I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this book when it arrived some time back. Not being terribly knowledgeable about Winston Churchill in anything but general terms, I didn’t (and still don’t) know whether the comparison between two of the 20th century’s greatest leaders stood up. But it’s a thoroughly entertaining read, and at just under 200 pages, a quick one. But don’t let that fool you. There’s a ton of good material, and a lot of things that I’m sure to refer to and reflect on in the future.
A deep, dusty literary/philosophical tome this is not, and that is exactly why I enjoyed it as much as I did. Here’s a bit from the first chapter, “What is Greatness?”:
Meanwhile the affinity between Churchill and Reagan has been overlooked. Perhaps it is because, on the surface, Reagan and Churchill seem to be quite different people. Having written books about both men, however, I came to see that the comparison is a proper one, if for no other reason than the connecting thread of the Cold War. Churchill, with his famous Iron Curtain speech of 1946, made in the presence of Harry Truman, might be said to have launched the Cold War for the West. Reagan, a former Truman Democrat, ended it. Churchill said in the Iron Curtain speech that World War II could have been prevented “without the firing of a single shot.” Reagan, heeding Churchill’s vivid lesson, brought the Cold War to an end “without firing a single shot,” Margaret Thatcher observed. (Indeed, Reagan’s partnership with Thatcher in the 1980s could be seen as the very fulfillment of the Anglo-American unity that Churchill had envisioned in the Iron Curtain speech and elsewhere.)
As I began writing the second volume of my history of Ronald Reagan and his place in American political life (the forthcoming book The Age of Reagan: Lion at the Gate, 1980 1989), I recognized that the links between Reagan and Churchill extended beyond this Cold War connection. The parallels between the two men, I realized, were extensive, deep, and important. In particular, it became clear that pondering the cases of Churchill and Reagan side by side opens a window onto critical aspects of political genius, and political greatness, at the highest level.
That is why I have written this book. Unfortunately, the mainstream of contemporary history and political science does not adequately take account of the nature and sources of political greatness. Indeed, the egalitarian temper of modern intellectual life, combined with the reductionist methodology of social science, deprecates individual greatness and seeks to reduce the course of human affairs to material and sub-rational forces. Examining the lives and careers of Reagan and Churchill reminds us, however, that questions of how we understand political greatness deserves our attention.
A central subtext of this book is that there really, truly are great men. We are not all the same, and, given the equal freedom to rise to our proper places, some will rise higher than others. The author claims (and I agree) that both Churchill and Reagan were great men and, obviously, that they weren’t as unlike each other as one would suppose.
He notes many of the differences in their backgrounds and their upbringing, and points out how those differences often molded the two into very similar leaders.
Surveying the similarities and differences between the two statesmen brings us to the third and decisive level of analysis, which is their quality of mind. This is revealed in their imagination and insight into the times in which they lived, and their independence from the conventional wisdom of even their own political parties. Abraham Lincoln wrote that all nations have a central idea, from which all its minor thoughts radiate. The same can be said of great statesmen. Churchill’s central insight might be said to be that the distinction between liberty and tyranny is real and substantial. The perception may seem trivial or obvious, until we stop to realize that modern “value-free” social science has gone very far in effacing the moral distinctions between different kinds of “regimes” (as political scientists say). This blurring of the edges has a long pedigree: Thomas Hobbes wrote in The Leviathan that tyranny is merely “kingship misliked,” and one will scour modern political science textbooks in vain to find e Soviet Union described as a “tyranny,” though it is one of the oldest categories of rule known to political thought.
If the distinction between liberty and tyranny is real and substantial, it follows that compromise with tyrannical evil is not possible. Almost everyone agrees, which is why the desire for accommodation must begin by denying or obfuscating evil and tyranny. It was precisely this instinct for evasion that lay behind the furious reaction against Churchill’s anti-Nazi speeches of the 1930s, and against Reagan’s “evil empire” speech of 1983. Churchill warned of the nature of Nazism starting as early as 1930, three years before Hitler came to office, and as his warnings increased along with the growing menace, he was met mostly with antagonism from his own party, chiefly because he laid out the problem with a clarity and with a call for choice and action that most hoped to avoid
through wishful thinking. At root, Churchill understood and took seriously that Hitler meant what he had written in Mein Kampf, a book few Britons had bothered to read and would not have taken seriously if they had. Likewise Reagan understood and took seriously tile resolve of Lenin and his successors, quoting often Lenin’s statement “It is inconceivable that the Soviet Republic should continue to exist for a long period side by side with imperialistic states. Ultimately, one or the other must conquer.”
Reagan’s central idea was a variation of Churchill’s, and can be summarized as the view that unlimited government is inimical to liberty, in its vicious forms, such as Communism or socialism, but also in its supposedly benign forms, such as bureaucracy. Reagan expressed his broad view of the problem in his 1982 speech to the British Parliament: “There is a threat posed to human freedom by the enormous power of the modern state. History teaches the danger of government that over-reaches: political control takes precedence over free economic
growth; secret police, mindless bureaucracy–all combining to stifle individual excellence and personal freedom.” Reagan’s conflation here of “secret police” and “mindless bureaucracy” shows the harmony of purpose in his own mind between his domestic and foreign policies shows that the problem of government power was for him not a dichotomy between East and West but a philosophical and practical continuum.
I think the statement that tyrannical evil is often denied or obfuscated because “almost everyone agrees” that “compromise with tyrannical evil is not possible” is a powerful one. Uncompromising individuals are not often admired for their steadfastness, and are often painted as “obstinate”, “bull-headed”, or “simple-minded” people unable to focus on more than one thing and belittled as naughty children who need to learn better. While someone who is “my way or the highway” on every issue, no matter how great or small, would have trouble getting far, isn’t a solid, uncompromising position on the important issues what we need? Of course it is. We just disagree on which issues are the important ones.
I’m glad both Reagan and Churchill were uncompromising on the issues they chose to be uncompromising on. The world is a better place for it. Not bad for a couple of obstinate bull-headed simpletons, huh?
While I’m sure someone so inclined could put together an equally-convincing 200-page book descibing how Reagan and Churchill were complete opposites, I find the similarities presented in this volume to be more than coincidences and more than a bit reassuring.
Greatness, which is actually under 175 pages with about 25 pages of end notes for those who want a bit more depth or explanation for some items, is a good read. Murdoc learned a lot and enjoyed doing so.