Andrew Roberts on Churchill and the Craft of Biography
Aug 26 2019

Churchill.jpg Historian Andrew Roberts talks about the life of Winston Churchill and the art of biography with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. How did Churchill deal with the mistakes he inevitably made in a long career? Was he prescient or just the right man in the right place at the right time? Was he an alcoholic? Did he suffer from depression? Drawing on his recent biography of Churchill, Andrew Roberts answers these and other questions in this wide-ranging conversation that includes a discussion of the mechanics of writing a 1000 page book on a man who has had over 1000 biographies written about him already.

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Explore audio highlights, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.

READER COMMENTS

Evan
Aug 26 2019 at 11:54am

I guess that was an interesting introduction for Russ Roberts to the mindset of a typical Brexiteer.

“Special relationship with the United States” never ceases to make me chuckle.

Bill Welch
Aug 26 2019 at 3:07pm

Churchill was sec. of the Navy and during WWI Armored vehicles were disguised as tanks during transport ie. water tanks, the name stuckand primary armored fighting vehicles are still called tanks, and have certain naval terms like hatches, and perhaps turrents, and clueless reporters still misidentify anything with tracks rather than wheels, tanks, even artillery pieces and troop transport vehicles, armored personnel carriers, which became fighting vehicles during the Vietnam war,and proved themselves in the first Iraq war.  Churchill started out as a Cavalry officer.

burt bregman
Aug 26 2019 at 6:23pm

I heard Andrew Roberts say (and Russ assent) that the US has no comparable experience to the tremendous losses of Britain during wwI.

United Kingdom including Crown Colonies wwI

total Pop~=  45.4 mil  , Tot. Military death ~= 887,858 (1.96%)

US Civil War

total Pop~= 31.2 mil,  Military death ~= 655,000 (2.10%)

Union Pop~= 22.1 mil,  Military death ~= 364,511 (1.65%)

Confederate Pop~= 9.1 mil,  Military death ~= 290,000 (3.19%)

Ed Kless
Aug 27 2019 at 10:40am

I came here to make a similar comment, but you summarized it better than I would have.

I am also having a hard time with Churchill only appearing for 17 seconds in the school curricula in the UK, but I have no proof.

Russ Roberts
Aug 27 2019 at 2:57pm

You are correct. Weird to “forget” the Civil War.

Luke J
Aug 28 2019 at 12:26am

The US Civil War is hardly relevant to the context of reticence/eagerness to enter WW2.

Hoosier
Aug 29 2019 at 9:59am

Yes, I think that as horrible as the US civil war was, and it was indeed horrible as the above casualty figures indicate, it’s a whole different story compared to war with a foreign nation in terms of the imprint it leaves on the collective conscious.

I find it interesting that after the Civil War the US Government pretty much gave up policing the south in anyway. All that mattered was that they were still a part of the nation. Whereas after WW1, France exacted demanding concessions from Germany and pretty much lorded it over them for a long time.

Also, when your country is breaking apart, going to war to keep it together might seem an appropriate response compared to supporting an alliance with an ally.

MattB
Aug 27 2019 at 11:34am

This was a very interesting episode that I thoroughly enjoyed.   One question that I wish Russ would have asked, though, was given that there are over 1,000 biographies of Churchill already, what prompted Andrew Roberts to write another biography of Churchill.  What new insight or approach to Churchill did Andrew bring to a subject that has already been covered so many times before.

Rob
Aug 27 2019 at 2:12pm

Russ Roberts seems confused about the difference between England and Britain. It’s a shame that Andrew Roberts was too polite to correct him.

Russ Roberts
Aug 27 2019 at 4:47pm

I have trouble keeping this straight. The best video ever on this is here. So beautifully done. I’ve seen it twice, maybe. Still hard for me to remember.

Rob
Aug 28 2019 at 4:49pm

Agreed about CGP Grey’s video, but of course he exaggerates the complexity to make it entertaining. The point is that England hasn’t existed as a nation state since 1707, so it sounds really weird to my (British) ears to hear you talk about England as a country fighting in the Second World War.

Nick Ronalds
Aug 27 2019 at 4:19pm

Terrific podcast. Churchill is larger-than-life along so many dimensions, as Roberts (Andrew) brings out in the conversation. The greatest statesman of the last century by a long shot.

