Dr. Larry Arnn On Churchill From Dunkirk To Pearl Harbor
HH: Welcome, as you come every week to the Hillsdale Dialogue with Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College and me, Hugh Hewitt. And in the last many weeks, and for the next couple, we are talking about Winston Churchill at war. And we are talking about it at a very timely time because of where we find ourselves in the world. But Larry Arnn, I want to dive in, because yesterday, I spent some time, actually Wednesday, I spent some time speaking with the author of the new book, Days Of Fire, the New York Times correspondent, Peter Baker. And George W. Bush had trouble with his generals. He couldn’t quite get it right until the end with David Petraeus. And they fought him, and Rumsfeld fought them, and Rumsfeld had trouble with the generals. How did Churchill deal with his generals, because obviously, Obama’s got generals problems as well. How did Churchill deal with that as the Battle of Britain raged, and as we move towards Pearl Harbor?
LA: Well, he did three things. He promoted them, he kept them in place, or he fired them. And it depended on the ones. But the problem is a big problem, and it’s worse in war than it is in other areas, and here’s why. War is very intense, and it can threaten the whole life of the state. And a general has specialized knowledge. Also, they can have, in the big cases, high public prestige. And so how do you manage them? They’re the ones who know. How do you manage them? And first of all, so there’s that problem, right? It’s like if you’ve got a nuclear physicist working for you, and you’re the president of the United States, you don’t tell him how to design the bomb. How can you tell the general? On the other hand, you know, during the wars that, where Churchill was, in one form or another, political command, if you add the two together, Britain suffered about two million casualties.
LA: And that means the generals were in charge of that. And so that first principle, the one who knows, has got to decide is true. But the second principle is also true, and that is politics is higher than war. And the people who have executive authority in politics are superior to the generals. Churchill put the point this way. The distinction between strategy and politics diminishes as the point of view is raised. At the summit, true politics and strategy are one.
HH: Churchill said that.
LA: He did.
HH: Oh, wow.
LA: He wrote that, yeah. And you know, and another thing to know about Churchill was Churchill was personally a warrior of real ability. That is, he distinguished himself on the battlefield in four wars, including the First World War. And he rose to the rank of colonel. Only because of politics was he not made a general. And if they had made him a general in the First World War, he might not have ever gone back into politics. And he wrote long books about it, and he had a theory about it. And his theory was it’s a logical problem. Back in the days when people fought with clubs and spears, with the best will in the world, he wrote this in an essay called Shall We All Commit Suicide, they’d never managed to kill each other off. It just takes too long. But when they’re fighting with modern weapons, the body count can get very high. Indeed, it might include everybody. And so wars have to be fought in a way that preserves the republic. And you know, in the First World War, Churchill fought hard against the trenches. He didn’t want that kind of warfare. He helped to invent the tank to find a way to stop it. and he fostered a long-flanking maneuver to the south that came to no good and disgraced him, all to…
HH: In part because of the admiral, right?
LA: Well, that story, Churchill’s own mistake, because it is true that Churchill gave, he was first lord of the admiralty, he was commander of the political head of the British Navy, and he gave Admiral de Robeck an order to attack again another day. They had lost some ships to mines.
HH: This was at Constantinople.
LA: And de Robeck refused.
HH: You might tell people what the battle is. It’s trying to force the Straits at Constantinople, right?
LA: Yeah, okay, so in 1914, trenches developed that basically covered much of Western Europe. And there wasn’t any way around. And the trenches were barbed wire and machine guns and heavy artillery. And to attack across that was disaster, and the body counts were terrible. It may be the most miserable warfare for the soldiers ever fought. And Churchill looked for a way around. And you’ve got to go, to go around is to go around Europe. He looked for a way in the north, up through the Baltic, and he looked a way for the south, and that ended up all the way at the east end of the Mediterranean, through the Straits of the Dardanelles that divide Turkey from Greece, and into the Black Sea, where you could get behind the Germans and make contact with their allies, the tsars of Russia. So that was a plan. That’s what they were doing. And they got there, and they had to force those straits. And this admiral refused to attack on the second day. Churchill went to Asquith, the prime minister, and said order him. Asquith refused. The attack was not made. And we now know that the Germans were out of shells. So likely enough, it would have succeeded.
HH: So did that so color him in World War II that that’s why he insisted on being the minister of Defense and the prime minister, so that the generals would have to do what he said they had to do?
