Intro. [Recording date: July 19, 2019.]
Russ Roberts: My guest is Andrew Roberts. His latest book is Churchill: Walking with Destiny. Among his other books are a history of WWII, The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War, and Napoleon: A Life. Andrew, welcome to EconTalk; and I should add that as far as I know, we are not related.
Andrew Roberts: Thank you, Russ.
Russ Roberts: our topic today is Winston Churchill, the man, and the craft of biography. I want to start with your recently published biography of Churchill. Give me an idea of the nuts and bolts of writing a book like this, a 982-page biography of a man who has already seen quite a few words written about him already. Was there a typical day? And, I'm curious how you leveraged the work you'd already done writing a history of WWII.
Andrew Roberts: Yes. Well, in fact there are 1009 biographies of Churchill that have already been published, so, as you say, there's quite a lot. But, a typical day breaks down either the research side, which I did for 3 years and 9 months, or the actual writing side, which I did in 100 days. And considering the book is 500,000 words long, I was averaging 5000 words a day. I get up at 4:30 in the morning and start working immediately. I work downstairs at home. And then I go through until lunchtime: the great thing is, of course, from the first 5 hours nobody phones you or gets in touch with you. I then have a short and light lunch; and I drink a can of Red Bull--the caffeine drink. Which is disgusting, actually--probably incredibly bad for you. But, nonetheless, it keeps me shakingly[?] awake, until all the way through the afternoon, when I continue to work. And then I get an early, light sleep.
Russ Roberts: Five thousand words a day?
Andrew Roberts: Yes.
Russ Roberts: That's about 20 pages? Is that right?
Andrew Roberts: I know what I'm going to write, of course. And I've got the basis of the outline of each chapter worked out. And, yes, it's hard work. But it's very good to be able to have it done in such a short period in time, the three months, because you can then concentrate on re-writes and edits and so on. Psychologically, it's good, too, because it means that the sheer concentration of effort is such that you can keep all the balls rolling[whirling?] in your head at the same time. But, my wife says that I did do something rather unhygienic, which was, during the Dardanelles chapter, Chapter 10, which is quite a complicated chapter, she says that I was in my dressing gown and slippers for three days and didn't wash. Which, I don't remember specifically; but nonetheless, she's usually right about that kind of thing.
Russ Roberts: Now, you said you have an outline. You also have voluminous footnotes in the book. Have you created a set of notecards to get you to that point? Files on a computer? What's the--
Andrew Roberts: Yes. I mean, the key thing is to integrate the files that you have regarding various aspects of Churchill and the right place to insert them in the narrative. And, of course, especially somebody like Churchill, who changed his mind on a number of things, you have to come back to various issues as well. So, it's a constant battle, really, to make sure that you know that the reader knows what's going on.
Russ Roberts: Now, you said there's 1009 biographies of Churchill. Approximately. We'll just say over 1000. It's a big number.
Andrew Roberts: Yeah. Mine is the 1010th, according to [?Ronco?], who is the world expert on Churchill biographers. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: And, I think I heard you say it at a talk you gave, that Churchill himself wrote either 5- or 6.1 million words?
Andrew Roberts: Yes. 5.2 million words. And he spoke 6.1 million. And, so--and he was his own biographer in many ways, because an awful lot of the things he said were about himself. And so, he did analyze himself extremely assiduously, and very often very accurately.
Russ Roberts: So, I have read his history of WWII [The Second World War]. And I am one of the rare non-historians, I suspect, who has also read the memos that are at the back of those volumes--because they are extraordinary. He was an amazing writing generally; and amazing memo writer. He spent--he was a real craftsman. I assume he knew he was writing for history, and it must have affected that.
Andrew Roberts: Very much. But, of course, he had been a writer with 37 books that he wrote and the 800-plus articles that he wrote. And having been the best-paid war correspondent in the world at one point very early on his life, he was a master wordsmith. He was a huge reader, of course, also. And so he was somebody who mastered the English language. And so, those memos that you refer to have so many wonderful nuggets in them. They are, many of them, completely sublime. And it was one of the best, fun bits of the book, was reading those memos. And drawing out some of the best ones.
Russ Roberts: So, my slightly awkward question is: Of the 5.2 million words that he wrote, I'm curious how many of those you read. And how many of those 1009 biographies you've read. And if you have any favorites, among either Churchill's books or biographies about Churchill.
Andrew Roberts: I have not read the other 1009. I deliberately, actually, didn't read any that were written after his lifetime. I didn't want to be affected by that. I wanted to read all the ones that were written whilst he was still alive, or at least all the ones that I could. I've read all the books that he's written. Some since university. And I've read, I would say, three quarters of his articles. I would have to say the speeches, when he was transferred to the Exchequer on tax reform and things like that, I have missed out. But the huge majority of his speeches, I've read as well, yeah.
Russ Roberts: Are you going to read any of those other biographies now that you're done?
Andrew Roberts: Yeah--I'm going to concentrate on my next book. Like everybody, I've got a mortgage.
Russ Roberts: And you don't--you're going to put Winston--you're going to say, 'Farewell,' to Winston. In some dimension.
Andrew Roberts: I think, 'Au revoir' rather than 'Farewell.' I would love to come back to him at some stage, but I think I've said everything that I've got say about him now.
Russ Roberts: And, as a biographer--and you wrote an acclaimed biography of Napoleon, and I suspect, just guessing, that your feelings about Napoleon are not the same as your feelings about Churchill--How does that--reflect on that experience of spending years immersed in a person's thoughts and experiences who you don't know? can't meet? And now the book is done. Is there an issue of hagiography for you that you fought against? Or the opposite perhaps--in the case of Napoleon, I don't know your feelings about him. But, what's that like?