Roberts is articulate and entertaining, and obviously doesn’t bend to political fashions. Sounds like the author is worthy of his subject.

Gerald Smyth
Aug 28 2019 at 1:12am

Under 17:44, fifth Andrew Roberts segment: change ‘they would hold off’ to ‘they were told off’.

David Zarecky
Aug 28 2019 at 3:44am

I thoroughly enjoyed this episode, but one point that almost ruined it for me came mid-way through when the Brexit issue came up. I don’t mind people voicing their opinions on the podcast, which is kind of the point of it, but first of all, it had nothing to do with Churchill per se, and, more importantly, the half-informed, undercooked, misty-eyed one-liner about UK reconnecting with the world rather than with the bureaucratic Europe proferred by Andrew Roberts was a bit too much to take frankly. Had it been my call, I would, first of all, never have ventured off the beaten track in this manner with the discussion, and if I did, I would have edited this piece out. It just felt out of place, jarring, and completely out of sync with the otherwise incredibly well-researched and informed insights into Churchill’s life.

Joshua Lumsden
Aug 31 2019 at 9:11pm

I don’t know. While I found the Brexit comments quite disagreeable as well, I think that it wasn’t a far stretch away from Russ’ original question about widely held shame for the British Empire. For better or worse, Brexit is the biggest example of a national pushback to the cosmopolitanism that Russ described. That being said, I think he would have come across better if he had kept his personal stance on Brexit to himself.

Arde
Aug 28 2019 at 6:45am

Ok, this is the third time I am trying to post my comment.

Very interesting and good episode. I learned a lot.
I just want to add that Churchill is not admired everywhere as he is in the Anglo-Saxon world. The Eastern Europeans very much dislike him. In the Eastern Europe Churchill and Yalta are symbols of the Western betrayal. The Eastern Europeans blame Churchill for giving their countries to Stalin.

The question about the Jews is also ambiguous. Churchill did not undertake any direct military action to save the Jews from the concentration camps and death facilities. The Jewish leaders and the Polish government in exile informed Churchill about the horrific atrocities and were pleading him to intervene, but he did not do it. It was only the Polish Home Army who tried on several occasions (unsuccessfully and without any help) to attack the camps and save the Jews.

As regards the famine in India, I don’t know whom to believe. There are very opposite views accounts to A.Robert’s. Others claim that that it was not the weather but the policies that caused the famine. Especially the large-scale export of food from India combined with scorched earth policy.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/thereporters/soutikbiswas/2010/10/how_churchill_starved_india.html
https://edition.cnn.com/2019/03/29/asia/churchill-bengal-famine-intl-scli-gbr/index.html

[Hi, Arde. How about you wait more than 10 minutes for your comments to be posted? It is not unreasonable for comments to be held for as much as 24 hours. We see that you are impatient. Your re-posting your comments over and over again annoys our readers and triggers our spam software to refuse your comments. If you want our readers to read your comments, a better strategy is for you to submit a well-thought-out comment and then wait a bit for it to be posted. Griping that it is not posted within 10 minutes and then resubmitting it is not your best plan. Neither is it reasonable for you to expect us to delete your previous duplicated comments if you submitted them repeatedly. If you do not want your comments to be published over and over again, and if you don’t want to annoy our readers to the point where they don’t read your comments, then just don’t submit your comments over and over again. It’s that easy. If your comment is not posted after 24 hours, feel free to email us at webmaster@econlib.org. –Econlib Ed.]

Marilyne Tolle
Aug 28 2019 at 11:18am

Thanks Russ, this was a great podcast.

My husband was a big fan of Churchill so when he passed last year, I used the services of JH Kenyon, the funeral directors to the Royal Household who organised Churchill’s state funeral (see here).

Not to be too gloomy, and not wishing for anyone to need their services, but I’d highly recommend them (impeccable service, competitively priced).