LA: He blamed himself about the Dardanelles for seeking, taking responsibility for something he didn’t have authority over. And he refused to be in that position again for the rest of his life. And that means in the Second World War, war policy was harmonious. I mean, there was lots of fights, Churchill was accused of interfering constantly. His own account, and the account that I believe, is that although he did press them and interfere with them all the time, it’s also true that he didn’t order them to do things that they were united in believing wouldn’t work.
HH: No, but I think he almost drove Alanbrooke to kill himself. I mean, I just finished reading about Alabrooke’s diaries, and the man, Alanbrooke was the senior British commander, the number one guy under Churchill.
HH: And the relationship was close, but the prime minister drove his Defense minister almost to the grave.
LA: Well, you know, to be around Winston Churchill was to be around, it’s like being too close to a nuclear reactor, right?
LA: He’d keep you up all night and worked incredible hours, and raised questions over and over. And nothing was ever done with, and it was very frustrating. But of course, if you read Alabrooke’s diaries, you discover that what he says in the last entry, with some complaints about Churchill in that entry, too, was it’s a privilege unique to have ever had a chance to work around such a person.
HH: Do you think you could have put up with it, Larry Arnn? You’ve studied him so well, that pace, that phenomenal pace, do you think you could have stood, gone with it?
LA: Well, I would have been ashamed of myself if I couldn’t.
HH: That’s a different question, though. This is really just about physical capacity.
LA: Well, yeah, sure. I work long hours.
HH: I don’t think I could stay up all night.
LA: And it’s easier if you don’t, I mean, if you were working for him, he would be carrying the main burden, right? And you would be pleasing him. And those guys who worked for him, you know, there were four of them who did, closely, right through the war, and others who were very close, too. But these four guys who worked for him in his private office, they leave accounts of what it was like. And it was exhausting, and they just thought, and you know, by the way, three of the four had all worked for Neville Chamberlain, and were hostile to Churchill when he came in. But what they thought after about a month was, oh, I see how you do it.
HH: Well you know, but as I also got to the end of my reading, Harry Hopkins basically killed himself working during the war. And many people killed themselves working during the war. FDR wore himself out and killed himself working during the war. Not Churchill. Churchill just kept going for another twenty years when this thing was done.
LA: Yeah, you know, yeah, and he was awesome. And I want to say one more thing about the generals and make this point. The point is on matters of expertise, a war is like anything else. It’s like running a college, right? There are people at the college who know how to do things I don’t know how to do. And so they have to say. But there has to be a principle of authority that can bring it all together. And here’s an example. Churchill just beat the daylights out of Admiral Pound to get him to send some ships to relieve the British troops in Egypt directly through the Mediterranean instead of the long way around. And Pound wouldn’t do it, and he pressed him and pressed him. And after it was over, they went the long way around. And Churchill said I knew that if he said no in the end, it could not be done. And he knew that I would not make him do it.
HH: Well see, that’s the right, appropriate relationship between commander and executive.
LA: And you can see why it takes a big man to do that, right, and somebody who really knows a lot. And you don’t get a story of Churchill from the people who work for him, by and large, for the great overwhelming majority of the cases that think he was arbitrary and dictatorial, although everyone agrees he was difficult.
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HH: He has a book coming out eventually, although Joel Miller, who tunes in each week to get a broadcast update on how the manuscript progresses will no doubt be interested to hear he made no such promise today of being done this week. I note that that did not happen.
LA: I promised that I am days, just last night, I sent him an email and said I’m days away. And what does days mean?
HH: It does. It’s a very elastic concept about a very elastic man. Now Churchill, after the Battle of Britain recedes, the threat of invasion does, and he really has to lead, really, two groups of people – the people below him, Great Britain, and his allies – Smuts and the Australians, and the New Zealanders, and the Indians, and all…how does he go about doing that from the island?
LA: Well, you know, first of all, with great difficulty. And you know, Mackenzie King in Canada, for example, the prime minister of Canada, very much resented Churchill, and thought he was foolish and blah, blah, blah. And the prime minister of Australia didn’t think so. And Smuts and Churchill were very close friends. And Churchill took pride in the great fact that there were enormous contributions to the total war effort from the Commonwealth and Empire, and he was very proud. I mean, for example, they made a decision with the United States to fight the European War first. And what does that mean for poor Australia and New Zealand?
HH: That’s what I want to get to, because right now, he’s alone. So he has to keep everything at balance. But then as soon as Japan hits, he has to persuade FDR to go Europe first. And did part of his management of the Allies leading up to Pearl Harbor contribute to his ability to actually get his war grand strategy embraced by FDR after it occurred?
