When I was growing up, there was no doubt about it: Winston Churchill was the greatest statesman Britain had ever produced.
My brother and I pored over Sir Martin Gilbert ’s biographical “Life in Pictures” enough to memorize the captions. I knew that Churchill had led my country to victory against one of history’s most disgusting tyrannies. I knew that he had a mastery of the art of speechmaking, and I knew, even then, that this art was dying out. I knew that he was funny, irreverent and (even by the standards of his time) politically incorrect.
At suppertime, we were told the apocryphal stories: the one where Churchill is on the lavatory, is informed that the Lord Privy Seal wants to see him and says that he is sealed in the privy. We knew the one where Labour member of Parliament Elizabeth Braddock allegedly tells him that he’s drunk, and he shoots back, with astonishing rudeness, that she’s ugly, while in the morning, he’d be sober.
I knew that he had been amazingly brave as a young man, that he had killed men with his own hand and that he had been fired at on four continents. I knew that he had been a bit of a runt at Harrow, his famous boarding school near London; that he was only about 5 feet 7 inches with a 31-inch chest; and that he had overcome his stammer and his depression and his appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman.
I gathered that there was something holy and magical about him because my grandparents kept the front page of the Daily Express from the day he died in 1965, at the age of 90. I was pleased to have been born a year before his death: The more I read about him, the more proud I was to have been alive when he was too.
Most Americans, when they think of Churchill at all, seem to retain that pride and reverence. So it seems all the more sad and strange that today—nearly 50 years after his death—he seems in some danger of being shoved aside in the memory of the nation he saved. British students who pay attention in class are under the impression that he was the guy who fought Hitler to rescue the Jews. But a June 2012 survey of about 1,000 British secondary school students aged 11 to 18 showed that while 92% of them could identify a picture of a dog named Churchill from a popular British insurance advertisement, “only 62% correctly identified a photo of Sir Winston Churchill.”
That fading memory is a particular shame, since Churchill is so obviously a character who should appeal to young people today. He was eccentric, over-the-top, even camp, with his own trademark clothes and genius.
Of course, a hundred books a year are published on him—and yet we cannot take his reputation for granted. The soldiers of World War II are gradually fading away. We are losing those who can remember the sound of his voice. But we should never forget the scale of his deeds.
These days, we dimly believe that World War II was won with Soviet blood and U.S. money; and though that it is in some ways true, it is also true that, without Churchill, Hitler would almost certainly have won, and Nazi gains in Europe might well have been irreversible.
We need to remember the ways in which this British prime minister helped to make the world in which we still live. Across the globe—from Europe to Russia to Africa to the Middle East—we see traces of his shaping mind.
In March 1921, as Britain’s colonial secretary, he summoned all the key Middle East players to the Semiramis Hotel in Cairo to discuss the running of the region after the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in World War I. T.E. Lawrence (more famously known as Lawrence of Arabia) thought the summit an outstanding success, and 11 years later, he wrote to Churchill that the arrangements it produced had already delivered a decade of peace.
That peace hasn’t lasted, of course. Nor has the empire Churchill loved. He would have been saddened but not entirely surprised by that. He believed that the future of the world lay in America’s hands, and he was right. In our own time, it has fallen to the Americans to try to hold the ring in Palestine, to reason with the Israelis, to try to cope with what Churchill called “the ungrateful volcano” of Iraq. As a British imperialist, trying to salvage an empire destined to fade, he was inevitably a failure. As an idealist, summoning humanity’s grander values and fending off its worst demons, he was lastingly a success.
Churchill is the resounding human rebuttal to all Marxist historians who think history is the story of vast and impersonal economic forces. Time and again in his seven decades in public life, we can see the impact of his personality on the world and on events—far more of them than are now widely remembered.
He was crucial to the beginning of the welfare state in the early 1900s. He helped give British workers job centers and tea breaks and unemployment insurance. He was the dominant force behind the invention of the Royal Air Force and the tank, and he was absolutely critical to the conduct of World War I. He was indispensable to the foundation of Israel (among other countries), not to mention the campaign for a united Europe.
At several moments, he was the beaver who dammed the flow of events; and never did he affect the course of history more profoundly than in 1940, when he and his nation stood alone against Hitler. Without Churchill, Hitler would almost certainly have won, and Nazi gains in Europe might well have been irreversible. Churchill spoke to the depths of people’s souls when Britain was alone, when the country was fighting for survival, and he reached them and comforted them in a way no other speaker could have done. His language—stirring and old-fashioned—met the moment.
What were the elements that enabled him to fill that gigantic role? In what smithies did they forge that razor mind and iron will? “What the hammer? what the chain? / In what furnace was his brain?” as William Blake almost put it.
To try to answer that vast question, I had a long lunch in June 2014 at the Savoy Grill with his grandson, Sir Nicholas Soames, the Tory MP for Mid Sussex. As the waiter produced the bill—fairly Churchillian in scale—I noted that his grandfather was the man who changed history by putting oil instead of coal into the superdreadnoughts, the great battleships of World War II. So what sort of fuel did Churchill run on? What made him go?
