Tag Archives: William Manchester

The Last Lion by William Manchester

Summary

  1. Manchester describes not only the man, but the times, context, history, background, “gestalt” in which he lived. “This is a biography and not a history, but you are often confused because they are in fact quite different. A biography details the life, context, times, and decisions of a man and is not merely a chronological recounting of the past. As a biographer, we try to re-create an illusion of the man’s life to give people a true sense for who they were and the circumstances they were dealt.”

My favorite Churchill speeches – Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat, We Shall Fight on the Beaches, Their Finest Hour

Favorite quotes

  • What is our [Britain’s] War Policy? – I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.” Just as Churchill predicted, the road to victory in World War II was long and difficult: France fell to the Nazis in June 1940.
  • On a particular day when the Royal Air Force had amazing results, Winston’s famous line was, “never have so many owed so much to so few.”

Key Takeaways


Vol. 1: 1847-1932 Visions of Glory

  1. Many men have judgment, few have insight. He was an extroverted intuitive and his capacity to inspire and unite was unrivaled. He preferred to work by intuition and impulse rather than analysis. This is what the country needed at this time but it rubbed many people the wrong way. Most men misjudge their importance, Churchill did not. He was indispensable
  2. In the age of the specialist, he was the antithesis. He was a Renaissance man in every sense of the word. The defender of freedom, a poet a writer, a statesman, a politician, a biographer, a historian, one who is a force of character and can never be summed up easily. He is one of history‘s great men.  It is pointless to expect consistency and balance in genius.  He was different from other men and had what seemed to be built in shock absorbers that allowed him to continue on through all his defeat and downturns.  It was said that one of the strongest traits was his ability to focus on one thing and doing it exceedingly exceedingly well. That is a trait of genius .
  3. Deep insight and not stability were his forte. He knew the British people had to be united when Hitler came to power.
  4. Although Winston was brave and a strategic mastermind, it was his mastery of the English language which set him apart and helped him shape history.
  5. The book begins with a deep dive of the British empire and how large and dominant it was at its height –  spanning 3x the size of the Roman empire! This unstoppable mindset and the belief that it was the British right to rule is important to understand and cover because it heavily influenced Churchill in many ways 
  6. He spoke to the British people, the world, like nobody before or since. He was raw, real, unabashed
  7. In all his life he showed incredible courage – from his time in the military to his final days as a politician. He was accused of loving war but this was not the case. He felt the heaviness but knew he had to step up or things would get much worse
  8. Winston was as much American as he was British. His mother was from New York and he loved her dearly but she neglected him early on. Later, however, because of her promiscuity and relationships with multiple wealthy and influential men, she was able to open many doors for Winston. His nurse was the most important person in his life until he was 20. He was also beat savagely at his boarding school, was bored in class, and rebelled against authority. His only defense was an unconquerable will and he showed how stubborn and iconoclastic he was early on.  He struggled mightily in school, never achieving good grades and hardly getting into colleges or prestigious schools.  
  9. His father was a prominent politician but played his cards wrong and ended up being kicked out, never to return again. He deeply loved his father and considered him an idol, but his father neglected him and hardly spoke to him because he didn’t achieve in traditional measures. Famous men are typically the product of unhappy childhoods
  10. Churchill had great faith but also believed you have the power to change things. He changed his image to one of an athlete, a bulldog, to display to others his courage and confidence
  11. Churchill is one of the most losing politicians of all time. He switched parties numerous times, rubbed people the wrong way, and was often thought as a charlatan who had a lot of talent and intellect but didn’t know how to harness it 
