The lion in wartime
A new museum prompts debate over the use (and abuse) of Churchills name in the war on terror.
LONDON -- A bronze bust of Winston Churchill - a gift to President George W. Bush from the British embassy in Washington during his first few months in office - casts a stern gaze over the Oval Office. As Bush once quipped to White House reporters, ''He watches everything I do.''
Indeed, since the Sept. 11 attacks, the memory of Churchill seems to loom even larger over the shoulder of the president as the Bush administration has eagerly sought to claim the mantle of Churchill as the symbol of resolve against tyranny and terror.
In announcing the US-led bombing raids on Afghanistan in October 2001, Bush declared, ''We will not waver, we will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail'' - words with more than a passing resemblance to Churchill's line, in a 1941 speech, ''We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire.'' Since then, Bush has consistently woven Churchillian phrases into his speeches and even sought to mimic his somber cadence when speaking of the ''grave and gathering'' threat of terrorism and WMDs, an obvious allusion to the ''gathering storm'' that Churchill spoke of in the late 1930s as Hitler readied the German war machine. And both Bush and his close ally Tony Blair have sought to conjure up the spirit of Churchill in summoning the strength of ''the special relationship'' - to use the phrase coined by Churchill himself to describe the US-British alliance - to fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But how well do such evocations of the man capture his complexities, and the complexities of his historic moment? Do comparisons between the war on terror and the rising fascism of the 1930s distort history? With a Churchillian sense of timing and ''destiny,'' to use a most Churchillian word, a new, high-tech museum dedicated to the man and his life opened this month in London with the intent of placing ''the Last Lion'' back in a richly evoked historical context.
The strength of the exhibit, historians seem to widely agree, is that it does not offer hagiography but a brutally honest portrait of Churchill's strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures. The museum itself is ''truly a 21st-century museum about a 20th-century giant,'' says David Reynolds, a Churchill biographer and Cambridge historian.
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The museum's inauguration last week, presided over by the queen, coincides with ceremonies commemorating the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II and the 40th anniversary of Churchill's death. It also comes on the heels of the British Broadcasting Company's extensive nationwide poll of more than 1 million people that declared Churchill ''the greatest Briton of all time,'' surpassing Shakespeare, Darwin, Newton, Nelson, Princess Diana, and John Lennon. As Mo Mowlam, a leading liberal and former cabinet minister in Blair's government, said in her pitch for Churchill during the month-long voting campgain, ''If Britain - its eccentricity, its big-heartedness, its strength of character - has to be summed up in one person, it has to be Winston Churchill.''
The museum is a 9,000-square-foot extension of the existing Cabinet War Rooms, a vast, labyrinthine bunker beneath the Treasury building in Whitehall where Churchill and his War Cabinet presided over the British war effort. The Cabinet War Rooms opened to the public in 1984 and provide tourists with a glimpse of the desk where Churchill sat, his makeshift bedroom, the bank of telephones where encrypted messages were sent back and forth between London and Washington, the map upon which the war strategy was laid out.
The War Rooms exhibit has been immensely popular, particularly with Americans. Museum officials estimate that 60 percent of visitors are American and they expect a similar - if not greater - interest among Americans now that the new museum is devoted completely to Churchill himself. Last week, American greenbacks far outnumbered British pounds in the plexiglass donation box near the door, even considering the relatively weak dollar.
The museum focuses not only on Churchill's wartime leadership but also examines his frequent political miscalculations and his many years spent in the political wilderness, long before he became the leader of Britain on its most fateful hinge of history. It accurately portrays Churchill's image as a colonialist adventurer who loved all the trappings of the British Empire and revered its royalty.
Phil Reed, Director of the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms, said the intention of this museum is not to deal with Churchill as an icon, but to humanize him. ''We try to deal with the more controversial elements. We don't dodge any issue,'' said Reed.
