Paul Johnson is the most celebrated and best-loved British historian in America, especially by readers of a conservative bent. Astonishingly prolific, he has over three decades produced a series of serious best sellers, all of which present a refreshingly revisionist take on their subjects. Most controversial of all, perhaps, was his defense of Richard Nixon in his “A History of the American People.” But there is plenty in each of his histories to startle readers used to conventional wisdom or the liberal conventions of academia.
Now, at 81 and after years of producing enormous, compulsively readable history books, Mr. Johnson has just written what, at 192 pages, is probably the shortest biography of Winston Churchill ever published.
It came about, he says, because the head of Viking Penguin approached him “saying that young people are very interested in Winston Churchill but we find they are most reluctant to read long books. . . . She said do you think you could do a short biography, and I said ‘it’s a cinch!'”
He gives credit to his success as a historian to his simultaneous and successful career in journalism. “You learn all sorts of tools as a journalist that come in extremely useful when you’re writing history,” he tells me as we sit in the drawing room of the West London house he shares with his wife, Marigold, “and one is the ability to condense quite complicated events into a few short sentences without being either inaccurate or boring. And of course a lot of the best historians were also journalists.” He cites Thomas Babington Macaulay, the French historians Francois Guizot and Adolphe Thiers, and Churchill himself, “a very good journalist and in his own way a superb historian. . . . One of the things I hope this little book will do is persuade people to read Churchill’s own books. ‘My Early Life’ is one of the best volumes of autobiography ever written?it’s an enchanting book, full of fun and humor.”
Mr. Johnson’s own journalistic career meant that he spent considerable time with other 20th-century leaders, ranging from Charles de Gaulle, Konrad Adenauer and Ronald Reagan to “that windbag” Fidel Castro, giving his Churchill portrait added depth.
Mr. Johnson met Churchill himself in October 1946 when he was a boy about to go up to Oxford. “He gave me one of his giant matches he used for lighting cigars. I was emboldened by that into saying, ‘Mr. Winston Churchill, sir, to what do you attribute your success in life?’ and he said without hesitating: ‘Economy of effort. Never stand up when you can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down.’ And he then got into his limo.”
The book includes refutations of many of the negative myths that have grown up around Churchill. For instance, that he was drunk for much of World War II. “He appeared to drink much more than he did,” Mr. Johnson insists. “He used to sip his drinks very, very slowly, and he always watered his whisky and brandy.”
Mr. Johnson certainly does not agree with the often-echoed criticism made by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin that Churchill had every gift except judgment: “He made occasional errors of judgment because he made so many judgments?some of them were bound to be wrong! . . . On the whole, his judgment was proved to be right. He was right before the First World War in backing a more decent civilized society when he and Lloyd George created the elements of old-age pensions and things like that. He was right about the need to face up to Hitler and he was right about the Cold War that the Russians had to be resisted and we had to rearm.”
He is convinced that “Churchill was more than half American . . . all of his real qualities generally come from his mother’s side.” And despite Mr. Johnson’s own Oxford education (he was there with Margaret Thatcher), he believes that Churchill benefited from never having gone to college: “He never learned any of the bad intellectual habits you can pick up at university, and it explains the extraordinary freshness with which he came to all sorts of things, especially English literature.”
Mr. Johnson also likes to emphasize the importance that painting played in Churchill’s life. Churchill took up the brush after the Dardanelles disaster in World War I, and Mr. Johnson, an accomplished artist himself, believes that his prolific hobby helped him overcome depression for the rest of his life.
And the Dardanelles debacle taught Churchill about leadership in war. “Churchill got the blame, but in fact he never had the power to do it properly. He was determined in 1940, when he took over, to concentrate a great deal of power in himself. That’s why he made himself minister of defense as well as prime minister.”
Mr. Johnson says he learns something new about the craft of writing with every new book. This time, he found that “you can do a huge subject in a small number of words provided you are ruthless. You have to be as ruthless as Napoleon, who told Metternich that he didn’t care if a million men were killed if he achieved his objective.”
On a good day he can produce between 3,000 and 4,000 words, he says, all written in longhand, now that electric typewriters are no longer made. And he has “never employed research assistants of any kind,” adding with a twinkle, “I am an old cottage industry.”
And what did he learn about Churchill in writing his book? “He really created the Middle East in its modern form. Iraq and Jordan, he completely made them. And he made it possible for the state of Israel to exist.”
At one point Mr. Johnson told me that “one of the marvelous things about Churchill is that whatever he was doing, whether fighting or arguing or despairing or bouncing about full of energy, jokes are never far away.” And though Mr. Johnson believes his own best book is the highly praised “Birth of the Modern,” his personal favorite is “Intellectuals,” a collection of biting essays that take (mostly leftish) gurus like Voltaire and John Paul Sartre to task for personal failings ranging from adultery to incontinence. He likes it, he says, “because it has the best jokes. . . . Books must have jokes. People have to be amused because life is so sad.”
—Mr. Foreman is writer at large for Standpoint magazine.