Andrew Roberts: Well, yes; you first, certainly must guard against hagiography. Nobody wants to read a hagiography. Churchill himself pointed out that they, hagiographies, are boring. But it wasn't difficult because Churchill made blunder after blunder in his life. He got women's suffrage wrong. He got the gold standard wrong. Abdication crisis. Black interns[?]. The Gallipoli Campaign. So, it's not as though one is faced with a paradigm who never made a mistake. But as he himself told his wife, Clementine, 'I should have made nothing if I'd not made mistakes.' And so the interesting thing for me was the way in which he learnt from his mistakes--to an extraordinary degree. So this was in a sense a redemptive story of a man who made mistakes but learned from them--the classic example, of course, being in the Second World War, he never overruled his Chiefs of Staff. And because he didn't want to make the same mistakes he'd made a quarter of a century earlier with the Dardanelles Campaign. And, with Napoleon it was a little bit different, because, being an English historian, one starts off with a very negative view of Napoleon. When I was being taught at school, he was a proto-Hitler figure. Especially as I was taught by teachers who were, who grew up in the Second World War, some of them even fought in the Second World War. And so, there was a very much a sense that he was an evil foreign dictator: he wanted to invade Britain. When I looked into it more carefully and worked for seven years on that book, I realized that this was rubbish. He was--of course--a foreign dictator. But he was a benevolent and benign dictator for most of the time. And also had a wonderful sense of humor. And was somebody who was able to get the best bits of the French Revolution and keep them, whilst getting rid of all the horrific sides, like the terror and the guillotine.
Russ Roberts: Let's talk about the mistakes that you alluded to that Churchill made in his career and his life. You know, it's hard to define 'a mistake.' The Dardanelles, those who don't know, was a catastrophic, strategic idea that Churchill championed. Didn't work out--in WWI. But, of course, it might have. And, so many things in life are uncertain, going into them. And it's not clear that the right lesson was to never have overrode your Chiefs of Staff. That was what he took from it that worked for him. And I don't know if it was a good idea in WWII or not. Maybe there were times he should have overruled his Chiefs of Staff. There are advantages to having a policy, of course. But, it's--what's extraordinary to me is how he got a second chance. Could easily have not have gotten that second chance. And all the lessons he learned would not have been relevant.
Andrew Roberts: He got a fifth chance. He was coming back--he was The ultimate comeback kid, really. He was, again and again, in and out of office. And he was, as I say, somebody who learned from his mistakes. I think that you can, with the benefits of a hundred years of hindsight, work out what was a mistake or not. The [globally?] campaign actually is a very interesting one, because it was a brilliant idea, strategically, to try to get the Royal Navy from the Eastern Mediterranean through the Dardanelles Straits and anchor it off Constantinople, modern Istanbul. If we'd done than and threatened to show[?] Istanbul, we could have taken the ultimate empire out of the First World War. It would have been one of the great strategic cues[?] of the history of warfare. However, in the implementation of it by the Admirals--not by Churchill, who was backing London at the time, but by the Admirals--we managed to lose 6 ships in the course of one day, on the 18th of March, 1915. And then, because of Churchill, they doubled down on the defeat. And this is in the [?], the largest expeditionary force in history up until that point. And over the next 8 months we lost 147,000 killed and wounded. So, I think really it would be a very brave historian to say it was anything other than a catastrophe. And, but: The lessons that he learnt are very many. Not just not to overrule the Chiefs of Staff--which he overruled. Absolutely right not to do in the Second World War, in my opinion. But he also learnt not to double down on defeat. And so, when, on occasions like the Dakar Raid or the Norwegian Campaign or the Greek Expedition, he had not opportunity, to a lesser extent Anzio[?], he had an opportunity to just throw many more in, he very often didn't. He called off the operation before it turned into a Gallipoli. So, this is an example: Not all politicians learn on the job, but in my view, Winston Churchill did.
Russ Roberts: Now, you say he didn't overrule his Chiefs of Staff, but my understanding of his handling of the day-to-day war in WWII is that he was quite involved with the strategic and tactical decisions at a very micro level, including weaponry and so on. Is that accurate?
Andrew Roberts: Oh, yeah, definitely. Absolutely. Yes. He would go down to the details of whether or not sailors should play checkers or backgammon on boats, and how many anoraks should be word. What's the American word for anorak?
Russ Roberts: Uh, rain coat? Like a fancy raincoat. A long poncho. [?]
Andrew Roberts: Yes, yes, exactly. A poncho. How many ponchos per vessel there needed to be and that kind of thing. There was nothing that was considered too small for his interest. But, as I say, that's not the same thing as overruling the Chiefs of Staff when all three of them are agreed on a strategic decision.
Russ Roberts: What's your opinion of Churchill as an historian? Obviously, if he had never entered politics, he'd be a famous man. He'd be acclaimed in some dimension. We'd have heard of him. One of the things that strikes me about his career is the vast scope of it. It's not just he was a politician. He wasn't just a prime minister; he was chancellor of the exchequer. He was a military commander. He was a soldier in the World War, deliberately--at least in his own words--taking risks, because I think he thought that would advance his career, if he lived. But as an historian? What's his standing?
Andrew Roberts: I think--although there are books about the mistakes he made in his histories of the First World War and Second World War, on neither occasion did he claim them to be objective history. He claimed them to be his story. And they certainly are that. He poses himself in the center of the great events of the day. I think with regard to his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, it's one of the reasons he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. But it's more literature than history, frankly. He has Alfred burning the cakes as a historical fact, for example, rather than an [?] that most people, or at least a legend that most people now would--most historians would assume it was.
Russ Roberts: That's the English king who, incognito wandered into a thatched hut and was put to the job of cooking, right? And then burned the--and the woman of the house yells at him.
Andrew Roberts: Yes. Exactly. He was thinking too much about how to defeat the Vikings--he was a great Saxon king--that he allowed the cakes that he was supposed to be watching over to burn. It's a very old story; it's clearly a myth of some kind. But it's an oral myth; it probably had some kind of basis in facts, at some stage. Anyway; and Churchill just tells it as though it's a true story. And not many people would do that--not many historians today would do that. However, he is an extremely good historian when it comes to the history of his great ancestor, the First Duke of Marlborough. He wrote a four-volume biography in the 1930s, at that time; and that is really first class history. And most military historians, when looking at Marlborough's campaigns, would go to him--even today, 70 years later, 80 years later--as one of the primary sources.
Russ Roberts: So, it's extraordinary that he found time to write multi-volume histories of his ancestors, WWI, WWII, the English-speaking people. He didn't sleep much. Is that correct?
Andrew Roberts: No, it's not really. He did actually.