  12. He always fought for and rooted for the underdog, as he himself was the underdog. He suffered serious bouts of depression and melancholy, was bullied as a kid and never fit in. The most insecure and oppressed people seek external approval and Churchill was no different. He simply wanted people to applaud him and tell him how great his works were, not to offer critical feedback or advice. He always thought that he was destined for greatness and was rather arrogant about it at times. He loved being the center of attention and would often listen to his own speeches and re-read his own work to listen to himself 
  13. It was said that Churchill was a simple man – he simply enjoyed the best of everything 
  14. Churchill never had a feel for the British public. He simply did his own thing. He was born into a society where class differences were prevalent and accepted. It was said that he would’ve been just fine in the feudal society.  His aristocratic heritage was the cause of many blind spots but it was also responsible for his great talents as well. He was never accused for being humble and owned up to that
  15.  Churchill had an incredible memory, able to remember and recite thousands of lines of poetry and what he remembered he hardly forgot.  He was also an incredible writer and made his money as a journalist and author.  Since he was young, the only thing he wanted was become master of the written and spoken word.  He didn’t improvise. He planned and wrote ahead of time and wrote most of his speeches in the bathtub with a cigar. He dictated his speeches to a secretary who typed them up then came the scissors and the glue to rearrange the lines multiple times before the final draft was ready.  The final draft had bigger letters for what he wanted to emphasize spacing between words that he wanted to stress and bolded others what he thought most important 
  16. Churchill was a voracious reader, remembering everything he read and calling the dead authors his friends from whom he often pulled from. He was never a man for small talk
  17.  In his early 20s he got shipped off to India with the British army. It was at this point that he started becoming an auto didactic, reading everything from Aristotle to Plato to Socrates, learning from the lessons of history.  He allowed himself to believe whatever he wanted to believe even if paradoxical or contradictory and let reason take him wherever she might.  It was at this time he decided he wanted to get into parliament, but first he decided he needed to be a famous war hero who displayed courage. He brilliantly manipulated his mother and her lovers so that he could be on the front lines where ever the fiercest battles were 
  18. Churchill had his own path, he fashioned his own life. He didn’t follow anyone 
  19. Churchill went down to South Africa during the Boer War. He was held captive there for some time and showed great courage throughout his time there. Once he came back to Britain, he had earned a lot of political power and recognition. He had parties fighting for him to join their constituencies and the people were excited about him.  He became magnetic around this time and soon a great speaker. He memorized every word he wanted to say, just like his father had.  Nobody put in more work to prepare for his speeches but it was paradoxical that he was also the quickest on his feet. Churchill didn’t care about  approval, he simply wanted attention.  
  20. One of Churchill‘s advantages was his lack of formal education. He questioned everything, thought from first principles, and wasn’t afraid of stating simple truths. These were things which others, who were more buttoned up and had more classical training, did not even consider or were too afraid to even think about 
  21. One must be always ready to change sides, if that is the side of justice.  What is the use of supporting your side only when it’s right? It is exactly at the time when they are wrong, when there is disagreement, that you must step up and speak.  He fought for what he thought was right, not what his party said was right. This made him many enemies on all sides and when he was young, he wasn’t able to handle this solitude too well. He went into deep bouts of depression. He experienced this later on too but managed them and learned how to handle them when he was alone and behind closed doors. He jumped sides early on from a tory to a liberal. One said this was ambition because he could move ahead faster but he retaliated by saying that some men change parties to match their principles whereas others change their principles to match their parties 
  22. Winston as awkward with women. He really only liked talking about himself and abhorred small talk. He eventually became very dependent on his wife but early on he didn’t seem to respect women too much
  23. Traditional religions were losing their grip on the English and they were looking for substitutes. This meant that dogmatic, hardheaded, and simple answers to complex questions attract people because this allows them to have something to hold onto that feels concrete 
