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Diplomacy and Conflict • Negotiating Peace: Diplomacy During WWII

In a versatile career that spanned four decades, Winston Churchill served the United Kingdom as a war correspondent, soldier, politician, member of the British Parliament, first lord of the Admiralty, and prime minister. A prolific writer and eloquent orator, he inspired Britons with his writings and speeches during the dark days of World War II.

Early Life

Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was born at Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, in England's Oxfordshire district on November 30, 1874. He was the eldest son of Lord Randolph Churchill, chancellor of the exchequer; and Jennie Churchill, the daughter of a New York businessperson. From the age of seven, Churchill attended several prestigious preparatory schools, beginning with St. George's Ascot and transferring in 1888 to Harrow, where he excelled at sports, history, and writing. Churchill was fascinated by all things military, taking a particular interest in toy soldiers and mock warfare. In 1893, he was admitted to Sandhurst Royal Military College as a cavalry cadet, where he became an avid equestrian. After graduating in 1894, he was commissioned in the British Army and joined the Fourth Hussars.

In 1895, Churchill obtained a brief leave of absence from his military duties to visit war-torn Cuba, which was then fighting for independence from Spain. Churchill observed the course of the war and then informally embarked on a career as a war correspondent by writing his first newspaper article on the fighting. When Churchill returned to the United Kingdom that same year, his father died at the age of 45. Although Randolph Churchill had spent little time with his son, he had a tremendous impact on the young Churchill's character. In an effort to assuage his grief, Churchill threw himself into his military career at the same time that the United Kingdom was fighting a series of conflicts to consolidate its hold on the country's various colonies around the globe.

From 1896 to 1897, Churchill served in India with the Malakand Field Force. Joining the Nile Expeditionary Force in 1898, he fought against the Dervishes in the Battle of Omdurman and served in the cavalry during the reconquest of the Sudan. After running unsuccessfully for political office in 1899, Churchill went to South Africa as a war correspondent for the Morning Post to cover the Boer War. He was captured in an ambush and was held prisoner until he staged a dramatic escape; he returned to England a hero and published two books on the war, along with a novel.

Entrance to Politics

Running as a candidate of the British Conservative Party in 1900, Churchill was elected a member of Parliament representing Oldham. However, when fellow Conservative Joseph Chamberlain launched his campaign for higher tariffs in 1904, Churchill joined the British Liberal Party in support of the free trade issue and launched critical attacks on the Conservatives. The following year, he became parliamentary undersecretary for the colonies. In 1906, Churchill became a member of Parliament for North West Manchester. Following his appointment as president of the Board of Trade in 1908, Churchill introduced the labor exchanges, a national employment service aimed at reducing unemployment.

In 1910, Churchill became home secretary, one of the most powerful positions in the British government, where he consistently worked for social reform. In 1911, Churchill was appointed first lord of the Admiralty. During his four-year tenure at the Admiralty, he methodically prepared the United Kingdom for what he anticipated would be a major war. Churchill developed an experienced and well-trained war staff and reorganized and modernized the Royal Navy. Churchill also displayed foresight by investing in the development of military aviation and the armored car (the precursor of the tank).

British forces suffered a series of setbacks during the first two years of World War I that caused many to question Churchill's abilities. In the aftermath of public criticism over several failed military operations—namely, the Dardenelles and Gallipoli campaigns—Churchill was removed as first lord of the Admiralty. In November 1915, he resigned from the cabinet as well and went to the western front, serving as colonel of the Sixth Battalion Scots Fusiliers. In July 1917, he returned to politics with his appointment as minister of munitions, where he concentrated on the production of tanks and ammunition.

Following the conclusion of the war in November 1918, Churchill held a series of government positions throughout the 1920s, including secretary of state for war and air, colonial secretary, member of Parliament, and chancellor of the exchequer under Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. Churchill's tenure as chancellor, however, was marked by national unrest and economic instability as the United Kingdom struggled to reestablish a firm economic footing during the postwar economic depression (which led to the Great Depression). Churchill left office in 1929. He then decided to visit Canada and the United States and subsequently embarked on a lecture tour and published his memoirs, A Roving Commission (1930).

