The Road Not Taken & The Best Selection: Reviews of Geoffrey Best’s ‘Churchill: A Study in Greatness’

Dr. Deveney’s Churchill Writing Seminar centered around one biography of Churchill in particular, that of Geoffrey Best.  Two of our assignments for the class involved reviews of Best’s work, which you will find below.

The first is a “Simple Synthesis,” in that it summarizes and evaluates other reviews of the Churchill biography.  The second paper is a “Complex Synthesis,” which is my own stab at a brief review of the book.

The Road Not Taken

Albert Einstein once said that, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”  So was Geoffrey Best insane for writing yet another Winston Churchill biography in 2001?  Best had but the same pillars of Churchill’s life on which to write: childhood, early political career, World War I, the interwar years, World War II, and his brief return to politics before retiring.  But Chuchill: A Study in Greatness is in no way more of the same.  Best directly opposed a long standing plethora of harsh Churchill criticisms.  The fight continues, but the critical evaluation of Best is clear: Best’s biography stands “head and shoulders above all others.”[1]

While each critic of Churchill: A Study in Greatness used a variety of logical and rhetorical skills, they all held Best’s book up to other texts on Churchill.  Mahoney cited Isaiah Berlin and Roy Jenkins;[2] Bogdanor mentioned Martin Gilbert, Henry Pelling, William Manchester, and Piers Brendon;[3] and McLynn discussed A J P Taylor, Clive Ponting, John Charmley, and Lord Alanbrooke.  In this pool of esteemed professionals hailing from an assortment of decades and occupations, Best rises to the top.  Mahoney writes, “this is the best first book to read about Churchill,”[4] and praises Best for constantly staying on track.[5]  Bogdanor echoes, “It is perhaps the best single-volume book to put in the hands of a student.”[6]  He goes on to describe Best as a superior historian.[7]

But perhaps the clearest indicator that Best’s critics see his work as superior is that they commend him for doing what was, at the time, unpopular.  In other words, it is more how Best contrasts with other writers than how he compares that truly sets him apart.  Mahoney explains that, “contemporary historians…too often shun political and military history as elitist…These critics of traditional political history dogmatically deny that “great men” can shape the course of history.”[8]  McLynn specifies that Best’s work is anti-revisionist.[9]  It is all too easy to follow the given trend and write a book that consumers are clearly interested in buying.  What’s the difficulty in finding different words that say the same ideas?  To fight the tide, to publish the precise antithesis of what is popular – that’s the true test of a writer.  It’s the difference between walking down a mountain and climbing it: being pulled by the gravity of public opinion versus battling it courageously.  Best’s critics realize that to do what is hard, and to do it well, is truly commendable.

[1] Frank McLynn. “Churchill: A Study in Greatness by Geoffrey Best.” The Independent, (May 25, 2001).

[2] Daniel Mahoney. “Savior of the West. – Churchill: A Study in Greatness – Book Review.” National Review, (December, 31, 2001).

[3] Vernon Bogdano. “That Damned Elusive PM.” Spectator, (August 11, 2001).

[4] Mahoney, “Savior,” National.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Bogdano, “Elusive PM,” Spectator.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Mahoney, “Savior,” National.

[9] McLynn, “Geoffrey Best,” The Independent.

The Best Selection

Does a spoonful of tar spoil a whole barrel of honey?  It goes undisputed that writing a biography on Winston Churchill is an immense task.  Geoffrey Best’s biography, Churchill: A Study in Greatness, does an excellent job chronicling Churchill’s life.  From Churchill’s childhood to his old age; from Churchill the warlord to Churchill the painter; Best’s book is proclaimed to stand “head and shoulders above all others.”[1]  But upon further examination, it becomes clear that some of Best’s conclusions are not based on the totality of the evidence.  Specifically, when citing sources in the chapter on the relationship between Churchill and Roosevelt, Best is rather selective.

It would be unfair to not mention the moments where Best cites sources well.  To describe the mood of an article written by Churchill, Best selected a portion that accurately represents Churchill’s realization of America’s simultaneous potential and hesitance.[2]&[3]  But there are a number of times where Best selectively picks quotes.  In quoting a speech delivered by Churchill on October 16, 1938, Best cites two separate paragraphs with no indication that any middle portion has been omitted.[4]&[5]  Later, to underscore what Best describes as a “trusting [and] easy working relationship,”[6] Best proffers that “nearly 2,000  written exchanges took place between them.”[7]  He cites the following passage from Kimball: “their nearly 2,000 written exchanges comprise a unique and remarkable correspondence – but do not themselves make a unique and special relationship.”[8]  While Kimball’s sentence in its entirety goes to rebut Best’s proposition, Best uses only the portion of the sentence that supports his claim.

In addition to selectively quoting, Best at times omits several details in his account of the “special relationship” between Roosevelt and Churchill.  There is evidence to suggest that Churchill withheld intelligence information regarding Pearl Harbor “in the hope that such an attack would draw the United States into the war.”[9]  To think that Churchill could have prevented the deaths of 2400 of his “friend’s” citizens![10]  Of course, there isn’t nearly enough evidence to prove the claim, but there’s at least enough for the possibility of its veracity to exist.  After Roosevelt’s death, Churchill didn’t even attend the funeral.[11]  While by itself that fact certainly casts doubt on the “special relationship,” Churchill wrote to Harry Truman just one day later to “propose a continuation of the ‘intimate comradeship’.”[12]  Kimball is just to ask, “How intimate could it have been if Churchill thought it could be continued with a man he had never met?”[13]

[1] Frank McLynn. “Churchill: A Study in Greatness by Geoffrey Best.” The Independent, (May 25, 2001).

[2] Geoffrey Best, Churchill: A Study in Greatness, 215.

[3] Winston Churchill, Step by Step, 233-236.

[4] Best, Churchill, 215-216.

[5] Winston Churchill, Into Battle, 54-56.

[6] Best, Churchill, 219.

[7] Ibid., 216.

[8] Kimball, Warren F. “Wheel within a Wheel: Churchill, Roosevelt, and the Special Relationship.” In Churchill: A Major New Assessment of his Life in Peace and War, by Robert & Louis, William Roger Blake, 300. [italics by author for emphasis].

[9] Ibid., 298.

[11] Kimball, Wheel, 300.

[12] Ibid., 304.

[13] Ibid., 299-300.