This is the third volume of William Manchester's biography of Winston Churchill. I first read the second volume, about the decade leading up to the German invasion of France, 25 years ago and thought it was so good that I bought and read the first volume. I had, by now, given up hope of ever seeing the third volume, but Mr. Manchester appears to have asked Paul Reid to complete the book and, when I saw it available on Audible, I immediately bought it.
This book is billed as a biography (and so it is) but Winston Churchill’s life was so intertwined with the British participation in World War II (he served as both Prime Minister and Defense Minister) that this book also serves as a political (not military) history of British involvement in the war as seen through British eyes. There is little military coverage per se but the political decisions behind the military moves are discussed in great detail. While this book covers the period from 1940 through 1965 (beginning where the second volume ended) it is primarily concerned with Churchill’s actions during the war with approximately 90% of the book covering the period up to the end of the war in Europe and his loss of the office of Prime Minister.
The book’s description of the political views of the Allies, its descriptions of the leaders and their conferences is really first rate. Mr. Reid has added liberal excerpts from the diaries of many of those involved, both Allied and Axis, and the resulting picture of how the war progressed, how the decisions that had to be made were reached and how the various participants reacted to the decisions transcends anything I have read before. I have read many histories of World War II, but all of them spent a great deal of time covering the battles whereas this book dwells primarily on the political decisions to be made and how and why the decisions were reached. The portraits of some of the leaders presented in this book are the best I have seen outside of biographies of those people themselves. The picture of Joseph Stalin, as presented in this book, is very different from that presented in other books, presumably because it is the view of him as seen by Churchill and his aides, not as seen by Soviet Marshalls or allied diplomats and one is drawn to the assumption that Stalin, like all of the other leaders, could present many different faces as needed. Similarly the portraits of people like Harry Hopkins, Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden, Alan Brooke, John Dill and others presented in this book seem much richer than I have seen in other books.
One of the books on my wish list was Max Hastings’ book “Winston’s War”, but this book is so well done and covers Mr. Churchill’s wartime involvement so well that I am not sure there is anything in Mr. Hastings’ book that would contribute much new and I am now uncertain as to whether or not it is worth buying. I thought I knew the events of the war from my earlier readings, but after reading this book I realized that there was much that either I did not know or which I understood imperfectly. While I do not wish to spoil this book for others I can say that I did not know how fragile the Allied coalition was at times during the war or how much disagreement there was between the British and the US on strategy. Yes, I knew that the US favored a cross-channel invasion and the British wanted to pursue a Mediterranean strategy but I did not know how strong the disagreements were, how dedicated some of the military and political professionals were to one choice or the other or how the final agreements were reached. This book is a treasure trove of information about how and why the political decisions were reached and I recommend it without hesitation to anyone interested in knowing the background behind these decisions. It is one of the finest books on the war that I have ever read.
The last 10% (or so) of the book covers Churchill’s life after he lost of the office of Prime Minister and after the end of the war. It covers, in considerable detail, his work in opposition to the Labor Party and his efforts to create a “United States of Europe”. While I understood how he, almost alone, understood the coming Nazi menace I was not aware of how he continued to predict the course of political events after the war. His foresight in seeing the coming cold war between the West and the Soviets and his efforts to preserve freedom and security during the late 1940s and early 1950s was new to me. It is also a very personal book and, at the end, I had tears in my eyes at the passing of such a great man.
The book is read wonderfully by Clive Chafer who does a passable impression of both Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. One reviewer complained that the book is read by an American, but that is only true of the introduction, which is read by the author. The rest of the book is a pleasure to listen to. This is a worthy conclusion to the monumental first two volumes of this trilogy and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
I have been looking for a balanced history of the time of the Kennedy brothers for a long time. Although I was too young to vote in 1960 when John Kennedy ran for President, I was old enough to be serving in the US military so I remember the Presidential campaign and his Presidency very well. And, like most people who were adults at the time, I remember exactly where I was when I first heard about his assassination in Dallas, Texas as well as the assassination of Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles, California.