Russ Roberts: He was a napper, I think.
Andrew Roberts: He had a nap. Which is the--his way of turning one day into two, as he pointed out. So, he would start working in bed at 8 o'clock in the morning. And then he would go and stay in bed until noon. Then he'd get up, have a bath, have lunch, work through in the afternoon; and then at some stage he would have another 3/4 of an hour to an hour in the afternoon prior to then working in the evening. So, he would basically get two days out of one day.
Russ Roberts: Now, those kind of facts that you just recounted--where do we know those from? I ask you because you said you haven't read the standard biographies that have been written since he was--only the ones while he was alive, right? So, how did you discover his daily habits?
Andrew Roberts: Maybe I should temper that by saying that over the years I've read Martin Gilbert's 8-volume biography, and also his 1-volume biography. And I've been asked to review, over the years, I'd say a hundred or so Churchill books--
Russ Roberts: 10%, roughly--
Andrew Roberts: Not necessarily [?]. So, it's not true that I hadn't read any at all since he died. That's a wild exaggeration.
Russ Roberts: You didn't study them in preparation for your book.
Andrew Roberts: I didn't. No. No. And you know, and I've already written five books on Churchill, with Churchill in the title, subtitle. So that, I already had, I thought, a pretty good grounding in the main sort of modern controversies, and so on. And how do you find out about his naps? Well, his private secretary writes about it. Three of his other secretaries write about it. And I think at one point he might have mentioned it in an essay, as well. So, all in all, it's not difficult to do.
Russ Roberts: You've mentioned controversies. He was an avid drinker. But I've heard you say he was not an alcoholic. Talk about his drinking habits. He was a scotch drinker, if I remember correctly. And he had a favorite brand. What was that brand, and how much scotch did he drink a day? And why do you possibly claim he was not an alcoholic?
Andrew Roberts: He didn't have a favorite brand of scotch. It was champagne: Pol Roger Champagne, was his favorite. Although he was perfectly happy to drink other champagnes. And indeed other scotches; and he enjoyed red wine and white wine as well. So, that's just yet another of the myths about him.
Russ Roberts: I thought he nursed a scotch from dawn to dusk--uh, dawn to sleeping.
Andrew Roberts: From about 6 o'clock in the evening until he went to bed, he would have a glass of scotch on the go. But it was, as his last private secretary, Sir Anthony Montague Browne, told me, essentially mouthwash. It was an enormous amount of soda and very little whisky. And they would hold off if they put too much whisky in it. He was a great drinker, and he had an iron constitution for alcohol. In the 2,194 days of the Second World War, there's only one day on which Churchill got drunk. And on that occasion, on the 7th of March, 1944, that what they decided at the end of, the Defense Committee of the War Cabinet, to do was to, because they all recognized that the Prime Minister was drunk, was to hold the same meeting the next morning as though the last one hadn't happened. So, there's no example of a decision being taken because the Prime Minister is drunk. Somebody who knew him quite well, the journalist C. P. Scott, said that 'Winston Churchill couldn't have been an alcoholic, because no alcoholic could have drunk that much.' And, he--
Russ Roberts: A line he could have offered.
Andrew Roberts: Exactly. He enjoyed sort of showing off about how much he drank. But, in fact, it was something--I think he himself put it best when he said that 'alcohol was always his servant and never his master.' That he had taken more out of alcohol than alcohol had taken out of him.
Russ Roberts: There's a common view that he suffered from what he supposedly called 'the black dog'--a form of depression. Is that true?
Andrew Roberts: I don't believe so. No. He only mentions 'black dog' once in his whole life that we know of, and that's in July 1911 when he's writing to his wife. At the time, the phrase was used by Edwardian matrons for ill-tempered children. He chaired over 900 meetings of the Defense Committee, the War Cabinet. It was--depression, of course, is a debilitating illness. And I don't believe he suffered from any kind of chemical imbalance, let alone manic depression or bipolar, as I've read in some places. So, I'm not a believer in this.
Russ Roberts: We talk a lot on this program about the virtues of humility and being able to say 'I don't know.' That doesn't strike me as a virtue of Churchill's. At least, his public persona was extraordinarily over-confident--confident, and then perhaps over-confident. And, that was certainly the case during his public persona in the Battle of Britain and afterwards, at least as far as I understand it. One could certainly argue that that was appropriate at the time, necessary, [?]--
Andrew Roberts: 'Vital' might be another word--
Russ Roberts: Vital. Yeah. Because his whole demeanor at that point was resistance. And courage. Reflect on his personality. Did he have--do you think he had moments where he despaired. And the War took a horrible turn, for a long, long time. It's hard to--you know, for us looking back on it who are not, who didn't live through it, to realize how easy it could have been to give up at so many different times.
Andrew Roberts: Yes. That's right. I mean, as I say, I don't believe that he was a depressive. But he did get depressed at moments in the Second World War such as the Fall of Singapore or the Fall of Tobruk. Or any number of terrible things that happened. And, but those are moments when any sentient decision-maker would have got depressed. He, um, was not a humble man at all. No. I'm afraid that side of this program, and there's absolutely no example I can give you of any feeling of--I mean, he himself said, 'I never'--about the day he became Prime Minister, he said that he 'went to sleep perfectly calm because he had never suffered from any feelings of personal inadequacy or anything of that sort.' And, you know, he was the son of a grandson of a Duke. He was born in a palace. He had had the education [?] but Harrow and Sandhurst, drummed into him that he was expected to be a great man. And he had survived any number of close brushes with death in his life. Which gave him a sense of personal destiny. And you get this very much. And it's the reason I subtitled the book Walking with Destiny. You get this very much from that moment, the day on which he became Prime Minister on the 10th of May 1940. When he said, '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.' And so, that is not the kind of remark that any kind of humble person--I mean, we had had enough of humility in the 1930s. We were humble before Hitler again and again during the Appeasement Years. It was not what the British people needed in May, 1940.
