Churchill emulated his father—who attained the position of chancellor of the exchequer before resignation, illness, and premature death cut short his political career—by entering politics in 1900 as a Unionist member of Parliament. In 1904, his party's partial conversion to protectionism caused him to join the Liberals, who made him president of the Board of Trade (1908–1910) and home secretary (1910–1911) after they returned to power.
As first lord of the Admiralty (1911–1915), Churchill enthusiastically backed the campaign of First Sea Lord John "Jackie" Fisher to modernize the British navy with faster battleships and more efficient administration. One of the few initial cabinet supporters of British intervention in World War I, Churchill soon took the blame for the disastrous 1915 Dardanelles expedition against Turkey, which prompted his resignation. He spent the six months up to May 1916 on active service on the Western Front but regained high political office in July 1917, when Prime Minister David Lloyd George made him minister of munitions in his coalition government.
In December 1918, Churchill moved to the War Office, where he unsuccessfully advocated forceful Allied action against Russia, in the hope of eliminating that country's new Bolshevik government. In late 1920, he became colonial secretary. Two years after Lloyd George's 1922 defeat, Churchill returned to the Conservatives, who made him chancellor of the exchequer in November 1924, a post he held for five years. He reluctantly acquiesced in Britain's return to the gold standard, and his determination to suppress the 1926 General Strike won him the lasting enmity of much of the labor movement.
By 1928, Churchill believed that the postwar peace settlement represented only a truce between wars, a view forcefully set forth in his book The Aftermath (1928). When Labour won the 1929 election, Churchill lost office, but he soon began campaigning eloquently for a major British rearmament initiative, especially the massive enhancement of British airpower, to enable the country to face a revived Italian or German military threat. From 1932 onward, he sounded this theme eloquently in Parliament, but Conservative leaders remained unsympathetic to his pleas. Throughout the 1930s, although Churchill held no cabinet position, he nonetheless continued to the campaign for rearmament. He also became perhaps the most visible and vocal critic of the appeasement policies of the successive governments of Prime Ministers Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain, who effectively tolerated German rearmament, Chancellor Adolf Hitler's deliberate contravention of the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, and Germany's and Italy's territorial demands on their neighbors.
When Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939, Churchill resumed his old position as first lord of the Admiralty. Despite the German attacks on the British aircraft carrier Courageous and the battleship Royal Oak, as well as the responsibility he himself bore for the Allied disaster in Norway during April and May 1940, he succeeded Chamberlain as prime minister on 10 May 1940, the day Germany launched an invasion of France and the Low Countries. Over the next three months, repeated disasters afflicted Britain, as German troops rapidly overran the Low Countries and France, forcing the British Expeditionary Force to withdraw in disarray that June from the Dunkerque beaches of northern France, abandoning most of its equipment. Throughout the summer of 1940, during the Battle of Britain, German airplanes fiercely attacked British air bases, an apparent prelude to a full-scale cross-Channel invasion.
Churchill responded vigorously to crisis. Although he was 65, he still possessed abundant and unflagging energy; his vitality was fueled by his habit of an afternoon siesta, after which he normally worked until two or three the next morning. His fondness for sometimes fanciful and questionable strategic plans often exasperated his closest advisers, as did his attachment to romantic individual ventures—such as those launched by the Special Operations Executive intelligence agency, whose creation he backed enthusiastically. Even so, Churchill was an outstanding war leader. On taking office, he delivered a series of rousing and eloquent speeches, affirming Britain's determination to continue fighting even without allies and voicing his conviction of ultimate triumph. Churchill also followed a demanding schedule of morale-boosting personal visits to British cities, factories, bomb targets, and military installations, which he continued throughout the war.
Besides rallying the British people to endure military defeat in France and the bombing campaign Germany soon launched against Britain's industrial cities, Churchill's speeches, which caught the international imagination, were designed to convince the political leaders and people of the United States—the only quarter from which Britain might anticipate effective assistance—of his country's commitment to the war. U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt responded by negotiating the "destroyers-for-bases" deal of August 1940, whereby the United States transferred 50 World War I–vintage destroyers to Britain in exchange for naval basing rights in British Caribbean Islands and North America.