I thought that histories of the Kennedy Presidency written shortly after the assassinations of John and Robert tended to lack objectivity and to be more paeans of praise than real histories and that those written during the 1980s tended to be revisionist and overly critical focusing on conspiracy theories, long on innuendo but short on facts. I bought this book because I felt that perhaps the 40+ years since the assassinations was enough time for historians to have gained the necessary objectivity to view the events of the period more dispassionately and write in a more balanced fashion.
This book centers on the relationship of the brothers during their time in office and especially during the time of John's Presidency. The central idea of the book, as described in the introduction, is that Robert's actions as Attorney General led directly to the events in Dallas and his brother's death. To describe the events and their linkages to the assassination the book covers the details of John's Presidency in a good deal of detail and, for me, that seems to be one of the main issues with the Audible version. Meetings between mafia Dons, labor leaders, high level US government officials, Soviet officials, Cuban exiles and the like are described and quotes from these meetings are used liberally. While the events and the quotes may well be accurate, the Audible reader is given little information concerning the source of the quotes. Perhaps there are footnotes in the print version of this book but nothing in the Audible version indicates where the quotes came from. However Mr Mahoney's credentials as the Kennedy Scholar Emeritus of the University of Massachusetts seem above reproach and I assume the quotations are valid. Given that, the conclusions one are drawn to are hard to avoid.
This book is dense with facts, meetings, events and quotes and normally I would suggest that such an event rich book would be better understood in print where it is easier for readers to return to the previous paragraph to re-read something. In fact I found myself rewinding 30 seconds or more frequently to make sure I understood who was saying what, but the events themselves are fresh enough in my memory to have compensated for the lack of a print version and I found myself listening to hours at a time when I would normally have been doing something else. In fact I finished this book in less than 3 full days. Given it's length that gives some indication as to how the story and the narration held me.
Both John and Robert Kennedy are presented as real people with both foresight and limitations and the descriptions seem fair and real. Given the material being discussed (assassination attempts against Fidel Castro, collusion and communication with the Mafia and the stories behind both the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, among others), what we see is a very different view of Camelot that detracts from the highly burnished view that many people have of the Kennedy Presidency. I should also mention that this is not a book about who killed John Kennedy. The book, through quotes, follows several threads involving individuals and groups who threatened to kill him, but makes no judgment concerning who may have actually done it. It does, however, have something to say about the judgment of the Warren Commission about a single shooter.
The final section of the book describes the change in Robert Kennedy after he left the office of Attorney General, ran for the U.S. Senate, became an opponent of the Viet Nam war and ran for the Presidential nomination. Of particular interest to me was the change and growth he underwent as he became more aware of the plight of the poor and neglected. The Robert Kennedy that appeared in 1969 seems like a very different Robert Kennedy from the one involved in the Kefauver Committee hearings in the 1950s.
The narration by Peter Altschuler is very good and well suited to the contents. The events described in this book may be at variance with many people's current views of the Kennedys but I think the book is very well done and well worth reading. I recommend it although some parts of it may be hard to listen to, especially for those whose view of the period was formed by the legend of Camelot.
Perhaps it is me. I have read many books concerning the Second World War and the major heads of government and each book seems to have its own area of concentration and viewpoint. This is, of course, as it should be and why different books about the same subject are likely to yield additional insight into the events for those of us who were not directly involved. The same thing is true of this book. Max Hastings, who also wrote the book Inferno about World War 2, concentrates on Winston Churchill and his direct involvement in the running of the war. This book is not about the war itself but rather about how Churchill directed Britain's efforts in the war, both successfully and unsuccessfully, his interactions with his military chiefs and with leaders of other countries. Those efforts were political as Churchill worked to bring the Americans into the war and convince them of the soundness or lack thereof of various actions as were his relationships with Roosevelt, Stalin and others like Harry Hopkins and Charles de Gaulle.