John Alcorn
Aug 29 2019 at 11:45am

The Churchill Project has published a short article with evidence, “Did Churchill Cause the Bengal Famine?”.  The article is available online at the link below:

https://winstonchurchill.hillsdale.edu/did-churchill-cause-the-bengal-famine/

Here is an excerpt:

despite preoccupation with the upcoming invasion of France, Churchill wrote FDR. No one, reading his words, can be in doubt about his sympathies:

“I am seriously concerned about the food situation in India….Last year we had a grievous famine in Bengal through which at least 700,000 people died. This year there is a good crop of rice, but we are faced with an acute shortage of wheat, aggravated by unprecedented storms….By cutting down military shipments and other means, I have been able to arrange for 350,000 tons of wheat to be shipped to India from Australia during the first nine months of 1944. This is the shortest haul. I cannot see how to do more.

I have had much hesitation in asking you to add to the great assistance you are giving us with shipping but a satisfactory situation in India is of such vital importance to the success of our joint plans against the Japanese that I am impelled to ask you to consider a special allocation of ships to carry wheat to India from Australia….We have the wheat (in Australia) but we lack the ships. I have resisted for some time the Viceroy’s request that I should ask you for your help, but… I am no longer justified in not asking for your help.”

Roosevelt replied that while Churchill had his “utmost sympathy,” his Joint Chiefs had said they were “unable on military grounds to consent to the diversion of shipping….Needless to say, I regret exceedingly the necessity of giving you this unfavorable reply.”21

There is no doubt that in those fraught weeks Churchill said things off the record (but duly recorded by subordinates) that were unworthy of him, out of exasperation and the press of war on many fronts. There is no evidence that Churchill wished any Indian to starve; on the contrary, he did his best to help them, amidst a war to the death.

Brian Oliver
Aug 30 2019 at 4:49pm

I particularly enjoy Econtalk episodes that focus on historical events or figures. I also enjoyed this episode……. by and large. I found the opportunity given to the guest to gush about Brexit rather odd. I’m not sure what relevance this had to the life of Winston Churchill. Russ Roberts is an excellent interviewer but I thought this was a rare misstep by him.

Tom Gates
Aug 31 2019 at 4:41pm

With respect Brian, Brexit has an important connection with Churchill. He believed in an EU for Europe as the only way to keep France and Germany from constantly going to war. While he believed that UK should be part of a European trading block, he never believed it should be included in European governance.

Tom Gates
Aug 31 2019 at 4:35pm

Adding to the comments on the Civil War. The fact is 20% of males in the South eligible for military service were either killed or maimed. Despite chatter to the contrary, this is the reason that there are so many monuments to the Southern soldiers. In a large number of instances, these monuments were erected by the Mothers, Sisters, Aunts, Grandmothers and Nieces of Family and Community, a very large percentage who were not slaveholders.

Mike Cook
Sep 3 2019 at 1:49pm

I have to pump my chest out quite a bit as I know some arcane trivia that Russ and Andrew apparently do not.  Namely, wearing red poppies as a remembrance for WW1 victims was made popular by Moina Michael, a Georgia farm girl.  She was so moved by the poem “In Flanders Field” and her work with veterans that she created a public campaign for veterans.  An ice bucket challenge for its time.

On a more serious note, I have a hard time squaring the circle that Churchill (First Lord of the Admiralty) is blamed for the failure of the ARMY to seize the initiative and move quickly up the Dardanelles.  If the criticism is that Churchill was foolish to think civilian leaders held the whip hand over the Royal Army and Navy in that era, then I agree.

Lucas Sittler
Sep 12 2019 at 1:56pm

Tremendous episode.

I have read Andrew Roberts’ biography on Napoleon, and I highly recommend the book.

On Brexit, I wished Russ cordially challenged Andrew’s arguments a bit more.

My understanding is that the gravity pull of commercial trading between nations mostly comes from geographical proximity and the size of the trading partners’ economies.

Because of this, I have trouble with the argument that Great Britain can meaningfully steer its commercial relationships towards the rest of the world.

How is it not akin to saying that because some Canadians don’t like the current U.S. administration, they just need to think more globally and steer their imports and exports towards Europe?

 

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DELVE DEEPER

This week's guest:

This week's focus:

Additional ideas and people mentioned in this podcast episode:

A few more readings and background resources:

A few more EconTalk podcast episodes:


AUDIO HIGHLIGHTS
TimePodcast Episode Highlights
0:33

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.

7:14

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.

9:52

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.

14:09

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.

17:44

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.

22:28

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.

25:22

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.

28:19

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.

38:25

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. [More to come, 39:04]

 


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