The Last Lion

Title:                      The Last Lion

Author:                 William Manchester

Manchester, William (2013). The Last Lion, Winston Spencer Churchill. New York : Bantam Books Trade Paperbacks

LCCN:    2013443354

DA566.9.C5 M26 2012



  • Originally published in hardcover in the U.S. by Little, Brown and company, 1983-2012.
  • Volume 3 by William Manchester and Paul Reid.
  • Includes bibliographic references and index.

Date Posted:      December 2, 2015

Reviewed by Joseph C. Goulden[1]

One point must be made at the outset: Despite the prominence of William Manchester’s name on the dust jacket and the lavish use of it in the publisher’s promotional materials, the book at hand is not his product. Beset by a congeries of ailments in his final years, including a stroke, Manchester, between 1988 and 1998, gamely compiled hundreds of pages of notes for what was to be the third and concluding volume of his masterful biography of Sir Winston Churchill. But by 2003, he could no longer write.[2]

At first blush, Manchester’s choice of a writer to complete his work seems odd. Paul Reid had never written a book. He was a reporter for The Palm Beach Post when he covered a reunion of Marine Corps veterans in 1966. Ill with pneumonia, Manchester missed the meeting with his World War II buddies. Reid tagged along two years later when the marines had another get-together at Manchester’s home in Connecticut. Over the years, the two men became friends, and Manchester asked Reid in 2003 to take his somewhat chaotic notes on Churchill and finish the final volume.

The longshot choice for a coauthor proved wise. Reid’s account rounds out, in vivid prose, the last decades of a vibrant life of public service that stretched from the Boer War to the Cold War. Reid picks up Churchill’s story in May 1940 when Britain stood alone against a resurgent Germany that was bent on world domination. The Soviet Union had yet to enter the war, and a cautious President Roosevelt yielded to strong isolationist sentiment and made election promises to keep the United States out of the war.

Fortunately for the fate of the civilized world, Churchill stepped into the breach. He had warned throughout-the 1930s about the remilitarization of Germany and the rise of the Nazi Party. As bombs fell on London and the British army was forced off the continent, Churchill rallied his countrymen through oratorical skills he honed through 64 years of service in the House of Commons (he was first elected in 1901 when Queen Victoria held the throne).

Even in Britain’s darkest hours, Churchill exuded confidence. He promised to combat the “monstrous force” of the Germans with “blood, toil, sweat, and tears.” He warned the Germans that his people would fight with “scythes and brickbats,” if necessary; “be the ordeal short or long, or both, we shall seek no terms, we shall tolerate no parley; we may show mercy. We shall ask for none.” When Hitler proposed peace talks the first months of the war, Churchill refused to reply directly, letting a BBC broadcaster speak for him: “Herr Fuhrer … we hurl it right back into your evil-smelling teeth!”[3]

Reid’s description of the London Blitz gives us prose of Manchesterian quality. To the distress of his bodyguards, Churchill insisted on going into the streets during some of the bombings, determined to show the people that he shared their risks. When Sir Winston and his wife, Clementine, visited London’s East End after a night of particularly savage bombing left blocks in smoking ruins, the crowd yelled, “When are you going to bomb Berlin?” “You leave that to me!” Churchill replied tersely.

There were further cries: “We can take it!” and “We thought you’d come!” Tears ran down Churchill’s cheeks. Reid writes, “Churchill told the gathered what they wanted to hear, that he would hit back, yet a profound grasp of the precariousness of their situation underlay his words: Hitler might reduce their homes, their city, but only by reducing their spirit could he inflict defeat. That test of will had begun.”

Even during wartime, alcohol was an ever-present companion for Churchill. He habitually started his day with wine for breakfast and continued imbibing throughout the day, with an especial taste for champagne. The essayist C. P. Snow quipped, “Churchill cannot be an alcoholic because no alcoholic could drink that much.” But drink apparently did not affect his performance. Churchill thus summarized his relationship with drink: “I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.” Reid speculates that given more exercise, less drink, and fewer cigars, Churchill “might well have lived a full and rich life for many years beyond the ninety he was granted.” (But he likely would not have been nearly so interesting a man.)

Churchill’s relationship with the United States (and President Roosevelt) had a rocky beginning. In the mid-1940 a cautious FDR, with a worried eye on the polls, agreed to give Britain some aging destroyers in return for base rights in Bermuda and elsewhere. But to Churchill’s chagrin, these “rust buckets” proved “more a burden than a godsend.” He complained that the vessels, dating mostly to the early 1920s, “aren’t much good” and were “badly built.” Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor drew the United States into the war and opened our country’s coffers for Britain. The two wartime leaders developed a close friendship based on mutual admiration.

