KSP Review of “Churchill” in Dallas Morning News

by admin on December 8, 2009

Book review: ‘Churchill’ by Paul Johnson

12:00 AM CST on Sunday, November 22, 2009

By KASEY S. PIPES / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News
Kasey S. Pipes is the author of Ike’s Final Battle and is the Norris Research Fellow at the Eisenhower Institute and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Building Community.


In 1946, a 17-year-old British student met Winston Churchill and asked the once and future prime minister how he had achieved so much.

“Conservation of energy,” the great man replied. “Never stand up when you can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down.”

That teenager was Paul Johnson, and he later emerged as one of the world’s greatest historians. Now, in his twilight years, Johnson has turned his formidable powers on the 20th-century figure he calls “the most valuable to humanity, and also the most likable.”

In Churchill, Johnson chronicles his subject’s life and career, with special attention to how he paced himself through a 90-year journey of soaring vistas and dark valleys.

Johnson begins the book by arguing that Churchill was his mother’s son. His American mother instilled in him American characteristics: emotion, passion, perseverance and, above all, ambition. “She believed the sky was the limit,” the author writes, “that everything was possible … .” This philosophy would guide Churchill throughout his career.

And what a career. From soldier to statesman, Churchill served the British Empire for six decades. Though he often sought to preserve tradition, his unconventional leadership typically led him to promote change. In one striking example that Johnson highlights, Churchill used his first tenure as First Lord of the Admiralty to preserve the Royal Navy as the greatest sea-fighting force in the world while transforming the way it fought.

“He began the historic shift from coal to oil,” Johnson notes, “and in the process laid down a new class, the Queen Elizabeth, of huge, oil-burning battleship. He created the naval air service, and begged his ship architects to design him aircraft carriers.” Churchill loved history, but he could see the future and spent his career trying to build it.

Johnson’s story arc is written in fluid prose that beautifully reveals the tension and achievement in Churchill’s life. In one paragraph, the historian summarizes the length, width and depth of his subject’s career as a politician, warrior and artist:

“In his ninety years, Churchill had spent fifty-five years as a member of Parliament, thirty-one years as a minister, and nearly nine years as prime minister. He had been present at or fought in fifteen battles, and had been awarded fourteen campaign medals, some with multiple clasps. He had been a prominent figure in the First World War, and a dominant one in the Second. He had published nearly 10 million words, more than most professional writers in their lifetime, and painted over five hundred canvases, more than most professional painters.”

Still, Johnson’s book seems incomplete. Its 168 pages equal not quite two pages for each year of Churchill’s life.

At times, Johnson teases the reader with revealing and penetrating insight into the great man’s career. The author describes his subject’s engaged leadership style as the result of having been a prisoner during the Boer War. “All his life he refused to be confined to a desk,” Johnson writes, and then explains why. “His imprisonment by the Boers had given him a horror of confinement … .”

This type of insight raises the question of what might have been if Johnson had written a full-volume biography. Perhaps the author, like his subject, decided to conserve his energy.

Kasey S. Pipes is the author of Ike’s Final Battle and is the Norris Research Fellow at the Eisenhower Institute and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Building Community.



Paul Johnson

(Viking, $24.95)

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