LA: Yeah, well, you know, first of all, the facts of the case were what they were. And Europe is close. And Hitler was, you know, bidding fair to conquer it all. And Japan, you know, was soaking up a lot of islands, but it didn’t look like it was going to get to the United States, and it wasn’t going to knock out any further the main powers in the war. And so it just was hard duty for Australia and New Zealand, right, because they were almost invaded. And McArthur had something to do with stopping that, and good luck, and also the enormous power of distances. But they did do that, and you know, there were Australian soldiers fighting far away from Australia, and that’s a great fact about that country.
HH: Now in terms of those period of months before the United States entered into the war, Russia was attacked and was blind to the approach of Hitler, although Churchill attempted to warn Stalin, did he not?
LA: Yeah, well, the thing to remember is in ’39, Stalin and Hitler made a deal. And they were allies. And they carves up Poland between them, and Russia got Finland. And so Russia, the Soviet Union, was a hostile power. And then Hitler, with his venom, he was always driven by venom, sometimes by strategy, but always by venom, he decided that killing those Slavic masses and running them out of Europe and taking all their land was the real object. And so he began to prepare a massive assault in the middle of 1941 to, against Russia, and he went after him. And Churchill did warn Stalin about that. And the evidence is that Stalin didn’t believe it. And he was…
HH: When he was not invaded, when Churchill…
LA: He was foolish and naïve, naïve Stalin.
HH: What did he think when Hitler did not invade England? I’ve never been able to figure this out. What was Stalin thinking, that he was not going to use his army again?
LA: Yeah, well, you know, it was a very formidable thing to do, to attack Russia, because it’s huge. And it didn’t work in the end. And so he probably thought, although I don’t know what he thought, and I don’t think it’s known what he thought. He probably, you know, because he wasn’t doing daily press conferences, this Stalin. He probably thought with an enemy at his back like that, how can he turn and come after us? And he surprised him. I mean, there’s no question that Stalin was surprised. And he trusted Hitler.
HH: That Churchill wasn’t…Now here’s an interesting comparison. As I mentioned at the beginning of the show on Wednesday, I spoke with Peter Baker about his book, Days Of Fire. And it’s a very well done book for a book that’s only five years after the conclusion of the presidency of Bush and the vice presidency of Cheney. And the year 2006 and 2007 is so awful for George W. Bush. There are times when it looks like he’s carrying around bricks on his shoulder. People think he may be clinically depressed. He wasn’t, in the opinion of Peter Baker. Nevertheless, just a terrible year. And I thought to myself as I was reading that, because it’s the war, and he’s losing his election, and he’s losing his party, and various people are telling him he’s a loser, and the staff are leaving him, that Churchill’s 1940 was far worse than anything anyone else has ever really had to go through, isn’t it?
LA: And ’41, and half of ’42, although it was different in ’42, because if you just think about the timeline of the war, Germany simply has overwhelming power, right? The British Army is a small fraction of the size of the German Army, and the German Air Force was much bigger. And so if you put everything Britain had on the same land mass as everything the Germans had, they would conquer them faster than they conquered Poland, because you know, Britain lost all of its heavy equipment when it left Dunkirk. So from that point of view, the war was simply hopeless. And then they began to bomb London. And then the submarine warfare began. And so not only was it that the cities were being leveled, it’s also true that they couldn’t guarantee to resupply themselves. And so they were watching on charts, month to month, while the country choked to death. And you know, the losses were terrible. Plus, in the early going, let’s say through sometime in September, 1939, is when Martin Gilbert thinks it receded…
HH: September of ’39?
LA: There was a very strong, ’39, yeah.
LA: In 1940.
LA: Sorry, in 1940. In sometime around September, 1940 is when it receded, but there was a political movement to make a peace with Hitler, and there were overtures going back and forth all through that summer while the Battle of Britain was going on. And I’ve heard Martin Gilbert say this, and he’s written things that are less explicit than this but indicate the same thing. Sometime in the fall, after they’d just bombed and bombed and bombed, finally everybody just came to the view that’s enough. To heck with this guy, you know, we’re not going to talk with this guy. And so that came to an end. But then, you know, the war news was just terrible. And they tried bombing Germany, and they tried it in the daytime at first, the losses were just staggering, right? And so everything was wrong.
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HH: When the, I can’t recall the name of the battleship that went down. The Prince Of Wales was sunk by Japanese, so it wasn’t during this period of time. But he suffered some horrific losses.
LA: The Royal Oak.
HH: That’s it, the Royal Oak.
HH: What would he do to rally himself, Larry Arnn, because there is a chapter for everyone to know and read.