  24. By the early 1900s, the British had conquered pretty much everything there was to conquer. This just stifled people’s energy and innovation, making them turn inwards and expecting higher levels of innovation and fulfillment to come from England herself
  25. Men rarely understand the sources of their strength 
  26. His same qualities attracted and repelled – his compulsive and witty conversation offended and attracted
  27. His capacity for work is difficult to even understand but he still had time for polo, leisure, travel, and more. 
  28.  He was in egoist in the true sense of the word – whatever he was focused on was then, by definition, the most important 
  29. England for centuries adopted the grand strategy of allying with the second most powerful country in Europe and that is how they defeated Napoleon, but the strategy was not written down until Churchill came along.  The English Navy also had a mandate that they must be more powerful than the second and third most powerful navies.  
  30. The best admirals do not risk the vessels that they’re given, they win by superior strategy. During World War I, Churchill was the First Admiral and although his thinking and strategies on the war were spot on, he didn’t have authority to fully carry them out. He wanted to open up a second front in the Dardanelles so that they could exploit the Axis Powers unstable ally, Turkey, and gain the upper hand. It didn’t work however because the top brass wasn’t committed and people ended up blaming him for the fiasco and wanted to exclude him from the cabinet after the war. After the war it was determined that if his strategy was followed through correctly and effectively the war could’ve ended several years earlier. He saw that trench warfare was savage and there was no decisive advantage. That’s why he fought so hard for gaining control of the Dardanelles but it didn’t pan out because he didn’t have authority to do things as he saw fit and those in charge we’re stuck in the past and couldn’t change their strategies as the technology changed. Generals tend to fight their last war 
  31. Change is the master key. Particular parts of the mind can be tired by overuse but it can be rested by using other parts of the mind. This is why Churchill loved to draw – it was his escape, a way to recharge
  32. At it’s apex, politics, strategy, economics are all one. 
  33. This understanding of strategy and military maneuvering was second to none.  However, after World War I, he was blamed for many fiascoes and things that he really wasn’t in charge of. During and after the war, Churchill experienced much isolation and criticism. Clementine told him his flaws, how his confrontational nature, need for the limelight, and sharp words earned him many enemies, distancing first rate men and attracting those who were fickle and could turn on him at any time. 
  34. It is amazing what people can justify to themselves by changing their reasoning 
  35. After WWI, the Russian and Bolshevik threat was not wasted on Churchill. He wanted to suppress them militarily but PM Lloyd George was vehemently against it and Winston had learned his lesson that he should not bulldoze his way through life when those who make the ultimate decision are so against it 
  36. One of Churchill’s biggest battles was with Communism. However, he often mistook pink for red and had major battles with the socialist labor unions. He was the Chancellor at this point and doing an excellent job. He was gaining great popularity and people were guessing when he would end up at 10 Downing St. as prime minister but there was hesitation too because he was still independent and not beholden to any one political party 
  37. Churchill was against Gandhi’s freedom of India mostly because it was out of an old school of thought that Britain had to hold onto their colonies or else they would become irrelevant. But, he also argued that the tens of millions of untouchables were in a position worse than slaves and if left alone, the country was and these people would be in a worse position because of all the religious infighting. However, it was also a difficult time to get the British population to really care for it was in the middle of the Great Depression. He was a political pariah through much of this period 
  38. Churchill became one of the world’s highest paid and most prolific writers. He sold books magazines articles and earned a healthy living off these skills 
  39. Churchill was one of the first to see the writing on the wall and understand how dangerous Hitler was and how damaging the treaty of Versailles was.  He recognized some of himself in Hitler even though he understood, before anyone else, the evil vision that Hitler had. Hitler too recognized his greatest foil in Churchill even though Churchill was not in power 