Since the war began, Britain had purchased war supplies in the United States on a "cash-and-carry" basis. By December 1940, British resources were running low, and Churchill addressed a letter to Roosevelt, who had just won reelection, requesting that he provide more extensive U.S. aid to Britain. Roosevelt responded by devising the Lease-Lend Act that was passed by Congress the following spring, which authorized the president to provide assistance to countries at war whose endeavors enhanced U.S. national security. In August 1941, Churchill and Roosevelt met for the first time at sea, in Placentia Bay off the Newfoundland coast, and agreed to endorse a common set of liberal war aims—the Atlantic Charter—and to coordinate their two countries' military strategies. Churchill also agreed to allow British scientists to pool their expertise in nuclear physics with their American counterparts in the manhattan Project, a largely U.S.-financed effort to built an atomic bomb; the project reached fruition in summer 1945.
Churchill was relieved by Japan's December 1941 attack on the American naval base of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and the subsequent German and Italian declarations of war on the United States because these actions finally brought the United States fully into the war and, from his perspective, guaranteed an ultimate Allied victory. In the interim, as 1942 progressed, he needed all his talents to sustain British resolution through various disasters, including Japan's conquest of Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore, and Burma and British defeats in North Africa.
After Germany invaded the USSR in June 1941, Churchill also welcomed the Soviet Union as an ally, though his relations with Soviet leader Josef Stalin were never as close as those with Roosevelt. Churchill made repeated visits to the United States and met Roosevelt at other venues. In addition, all three leaders gathered at major international summit conferences at Tehran in November 1943 and Yalta in February 1945, and Churchill also met Stalin separately on several occasions. He traveled abroad more than any of the other Allied leaders, often at substantial personal risk.
Stalin resented the Anglo-American failure to open a second front in Europe until June 1944, a decision due in considerable part to Churchill's fear that, if Britain and the United States launched an invasion of western Europe too soon, the campaign would degenerate into bloody trench warfare resembling that between 1914 and 1918. Meeting Roosevelt in May 1943 in Washington, he finally succumbed to American pressure to open the second front the following summer. Churchill also resented intensifying U.S. pressure for the phasing out of British colonial rule, a prospect made increasingly probable by Britain's growing international weakness.
As the war proceeded and Soviet forces began to push back German troops, Churchill feared that the Soviet Union would dominate postwar Eastern Europe. Soviet support for Communist guerrillas in occupied countries and for the Soviet-backed Lublin government in Poland reinforced his apprehensions. In October 1944, he negotiated an informal agreement with Stalin whereby the two leaders delineated their countries' respective spheres of influence in Eastern Europe. At the February 1945 Yalta Conference, Churchill and Roosevelt both acquiesced in effective Soviet domination of most of that region. The three leaders also agreed to divide Germany into three separate occupation zones, to be administered by their occupying military forces but ultimately to be reunited as one state. In April 1945, Churchill unavailingly urged American military commanders to disregard their existing understandings with Soviet forces and take Berlin, the symbolically important German capital. Despite the creation of the United Nations in 1945, Churchill hoped that close Anglo-American understanding would be the bedrock of the international world order, a perspective intensified by his continuing fears of Germany.
In July 1945, the British electorate voted Churchill out of office while he was attending a meeting at Potsdam, replacing his administration with a reformist Labour government. Churchill was still, however, honored as "the greatest living Englishman" and the war's most towering figure. He used his prestige to rally American elite and public opinion in favor of taking a stronger line against Soviet expansionism in Europe and elsewhere, a position he advanced to enormous publicity in his famous March 1946 "Iron Curtain" speech at Fulton, Missouri. Churchill's six best-selling volumes of memoirs, The Second World War, presented a somewhat roseate view of Anglo-American wartime cooperation, and they were carefully designed to promote the continuing alliance between the two countries, which had become his most cherished objective. From 1951 to 1955, Churchill served again as Conservative prime minister. Declining health eventually forced him to resign from office. A House of Commons man to the core, he consistently refused the peerage to which his services entitled him. Churchill died in London on 24 January 1965. For many, his death marked the symbolic final passing of Great Britain's imperial age. Churchill received the first state funeral for any British commoner since the death of the duke of Wellington over a century before. An idiosyncratic political maverick whose pre-1939 record was, at best, mixed, Churchill rose to the occasion to become the greatest British war leader since the earl of Chatham in the eighteenth century.
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