Great Britain’s greatest 20th-century statesman, best known for his courageous leadership as prime minister during World War II. Churchill, born November 30, 1874, was the eldest son of Lord Randolph Churchill and the American heiress Jennie Jerome. He graduated from the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, but having served in India and the Sudan he resigned his cavalry commission in 1899 to become a correspondent during the Boer War. A daring escape after he had been captured made him a national hero, and in 1900 he was elected to Parliament as a Conservative. Despite his aristocratic background, he switched in 1904 to the Liberal party. In 1908 he became president of the Board of Trade in Herbert Henry Asquith’s Liberal cabinet. Then, and later as home secretary (1910-11), he worked for special reform in tandem with David Lloyd George. As first lord of the admiralty (1911-15), Churchill was a vigorous modernizer of the navy.
World War I and the Interwar Period
Churchill’s role in World War I was controversial and almost destroyed his career. Naval problems and his support of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign forced his resignation from the admiralty. Following service as a batalion commander in France, he joined Lloyd George’s coalition cabinet, and from 1917 to 1922 he filled several important positions, including minister of munitions and secretary for war. The collapse of Lloyd George and the Liberal party in 1922 left Churchill out of Parliament between 1922 and 1924. Returning in 1924, he became chancellor of the Exchequer in Stanley Baldwin’s Conservative government (1924-29). As such he displayed his new conservatism by returning Britain to the gold standard and vigorously condemning the trade unions during the general strike of 1926. During the depression years (1929-39) Churchill was denied cabinet office. Baldwin—and later Neville Chamberlain, who dominated the national government from 1931 to 1940—disliked his opposition to self-government for India and his support of Edward VIII during the abdication crisis of 1936. His insistence on the need for rearmament and his censure of Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler at Munich in 1938 also aroused suspicion. When Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939, however, Churchill’s views were finally appreciated, and public opinion demanded his return to the admiralty.
Churchill as Prime Minister
Churchill succeeded Chamberlain as prime minister on May 10, 1940. During the dark days of World War II that followed—Dunkirk, the fall of France, and the blitz—Churchill’s pugnacity and rousing speeches rallied the British to continue the fight. He urged his compatriots to conduct themselves so that, “if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’” By successful collaboration with President Franklin D. Roosevelt he was able to secure military aid and moral support from the United States. After the Soviet Union and the U.S. entered the war in 1941, Churchill established close ties with leaders of what he called the “Grand Alliance.” Traveling ceaselessly throughout the war, he did much to coordinate military strategy and to ensure Hitler’s defeat. His conferences with Roosevelt and Stalin, most notably at Yalta in 1945, also shaped the map of postwar Europe. By 1945 he was admired throughout the world, his reputation disguising the fact that Britain’s military role had become secondary. Unappreciative of the popular demands for postwar social change, however, Churchill was defeated by the Labour party in the election of 1945.
Churchill criticized the “welfare state” reforms of Labour under his successor Clement Attlee. He also warned in his “Iron Curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri, in 1946, of the dangers of Soviet expansion. He was prime minister again from 1951 to 1955, but this time age and poor health prevented him from providing dynamic leadership. Resigning in 1955, Churchill devoted his last years to painting and writing. He died on January 24, 1965, at the age of 90. Following a state funeral he was buried at Bladon near Blenheim Palace.
Churchill was also an able historian. His most famous works are The World Crisis (4 vol., 1923-29), My Early Life (1930), Marlborough (4 vol., 1933-38), The Second World War (6 vol., 1948-53), and A History of the English-Speaking? Peoples (4 vol., 1956-58). He received the Nobel Prize for literature and a knighthood in 1953.