Russ Roberts: So, I heard you speak a couple of weeks ago; and I speak fairly often. And I've spent some time thinking about how to deliver a speech. In particular, how much to write down. And when I was younger, I wrote almost nothing down. I would just have it in my mind, have it in my head. And I knew how it was going to go. And then at some point I realized that I was leaving out things, now and then. And I've decided--my style now is I write it out word-for-word, and I don't deliver it word-for-word. I deliver it spontaneously, but I have my notes to go back to; and I force myself to go back to them and make sure I haven't left important points out. My understanding is that Churchill had a moment speaking in Parliament where he lost his train of thought. Couldn't regain it. Same thing had happened to his father. It was the end of his father's career. And he panicked. And after that changed the way he spoke. Is that true?
Andrew Roberts: Yes. It was the Trades Disputes Act of April 1904. And he'd been in Parliament for four years, and he was 30 years old, and he used to memorize speeches word-for-word--and speeches that would go on for an hour. And he had a phonographic memory, which is like a photographic memory, but it's for sounds. And he could remember phrases and quotations and so on. At one point as a boy at school he was able to recite 1200 lines of Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome without a mistake. And so, he was able to do this. And then, on that particular day in April 1904, he had to sit down because he completely lost his train of thought.
Russ Roberts: And they tried to help him.
Andrew Roberts: Well, a lot of people around him were very worried, because, as you mentioned, his father had died of a rare brain disease. And they feared that this was striking the 30-year-old Churchill. And so, what he did from then on was to use what he called 'Psalm-form[?]' in which that he would, every sentence would be boiled down to 5 or 6 words that he would then write out in the form of the Psalm[?], in that they were in the middle of the page. And he would speak from those kind of notes. And it was on location, that he would be able to go through an entire page without looking down; but mostly he did look down. And he used pregnant pauses as rhetorical devices, and so on. So, he was a self-taught public speaker. And he actually thought about the theory of public speaking, and wrote an article at the age of 23, before he didn't give a public speech in his life, about the theory of public speaking.
Russ Roberts: I want to talk about modern England and, you know, as a casual observer of England--I've visited it a couple of times; I have some family living there now--I get the sense that there is an unease of modern, educated English men and women with their imperial past. That's an unease that Churchill would have found perplexing. He was, I think, as far as I can tell, quite proud of the Britain and England of the past. Is that true, about England today--that there's a shame, actually, is the way I would describe it?
Andrew Roberts: Yes. I think ever since the 1960s there has been--shame has been taught in the schools as a direct response to Britain's imperial past. And, of course, if something carries on like that for half a century it's going to sort of drip into the consciousness of most people. You're right about Churchill: He was proud of Britain's imperial past. He thought that it was a glorious moment in British history. And that, for most of the history of the Empire, it was a very good thing for the native peoples of the Empire, on so many levels. And so, that's one of the reasons that his reputation is being attacked at the moment. People are denouncing him and [?] his statue and generally attacking him and representations of him, physically I mean as well as intellectually. I think it's a great shame. I think it's a ridiculous way to look at somebody who grew up whilst Charles Darwin was still alive: people believed that the hierarchy of races, which we rightly consider today to be absurd and obscene, nonetheless in those days was taught as part of science. It was believed to be a scientific fact. And the fact that somebody like Churchill acted on that and tried to use the best impulses as a result, and tried to make the native peoples as prosperous as possible--the idea that he should be attacked for that strikes me as entirely ahistorical.
Russ Roberts: You, at the very end of your book, you list a number of the revisionist attacks that have been made on Churchill--not so much his attitudes, but his actions. And in particular, I know that when I interviewed Thomas Ricks about his book Churchill and Orwell, I think it was then, and a number of listeners were upset that I didn't bring up the Indian Famine and that Churchill was responsible for the deaths of--I think people claim--certainly hundreds of thousands, if not millions.
Andrew Roberts: Completely untrue.
Russ Roberts: Okay. So, what's the evidence for that, that people are claiming? And why is it not right.
Andrew Roberts: Well, the evidence they died is true. Undoubtedly. What happened is that in October of 1942, a gigantic cyclone hit the east coast of India. And it destroyed two things: primarily, the rice crops, of course, on which the Bengalis lived and survived. And secondly, the road and rail links that brought in, could be used to bring in more rice. You then have, of course, the places that you buy--that the British Empire brought rice in from: Malaya, Thailand, Burma, etc.--under Japanese control. Japanese submarines were in the Bay of Bengal. And the Japanese had shelled various cities in 1942 along the coast. It is a complete falsehood to say that Winston Churchill was responsible in any way for this: firstly, for the famine that developed. Mostly he did write to the Prime Ministers of Canada and Australia and to the President of America asking for rice to be brought in as soon as it was possible to do so. Secondly, he was fighting a World War. And there were people on the ground--the Viceroy and various British officials in India--who had the primary responsibility for this: That over a million tons of rice and other grains were brought in from abroad. And we had a terrible situation where the Indian Provincial Councils--India was self-run at a provincial level by then--were refusing to buy enough food. Because the prices were going wildly up. And so, the idea that Winston Churchill can be singled out by people who take--who do not take the time to go to the Cabinet papers like I've done and see the letters that he's writing and the things that he's saying in Cabinet--the idea that you can therefore accuse a man of genocide on such paucity of evidence I think is absolutely disgraceful. I go into this, as you can imagine, in this book: there's 6, 7 pages which points out the truth of what really happened.
Russ Roberts: Now, you also point out that he was a philo-semite: he liked Jews. Which was not a prevailing attitude of his class and time--
Andrew Roberts: He was a Zionist. He supported the Balfour Declaration.
Russ Roberts: Right. So, why do you think that was?
Andrew Roberts: He'd been brought up with Jews. His father liked Jews. He was somebody who admired the contributions that Jews made to Western civilization. And, he thought the Sermon on the Mount was the last word on ethics, as he put it. And he'd represented Jews in his Manchester constituency early on in his career; and he also, there was also a sort of perverse side to him that didn't mind taking on--
Russ Roberts: Contrarian--
Andrew Roberts: He was a contrarian, of course. And the majority of his age and class and background, people were anti-semitic, in that time. And he took them on and fought them.
Russ Roberts: Now, you mention the Sermon on the Mount. But I think you also say in your book that he wasn't much of a Christian--
Andrew Roberts: No, he wasn't.
Russ Roberts: at least as a practicer.