Even then, however, the alliance was not without its tense moments. Churchill wanted to strike at the Balkans soon after the invasion of France in June 1944. FDR and his military advisers insisted that southern France be the target. Yielding, Sir Winston snapped, “All right, if you insist on being damned fools, sooner than falling out with you, which would be fatal, we should be damned fools with you, and we shall see that we perform the role of damned fools damned well.”

The exigencies of war meant Churchill took measures that transgressed the law. His government crafted an Emergency Powers (Defence) Act (which was not put before Parliament) granting sweeping powers to the executive. Persons who were suspected of being Nazi sympathizers were seized, without the right of habeas corpus. Caught in the net were such figures as Sir Oswald Mosley, the black-shirted head of England’s Fascists. (Also jailed was a cousin of Clementine Churchill, the prime minister’s wife.) The action resulted in “stripping Britons of rights they had held since King John signed [the] Magna Carta.” The Communist Party newspaper, The Daily Worker, was shuttered on grounds that its “alarmist” articles disturbed the morale of workers. Churchill also considered interning 22,000 Japanese-Canadians as a precautionary measure against an internal uprising.

As peace neared, Churchill’s fears focused on a perceived new international threat: the Soviet Union. Dictator Joseph Stalin ignored agreements for free elections in Poland, and his minions executed political opponents. As Churchill would later write, “I could only feel the mass manifestation of Soviet and Russian imperialism rolling forward over helpless lands.” But he could only watch in silence; Britain not only lacked the will to contest the USSR, but the former was also broke. Thus Churchill turned his energies to trying to keep control of the government from the Labour Party in post-war elections that summer.

Churchill itched for the fight. As he said in a radio broadcast, he and the Tories and “many of my Labour colleagues” would be happy to continue a coalition government until Britain was on its feet economically. But he added that “the Socialist Party as a whole had been for some time eager to set out upon the political warpath …. “ Since the Socialists wanted a fight, “we will therefore give it to them to the best of our ability.”

Then he used a passage that Clementine (futilely) had urged him to delete in his text:

I declare to you, from the bottom of my heart, that no Socialist system can be established without a political police …. They would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo, no doubt very humanely directed in the first instance. And this would nip opinion in the bud; it would stop criticism as it reared its head, and it would gather all the power to the supreme party and the party leaders, rising like stately pinnacles above their vast bureaucracies of Civil servants, no longer servants and no longer civil.

To liken the Socialists to the Gestapo was a step too far for the British public. Although Churchill retained his parliamentary seat, the Labour Party won control of the government, and a chastened Churchill went to Buckingham Palace to resign.

Taking a well-deserved respite, Churchill traveled. He painted. With a small army of research assistants, he wrote a six-volume history, The Second World War, which helped him to earn the Nobel Prize in Literature. (His history, it must be said, was the war as seen by Sir Winston, and academician David Reynolds devoted an entire book to Churchill’s tinkering with facts.)

But Churchill continued to hector the Socialists. At a Tory rally, he declaimed:

[S]ince [1939] two disasters have come upon us: the Second World War and the first Socialist Government with a majority. By supreme exertions we surmounted the first disaster. The question which glares upon us today is, “How shall we free ourselves from the second?”

As Reid writes, “The general election of 1951 was a Hobbesian affair—not brutish, but nasty and short.” Tories regained the government, and once again Churchill was prime minister.

His second stint was far less stressful than the war years. He had a brief falling out with President Eisenhower because of the United States’ refusal of his request to hold talks with the Russians. He sparred incessantly with the Labour Party. And in 1955 he once again resigned, thus ending one of the more remarkable careers in public service in the history of mankind.

Churchill lived his final years in increasingly poor health. He found solace in travel, often on the yacht of the Greek magnate Aristotle Onassis. And when he died in 1965, Queen Elizabeth II granted him the honor of a state funeral. Only twice in the past 112 years had a nonroyal person been so honored: the Duke of Wellington in 1852 and William Ewart Gladstone in 1868.

A 60-by-70-inch slab of green marble in West-minster Abbey contains only three words: REMEMBER WINSTON CHURCHILL. He truly was sui generis, and one must wonder whether the world will be graced with such a heroic figure again.

[1] Goulden, Joseph C. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies (19, 1, Winter/Spring, 2013, pp. 93-95) Joseph C. Goulden is a long-time reviewer of espionage and spy books for The Washington Times and other publications. Most of the reviews [from The Intelligencer, reproduced in this blog] appeared in prior editions of The Washington Times. Joe Goulden’s recent book is Goulden, Joseph C. (2012). The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak into English. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications

[2] Paradoxically, Manchester’s condition paralleled that of the subject of his first biography, H. L. Mencken, who lost the power to speak, write, and read after a 1948 stroke. As a young reporter for The Baltimore Sun, Manchester spent many evenings reading to the stricken writer.

[3] Churchill’s speeches over the years-from February 8, 1901, to April 9, 1963-can be viewed at

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