History, the adage has it, is written by the victors. That’s nowhere more true than in the matter of Winston Churchill, the self-aware subject of this engaging study.
Churchill, notes Reynolds (History/Cambridge Univ.), was foremost a writer and journalist, long accustomed to making his living by his pen and wits; even while in office, though mostly in peacetime, he added to his reputation and purse by writing biographies and histories. He was also accustomed to living well: “My tastes are simple,” he once said. “I like only the best,” and he spent fortunes on cigars and drink, on an elegant country house and a London apartment. Voted out of office at the close of WWII, Churchill took the occasion to write his magisterial, two-million-word history of the conflict, which took eight years and involved a small army of assistants. Moreover, he did so without paying the ruinous 97.5 percent income tax that someone of his level should have paid, thanks to the wiles of lawyers and agents; altogether, his earnings may have equaled 50 million in today’s dollars. Lightly taxed money was one thing: As Reynolds carefully demonstrates, Churchill had other motivations in taking on the massive project, including rehabilitating his reputation in the wake of electoral defeat and casting the war in terms that would serve the Anglo-American alliance in the quickening Cold War. Thus, Reynolds shows, examining various drafts of the history, Churchill revised the record to eliminate his account of how American diplomats “very nearly danced for joy” on hearing of the attack on Pearl Harbor and to improve his performance at places such as Yalta and Potsdam—sometimes, as Reynolds writes, being “economical with the truth” in the process.
There have been plenty of books—perhaps too many—about Churchill, but very few that mention his work as a writer in more than passing. Reynolds adds considerably to our understanding of the British leader.