World War II

Throughout the 1930s, Churchill became increasingly alarmed at the government's unwillingness to recognize the threat posed by the rise of fascism in Europe in general and the establishment of the Nazi Party in Germany in particular. When World War II began in September 1939, Churchill returned to politics once again as first lord of the Admiralty. In May 1940, after Neville Chamberlain resigned the premiership, Churchill formed a coalition government and became prime minister. At that point, Britain was facing what many believed was the country's darkest hour. Paris had been captured by the Nazis, and all of France was on the point of capitulation to the Germans. Few doubted that Adolf Hitler would next turn his attention to Britain. Churchill rallied the British people to what he called the ultimate fight for survival. His leadership would prove vital to the British war effort, as he forcefully denounced proposals to negotiate with the Germans for some kind of settlement or conditional peace.

The British people rallied behind Churchill, inspired by his eloquent, patriotic speeches that cited the noblest aspects of Britain's cultural heritage to stave off the threat of invasion and conquest. The prime minister faced his first serious challenge when France fell to the Germans in June 1940. In a last-ditch effort to rescue what was left of the British Expeditionary Force and part of the French Army (which were trapped on a beachhead at Dunkirk in northern France), Churchill called on privately owned British vessels to assist the Royal Navy with evacuation efforts in one of the most dramatic rescues in history.

In September 1940, under Hitler's command, the German Luftwaffe (air force) attacked British soil, signaling the start of the Blitz. The British people, particularly those living in London and other major industrial cities, refused to break under the pressure of nightly bombings that killed hundreds and destroyed large segments of the city. In addition, the RAF (British Royal Air Force) launched a decisive defense that stymied the Luftwaffe, refusing to yield control of the skies over the United Kingdom. The Battle of Britain was the Germans' first significant defeat of the war and convinced Hitler that he should turn his attention to weaker parts of Europe before attempting to conquer the United Kingdom again.

Securing Victory

Churchill was widely proclaimed a hero for his role in leading the British through this period. He actively solicited financial and material help from the United States, although it was still a neutral country in the conflict. Churchill pressed his friend, U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt, to bring the United States into the war, which eventually occurred in December 1941, in response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Churchill and Roosevelt quickly allied their efforts to form a powerful coalition against the Axis powers. Churchill also welcomed the Soviet Union into the alliance—despite his opposition to communism and Soviet premier Joseph Stalin—because he recognized the Soviet Union's massive military potential.

By 1944, the Allies had built up their own strength and weakened the Germans enough that Churchill gave his support to an invasion of France. He played an instrumental role in organizing the resulting D-Day operation in June of that year, which ultimately led to the liberation of Western Europe and the defeat of Germany. Through a series of summit conferences, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin hammered out tentative agreements for dealing with a defeated Germany and restoring order to the world.

However, in July 1945, Churchill received a stunning political blow, when the Conservatives were defeated in the United Kingdom's general election, forcing Churchill out of office. He became the leader of the opposition in Parliament, a cruel disappointment after his wartime prestige. He remained, however, an international hero and proved himself an astute observer of worldwide affairs. In a 1946 speech, he warned of the developing East-West rift, stating that an "iron curtain" was dividing Europe; the term would become synonymous with the struggle between communism and democracy—known as the Cold War—for the next four decades.

Postwar Life and Legacy

In 1948, Churchill published the first volume of a six-volume history of World War II. In August 1949, he attended the first session of the Council of Europe at Strasbourg, fostering the conception of a European and Atlantic unity, later to bear fruit in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and other supranational organizations. In 1951, he returned to the premiership at the age of 77. This second tenure in office was considerably less dramatic than his first but resulted in a number of honors for the elder statesman, including a knighthood and the 1953 Nobel Prize for literature. Among Churchill's books are The Malakand Field Force (1898), The River War (1899), a novel titled Savrola (1900), and Amid These Storms (1932), a volume of essays. He also published two more volumes of speeches and articles.

For years, Churchill had suffered from a series of strokes, and in 1953 he suffered his third and most serious stroke. He continued in office for two more years, however, resigning on April 5, 1955. Shortly after leaving office, he published the first volume of a four-volume History of the English-Speaking Peoples. In July 1964, he formally retired from the House of Commons.

Churchill died in London on January 24, 1965. After one of the largest state funerals in British history attended by thousands and viewed on television throughout the world, he was buried beside his parents in Bladon Churchyard, near Blenheim Palace.

"iron curtain"

Further Reading

Brendon, Piers. Winston Churchill: A Biography. New York: Harper & Row, 1984; Broad, C. Lewis. Winston Churchill, a Biography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1972; Gilbert, Martin. History of the Twentieth Century. New York: W. Morrow, 2001.

MLA Citation

"Winston Churchill." World History: The Modern Era, ABC-CLIO, 2020, worldhistory.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/316976. Accessed 20 Jan. 2020.

Entry ID: 2171547

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