Sir Nicholas brooded, then surprised me by saying that his grandfather had been an ordinary sort of chap. He did what other Englishmen like doing: mucking about at home, enjoying his painting and other hobbies. “You know, in many ways, he was quite a normal sort of family man,” he said.
But no normal family man produces more published words than Shakespeare and Dickens combined, wins the Nobel Prize for literature, serves in every great office of state including prime minister (twice), is indispensable to victory in two world wars and then posthumously sells his paintings for a million dollars.
What was the ultimate source of all this psychic energy? Was it psychological or physiological? Was he genetically or hormonally endowed with some superior process of internal combustion, or did it arise out of childhood psychological conditioning or some mixture of the two?
I remember, when I was about 15, reading an essay by the psychiatrist Anthony Storr arguing that Churchill’s most important victory was over himself. He meant that Churchill was always conscious of being small, weedy and cowardly at school. So by an act of will, he decided to defeat his cowardice and his stammer—to be the 80-pound weakling who uses dumbbells to acquire the body of Charles Atlas. Having vanquished his own cowardice, goes the argument, it was easy to vanquish everything else.
I always thought this analysis vulnerable to charges of circularity. Why did he decide to master his fear? Was he really a coward? Would a cowardly schoolboy, as Churchill did, kick an awful headmaster’s straw hat to pieces after the headmaster had given him a thrashing for taking some sugar?
So what else do we have in the mix of Churchill’s psychology? There was the father, no doubt about it: the pain of Randolph Churchill ’s rejections and criticism, the terror of not living up to him, the need after his death both to avenge and excel him. Then there is the mother, who was obviously crucial given the way she pushed and helped Churchill—his glory being at least partly her glory, after all.
There was also the general historical context in which Churchill emerged. He was born not just when Britain was at her peak but also into a generation that understood that it would require superhuman efforts to sustain her empire. The sheer strain of that exertion helped make the Victorians somehow bigger than we are now, constructed on a grander scale.
And then there was the natural egotism, shared to a greater or lesser extent by every human being, and the desire for prestige and esteem. I have always thought Churchill had a secret syllogism in his head: Britain is the greatest empire on Earth; Churchill is the greatest man in the British Empire; therefore Churchill is the greatest man on Earth.
But this is in a way unfair. Churchill did possess a titanic ego, but one tempered by humor, irony, deep humanity and sympathy for other people, and a commitment to public service and a belief in the democratic right of people to kick him out—as they did in 1945.
That is what I mean by his greatness of heart. Just before we left the Savoy, Sir Nicholas told me a last story—perhaps apocryphal—about his grandfather’s sentimentality and generosity.
One evening during the war, a cleaner at the Ministry of Defence was heading for her bus to go home and spotted something in the gutter: a file covered with pink ribbon and notices saying “Top Secret.” She picked it out of the puddle, tucked it under her raincoat and took it home. She showed it to her son, and he immediately realized it was terribly important.
Without opening it, he hurried back to the Ministry of Defence. By the time he got there, it was late, and most everyone had gone home—and this young fellow was treated pretty insolently by the people at the door. They kept telling him just to leave the file there, and someone would deal with it in the morning. He said no and refused to go until he had seen someone of flag-officer rank.
Finally someone senior came down and took the file—which turned out to contain the battle orders for Anzio, in which the Allies planned to try to establish a beachhead on Italy’s west coast.
The war cabinet was called the following day to work out how serious the security breach was and whether the Anzio landings could proceed. They looked at the file carefully and decided that it had only been in the water for a few seconds and that the cleaning lady’s story was true—and so on balance, they decided to go ahead with the invasion of Italy.
Churchill turned to Gen. Hastings Lionel “Pug” Ismay, the chief of the Imperial General Staff, and asked, “Pug, how did this happen?” Ismay told him about the woman and her son, and as he did, Churchill started to cry.
“She shall be a Dame Commander of the British Empire!” he said. “Make it so!”
That story, alas, has withstood all my efforts to verify it at the Churchill Archive or elsewhere. But it illustrates a fundamental truth. Winston Churchill had a greatness to his soul.
It is easy to see why so many historians and historiographers have taken the Tolstoyan line, that the story of humanity isn’t the story of great people and shining deeds. It has been fashionable to say that those so-called great men and women are just epiphenomena, meretricious bubbles on the vast tides of social history. The real story, on this view, is about deep economic forces, technological advances, changes in the price of sorghum, the overwhelming weight of an infinite number of mundane human actions.
The story of Winston Churchill is a pretty withering retort to all that malarkey. He, and he alone, made the difference. There has been no one remotely like him before or since.
Mr. Johnson is the mayor of London. This essay is adapted from his most recent book, “The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History,” to be published Thursday by Riverhead.