Thomas E. Ricks, Churchill & Orwell, The Fight For Freedom (Penguin Press, 2017).
In the opening chapter of his new book, Churchill & Orwell, Tom Ricks explains why he has picked these two great men for his subject: “In this period, when so many of their peers gave up democracy as a failure, neither man lost sight of the value of the individual in the world, and all that means: the right to dissent from the majority, the right even to be persistently wrong, the right to distrust the power of the majority.”
Ricks’ new book is not in the path of his normal line, which has involved an examination of the American military and, for the most part, its performance under the enormous pressures of combat. Instead, he has chosen to highlight two of the major literary figures of the 20th century, Winston Churchill and George Orwell. Churchill, of course, is famous as a statesman, but he also won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Orwell might well have won a Nobel Prize as well, but he died shortly after publication of his masterpiece, 1984.
The politics of the two men, not to mention their social backgrounds, could not have been more different. For much of his political life, Churchill stood with the Conservatives and he was a member of one of Britain’s great noble families. Orwell, on the other hand, stood on the left, and at times the far left, throughout his political career. He did attend Eton, but as a scholarship student. In his attitude toward class, he certainly regarded himself as anything but a member of Britain’s elite.
How does Ricks manage to bring Churchill and Orwell together, when they appear to be such poles apart? To many observers, their only apparent connection is they were both writers. But Ricks zeroes in on the fact that both were great defenders of human freedom, although Churchill perhaps less so when it came to the assorted peoples that populated the various overseas holdings of the great British Empire. But the crucial point here is that in the dark days of the 1930s and 1940s, when in every respect freedom was under massive assault from both the right and the left, the two men stood tall. In the end, they played crucial roles in beating back the tide of obdurate stupidity, led by those many who refused to recognize the incomparable threat that Stalin and Hitler represented to the most basic of human freedoms, not to mention the evil those regimes represented and perpetrated from their start to their demise.
As Ricks discusses, the greatest strength these men possessed was their willingness to face the other political direction from what the conventional wisdom despite the great number of their friends and colleagues who firmly believed the correct future was to be found elsewhere. Ricks highlights the moral courage that they possessed. In the 1930s, Britain’s political elite refused to recognize the terrible threat of Nazi Germany in strategic as well as moral terms. In the great debate that followed in the Munich Conference, when virtually everyone in the House of Commons was cheering the prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, for averting war, Churchill stood alone in delivering a biting and eloquent warning of what Britain had in effect surrendered to Hitler. As he declared to the House during the debate over Chamberlain’s surrender of Czechoslovakia to Hitler: “This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup.” Most of the members of Parliament would have none of it, frequently interrupting his speech with contemptuous asides.
As Clausewitz once suggested about Machiavelli, “his unpopularity was due to his penchant for calling things by their proper names.” The same was clearly the case with Churchill and Orwell. The former once told the students of Harrow about his first months as prime minister when Britain faced the seemingly unbeatable might of Nazi Germany and a substantial number of the country’s leading politicians wanted to surrender in order to get an ”acceptable” deal from Hitler:
Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never — in nothing great or small, large or petty — never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never give in to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.
For Orwell, his experiences in Spain highlighted the mendacious, dishonest, and murderous course Stalin’s henchmen had laid out for the world. After he was by badly wounded at the front (we now know that Orwell was on the NKVD’s hit list), Orwell returned to Britain to write his first great book, Homage to Catalonia. In Spain, he picked up a deep sense of the dishonesties that characterized the media reporting of the time (mostly newspapers and magazines):
I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed. I saw troops who had fought bravely denounced as cowards and traitors, and others who had never seen a shot fired hailed as heroes of imaginary victories; and I saw newspapers in London retelling those lies and eager intellectuals building superstructures over events that never happened.
In the last years of Orwell’s life, he wrote his two greatest books: Animal Farm and 1984. Most on the left found his indirect assaults on communism — and dictatorships in any form — outrageous. Many of his old friends shunned him. But both books struck deeply at the heart of Stalin’s tyranny, as well as future tyrannies. As such, both works played a role in stemming the political tide of radical, pro-Stalinist parties in Western Europe during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Tragically, Orwell was dead by then, just at the moment his works received the praise they deserved.
Ricks’ account of the lives of the two men is helped considerably by the fact that he has assembled a number of wonderful quotes that remind us what great writers can do with the English language. For those who are students of the first half of the 20th century, some of those quotes will be familiar, at least those from Churchill’s writing. But there is nothing tiresome about reading them again. It is like visiting old and true friends.
I have only one small quarrel with the book and that is Ricks’ failure to mention Churchill’s greatest piece of writing that was completed in the 1930s, namely his biography of his ancestor the Duke of Marlborough — a book which is not only a literary gem, but filled with brilliant comments and observations on the nature of war and strategy. I cannot help feeling that writing the Marlborough biography helped Churchill clarify his thinking on the nature of war and strategy. But this is a small quibble on what is a splendid book, especially for the American military in the 21st century, many of whom will confront the moral issue of when or when not to speak up against the mistaken policies and choices of its superiors.
Williamson Murray is a military historian who is Professor Emeritus from Ohio State University, and has formerly taught at both the U.S. Army War College and the U.S. Naval War College, as well as the U.S Naval Academy. His latest book is America and the Future of War, Hoover Institution Press.