How The Greatest Person of the 20th Century Overcame A Ghost

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Sir Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill is often cited as the greatest person of the twentieth century. But this was not always viewed this way during his lifetime, either by his contemporaries or by him. Several times during his career, he suffered bouts of depression, and doubted whether he would succeed. In the end, though, he managed to become the greatest leader Britain has ever had, feeling that he was “walking with Destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial…” [1] This ended up happening for many reasons. The ones I will focus my attention are those pertaining to Churchill the man.

Churchill was raised in a very typical Victorian upper-class family. Neither of his parents were close, [2] especially his father who lacked confidence in his son’s ability to amount to anything in life. He openly feared that Winston would become a “social wastrel.” [3] Unfortunately for Winston, before he could even begin to prove this as false, his father died. “Winston spent the rest of his life proving to the ghost of his father that the son was not a prodigal but a prodigy.” [4]

In addition to this, Churchill was also haunted by his father’s political failure and wished to restore his father’s good name. Lord Randolph, a prominent Tory politician, was well on his way to becoming Prime Minister [he was Chancellor of the Exchequer – which is tied with Foreign Secretary to being the next post after Prime Minister], when suddenly, he resigned over a petty disagreement with the Prime Minister.[5] To add insult to injury, Randolph began to suffer numerous public mental breakdowns, including one instance when he could not finish a speech.

To this end, Churchill did two things. First, he wrote a biography of his father. Second, he geared his life toward a political career aiming to not only meet, but exceed, Lord Randolph’s accomplishments. He aimed eventually to become Prime Minister.

Thus, like a “young man in a hurry,” Churchill started climbing up “the greasy pole” to the Premiership. In 1906, he was appointed at the young age of 31, to be Under-Secretary of the Colonies. From this he swiftly became President of the Board of Trade, Home Secretary, and First Lord of the Admiralty, in order. Then came World War I, and the disaster at Gallipoli. It had cost Churchill his job, and his reputation would remain soiled for the remainder of his life. He suffered his first setback, and it looked as Randolph Churchill’s son had repeated the failure of his father.

Despite feeling despair, Churchill prodded on, serving at the front for 13 months, until he was called back by Lloyd George, his former partner in the effort for House of Lords Reform, as Minister of Munitions. It was a godsend for Churchill. Churchill demonstrated that, if Gallipoli meant anything, it meant that he was a survivor. [6] Reinvigorated, Churchill proceeded on to serve as Minister of War and of the Colonies until the fall of Lloyd George’s Government following the Chanak Crisis of 1922.

An immediate General Election occurred, and in the middle of it, Churchill had to have his appendix removed. Unable to campaign, he lost his seat. Again a major setback.

For the ensuing two years, Churchill was “without a Party, without a Seat, and without an Appendix.” [7] Again another setback, again another recovery. By 1924, Churchill had gone back to his old Party, the Conservatives, won a safe seat at Epping, was elected again to Parliament in 1924, and immediately became Chancellor of the Exchequer – the same post his father once held.

He would remain Chancellor for 5 years, one of the longest stretches for anyone in that post during this century. He would lose office when Labour won the General Election of 1929, and immediately fell out of favor when he opposed the granting of autonomy to India. For much of the 1930s, he was in the wilderness. Again another major setback… but this time, it seemed permanent: 10 years.

But yet again, a setback, a recovery. This time, the recovery was caused by Adolf Hitler. When World War II began, Churchill was back at the Admiralty. Ten months later, after a Parliamentary Debate over the failure of the Norwegian campaign, Neville Chamberlain resigned as Prime Minister, and Churchill took his place. He had finally made it, and during the greatest crisis that Britain had ever faced. He felt that night as if he was “…walking with Destiny.” By 1945, through his legendary leadership, Britain won the Second World War. At the same time, Britain held an election, and Churchill was booted out of office. Again a major setback.

Six years later, Churchill regained office again. Then in 1953, Stalin died, and Churchill went to work trying to end the Cold War. It was as if he was trying to prove, beyond a doubt, to the ghost of his dead father, that he was worthy. In the end, he failed in his efforts, and left office in 1955.

Churchill wrote a moving short story: “The Dream,” in which he reports to his father: “mission accomplished.” [8] He spent his entire life proving to his father that he was worthy, that he was not a “social wastrel” but a leader among men. It’s a good thing he succeeded: one hates to fathom the result of a Britain without Churchill in 1940!!

Footnotes:

  1. [1] Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War, 6 vols., (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1948), vol. I, pp. 181, 667.
  2. [2] Manfred Weidhorn, “Personality of the Century: Stranger Than Fiction: Patterns In Churchill’s Charmed Life,” in Finest Hour, v. 99, (Washington, DC: The Churchill Center, Summer 1998).
  3. [3] Ibid.
  4. [4] Ibid.
  5. [5] Martin Gilbert, Churchill: A Life, (NY: Henry Holt & Co., 1991), p. 12.
  6. [6] Norman Rose, Churchill: The Unruly Giant, (NY: The Free Press, 1994), p. 203.
  7. [7] John Charmley, Churchill, The End of Glory: A Political Biography, (San Diego, CA: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1993), p. 189.
  8. [8] Weidhorn.
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