Andrew Roberts: Yes. No, no, no. His stance on the Church of England, he said that he was 'rather like a flying buttress in that he supported it, but from the outside.' He didn't much like going to church. He had a sense of what he called the 'religion of healthy mindedness.' Which was his own sort of system of ethics. But he was not a Christian. He did believe, though, in an Almighty. Although, theologically, when you look into it carefully, the primary duty of the Almighty was to look after Winston Churchill.
Russ Roberts: An important job--certainly at one point in world history. I'm glad. He seemed to have looked after him with some care, given the scrapes [?] that you mention [?].
Andrew Roberts: And it was truly extraordinary. If I might just have one minute to go through them.
Russ Roberts: Sure.
Andrew Roberts: This is a person who was born two months premature--which, of course, in Victorian England is a brush, often a death sentence often in itself. He was stabbed in the stomach by a school friend at the age of 10. He nearly died of pneumonia at the age of 11. And on that occasion the doctors administered brandy to the 11-year-old , both orally and rectorally [?rectally?]. Which you might have thought would have put you off brandy for life; but certainly didn't in Winston Churchill's case. He was then involved in a boating accident on Lake Geneva when he nearly drowned. He nearly was burnt to death in a house fire. He had three car crashes, two plane crashes. And that was just the peacetime close brush with death. In wartime, he was involved in 5 wars on 4 continents. He said that any number of times did bullets whiz past his ear. He said at one point that there's nothing so exhilarating in life as to be shot at without result. And he--there was one moment in the First World War--and in the First World War as commander of a battalion in the First World War--he went into No Man's Land and [?] them 30 times. And, on one occasion, the dugout that he'd just left five minutes earlier was, suffered a direct hit from the German whizz bang high explosive. And everyone inside was decapitated.
Russ Roberts: He must have thought--there must have been a point in his life--certainly, as you say, he thought he was destined for greatness. But there must have been a point in his life where it must have crossed his mind that he might have been a mortal [?].
Andrew Roberts: Well, actually, funny enough that you say that. At that time--when he was writing later about the dugout being destroyed literally 5 minutes after he'd left it, he said that he felt that he could hear invisible wings beating over him. So, that's another sort of example of this sense of destiny and the Almighty. And, one can understand why he had that sense--that he was walking with destiny.
Russ Roberts: I want to go back to this point about modern British unease with their Imperial past. I have to mention that, when I went to London, I asked an English friend of mine what I should do. And he said, 'Well, the British Museum, of course.' And after I went to the British Museum--and, he listed some other things. The phrase, 'The British Museum, of course,' did not really convey the spectacular nature of the British Museum. I think it's overwhelmingly the finest museum in the world--one of the most extraordinary places to visit. And one of the senses you get from that experience, as a non-Englishman, is the unimaginable contribution that England and the British Isles have made to world thought, history, science, you name it. So, it's at worst a mixed bag.
Andrew Roberts: But equally, it's full of stuff we've pinched.
Russ Roberts: Of course. Oh, it's all looted.
Andrew Roberts: Yeah.
Russ Roberts: That's part of the unease, right. It gives you--the Elgin Marbles--
Andrew Roberts: Well, they were bought, actually.
Russ Roberts: I know. But it doesn't matter. People still are ashamed of[?] them.
Andrew Roberts: Not me.
Russ Roberts: Well, good for you. My other--I just have to tell this story. You know, I'm wandering in there, and I'm looking at these black onyx Assyrian 15-foot high things--at least, that's what I thought they were, onyx and Assyrian. And I turn to a docent, and I said, 'Well, those are replicas, right?' And she said, 'Oh no. No, no. Those are the originals.' And I said, 'People are touching them!' She said, 'Aye. They shouldn't.' And, across from those--
Andrew Roberts: Were they? People were touching them? That's outrageous.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Well, across from them is an entire temple. And I said, 'Well that's a recreation, right?' 'Oh, no. No. They brought that back.'
Andrew Roberts: I hope people weren't touching that.
Russ Roberts: They were not.
Andrew Roberts: We came to the Rosetta Stone off the French, in fact, who had looted it a little earlier, a couple of years earlier. We were pleased to be able to get that off them.
Russ Roberts: If that were the only thing in the museum, it would be worth visiting. But it's one of a zillion things there. But, the reason I'm bringing it up, besides the chance to reflect on that--which I enjoy--is the, this unease issue, and how it plays out today with Brexit. So, I certainly have a feeling, and I'd like to get your take on this, that many English people would be very happy to be merely European. Whereas, the people who voted for Brexit want to reclaim that national identity that is somewhat in disrepute and certainly somewhat fading.
Andrew Roberts: Well, it's not--it's not a desire to go back to the Empire, the leave campaign, in any way. It's a desire to re-engage with the rest of the world. And in a proper global way, which you can't do if you are stuck in a group of 28 states which are profoundly protectionist. Actually, quite anti-American as well, when we have the special relationship with the United States that matters to us. And, so, it's completely wrong to think of it as a kind of isolationist or imperialist impulse at all. It's actually much more an open, free-market kind of impulse of the 51% who voted for Brexit. As far as the 48% concerned--yes, you are right: it's a sense of being a European rather than a Briton. But I've never really found it very difficult to explain to Americans why I voted to have Britain go back to being an independent country. The idea of its laws being struck down by an unelected bunch of bureaucrats in Brussels and a judiciary that they appoint is anathema to anybody who understands about sovereignty and independence.
Russ Roberts: Let's talk about the Churchill War Rooms, which is my other favorite thing in London. These are the below-ground rooms that Churchill repaired to in the Battle of Britain, when London was under air attack. It includes a kitchen; it includes bedrooms. Conference rooms for strategic discussions. It's one of the finest historical experiences that a person can have, to be able to walk through those corridors and imagine what it was like in the darkest hour, in my view, of Western civilization. Reflect on that space.
Andrew Roberts: Yes. It's truly extraordinary. And wonderful. Because it hasn't been changed since 1945. At the end of the--
Russ Roberts: How is that possible?
