Death of the 20th Century’s Greatest Man

“It may be a blessing in disguise.” ­- Winston Churchill’s wife, Clementine, commenting on his election defeat in 1945, right after winning World War II.

“If so, it is well disguised.”  -Churchill’s response.

My candidate for “Man of the 20th Century” died this week (Jan. 24) in 1965, having deservedly earned the thanks of a grateful nation and world, and having earned the first state funeral for a British politician since William Gladstone in 1898.

He died at age 90, and it may well be that he lived so long because of his election defeat in 1945, when he was replaced as prime minister by Labour Party leader Clement Attlee.  In other words, Clementine Churchill was probably right.  His defeat was a blessing in disguise.

For one thing, it spared Churchill the personal anguish of presiding over the end of the British Empire, which, being an imperialist to the core, Churchill would have hated.  Indeed, one of the reasons Churchill was defeated in 1945, despite having led his country to victory over Nazi Germany, was his reputation as an imperialist, an aristocrat, and a hopeless romantic who still envisioned a return to the Victorian age.  The only “return” the British people wanted was a return to normalcy, and Atlee and Labour seemed better suited to that goal.

Being out of power also gave him greater freedom to speak candidly about what he thought was the greatest future threat to the peace and freedom of the world, namely the Soviet Union’s increasingly ruthless grip on Eastern Europe.  Had he been prime minister, diplomatic and political considerations would have constrained him — the Soviets had been wartime allies, after all.  Instead, more than any other statesman, Churchill opened up the world’s eyes to the Soviet menace.

Being out of power also prevented Churchill, who turned 71 in 1945, from working himself to death.  The post-war problems Great Britain faced were enormous.  The country was literally bankrupt, while the general public, having sacrificed mightily during the war, expected the new government to initiate massive, and massively expensive, spending on social programs and services.

Out of power, Churchill also got to relax.  He traveled, painted, tinkered with his beloved country home, Chartwell, and refreshed his mind and body.

And he wrote.   Perhaps the greatest of the “disguised blessings” was Churchill’s greater freedom to write, especially his war memoirs.  His tome The World Crisis was a huge financial success and helped earn Churchill a Nobel Prize for Literature, the only important politician ever so honored.  But best of all, by living long enough to write it, Churchill ensured that posterity’s view of him would be a favorable one, which, to me, is an undisguised blessing.