Vol. II: 1932 – 1940 Alone

  1. Churchill loved his baths and was very particular about them. They had to be filled the right amount and at the right temperature before he would jump in. He started every day with breakfast in bed and spent several hours reading editorials and newspapers.
  2. Although he is known for always drinking, he was never drunk and said that he got more out of alcohol than alcohol I’ve gotten out of him 
  3.  Churchill had a faculty for organizing large works, had an uncanny ability to focus on what he was working on in that moment, and did a surprising amount of the first hand reading, writing, and synthesizing of his works 
  4. He would spend between 6-8 preparing for a 40 minute speech and he made it a priority to remove all bureaucratic jargon and include as many visuals and emotional ties as he could.  He was extremely precise with his words and demanded the same of others 
  5. He could recite entire epic poem from memory but had trouble remembering the names of his servants. He treated them quite poorly and would often times act childish and impulsive if they didn’t understand him or do as he wished.  In one quarrel with one of the servants, the servant lashed out and said that Winston was rude first and Churchill replied, “yes I was, but I am a great man!” There was no arguing this as everyone in the house knew he was right.  He was not a man to apologize but he would sit show he was sorry I being appreciative for what you have done for him 
  6. The only way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him and the easiest way to make him untrustworthy is to distrust him and show that distrust 
  7. I would rather be right than consistent 
  8. Other than Churchill, few others saw the writing on the wall and how hungry Germany was to recover their honor at the first possibility. They had hate in their hearts, were embarrassed by the Versailles Treaty and wanted revenge. One of the more shortsighted and devastating decisions was to try to recoup some of the losses from the Great Depression by having the losers of the war pay for it. This germinated hatred and the desire for revenge which culminated in World War II 
  9. No trap is as deadly as the trap you set for yourself. Many other political and astute figures were duped by Hitler. They were drawn in by his magnetism and believed him when he said that all he was looking for was peace 
  10. Political genius lies in seeing over the horizon anticipating a future invisible to others
  11. He was a poor politician by the traditional sense of the word, although he was the most gifted orator of his time. He didn’t have the patience to proceed by traditional parliamentary processes and he didn’t have the skill to manipulate the House 
  12. Although he was a brilliant strategist, he missed how important and decisive submarine and air dominance would come to be. He was far ahead in calling for a rearmament and strengthening of England to offset the not so secret rearmament of Germany 
  13. Stanley Baldwin was the most popular and powerful PM in a long time and he knew that he would lose that if he were to call for a rearmament of England. This might have been the right call even though it was a tough and unpopular decision 
  14. Great wars usually come only when both sides have high confidence in victory 
  15. The blind spot of the time was that everyone preferred peace to war because of the atrocities seen in World War I. However, Hitler managed to  unite and set fire to a huge group of people who felt betrayed, broken, and who wanted revenge. They were willing to fight to regain their honor when nobody else was 
  16. When Hitler invaded the Rhineland, all the officers were terrified because they knew that if France acted they would be crushed. It was later learned that this was when Hitler was most nervous but he saw the risk is worth taking.  According to existing treaties, if France was attacked and they mobilized, Britain would send troops to support but they decided not to. The British decided to call this an assertion of equality rather than an act of war 
  17. Men of genius are able to focus on one thing exclusively more intensely than average man and never tire. Churchill’s focus was now on Hitler at the exclusion of everything else. He did whatever he thought was needed to stop him even before others even recognized the danger he posed
  18. Hitler understood his orderly people and knew he couldn’t usurp the government. So, he went about acquiring power through normal means and moved his way up. He used the secret police and other intimidation methods to get votes but it was done with the intention of looking legitimate in the eyes of the people so that they would accept him 
  19. Churchill understood that short simple words that were commonly understood or more powerful and effective than fancy words. He also believed that the key to a rousing speech was sincerity the speaker had to truly believe and be enthusiastic about what he was talking about and then it would be infectious 
  20. 1937 was a difficult year for Churchill. King Edward abdicated the throne in order to marry Mrs. Simpson and the way that Winston handled the situation and his ties to the king and his constant call for rearmament in order to equal Germany strength left him with no political power and he even contemplated leaving politics altogether
  21. As a political outcast he didn’t have the same constraints and expectations as those who held responsibility and this allowed him to maneuver and track down information on Germany’s position and actions that otherwise may have been difficult or riskier to attain
  22. Really interesting to learn more about the mindset and priorities of people at the time. Appeasement was the route they took because everyone was so shell-shocked and devastated by World War I that everyone was trying to avoid war at all costs and keep the economy strong and growing. Many saw how powerful Hitler and Germany were becoming but we’re reluctant to act on it for fear of war and economic devastation 
  23. Hitler’s invasion of the Sudetenland was one of those rare historical moments which took on a momentum of its own and exerted its own field of pressure 
  24. Prime minister Chamberlain was ineffective in dealing with Hitler. He didn’t understand how ambitious he was or how vengeful the country was. Churchill, on the other hand did. He and Hitler were very much the same and may be why they understood each other – they were both both artistic, believed in the supremacy of their countries, that they were men destined for greatness, and both used their intuition rather than reason to lead 
  25. In hindsight, the appeasement efforts were pitiful and ineffective but at the time, the public was so distraught by the first world war that they cheered the concessions made to Germany regarding Czechoslovakia.  This Munich Agreement had torn the government in the country apart as people were either applauding Chamberlain and the peace he had manufactured or understood that this was only a temporary solution that Hitler would be back and stronger than ever 
  26. Wise men avoid extravagant predictions
  27. Churchill was a terrific writer and thinker as he was able to assemble droves of information in his head, form it into a prism. and reflect it with blinding leaps of intuition.  His writing and research helped him dive into the past and find patterns that would help him navigate through World War II 
  28. Churchill was willing to change his mind in order to protect his country. Even though he hated the Bolsheviks, he knew that an alliance with Russia was a great idea so that Hitler would have a two front war if it got to that point 
  29. The present is not tidy or understandable and, once it has become the past, if one tries to make it neat, it only becomes implausible  
  30. A fundamental misconception about dictators in this time was that they could be reasoned and negotiated with. They hate compromise and negotiation 
  31. The British ruling class we’re also known as the leisure class and they hated to be in a hurry. They disappeared on the weekends and could not be reached. Hitler, knowing this, took advantage of that by making big moves and key decisions on the weekend when the people with the power and authority to make decisions weren’t around. He used velocity to his advantage 