For example, the exhibit doesn't shy away from depicting Churchill's colonialist attitude toward India, providing original documents and letters that reveal his support for stronger measures to quell rebellion there and resist India's premature, as he saw it, attempt toward home rule. The exhibit also highlights his politically disastrous support of King Edward VIII during the abdication crisis in which he took the side of the monarch who was eventually forced to abandon the throne to marry an American divorcee. To show his legendary stamina for work the exhibit provides the hour-by-hour breakdown of Churchill's typical 18-hour day. It shows the exasperating demands he heaped on those around him, and his role as a doting father and loving husband. And it lingers on his love of champagne and Cuban cigars.
As visitors make their way through the five chapters of Churchill's life - Young Churchill, Maverick Politician, Wilderness Years, War Leader, Cold War Statesman - there are thousands of photographs, documents, films, and artifacts, including his ''siren suit'' (as the overalls he wore in the bomb shelter were called), his Bowker hat and polka-dotted black bow tie, and even the silver baby rattle from his baptism on Dec. 27, 1874. Visitors can stand in front of photographs while listening to scratchy recordings of Churchill's most famous speeches, from his ''finest hour'' speech of June 18, 1940 to the Aug. 20, 1940 statement that ''Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.''
The centerpiece of the exhibit is the ''Churchill Lifeline,'' a 40-foot long interactive display which spans the 90 years of his life - from his service as a soldier and war correspondent in the late Victorian era, to his appointment as first lord of the admiralty in 1911 and chancellor of the exchequer in 1924, to his triumphant leadership in World War II, his stunning defeat at the polls a year later, and his death in 1965. The touchscreen technology allows museum goers to activate computer-generated graphics of original documents against sound effects ranging from folders sliding to the clicking of typewriters to the incessant tones of Morse code. Select July 10, 1940, and the ominous shadows of German planes glide over the surface of the table to mark the beginning of the London Blitz. Touch Aug. 6, 1945, and a flash of white rolls across the entire screen to the sound of a thunderous explosion, symbolizing Hiroshima.
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Historians have largely praised the museum - and there seems to be a broad consensus that Churchill's most prominent American admirer today is dangerously misreading the lessons of his leadership.
''What we wonder about America today is why Churchill is so oft quoted, and not Roosevelt,'' says Terry Charman, one of the museum's historians who helped prepare the exhibit. ''On Sept. 12 Bush didn't come out and call Sept. 11 a 'day that will live in infamy,''' as Roosevelt called the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. ''Is it as simple as Bush is a Republican and Roosevelt was a Democrat? I think it's something different. I think Roosevelt was a great politician and Churchill was a great statesman. Roosevelt was very conscious of public opinion. Churchill saw himself as a national leader, a call that went beyond politics to confront an existential threat.''
''The point is that Churchill's language is masterful, and so it's easy to use. But it can't be forgotten that Churchill was a great student of history,'' Charman says. ''And there is a danger in quoting him out of context, and in a sense it would even betray the meaning of Churchill's life. Churchill's words were weighed carefully, finely tuned to the realities of his time.''
''There is a carelessness with the way words are sometimes used today, and we should be wary of that,'' he added.
David Cannadine, a professor of history at London University and the author of the 2002 book ''In Churchill's Shadow,'' a study of the use of Churchill's rhetoric in post-Churchillian England, echoes this point.
''There has always been a cult of Churchill in America,'' says Cannadine, with presidents from Kennedy to Reagan quoting him to justify vigorous opposition to Soviet aggression. ''But [Bush] has taken it to a new level. The frequency with which he summons Churchill is new and it comes out of Sept. 11. But in drawing on Churchill's huge verbal repertoire, there is no sense of perspective. When Bush uses the words in the context of ratcheting up fear in America, it is irresponsible.''
Celia Sandys, Churchill's granddaughter who traveled with him extensively in the last years of his life, said, ''My grandfather took his place in history in the 40 years since his death, but in the four years since Sept. 11 he seems to have stepped back onto center stage in a way that sometimes feels surprising.''
Asked about Bush's frequent Churchill references, she replied, ''I don't believe the challenges are anything like the same ones we faced during World War II. Is that offensive to me? Not at all. I think it shows [Churchill's] views are as relevant today as they were back then. It is a tribute to him.''
Charles M. Sennott is the Globe's London bureau chief. He can be reached at email@example.com.