LA: Well, the most telling thing, you know, I can remember, I had studied Churchill for a long time when I began to understand that he was often afraid. And I was a young man, and I was trying to figure out what courage was, and I thought, you know, look at him, look at him, you know, look at the pictures of him. Look at him holding up his V sign. Listen to those speeches, right? But in 1940, during the very early in the premiership, he said to John Colville, I want, John Colville was one of these private secretaries who illegally, thank God for it, kept a diary, and later published it. And I interrupt myself. How much time do I have?
HH: You have five minutes in this segment, yeah.
LA: He, these four guys, Peck, Martin, Colville and Seal, would play tricks on each other, because they worked together for years, right? And they would write memos ostensibly from Churchill.
HH: Oh, I didn’t know that.
LA: And one of them said, and they could mimic his style exactly. It’s very direct and concise. And so Colville gets a memo that says roughly, it comes to my attention that you have been keeping a diary in violation of the Official Secrets Act. When I return to the office, I need to speak with you about this. And of course, they put it on his desk.
HH: He did?
LA: And he’s just devastated. And the plan is to let him go home and have a bad night. And it gets to the end of the day, and they can’t stand it anymore, and so they have to tell him, right, because it’s just too cruel, right? Anyway, he kept his diary about Churchill, and Churchill said to him one day, there’s that prayer recorded in George Barrow about the siege of Gibraltar by the Spanish against the British troops that went on for months, and they nearly starved to death, nearly took it. Find it for me, please. I want the words exactly. And here’s the prayer. Fear not the result, for either thy end will be a majestic and an enviable one, else God will preserve our reign upon the waters. Churchill was saying that prayer to himself, you see?
LA: He decided, and you have to understand that Churchill is the last guy to decide this. Churchill is the guy who thinks that the art of statesmanship and generalship is to fight wars as cheaply as possible, preserving the liberal nature of the society. And Churchill decided that the circumstances had arisen that they had to fight to the end, no matter what, because to make a peace with Hitler was to begin to participate in his way of governance and living. Better to die. And he called for that, see. Never in another time in his life did he do that. Talking about nuclear weapons, after the war, he never spoke this way again in his life. And these are the months where alone, in his whole life, that’s what he did. And of course, they are his most memorable speeches in his life.
HH: During this period, what was Clementine to him and his family? And Randolph was no piece of cake, his oldest, his only son. But what was the family to him?
LA: Well, they were great, of course, and he loved his wife very much. And Randolph was a very brave soldier in the Second World War. There are two stories about him. He was wounded in North Africa, and there’s a man named William Deacon, became Sir William Deacon, and he died three or four years ago, I think. And he was, I never knew him, but Martin Gilbert knew him well and just adored him. He had been Churchill’s research assistant. And Churchill was trying to figure out what was going on in Yugoslavia, because there was this Catholic monarchist, constitutionalist named Mihailovic, and there was Tito, the communist. And Mihailovic wasn’t fighting very well, they came to suspect, because, and there’s reasons not to, the Nazis, when they took a town, would put up a list of a hundred names of citizens. And if there was an act of insurrection, they’d shoot them all, line them up and shoot them. The man who founded MagLite, Tony Maglica, I met him one time. And he was stood up, a little boy, in front of such a firing squad. And his mother cried and begged, and they released him, because he would have been shot.
HH: Wow. Okay, come back to what this means, Deacon and Randolph and the family when we return.
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HH: Churchill, himself, supported by a personal staff, by wonderful generals, and by his family, one of whom, Lord Randolph Churchill, was something of a pain in his father’s side most of his life. But you were saying about Yugoslavia and Bill Deacon?
LA: Well, Churchill sent, he tried to figure out, because this guy, Tito, would just fight anyway, right? And he’s a communist. We don’t like him, if we’re Churchill. So he sends William Deacon and Randolph, and Evelyn Waugh, the author, and they go parachute in, and they spend time with Tito.
HH: How unlikely. He send Evelyn Waugh to see Tito?
LA: Tito and Evelyn Waugh were wounded by the same shell going off.
LA: And they came back and reported this guy’s a fighter. And so the Allies recognized Tito, which had consequences for after the war, but what they got was a lot of fighting back there. So his son was a pain, but his son was a brave man and relied upon by his father. And his family, you know, his daughters were in the military and spotters and such is that. My wife’s mother was a plotter for the Royal Air Force. And so they all did service, and they all worked. There’s a touching scene. It’s not true, there’s no evidence for it I’ve ever seen, but I love it anyway. There’s a really good film about Churchill, and toward the end when the war starts, Clemmie looks him and says we’re going to be old when this is finished. And Churchill got a little tear in his eye and gave her a hug. You know, they were sort of saying goodbye in a way, too.