Andrew Roberts: Because they closed the gates, and the doors. They didn't--they were going to wait and [?] anything [?] another World War. But thankfully there hasn't one. And so, in the 1970s, they opened it up to turn it into a museum, and found absolutely everything exactly where it was, down to a couple of firm cubes of sugar that one of the soldiers there was about to put into his coffee cup, and didn't. And there were the sugar lumps. So, everything is still there. And, you have the bed that Churchill slept in, the room that he spoke to President Roosevelt from. You have the Cabinet room, and you can see where everybody sat around. And it's the most--
Russ Roberts: The maps.
Andrew Roberts: Maps, all over the walls. Exactly. And, it's easily, for me, the most evocative museum in the world.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, I have to say: I was close to tears a number of times just imagining what a near thing that was--that we made it. That the Allies won. Because, again, with the hindsight, with the opportunity to look back on it, people can say it was inevitable, America's military, industrial power was eventually going to be added to the war; of course America's involvement was always in doubt, for a long time--
Andrew Roberts: Well, it also--if we'd made some kind of ignoble peace with Hitler, where would you have--what was the springball[?] going to be for you to be able to invade Western Europe? Where would you have done it from? You know, you'd pretty much had to cross the entire Atlantic, because there's nowhere else geographically to launch it from. You'd need an unsinkable aircraft carrier; and that, of course, was United Kingdom. But you are right: In May, 1940, Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, wanted to enter peace negotiations with Hitler. And one see from the logical and rational point of view, with the British expeditionary force having left all its tanks and its weaponry--
Russ Roberts: materiale--
Andrew Roberts: and war material on the beaches at Dunkirk, with Russia on Hitler's side as an ally, with the United States very much isolationist and not moving towards bellicosity--one can understand why there seemed to be no chance whatsoever of defeating Germany, which was about to knock France out of the war in a few days' time anyhow and march into Paris. So, Lord Halifax really was taking the logical and rational view. There are other people in the government who agreed with him. And what you needed therefore was Churchill as Prime Minister to put the irrational, illogical argument, the romantic argument. And luckily here was somebody who was entirely driven by his passions and his emotions. This comes through I think more than anything else in the course of me researching this book, was how much the man driven by his emotions and passions he was. And he was not going to, after 10 years' of warning against that [?] and the Nazis, and not being listened to, finally when he became Prime Minister he was not going enter into peace negotiations.
Russ Roberts: I'm sure you know there's a new documentary out called, "They Shall Not Grow Old." Which is a colorization of WWI footage, and addition of sound, by the director Peter Jackson. It's an extraordinary achievement. And I think it's important for Americans to watch it, because I think Americans and others have no awareness of the role that WWI played in the psyche of Europe in general, and certainly in England, in the 1930s. It had only been a little more than a decade. It was so horrific, the fact that England had no taste, that France had no taste for war, is totally understandable. They lost enormous amounts of men in the First World War. England did as well, not as much as France, but England lost, if I remember correctly--
Andrew Roberts: 1.1 million.
Russ Roberts: Right. And it's a big number. Of a population of the time of, what? Roughly?
Andrew Roberts: I wouldn't know, actually--
Russ Roberts: I'm going to guess and say it was in the 50 million range--
Andrew Roberts: Oh, no, no, less than that.
Russ Roberts: or maybe 40. So, 2 and a half percent of the population is killed in the War. And, America has never experienced anything remotely like that. And again, having visited England--you'll tell me the name and the day; maybe it's just Veterans' Day. But, we have a Veterans' Day here in America.
Andrew Roberts: Yeah. Remembrance Day, the 11th of November.
Russ Roberts: And, in England, people make a donation, and they buy a poppy.
Andrew Roberts: They wear poppies. Yes. You give money to the veterans, and you wear a poppy to show that you've donated.
Russ Roberts: And that's a reference to the--
Andrew Roberts: poppies on the Western Front. The way in which--
Russ Roberts: so many died. And so, in America, nobody pays any attention to Armistice Day, November 11th. I mean, it's on the calendar. But, when I was in England on November 11th, it was an enormously focused-on experience. Obviously. And so--people complain that everyone was an appeaser, and Chamberlain was an appeaser, and--I think, as you are suggesting, the real news there is that somebody wasn't. Because it was a perfectly natural thing to do, not to want to go back to war again.
Andrew Roberts: That's right. But he had spotted, in Hitler and the Nazis, and was the first person, and for many years the only person, to make the warnings. He knew this because he was an historian, and he'd seen previous attempts to Germanize Europe and destroy the European balance of power. He was a philo-semite, and he had an early warning system for what Hitler and the Nazis were like, because he liked Jews. He was somebody who had seen fanaticism up close and personal in his own career fighting in Africa and Asia. And so, he was able to spot what Hitler was really all about. You know, the way that a lot of the other Prime Ministers in the 1930s who had never seen fanaticism in their lives were not able to do. But, as you say: We had--it was only 20 years before that we had lost these enormous numbers of men. And, when I watch you say that you were emotionally affected going around the Cabinet War Rooms, I actually cried during They Shall Not Grow Old. It was a incredibly powerful movie for me, and for most people I know. Of course, it's not just the First World War that's commemorated with Remembrance Day, but also the Second World War, and Iraq, and Afghanistan, and Korea, and all the other wars that we've had--
Russ Roberts: the Falklands--
Andrew Roberts: and the Falklands. Exactly. And so, when you are wearing the poppy, you are doing it for people who are alive as well as people who are dead.
Russ Roberts: Well, that's true here, too. It's on November 11th because that was Armistice Day of WWI. The significance of Veterans' Day here in America just isn't the same. Just not. For a whole bunch of reasons.
Russ Roberts: One last thing about the War Rooms I want to remark on a get your reaction. Wandering through them, I was struck by two things. First of all, you know, you can buy a tour and you can listen. The tour is glorious, because it includes audio of people who worked there, with Churchill, and others who reminisce about the experience of what he was like as an employer, or manager. And so you might reflect on how he treated the secretaries there, if you'd like. I'd get a kick out of it. But the other thing that struck me is how simple the accommodations are. His bedroom is not as nice as my bedroom today. It's not as nice, I suspect, as your bedroom, or most of the people listening.
Andrew Roberts: It's not as nice as my hotel bedroom.
