By Edwin Cooney
As I write these words today, it is November 30th, the 139th anniversary of the birth of Winston Churchill. In the wee hours of this morning, I finished reading the third and final volume of a Churchill biography, the first two volumes of which were authored by William Manchester, one of the most distinguished and prolific author/historians of the mid and late twentieth century. The final volume, which covers the period of Mr. Churchill’s life between Friday, May 10th, 1940 (the day Mr. Churchill became Britain’s wartime Prime Minister) and Sunday, January 24th, 1965 (the day of Churchill’s death), was authored by Paul Reid, a friend and fellow author/historian of Mr. Manchester’s.
One of the most constant barriers to come up in conversation when expressing a love for history is the response that history is boring because it is all about memorizing dates and that it has been corrupted because it is written by the winners of social, military and political conflicts. Another more compelling objection to the study of history invariably is the question of its practicality. “What can one do with it if one isn’t a writer or a teacher?" people wonder. Okay, fair enough, if you insist, on the second observation, but the answer as to its value is simple and I think overwhelmingly compelling. The study of history is ultimately as significant or as important as you allow it to be personal to you. Everything, place or person has a history. An analysis of your history is as ultimately significant as the air that you breathe, the food you put into your body, the clothes you wear on your back, and the country into which you are born and either thrive or die. You have a medical history, an environmental history, a financial history, a psychological history and a spiritual history all relevant to aspects of your make up. None of us lives in either a vacuum or separate from a human context. The likelihood that you’d be the same person if you had been born elsewhere or even in another time in America is quite unlikely. Who we are depends on two essential factors – our environment and our psyche or, if you prefer, our nature. So many factors in our lives affect our outlook and ultimately our fate.
The story of our existence, your history and mine, ultimately reveals to those close to us what lessons or gifts we have to offer them. Beyond that, the more people you take time to learn about, the more you are likely to understand yourself.
To read about Prime Minister Winston Churchill is certainly instructive as a chapter in the history of World War II or of British history. However, if you treat yourself to the story of Winston Churchill, the little boy who was so slow in school that he was the third from the bottom of the class, you begin to understand why, how and what it took for him to become what he became.
The story of Winston Churchill is about a little boy born prematurely to parents too busy frolicking among the beautiful people of Victorian society and politics to bother much with the needs and concerns of their two boys, Winston and his younger brother Jack. Subsequently, Winston’s father Randolph Churchill would die at the tender age of 45, his body ravaged (some insist) by syphilis.
Winston’s story is about a young man soldiering in India and the Sudan. It’s about a young journalist covering wars in Cuba and South Africa who was captured by the Boors, escaping with a price on his head. Churchill’s story is that of a young politician who first rebels against his party’s leadership and then crosses the aisle to join the liberal opposition. Other aspects of his story consist of a long and happy marriage to “his darling Clementine,” his heavy cigar smoking, and his daily alcohol consumption that didn’t alter his personality or capacity to function. It is about political administrative failures and successes in public office, his lifelong devotion to British imperialism even in its “death throes” -- and, finally, an articulate tenacity in the face of perhaps the most ferocious dictator in all history.
To read of Winston Churchill is to read of the political ambitions of men and women from Britain, France, India, the Soviet Union, Germany and, certainly, the United States. You see Winston befriended as a young man by the Irish-born American Democratic Congressman Bourke Cockran. Cockran introduces him to American high society in the 1890s which results in a lifelong friendship with Al Smith. You see young Churchill supping at the home of New York governor Teddy Roosevelt in 1900. Forty years later, you see Churchill, as Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, courting Teddy’s fifth cousin once removed, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. You also see how their friendship was altered in a truly heartrending way as the importance of the Soviet Union superceded that of Great Britain in FDR’s eyes.
The study of history is, among many other things, something of a mirage. On the surface, history appears to be about the rise and fall of nations and empires born on the wings of insightful leadership and doomed by the failure of such leaders. However, nations and empires, regardless of their many differences, have one thing in common –- willful, ambitious and tempermental people who create societies over time that shape and nurture the whole people.
That’s what history is all about -- how can it be anything other than personal!