The author escorts us on a rapid, enjoyable tour of Winston Churchill's life in this study. He gathers appealing anecdotes and quotations from Churchill's peers (historians' views are referenced rather than quoted, and frequently in disparaging asides). Churchill's personality bursts forth: his "irrepressible and defiant optimism" and his "trademark habit of allowing all around him the benefit of his advice" (34, 228). He was "at once impetuous, generous, courageous, energetic, selfish, bombastic, and inspirational" (5). His magnanimity toward defeated enemies (foreign and domestic) appears frequently.
Ashley Jackson offers splendid narratives of less familiar episodes like Churchill's sojourn as a Boer prisoner of war, his service on the Western Front, and his early advocacy of social reform, acknowledging his "conversion from dashing social reformer to steely strategist" upon moving to the Admiralty (119). His discussions of Churchill's approach to public speaking and war management are superb. The nonspecialist seeking an introduction to Churchill's entire career at manageable length will benefit.
Jackson debunks Churchillian myths with mixed results; he is less successful in discussing Churchill's 1930s positions on India and Edward VIII's abdication crisis but perhaps more so in attacking the declinist view of Churchill's second premiership. "Even when approaching his eightieth birthday, Winston Churchill was Britain's foremost politician ... [and] was the most important international statesman seeking to prevent nuclear conflict and the most influential chronicler of twentieth-century history" (362).
Overall, his efforts to rescue Churchill from both hagiography and disrepute not only tilt more frequently toward adulation but fail to meet Jackson's standard: "against most of these dramatic, often histrionic charges, Churchill can be defended in detail or at least properly contextualized" (6). This is not quite so. Jackson invokes the doctrine of collective cabinet responsibility in which Churchill played a prominent role in errors but did not act alone, such as at Gallipoli in 1915 and in the return to the gold standard in 1925. Yet he credits Churchill for the decision to withhold Royal Air Force fighters from France in 1940 without mentioning Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding's objections, which were as crucial then as was his role in devising the correct defensive strategy in the Battle of Britain. Jackson's description of Churchill's opposition to the August 1944 invasion of southern France implies unwarranted approval. French units serving in Italy had to help liberate France for political reasons; the Allies needed the port of Marseilles to supply operations. Of course, no historian can analyze every decision that a politician of Churchill's stature makes over decades of service, but to claim that Churchill can be defended and then to excuse him at nearly every turn and to fail to discuss obvious controversies undercuts the original assertion.
Jackson's admiration for Churchill occasionally veers in inexplicable directions. Thus Churchill in 1940 was the "type of political animal that democratic politics was simply not designed to produce ... [but] a man of talent, bellicosity, and strategic vision [who] was waiting in the wings, a descendant of Marlborough." This is an approbation Churchill's adversaries would have valued (197). Like its subject, the book is brilliant, accomplished, and occasionally flawed but worth detailed examination.
Ball State University