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Essential Company

Churchill by Himself: The Definitive Collection of Quotations
Edited by Richard Langworth
(Public Affairs, 656 pages, $29.95)

Reviewed by Sir Martin Gilbert

I HAVE KNOWN RICHARD LANGWORTH, initially by reputation and then personally, for 40 years. In the late 1960s, when I was a research assistant to Churchill’s son, Randolph, Langworth wrote to my boss about the work he was doing in the United States in assembling and publicizing the many postage stamps that had been issued to commemorate Churchill’s death in 1965. Langworth went on to establish the International Churchill Society (now the Churchill Centre), to edit the society’s journal, Finest Hour, and to supervise the publication of several important monographs about Churchill. Year in and year out he was vigilant in combating innumerable misrepresentations of the Great Man. In this magisterial volume, Langworth—the consummate editor—puts all those interested in Winston Churchill in his debt. This book is a marvelous compendium of Churchill’s written and spoken words, a true encyclopedia of wit and wisdom, and by far the most comprehensive yet published. It is an essential companion for writers, teachers, and students alike, as well as for anyone in any walk of life who wants to gain a real sense of Churchill in his own words: who Churchill was and what he stood for. 

Churchill saw far into the future. In an article published in both Britain and the United States in 1924 he asked: “Might not a bomb no bigger than an orange be found to possess a secret power to destroy a whole block of buildings—nay to concentrate the force of a thousand tons of cordite and blast a township at a stroke? Could not explosives even of the existing type be guided automatically in flying machines by wireless or other rays, without a human pilot, in ceaseless procession upon a hostile city, arsenal, camp, or dockyard?” It is clear from the material Langworth has assembled that Churchill not only knew war at first hand, but understood it. In his book The River War, first published in 1899, he wrote: “I may have written in these pages something of vengeance and of the paying of a debt. It may be that vengeance is sweet, and that the gods forbade vengeance to men because they reserved for themselves so delicious and intoxicating a drink. But no one should drain the cup to the bottom. The dregs are often filthy-tasting.” In his book London to Ladysmith via Pretoria, first published in 1900, is the sentence: “Ah, horrible war, amazing medley of the glorious and the squalid, the pitiful and the sublime, if modern men of light and leading saw your face closer, simple folk would see it hardly ever.” On May 13, 1901, within three months of entering the House of Commons, Churchill told his fellow members of Parliament: “We do not know what war is. Even in miniature it is hideous and appalling.” 

It did not take the First World War to determine Churchill’s attitude. To his wife, Clementine, in a letter written on September 15, 1909—a year after their marriage—while a guest of the Kaiser at German Army maneuvers, Churchill confided: “Much as war attracts me & fascinates my mind with its tremendous situations—I feel more deeply every year—& can measure the feeling here in the midst of arms— what vile & wicked folly & barbarism it all is.” To his brother, Jack, then serving at the Dardanelles, he wrote on June 19, 1915: “The war is terrible: the carnage grows apace.…The youth of Europe—almost a whole generation—will be shorn away.” To the House of Commons, a year later, having himself served five months in the trenches of the Western Front, Churchill declared: “I say to myself every day, What is going on while we sit here, while we go away to dinner or home to bed? Nearly a thousand men, Britishers, men of our own race, are knocked into bundles of bloody rags every twenty four hours, and carried away to hasty graves or field ambulances.” 

Commenting, in 1920, on the reluctance of the British public to become embroiled in the war being fought between Poland and Soviet Russia, Churchill wrote of his fellow Britons: “They are thoroughly tired of war. They have learnt during five bitter years too much of its iron slavery, its squalour, its mocking disappointments, its ever-dwelling sense of loss.” Peace was the underlying theme of one of Churchill’s finest speeches. In November 1940, after the death of Neville Chamberlain, who had kept him out of political office and whose appeasement policy he had denounced with vigor, Churchill told the House of Commons. “It fell to Neville Chamber lain, in one of the supreme crises of the world, to be contradicted by events, to be disappointed in his hopes, and to be deceived and cheated by a wicked man. But what were these hopes in which he was disappointed? What were these wishes in which he was frustrated? What was that faith that was abused? They were surely among the most noble and benevolent instincts of the human heart—the love of peace, the toil for peace, the strife for peace, the pursuit of peace, even at great peril, and certainly to the utter disdain of popularity or clamour.” 

Churchill saw clearly—as Richard Langworth’s comprehensive selection shows—that the future could be cursed by the behavior of governments and their leaders, and sought to avert the worst outcomes. 

