of Churchill’s prodigious energy much time to concentrate on literary endeavors. He therefore wound up relying heavily on a bevy of distinguished helpers known as The Syndicate—including two retired generals, a former naval officer and an Oxford historian—who served as his researchers and first-draft writers.
The spine of The Second World War came from documents collected in chronological order. These were supplemented by Churchill’s reminiscences of central events and personalities, usually dictated after a well-lubricated dinner to a secretary who, Reynolds writes, used “a specially muffled typewriter to avoid disturbing his train of thought.” Even as prime minister, however, Churchill did not have personal knowledge of all aspects of the war—he knew little, for example, about the Eastern Front and the Pacific theater. These gaps were partly filled by his assiduous assistants, who produced memorandums that were often incorporated virtually unchanged into the final work.
When the raw material of a chapter was in hand—what Reynolds describes as “a mess of printed documents, typed dictation and drafts, covered with handwritten scrawl”—it would go off to the printers. Churchill would then revise the galleys, send them back to the printers and revise some more. Six to 12 drafts per chapter were normal. The final touches were often applied during working vacations in swank Mediterranean hotels, with the hefty bills footed by his American syndicators, Life magazine and The New York Times.
The result was a bit lumpy and uneven: sparkling anecdotes interspersed with half-digested documents and ghostwritten essays. Because Churchill pushed deadlines to the limit and beyond, typos abounded. In one notorious passage, he referred to the French Army as the “poop of the life of France,” rather than the “prop.”
None of this, however, stopped the books from becoming mega-best sellers and winning almost universal accolades from reviewers who had no idea of The Syndicate’s role. “A ghostwriter for Churchill would be the height of the incredible,” opined The Newark News. Though Reynolds shows that the incredible actually happened, he does not hold it against Churchill. He cites one of the research assistants’ dismissal of the question as to how much of The Second World War Churchill actually wrote: It’s “ ’almost as superficial a question’ as asking a master chef, ’Did you cook the whole banquet with your own hands?’ ”
While the most compelling parts of In Command of History describe how Churchill cooked up this magnum opus, the bulk of the book is actually a detailed critique of The Second World War. Comparing its version of events with subsequent accounts, Reynolds finds, not surprisingly, that Churchill did not always paint an objective portrait.
He had to be careful not to offend wartime colleagues like Dwight Eisenhower and Anthony Eden, with whom he had to continue working in the postwar period. And he had to watch what he said about other countries, even the Soviet Union, for fear of causing a diplomatic incident. He wound up pulling a lot of punches—for instance, toning down his criticisms of Eisenhower’s failure to take Berlin in 1945. He also had to cover up some wartime secrets, like the British success in cracking German codes, which was not publicly revealed until 1974.
The chief source of bias was of course Churchill’s attempt to defend his own reputation. Like most out-of-office politicians, he tried to deflect blame for everything that went wrong while grabbing the lion’s share of the credit for everything that went right. Along the way, Reynolds shows, Churchill had to bend and sometimes break the historical record—for instance, by overstating his support for a cross-channel invasion.
Reynolds thoroughly exposes Churchill’s revisions of history—sometimes too thoroughly. His narrative occasionally bogs down in minute critiques that merely confirm what any sentient reader already knows: that memoirs are inevitably self-serving.
To Reynolds’s credit, while he is intent on pulling back the curtain a bit, he does not conclude, as have more fervent debunkers, that the emperor has no clothing. In the end, Reynolds’s respect for Churchill as writer and statesman appears undiminished by the lengths to which he went to shape his own reputation.