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The Splendid and The Vile

THE SPLENDID AND THE VILE, by Erik Larson

13 May ’20 for MCUF

Reviewed by Christopher C. Harmon, Ph. D., Marine Corps University, Bren Chair for Great Powers Competition endowed through the Marine Corps University Foundation by Mr. Donald Bren.

Near the top of non-fiction sales this spring is a book about 1940, “The Blitz” against London, and Winston Churchill. Published by Random House, this new book by Erik Larson is titled THE SPLENDID AND THE VILE. It came into my hands as a gift from a relation; we’re from Seattle, where Erik Larson wrote for years before moving to New York. My donor also knew I am a pushover for anything on Churchill. For some years I taught an elective on his leadership in World War Two, a course offered for our Majors at Command & Staff College. One of the graduates recently came back to visit; the Marines’ Ted Studdard has just written his own book on leadership, titled Depot to Depot.

The Splendid and the Vile is very much a popular history. It dwells on what it was like to live in southern England in wartime, what citizens thought about the war, how they felt about their government. There are some fascinating things—such as discussions among Londoners about the safest place to sleep when the bombers were likely to come at night. Folks all had their theories about which part of a building was the best to be in. Some favored the “Anderson Shelter,” a simple & crude metal structure you’d erect in the garden and reinforce on the outside with sod or sandbags. These were advertised as ‘helpful except for a direct hit.’

Erik Larson writes well, but he faces quite a challenge: Will the reader be impressed? How can anyone do better with prose on Churchill than William Manchester, or write more authentic history than Martin Gilbert who wrote the longest biography on anyone that exists in the English language? Larson has found a few new sources, especially the diaries of Mary Churchill Soames, the Prime Minister’s younger daughter. She was a fascinating combination of socialite and air defense officer and went on to write excellent books.

A strength of this new volume is its close interest in the technical side of the German bombing campaign, plus the war over radar and directional beams, which Churchill called “The Wizard War” in his history Their Finest Hour. Larson adds value here and is proficient at making technology accessible. He details some of the different types of German ordnance dropped on England, such as certain bombs of monstrous size, and the parachute mines they’d float down from Luftwaffe bombers.

There is an enjoyable depiction of life at Chequers—the country estate used by whomever was Britain’s Prime Minister. That is, not Chartwell (Churchill’s country home) but Chequers, the United Kingdom’s country house available to all its Prime Ministers. The donor of the estate had a rule: Ministers must leave work behind in London when they come out to relax. But of course Churchill was a workhorse—he labored every day, relentlessly, during the war. So dinners he held there in the country were often working meals for the generals and officials and overseas guests he’d invited. Miraculously, the place was never bombed.

This enjoyable history risks being forgotten within five years–in part because there are already finer books on the subjects, and in part because new volumes usually get submerged in the ongoing river of books on Churchill, World War Two, or both. No matter! There are permanent and good reasons for our endless interest in Winston Churchill, more than half a century after his death. These four are among the most important to me:

Morals and psychology: He was of the highest character and a lesson in what a person can do despite every adversity. Churchill’s life reads like a counterweight to pessimism or apathy. Consider: Thousands of poor fellows endured impossible hardships on the Western Front in World War One and honorably returned to the easier lives their service had guaranteed to their country. This fellow Churchill did his time in the same trenches, studied it all intently, and returned home in 1916 to take a direct, official role in advancing prototypes of the tank–which the next year would begin to revolutionize the battlefield.

Oratory: We all like great oratory, and at times it makes a demonstrable difference in how the public acts, or what the government decides, and 1940 is a splendid example. The House of Commons forbad recording or broadcast, so those sights and sounds are lost forever. But many of the BBC broadcasts are still available, and on the days when Churchill was not too tired from the work of war, those recordings preserved magic. In the 2017 film “Darkest Hour” actor Gary Oldman and director Joe Wright do exceptionally well in recreating the spirit in that chamber of parliament.
History: Churchill was an unbelievably good writer, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature. My Early Life is something every child should read—and every adult too. The Gathering Storm, his first volume in the World War Two set, is a masterpiece that might be read today as a prelude to the air war drama Larson recreates for 1940.

Statecraft: At Marine Corps University, much more than at typical colleges, there is an understanding of the real challenges of statecraft and the responsibilities carried by people at the highest levels, whether in government or in uniform. Churchill was principled but also understood prudence and compromise. He had to deal with rascals and despots and he had to wrangle with foreign leaders as strong-minded as himself. Nothing he said to the world was not scrutinized and opened to critique. Important plans of his were studied, and sometimes stopped, within his War Cabinet of ministers. Churchill is famed for his good relationship with Franklin Roosevelt, but that dynamic was not sustainable only on big grins and chatter comparing cigars with cigarette holders. Both those leaders were true masters of coalition warfare, and building coalitions has been a primary way that modern wars are won. -cch

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