Hastings is clear in his regard for Churchill and refers to him as the greatest British personality of the 20th century and, perhaps, of all time. The last part of the book is fulsome with praise of Churchill who Hastings clearly regards as the only person who was capable of saving Great Britain at that time. Given those statements it is hard to square the book, with its constant drumbeat of Churchill's failings, with his conclusions about Churchill's leadership. Of all of the books I have read about Churchill and the Second World War this is definitely the most downbeat and perhaps that is why I found it tiresome enough that, toward the end, I had a hard time finishing.
Hastings is a gifted historian and writer and it is hard to take issue with each listed blunder, mistake and failing that he mentions. They are all valid points and documented with letters, memorandums, reports and the like, but the cumulative effect of all of them is to paint Churchill as a muddle-headed war leader full of bizarre and wrong-headed plans and capable of the most stunning strategic blunders. Clearly some of this is true as his continued insistence on attaching "the soft underbelly of Europe" resulted in the only really impossible Allied military operation of the war - the war in Italy. Similarly his attempted defense of Greece, his plan to seize Rhodes and the Dodecanese Islands, his plans for Malta and other similar operations were clearly wrong-headed and tended to put off the Americans and annoy the Russians. But the emphasis of the book seems to be on these poor strategic decisions and to give less credit to those of Churchill's choices which were either correct or the least bad choice and one is left with the idea that Churchill was essential only up until perhaps the end of 1942.
To be sure the book also spends a lot of time discussion how ill prepared the Americans were to fight the war in Europe or even to be partners with the British in preparing to fight the war. Hastings discusses how little coordination there was between the US Army and Navy in discussions with the British, how ill prepared the American chiefs were when meeting with the British at Placentia Bay in Newfoundland and how much personal dislike there was between the two groups and between the people of the two nations. But much more time is spent on Great Britain's helpless situation in the early 1940s and the cynicism of those in power, including Churchill, in dealing with their allies. This book presents a different view of Churchill and a very different view of Great Britain than is normally seen in histories of this period.
At the end of the book I was left with the impression that Churchill's main contributions to the war were his stirring speeches and his defiance of Hitler and, had I not been reading about this period for more than 50 years, I would have been left with the impression that Churchill was over-rated as a statesman. But I know better. It was Churchill that kept Great Britain independent and in the war in 1939 and 1940. Without him the US would never have been able to find a way to help liberate Europe as it would have been impossible to do so from the US mainland. It was Churchill that kept the Americans from directly attacking France in 1942 when such an attack would have been a total and complete disaster. It was Churchill that pointed the way to the Mediterranean as the only place to fight Germans in 1942 and the place where the American Army could become proficient in battle. It was Churchill who helped keep the Russians in the war against the Germans and made it possible to defeat Nazi Germany. It was Churchill who foresaw the subjugation of Eastern Europe. The list goes on. To be sure all of this is covered in the book but I felt that the balance between Churchill's foresight and Churchill's follies was wrong and left one with the wrong impression.
Robin Sachs' narration is well done including a reasonable impression of Churchill's voice. This is a very good book but readers might also want to read another book about the period such as the third volume of William Manchester's Churchill biography "Defender of the Realm" to get a more balanced view of Churchill and the war years.
Audible has changed my life! Dry , itchy eyes were destroying one of my greatest pleasures - reading. Now I am experiencing books again!
Everyone has reviewed this book. It is as excellent as everyone says! I'm only writing yet another review because I believe there is a real difference between this and other great Presidential and civil war tomes - the perspective of a few, very interesting woman.
Don't get me wrong - the stars here are Lincoln and his "rivals", but a female historian just naturally carries her interest a little farther - into the lives and motives of the women who love and inspire them. Mary Lincoln becomes real here, but I also appreciate the fascinating details about lesser-known wives and daughters like Kate Chase and Frances Seward. Doris Kearns Goodwin's inclusion of these women adds yet another dimension to an already exemplary historical effort. It's an element which many fine male historians have overlooked.