Wednesday, June 24, 2020

The Splendid and The Vile

Rare Moral Clarity

We read that a statue of Winston Churchill in London's Parliament Square was recently attacked and defaced with Black Lives Matter graffiti (  About a month ago my own personal book van was defaced with red paint by protesters in Austin Texas!
Uncle Sam sees Red!
But Erik Larson's latest book offers a more informed and uplifting account of the man widely acknowledged to be the greatest Briton of all time.
Erik Larson

The Splendid and the Vile is Erik Larson's account of Winston Churchill and his family during the Blitz of London in World War II (  Erik Larson is a best selling author whose historical accounts have sold over 9 million copies.  He is the author of Dead Wake about the final voyage of the Lusitania (

Another book about Churchill?  Is this really necessary when the ground has been thoroughly covered by so many fine authors from Andrew Roberts ( to Boris Johnson (  Fortunately the answer is a resounding yes!

Erik Larson brings a fresh set of eyes to this world historic period of World War II.  From the spring of 1940 until Hitler's invasion of Russia which began on June 22, 1941 Britain stood alone against the Nazi menace.  This was a period of immense danger when the whole world stood on the brink of a yawning precipice.  It seemed for a while that Nazi Germany would win the war and dominate the continent of Europe.  The Germans' Blitzkrieg tactics had vanquished Poland, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark and even France.  Britain made a hasty exit from the continent with the evacuation at Dunkirk.  The Luftwaffe seemed unstoppable.  America was mired in isolationism.  Stalin's Soviet Union had already done a dirty deal with Hitler to carve up Poland.

Larson has a unique narrative gift for the telling detail.  In this volume he focusses not merely on Churchill but also on his intriguing family.  His wife Clementine was the rocky bulwark upon which Winston Churchill built his extraordinary life.  She was steady and compassionate when she went out with her husband to visit the bomb-damaged neighborhoods throughout Britain.  Churchill himself was noted to cry amid the rubble of London.  Randolph, their only son, was a wastrel, a gambler, a drunk and a cad.  Their daughter Mary (later Mary Soames) was a vivacious ingenue in 1940 who eventually took charge of an anti-aircraft battery.  His daughter in law Pamela (née Digby) was a beautiful young woman, unfortunately wed to the the ne'er do well Randolph.  During this fateful year Pamela will give birth to Winston Churchill jr. and begin an affair with the American millionaire and diplomat Averell Harriman.

Larson writes his account with full moral clarity about a time which really offers up astonishing moral clarity.  On the one hand, there are the vile...Adolph Hitler, who launched the bloodiest war in human history.   There is Joseph Goebbels his propaganda minister who wound up killing all of his six children before committing suicide in the Fuhrer bunker. There is Hermann Göring, the World War I flying ace who became the immensely fat and greedy head of the Luftwaffe who looted the museums of Nazi occupied Europe.

Nor were the vile exclusively German.  By no means.  Randolph Churchill's philandering during the birth of his son was pretty vile.  Joseph Kennedy, the US ambassador to the Court of St James at the start of World War II, was defeatist and pro-German.  Larson relates a Foreign Office joke of the time which circulated at the time: "I always thought that my daffodils were yellow until I met Joe Kennedy." 

On the other hand, there is Winston Churchill, his family and a growing entourage of admirers.  There is the splendid oratory of the great man himself in delivering what are perhaps the finest pieces of political rhetoric ever uttered by any wartime leader.  "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat" and so on.  Jock Colville rendered splendid assistance as Churchill's private secretary while keeping an illicit private diary that would become immensely important to future historians.  Colville heroically volunteered to leave his desk job to serve in the RAF.  Larson recounts his various amorous wartime adventures.  This work's title is derived from one of Colville's remarkable diary entries.

In Harry Hopkins Churchill found a very different kind of American than JFK's dad.  After fulsome dinner at Ditchley Park in 1941 Churchill delivered a high-toned peroration in defense of Western values.  Churchill paused to ask Hopkins what FDR would make of all this.  Hopkins replied, "Well, Mr Prime Minister, I don't think the President will give a dam' for all that."  After a very long pause for effect Hopkins explained, "You see we're only interested in seeing that God dam sonofabith Hitler gets licked."   Harry Hopkins was in that moment a splendid American!

Kenrick 'Snakehips' Johnson
1914 -1941
His Life Mattered
Finally, there are the victims.  Nearly 29,000 were killed during the blitz which lasted from May of 1940 until June of 1941.  These included 5,626 children.  Many more would be killed by the rocket attacks launched late in the war.  Around 10 percent of all buildings in London were destroyed during the course of the war.  Larson relates the tragic bombing of the Café de Paris in Piccadilly on the evening of March 8, 1941 which killed at least 34 people including 'Snakehips' Johnson, a twenty six year old dancer and bandleader from British Guiana, who was decapitated by a German bomb.  The protestors of 2020 who attack the statue of Churchill seem not really to care much about his black life...?

A minor quibble about this book is the sad absence of photography.

I will stand with Churchill!

History is freighted with irony.  Churchill himself might appreciate the irony inherent in the fact that elements of the radical Left are now attacking the greatest Anti-Fascist of all time!  I, for one, will stand with Churchill.

You can find signed copies of our books at these web sites...



Jim Hooper said...

You do not stand alone.

Colleen McMonagle said...

I started this book yesterday and couldn't put it down. Very engaging. Highly recommend.