26 May 2020

Quarantining with history: Churchill and WWII

I've now finished a personal project that I stumbled into during COVID-19 quarantine. I looked at a bookshelf that was partly populated with volumes inherited from a late relative in the 1990s, and thought I'd pull out and try reading The Gathering Storm, whose ominous title turned out to be the first volume of Winston Churchill's six-volume history of World War II. I found it interesting, though perhaps more in terms of political and social aspects than military, and also found that I didn't have any of its successors. A few weeks later, thanks to Powell's Books, UPS, and a small order price, I had the whole set in hand.

Churchill presents the history with a personal and sometimes opinionated viewpoint, offering insight into developments as they occurred within top circles. He's not shy about criticizing decisions with which he disagrees, whether in the moment or by earlier UK governments. He can also be deprecatory of inconvenient factors active elsewhere, like Irish neutrality or the Indian independence movement, when they interfere with UK interests. Sometimes the narrative presents (perhaps for copyright or security reasons?) the intriguing challenge of inferring the content of a dialog based on the messages of only one participant. He cherished his Map Room, which could be a useful adjunct for a reader as well, as when trying to follow the progress of back-and-forth battle campaigns in North Africa.

Strategic planning across upcoming years proceeded alongside immediate tactical actions and reactions. Given the notably broad scope of power that Churchill wielded atop his coalition government, where he personally held multiple roles, it's notable and fortunate that he applied it in a well-considered manner. His confidence in eventual victory, despite desperate challenges, was impressive; perhaps his greatest pessimism was at the end, as Stalin's armies advanced across Eastern Europe laying the groundwork for Soviet satellites while defeating Germans. The collection's final volume, Triumph and Tragedy, so bears this stated Theme: "How the Great Democracies Triumphed, and so Were able to Resume the Follies Which Had so Nearly Cost Them Their Life".

Along the way, it seemed to me that lots of time and risk was devoted to conferences and associated travel, and that various critical decisions were deferred until in-person meetings could be arranged. Teleconferencing might have been useful if the technology were available and the principals were comfortable in using it. I'd known that Churchill had sought and anticipated US support in the war, and that his relationship with FDR was central in cultivating that support, but was interested to see it acknowledged that the attack on Pearl Harbor came as something of a relief by making US alignment against the Axis a certainty. I hadn't known, however, that the Allies formally termed themselves the United Nations from 1942 onwards. I also hadn't been familiar with some of the conflicts among the Allies, as with relative priorities for action in the Mediterranean vs. the English Channel and of regard for China. Even within the British Commonwealth, there was some tension with Australia and New Zealand, who were unsurprisingly concerned with their own security against Japan even as they sent armies to fight Germany in Europe. 

So, I was glad to be able to read and learn. It's a great thing that old books remain available and readable - no worries about conversion from obsolete data formats here! I proceeded through a few thousand pages, each printed before I was born. This was clearly a set that quite a number of people had bought in whole or in part back in its day, though perhaps sometimes one to be shelved and shown rather than actually read. I noted that one of my volumes had a number of uncut pages, but that another displayed an elegant bookplate. Overall, I found it good material to read at this point in time; the idea of positive and effective leadership in response to adversity seemed somehow encouraging and refreshing.

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