HH: I am thinking of the picture of him peering through his curtain on his 90th birthday with Clementine, and so she was right, but she was also wrong. They lasted quite a long time thereafter. Okay, so Arnn, who does he rely on in the period up to, to both, so do Franklin Roosevelt, and also to prepare the way for the entry of America into the war? Who helps him?
LA: Well, you know, Churchill has loyal friends, right? And of course, a government is a big business. And in wartime, everybody’s in terrible stress. So the first thing you have to know is Churchill was an extremely active dispatcher of business. And the people around him were mostly very cooperative with him, including the Labour guys who were in the coalition with him. So by and large, under the pressure of war, they really got on. And they fought, too, quite a lot. And there was terrible disappointments and setbacks, too. And you have to understand about Churchill that the British people decided in 1940 that they were going to fight this thing through. And that meant they were going to do it with him. And so nobody had prestige as he did. And when it came time, mostly through the vehicle of the House of Commons, to inform the nation what’s going on in this war, nobody was better at it than Churchill.
HH: And how did the…
LA: So he was in a very…
HH: How did the King support him, because you know, Americans listening to this, the English will know this, but Americans won’t quite get, many of them, what the job of the King is in a war.
LA: Yeah, well, you know, he had these two little girls, one of them the Queen of England today. And George VI had a very good family. And he and Churchill became very close. And there’s a lot of writing back and forth between them. And the King was often deployed to make Churchill behave. Slow down, don’t go to the front, stuff like that. And they had a conversation about the King leaving. I might have said this last time. The King should go, Churchill said. We might get invaded. And the King said I’ll go when you go. And Churchill said well, good, then come here to Downing Street. We’ll fight here.
HH: No, you didn’t tell that story.
LA: Oh, yeah, no, that’s a great story. The King wasn’t going. So if the Prime Minister wasn’t going, the King wasn’t going to go.
HH: Has Elizabeth spoken much about Churchill?
LA: Oh, yeah.
HH: Has she given her testimony in what she recalls?
LA: Oh, yeah. Sure, in a way that a monarch would, right?
LA: First of all, she dined with him officially when he was retiring from the premiership, which is an incredible honor, right, to go to the home of a commoner in your regalia, and pay an official visit. Then, she offered him a dukedom, which is the highest in her power to give. No one has been made one of those outside the Royal Family for more than a hundred years. So then he didn’t take that. And it was sort of agreed that he wouldn’t take them, because he wasn’t rich, and how would he afford it. But she wanted the offer to be made, see? And then what she gives him instead was the highest decoration title available to a commoner. She made him a Knight of the Garter, which, that’s the Queen’s garter, right? And that means a particular defender of the Monarch. And she manifested all, you know, Martin Gilbert once went and had Easter weekend at the Queen’s place at Windsor, come over to my house. And he got into a conversation with her about him, because it’s just very well known that she adored him, and he adored her. And if you look at pictures of her when she’s young, she looks like a lady conqueror. And she’s a beautiful woman, and also a tremendous horsewoman. And he just adored her. She captured his heart, and he hers. And so Martin Gilbert said what was it like talking to Churchill, with Churchill. And Martin reported to me that she shook herself a little, and said you know, in my life, you don’t get enough time to think, but I can remember. And then she talked for about fifteen minutes about what that was like. Of course, he was an extremely interesting man to talk with. He knew a lot, and he was very articulate, and he…
HH: Did he reduce that conversation, Martin Gilbert, Sir Martin Gilbert, to a memoranda?
LA: Not that I’ve read. He told me about it on, this was in the 80s when this happened, and I was back in America. And he told me about it a couple of times on the phone. And I said well, you have to tell me about it, and he said I can’t. And I said why not? And he said we have to be together, it’s too good.
HH: Well then, you should get on a plane and go and see him and get that.
LA: Well, he’s incapacitated now, Hugh. He can’t.
HH: Oh, I thought he was ill, but not incapacitated.
LA: He can’t talk. He can’t talk, and may not be able to again.
HH: Well then, go and see the Queen or something. I’m serious. Dr. Arnn, we’ll continue with Pearl Harbor next week in our walk through the life of Winston Churchill. All of these conversations back to the Iliad and forward are available at www.hughforhillsdale.com. The Hillsdale Dialogues, not to be missed each week to end your week with.
End of interview.