Russ Roberts: Right. Exactly. And, actually, it's not as nice as--I don't know where you're staying, but if you are staying at, say--it's not as nice as a Motel 6 bedroom, to take a more--an economy-level hotel. It is--spartan is a bit strong. It's not spartan. It is what in America would be called, sort of, lower middle class is the way I describe it. Maybe not then, but certainly today. For a person who clearly had grown up in what, in his time, was the lap of luxury, and who enjoyed the finer things in life, he did not bring that to that space.
Andrew Roberts: Well, it wasn't important, compared to winning the Second World War. And they weren't going to worry about fripperies and their nice carpets and curtains when the primary thought of all of them all of the time was how to win the war. Also, there's very much a sense in the Second World War that luxury and private luxury in London was not good form when the men were fighting in Africa and Italy and France and so on in much worse circumstances. And so, luxury was looked down on by the people around Winston Churchill in that period. They still drank very nice brandy, for example, and so on, but they didn't spend money on luxuries. They [?] and mended their clothes, for example, because of course clothing was rationed from 1939 onwards. So, yes: when you go around and see the Cabinet War Rooms, you are certainly not there in order to see rococo fireplaces.
Russ Roberts: But it's not just that. It's that the bed itself is simple. It's not fancy; it's not ornate. And, of course, if I remember correctly, it's the size of, I think, a twin bed. He was often there--always there without his wife?
Andrew Roberts: No, no, no--
Russ Roberts: Am I misremembering that?
Andrew Roberts: Yes, you are misremembering. It's very much a single bed.
Russ Roberts: That's what I meant. That means--yeah--[?]. It's maybe 2 and a half, 3 feet wide.
Andrew Roberts: Yes. Clementine didn't like sleeping in the same room as him because he snored so loudly. Especially after 6 hours of drinking whiskies and sodas. Also, they only used that room that you saw during actual bombing, during the Blitz. And so he spent relatively little time there. He actually slept in a bed directly above the rooms that we've been in--
Russ Roberts: And even lied to his wife about where he was? Didn't he also mislead her at times?
Andrew Roberts: Well, she wanted him to take much more care of himself. He used to go up onto the Air Ministry roof during the Blitz, which of course was a tremendously dangerous thing to do. But, he had, all his life, been where the action was. And all his he wanted to--and he writes about this actually and I quote him in my book--that he believed that you couldn't really understand events unless you were physically there when they were taking place. And so he went out of his way to not court danger for its own sake, but in order to understand what was happening, to actually go to the place where it was happening.
Russ Roberts: And he also flew a great deal during the war--
Andrew Roberts: Amazing--
Russ Roberts: which was remarkably dangerous.
Andrew Roberts: Yes. No, no, no; exactly. He was the glue that kept the Big Three together. Because, of course, very brave considering how profoundly disabled he was, did leave the American continent on several occasions. Stalin was scared of flying, and he left the Soviet Union once. But it was very much the job of Churchill to zoom around the world. And he covered 110,000 miles of flying, very often in unpressurized cabins within the radius of the Luftwaffe. And he's in his 70's. And, of course, when he took ships across the Atlantic, it was of course in a U-boat-infested ocean. And, so, the sheer gut[?] he flew to Moscow twice, was constantly going to Cairo--it was a duty, of course. But there's one moment in the War where he spent over 4 months in the year outside the United Kingdom.
Russ Roberts: I just want to mention before I forget that I do try to be a civil interviewer, as I think guests appreciate; but it's hard for me to be sufficiently challenging and skeptical of a Churchill biographer. So, I apologize to listeners who might expect me to be giving you a harder time, Andrew, because--he's been a hero of mine since I was a child. I'm not sure exactly why. I think my father was a big Churchill fan. But, my adult admiration and appreciation of his significance does come through when I walk through those War Rooms. Because, I think, when you walk in, there's a summary of the damage done by the Blitz and the attack on England by the Luftwaffe in 1940, and it's--it just would have been so easy to give up.
Andrew Roberts: Well, we had over 50,000 civilian deaths, as a result of German bombing in the Second World War. And, of course, they responded in a completely massive way; and the Germans themselves suffered 500,000 deaths. So, one has to put it in perspective. Whether they had really ridden the whirlwind. But, yes: I think Churchill's leadership, certainly in 1941 and in 1940, where there is [?] all these speeches[?] the refusal to commit, to having these negotiations with Hitler, and to seeing out the German attack, really was a master class in leadership. There are so many aspects of his leadership that were fascinating. And many of them do come from the summation of the rest of his life. In that sense, what he said about his past life having been a preparation for this hour and for this trial, you see that again and again. And it's a leitmotif that I've tried to concentrate on throughout the book.
Russ Roberts: Yeah; we talked earlier about his over-confidence, hubris, lack of humility; his feeling that he was special, and so on. And yet, one of his famous quotes--which I'll paraphrase and you can quote it probably by heart, I'm sure--is that he was privileged to represent the British people and to be the lion that gave the roar. And, there's a certain humility in that--
Andrew Roberts: Yeh--
Russ Roberts: as if all he did was give a few speeches that stiffened the resolve of the British people. And I think, maybe it's a rare moment of humility but it certainly doesn't accurately describe, as you point out in the book, his contribution.
Andrew Roberts: There's a second sentence, though, that nobody ever refers to. That--you've got the gist of the first sentence. But then, the second sentence is that he also showed the British lion where to place its claws. And so, what he was trying to say was he was a strategist who, as well as making these speeches and giving the lion's roar, he also was key to the overall strategy--the strategy of trying to draw German armor away from Northwest France where he knew the attack was ultimately going to take place, across the Channel, to draw it down in Africa and then into Italy; and to have a Mediterranean strategy that weakened the Germans more than it weakened us. Which was indeed the case. And, then the day after Rome fell, of course we had Operation Overlord, and D-Day took place. So, yes: Even when he was being modest there was a second sense in which he was pointing out what he had achieved.
