Andrew Roberts is the eminent historian and author of the one-volume biography of Churchill, Churchill: Walking with Destiny. By his count, it is the 1010th biography of Churchill. It was just published in the United States this past Tuesday, on election day.
I can’t imagine that there is a better one-volume biography by which to reacquaint ourselves with Churchill or to luxuriate in his company for a week or two. Roberts’s knowledge of Churchill’s written and spoken words is vast. He draws on it frequently to great effect in the book. His scholarship is sound. His admiration of Churchill is correct. His affection for Churchill is patent. He is in addition an excellent writer and storyteller.
Roberts takes for one of his two epigraphs Churchill’s advice to an American student at a 1953 Coronation luncheon in Westminster Hall: “Study history, study history. In history lie all the secrets of statecraft.” Substitute the word “biography” and you have the edifying purpose of books such as Roberts’s.
I do not tire of listening to Roberts talk about Churchill. On the contrary, I can’t get enough of it. He gives us something to stay our minds on and be staid. Most recently, Cliff May of the invaluable Foundation for the Defense of Democracies caught up with Roberts last week in Washington to record the podcast below.
Roberts took his subtitle for the biography from Churchill’s astounding conclusion of The Gathering Storm, the first of his six volumes on World War II. It gives us Churchill’s thoughts on the evening of May 10, 1940, the day he became prime minister: “During the last crowded days of the political crisis, my pulse had not quickened at any moment. I took it all as it came. But I cannot conceal from the reader of this truthful account that as I went to bed at about 3 A. M., I was conscious of a profound sense of relief. At last I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene. I felt as if I were walking with Destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial. Eleven years in the political wilderness had freed me from ordinary party antagonisms. My warnings over the last six years had been so numerous, so detailed, and were now so terribly vindicated, that no one could gainsay me. I could not be reproached either for making the war or with want of preparation for it. I thought I knew a good deal about it all, and I was sure I should not fail. Therefore, although impatient for the morning, I slept soundly and had no need for cheering dreams. Facts are better than dreams.”
Algis Valiunas’s 2014 Claremont Review of Books essay on new histories of World War I makes an excellent companion to this podcast. Algis writes in the penultimate paragraph of this long essay: “Nobody understood the dire legacy of the Great War better than Winston Churchill, and the two great histories he wrote between the wars, The World Crisis (in six volumes, 1923-31) and Marlborough: His Life and Times (1933-38), constituted a heroic act of statesmanship, undertaken to secure a right understanding of war and politics in the face of nearly universal revulsion from the everlasting truth.”