“There is not much comfort,” he wrote to Joseph Stalin nine days before the end of the war in Europe, “in looking into a future where you and the countries you dominate, plus the Communist parties in many other States, are all drawn up on one side, and those who rally to the English-speaking nations and their associates or Dominions are on the other. It is quite obvious that their quarrel would tear the world to pieces and that all of us leading men on either side who had anything to do with that would be shamed before history. Even embarking on a long period of suspicions, of abuse and counter-abuse and of opposing policies would be a disaster hampering the great developments of world prosperity for the masses.” Wise words and accurate forebodings, but Stalin had other plans. 

WHAT WILL STRIKE ALL READERS about this book is the relevance of Churchill’s words to our lives today. As Americans contemplate a possible meeting between their leaders and the leaders of Iran, they might well ponder—whether they agree or disagree—on Churchill’s remarks at Edinburgh in 1950, when the Cold War was at its height. This is what he said: “I cannot help coming back to this idea of another talk with Soviet Russia upon the highest level. The idea appeals to me of a supreme effort to bridge the gulf between the two worlds, so that each can lead their life, if not in friendship at least without the hatreds of the cold war.…It is not easy to see how things could be worsened by a parley at the summit.” 

With this speech, the use of the word “summit” to mean a meeting of world leaders came into being. Two years earlier, in 1948, Churchill had declared with passion, in a speech at The Hague at the inaugural meeting of the Council of Europe, that all governments must work toward an age in which, as he expressed it, “all the little children who are now growing up in this tormented world may find themselves not the victors nor the vanquished in the fleeting triumphs of one country over another in the bloody turmoil of destructive war, but the heirs of all the treasures of the past, and the masters of all the science, the abundance and the glories of the future.” To compile this book, a work of many years, Richard Langworth has read each of Churchill’s 50 books, and has supplemented these with an Aladdin’s cave of material: most importantly from Churchill’s collected speeches edited by Robert Rhodes James, from the Official Churchill Biography, the first two volumes of which were written by Churchill’s son, Randolph, and the following six volumes by myself. The Official Biography also includes the comprehensive “companion” volumes of documents: the letters, telegrams, documents, and memoranda edited first by Randolph and after Randolph’s death in 1968, by me, a project that has now reached 1,942 pages, and is being published by Hillsdale College, Michigan. 

As Langworth’s thirty-four chapter categories show, there is no area of life and thought about which Churchill did not have something to say. From terse phrases to sustained thought pieces, there is a remarkable diversity and wisdom to be found in this book. One example is the questions that, in 1944, Churchill wanted to be the test of the Italian system of government after the fall of Mussolini. They could equally well apply after the fall of the Taliban, Saddam Hussein, Pervez Musharraf, or ________ (let each reader fill in the blank according to the situation in the world today, tomorrow, and in the years ahead). Here are Churchill’s questions: 

Is there the right to free expression of opinion and of opposition and criticism of the Government of the day? Have the people the right to turn out a Government of which they disapprove, and are constitutional means provided by which they can make their will apparent? Are their courts of justice free from violence by the Executive and from threats of mob violence, and free of all association with particular political parties? Will these courts administer open and well-established laws which are associated in the human mind with the broad principles of decency and justice? Will there be fair play for poor as well as for rich, for private persons as well as Government officials? Will the rights of the individual, subject to his duties to the State, be maintained and asserted and exalted? Is the ordinary peasant or workman who is earning a living by daily toil and striving to bring up a family free from the fear that some grim police organisation under the control of a single party, like the Gestapo, started by the Nazi and Fascist parties, will tap him on the shoulder and pack him off without fair or open trial to bondage or ill-treatment? 

“These simple, practical tests,” Churchill had commented in 1944, “are some of the title-deeds on which a new Italy could be founded.” They are as valid today as they ever were. Reading aloud the extracts in this book, as Randolph Churchill so relished doing when he was writing about his father, these pages can stir the blood, warm the soul, amuse the heart, and enlighten the mind. 

THIS IS A LONG BOOK, AND RIGHTLY SO. Many rewards will accrue to those who read it in its entirety. It can be read in small segments, set aside, and taken up again, read in moments of leisure and at times of reflection. Churchill was consistent in his thought and diverse in his expression. He could take ordinary episodes of history or politics and enliven them with wit and insight. Readers of this book can follow Churchill’s own advice about the books in his library: “Peer into them. Let them fall open where they will. Read on from the first sentence that arrests the eye. Then turn to another. Make a voyage of discovery, taking soundings of uncharted seas.” 

This volume invites just such a voyage. There are few books of which it can truly be said that it is un-put-downable. This book is one of them. It combines in grand measure two unique factors. The first is the reading, knowledge, and enthusiasm of a modern Churchillian, who is also a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for making Churchill’s work better known in the United States and internationally: Richard Langworth. The second is the voice of a master wordsmith and exponent of large causes, who bestrode the international stage in both war and peace: Sir Winston Churchill.

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