Russ Roberts: There's an enormous appetite in American culture for things British, things royal, things Churchillian. Even despite that revisionist stuff we talked about earlier. There have been, recently, movie--I think it's The Finest Hour--
Andrew Roberts: The Darkest Hour--
Russ Roberts: and of course The Crown. Which, of course, in its first two seasons focused quite a bit on Churchill's relationship with the King and with the Queen. I'm not a fan of British royalty: I have zero interest in it. And yet I found The Crown to be one of the most riveting pieces of television I've ever seen. Partly the production quality is extraordinary. Partly because you are witnessing the kind of retreat that Britain ultimately does make from the world stage, which is, despite the issues we talked about earlier, is--there's a poignancy there as Churchill and the royal family grapples with that. And the last thing I'll say about The Crown is that you can't have the Queen deciding to take up a professional tennis career, as you can in other miniseries to keep reader interest or viewer interest. You are stuck with the historical truth.
Andrew Roberts: No you're not. The Crown is complete rubbish from beginning to end.
Russ Roberts: Okay. Well, that's what I was going to ask you.
Andrew Roberts: A friend of mine--
Russ Roberts: I was going to ask you if these modern, these cultural visions of history are as painful for you to watch as economics are in the movies for me.
Andrew Roberts: I gave up after the third or fourth episode, when mistake after mistake--egregious, intended, many of them. A friend of mine called Hugo Vickers has written a pamphlet in which he numbers 1000 factual errors in The Crown. And that's just the first series. So, if anybody takes it as history, they must stop doing that right now. It is pure entertainment. It's not even info-tainment. It's solely entertainment. So that's the first thing--
Russ Roberts: [?] very demoralized.
Andrew Roberts: Second thing is that The Darkest Hour is not like that. That actually has an underlying truth to it. It--of course, like all of these shows, compresses moments, concentrates on others. I thought Gary Oldman's performance was excellent--the way in which he used prosthetics but also the acting where he had the chuckle in the voice and the twinkle in the eye was one of the best characterizations of Churchill, ever. It's up there with the great one by Robert Hardy in the 1970s. So, you have, you do have very good shows. Of course, there was the moment on the subway that was [?]--
Russ Roberts: [?]--
Andrew Roberts: Entirely. Yes. Churchill went on the subway in 1926 and never again. And he didn't--and it also undermines the central theme that of course he told the British people that they were going to fight only in 1940. He didn't learn from a focus group that it was the best thing to [?].
Russ Roberts: [?] as an amateur.
Andrew Roberts: So, that was rubbish. But the actual show itself, apart from that single scene, was absolutely superb.
Russ Roberts: Now, you had access--I mention in passing Churchill's relationship with the King. In writing your book, you had access to the King's diaries.
Andrew Roberts: That's right. Yes. The Queen allowed me to be the first Churchill biographer to read her father's diaries. And these were tremendously helpful, of course, because the King met Churchill every Tuesday of the Second World War. They had lunch together. And, nobody else could be present, of course, at the audience, because the King was trusted by Churchill with all of the great secrets of the Second World War: the Ultra decrypts, the nuclear secrets, which generals and admirals were going to be hired and fired, which countries were going to be invaded, and so on. And, they got on extremely well. And the King wrote everything down. And so I was able to be the first Churchill biographer to use these. And I've used them extensively, because they really tell the reader what was at the top of Churchill's thinking, every Tuesday of the Second World War.
Russ Roberts: Are there any revelations there? Any surprises?
Andrew Roberts: No, notes--yes, and there were. I think overall the major one was that, of course, Churchill was incredibly frustrated at the glacially slow move to bellicosity of the Roosevelt Administration. I mean, he, of course, had major isolationist problems. Politically, [?]. Nonetheless, Churchill was scathing in private about how long it was taking the Americans to get involved. Because he saw the War as a Manichean struggle between civilization and democracy on one side, and the most evil dictatorship, totalitarian dictatorship, in world history on the other. And he couldn't understand why the great democracy of the United States was taking so long to make its power and its presence felt.
Russ Roberts: So, I'm going to close with a little bit of skepticism that I can bring to this. Which is: At the very end of your book, you mention that 30% of British teenagers--20 or 30%--
Andrew Roberts: Twenty percent--
Russ Roberts: of British teenagers think Churchill is a fictional character. Do you believe that survey? And more generally, what is Churchill's reputation among young people in England today?
Andrew Roberts: I totally do believe that survey, because he's only taught on the school history curriculum for 14 seconds. You can get through your entire history curriculum and watch a video--which you do have to watch--in which Churchill appears for 14 seconds. And that's what you're taught. We have cut the great men of history out of the school curriculum. It's a disgrace. It's incredibly bad, I think, for national identity, national morale, indeed. But it's been going on for some time. So, yes. In that same survey, by the way, as well as 20% thinking that he was a fictional character, some 47% thought that Sherlock Holmes was a real person. And 53% thought that Eleanor Rigby was a real person.
Russ Roberts: Wait a minute. That's--
Andrew Roberts: Moronic of them. I know.
Russ Roberts: No, no, no. No. I think that's totally understandable. [?]--
Andrew Roberts: [?]--
Russ Roberts: Well, given that most of us think Sherlock Holmes was real. He feels real to us.
Andrew Roberts: Aha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.
Russ Roberts: He's vivid. And you can go to Baker Street. And you can see his flat. I think.
Andrew Roberts: I think I might have been on the wrong show, Russ. Heh, heh, heh, heh, heh.
Russ Roberts: But, let's close with something a little more optimistic, or at least a little more related to history. Do you think he'll come back as a--obviously, your book is a step in that direction. But, you think that Churchill's reputation will continue to slide, or do you think it will have a bit of a revitalization down the road?
Andrew Roberts: I think it can--actually, the things he stood for, the incredible foresight, both before the First World War and the Second World War, and then again also in warning also about Stalin and the threat to Eastern Europe after the Second World War--this sense of foresight that he had--I think the way in which he was able to learn from his mistakes, the incredible eloquence that he showed, the way in which he mastered the English language, and also this incredible moral courage that he showed, through the 1930s when he was warning about Hitler but he was shouted down in the House of Commons--they nearly took his Parliamentary seat away from him. He had attacks on him constantly, lambasted and ridiculed in the Press and elsewhere. And he never changed his message. This is a man who didn't listen to opinion polls, didn't take part in focus groups, didn't have a single speechwriter all his life. He is somebody who therefore shows all of the important attributes of leadership. And I don't think that in the world that we are likely to be living in over the next few decades, we're ever going to be able to go without leadership.