Vol. 3: 1940-1945 Defender of the Realm

  1. Britain finally declared war on Germany and soon after Churchill joined the Admiralty. Someone who worked closely with him recounts how big of a difference his presence made to all levels, both civilian and military
  2. Churchill likes risks and always sought ways to bring the war to the enemy
  3. The English navy taught their cadeets that the greatest sin was to lose their ships and therefore, when war came, they were very conservative and risk averse
  4. Churchill was known for his incredible work ethic and crazy hours but he still needed to sleep about 8 hours within a 24 hour period, they were just more erratic than most
  5. Hitler famously used velocity to his advantage with the blitzkrieg. However, he also importantly avoided going strength to strength and always sought weaknesses that could be exploited. Hitler had hardly traveled abroad but he had an intuitive sense for finding people’s and country’s weaknesses and exploiting them.
  6. A couple days after Germany attacked the lowlands and France, Neville Chamberlain resigned so that Churchill could form a national government. Churchill felt like his whole life was leading up to this point, that he was walking with destiny
  7. Churchill never delegated any PM decisions because he wanted to be number one but also because he wanted to know everything, allowing him to form the hologram in his head. He saw bigger picture than anyone but also got into the weeds. He issued ear plugs for soldiers because it was so loud on the frontlines, he used WWI memorabilia if it was still functional, asked what would happen to the animals at the zoo if it was bombed, etc.
  8. Getting America involved in the war was one of Churchill’s most important objectives. He worked FDR and Harry Hopkins, charming both of them and eventually getting America to agree to the lend lease program. Churchill knew he had convinced them when Hopkins rose during a dinner with Churchill and quoted from the Book of Ruth: “Whither thou goest I will go, and whither thou lodgest I will lodge. Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God,” he declared, dramatically adding, “even to the end.” Churchill wept openly.
  9. The furnace of war had smelted out all the base metals from him. – Chamberlain on Churchill
  10. While he could be rough, he had a deeply empathetic streak. He also saw things simply, which is why the masses loved him
  11. He kept a box with organized folders out of which he ran the country and the war
  12. He required each command he gave to be answered in writing because this ensured that nothing was confused or misunderstood
  13. He was a man of action who didn’t care much for fancy social theories. He cared about what worked. However, he was very well read as he believed this was a very effective form of action
  14. Every report had to be summarized in less than one page before he would look at and sign off on it
  15. He was hard on others but he was even harder on himself
  16. Churchill didn’t go to church often and when asked about this, he said he wasn’t a pillar of the church, but a buttress – supporting from the outside rather than the inside
  17. He was of the belief that in peace times, be good to all, but during times of war, only show absolute fury
  18. He digested history to the point that he could recount every detail. He made them his personal memories and it informed his life and decisions
  19. Napoleon urged his men to never form a static picture of what he thought the enemy might do. Maginot clearly didn’t heed this sage advice. He and Petain concluded that the Germans would never come through the Ardennes because it was too thick of a forest. This was clearly a huge blind spot
  20. On a particular day when the Royal Air Force had amazing results, Winston’s famous line was, “never have so many owed so much to so few.”
  21. Winston was very thoughtful and deliberate about he he communicated with the masses, making sure that steps were taken so that they knew how hard the army, navy, and military were fighting on their behalf, stoking their patriotism, bravery, and courage
  22. Something Germany didn’t understand was the tenacity of the British. Parliament voted 341-4 to fight on and avoid a peace treaty. In a divided government, this is an incredible show of unity
  23. Eventually a ministry of information was created to help combat Germany’s propaganda. Churchill called this department a “stand alone and off-the-shelf unit”
  24. Churchill abides by the law of flexibility and opportunism – allowing himself to react and make decisions as situations unfold – rather than sticking to rigid grand plans
  25. Churchill was a great painter and understood that war, like painting, is a situation where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts 
  26. Niels Bohr had a rule that things were either explained clearly or accurately, but they could not be both
  27. If there is only one option on the table, it is not an option
  28. Churchill had an encyclopedic knowledge of warfare and came to many of the same conclusions that von Clausewitz did – confuse and deceive the enemy, add idiosyncratic elements to your charges, capture armies and not real estate, and more

What I got out of it

  1. Like great biographers do, Manchester gives an intense look into the context, time, environment, in which Churchill live. Loved hearing about his quirks, his “gyroscope” which kept him on the right track regardless of the public’s mood, his oratorical skills, and so much more