A Blundering Churchill, a Farsighted Roosevelt

Hamilton, a British-born historian and naturalized American at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, is known for a well-regarded multivolume biography of Bernard Montgomery, the British field marshal during World War II, as well as more controversial books on Bill Clinton’s presidency and John F. Kennedy’s salacious personal life. He set out to write a single stand-alone book on Roosevelt, only to have it evolve into a decade-long project that required three titles to complete, with the goal, as he put it, “to set the record of this man’s contribution to the history of humanity straight.”

Hamilton’s disdain for Churchill will surprise no one who has read the first two installments. Unlike more sentimental accounts of the relationship between Roosevelt and Churchill, like Jon Meacham’s engaging best seller “Franklin and Winston,” Hamilton’s trilogy presents the American as more exasperated than enamored when it came to his London partner, leery of the prime minister’s latest schemes and intrigues and constantly maneuvering to keep the war heading in the right direction.

In “War and Peace,” as in the first two books, Hamilton condemns “Winston’s erratic course,” his “sheer amateurishness,” his “new madness,” his “autocratic and often wild behavior” and his “homicidal meddling” in military matters. “Time and again,” he writes, “Churchill had been infamously wrong on strategy.” The wrongheaded Churchill obsessively continued pressing for military action in the Mediterranean and Balkans while resisting the cross-channel D-Day invasion that even the Nazis foresaw would decide the fate of the war. “Whitewashed by generations of subsequent historians, this was the great tragedy of the war in late 1943,” Hamilton writes.

In Hamilton’s view, his three volumes are a long-overdue correction to the mythmaking in Churchill’s own six-volume account of the war. After all, Churchill famously said, “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.” Hamilton seems intent on rewriting it. “I deeply admired” Churchill, he informs readers, noting without elaboration that as a college student he “proudly stayed for a weekend at Chartwell, his home in Kent, before he died.” But, Hamilton adds, “I do not think it unfair to his memory, 65 years later, to correct the record regarding his version.”

Hamilton’s Roosevelt, by contrast, was an all-knowing demigod, at once judicious and cunning, so visionary that he devoted much of his energy in the final chapters of the war to what would follow. Roosevelt did not live to see the United Nations that was his brainchild but, Hamilton argues, fairly enough, that no one did more to create a global structure that might forestall a third world war.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/08/books/review/nigel-hamilton-war-and-peace.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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