The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz
“The Splendid and the Vile is a tale of courage, perseverance, sacrifice, fear, tragedy, human drama, and ultimately inspiration for free peoples everywhere. In the end, Larson’s book further confirms historian John Lukacs’ observation that in the most extreme of circumstances—alone against a ruthless, horrible totalitarian onslaught—Churchill and the British people saved Western Civilization.”
On September 11, 2001, America endured a day of tragedy as Islamic terrorists brought war to our homeland with the attacks on the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon, and the intended attack on the U.S. Capitol that ended in a field in southwestern Pennsylvania. Those attacks cost the lives of nearly 3000 people.
After bestselling author Erik Larson moved to New York City, he explains, he “came to understand, with sudden clarity, how different the experience of September 11, 2001, had been for New Yorkers than for those . . . who watched the nightmare unfold at a distance.”
Larson, the author of In the Garden of Beasts, a widely acclaimed book about Hitler’s rise to power and how it affected the lives of Americans stationed in Germany at our embassy in the early 1930s, began thinking about the German blitz of 1940–41, and how Britain and its leader Winston Churchill (and his extended family) endured nearly a year of aerial attacks by German bombers, resulting in more than 44,000 deaths, and faced the very real threat of invasion of their homeland.
Unlike most histories of Churchill and the blitz, Larson in The Splendid and the Vile focuses on the personal lives of Churchill, his family, his friends, and his advisors, and America’s envoys to Britain, and how they coped with the devastating aerial raids and constant threat of invasion.
Larson notes that when Churchill came to power in May 1940, his government was still staffed with influential appeasers who hoped to negotiate a peace deal with Hitler. Churchill, ever cognizant of the seemingly hopeless task before him, publicly offered the British people “blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” Churchill’s public speeches offered, in Larson’s words, “a sober appraisal of facts, tempered with reason for optimism.”
After the sudden fall of France, Churchill’s optimism masked a very real fear on his part that Britain could not emerge victorious in the war without full American belligerency. He, therefore, courted American leaders—most especially President Roosevelt and his two key envoys Harry Hopkins and Averell Harriman. He knew that victory could only come when the New World came to the rescue of the Old.
Churchill had to convince U.S. leaders that if Germany conquered Britain, America’s security and liberty would be gravely threatened. The stakes were civilizational: “Hitler knows,” Churchill said on June 18, 1940, “that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free, and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands; but if we fail then the whole world, including the United States, and all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age . . .”
The Royal Air Force’s (RAF) courageous actions in the air (“never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”) coupled with Churchill’s ruthless but necessary sinking of the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir, helped to convince U.S. leaders that Britain would not surrender. But perhaps it was the sturdy defiance of Churchill and the British people during the blitz that had the greatest impact on American public opinion.
President Roosevelt well understood the geopolitical threat posed by a Germany dominant on the continent of Europe in command of the British fleet, but FDR was loath to risk political capital by telling the truth to the American people. FDR’s duplicity in this respect, however, was an improvement on the pro-appeasement attitude of his Ambassador to Britain Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr, who Larson notes was the brunt of a joke circulated throughout the Foreign Office after Kennedy fled London during the blitz: “I always thought my daffodils were yellow until I met Joe Kennedy.”
Hitler planned to invade Britain but was swayed by Luftwaffe chief Herman Goring to launch an aerial assault that would hopefully bring the island to its knees. Larson believes that Hitler wanted to make a deal with Britain so he could focus all of his efforts on defeating the Soviet Union and fulfill his destiny to acquire German lebensraum in the east.
Hitler and Goring badly miscalculated the psychological effects of their aerial assault on the British people. Inspired in part by Churchill’s leadership, Britons suffered and sacrificed, wept and prayed, but never gave in. City after city was bombed. Whole neighborhoods were engulfed in deadly conflagrations. Tens of thousands lost their homes, and many lost loved ones. People spent nightmarish evenings in shelters waiting for the bombs to drop. Food and other goods were rationed. But the British people took it and fought back.
Churchill insisted that British bombers strike back at Germany, and they did with mixed results. Later in the war, the German people would reap many-fold for what their leaders sowed in 1940–41.
Throughout the book, Larson focuses on individual human dramas: Randolph Churchill’s excessive drinking, gambling, and womanizing that shattered his marriage to Pamela Digby (who subsequently carried on affairs with Averell Harriman and the American journalist Edward R. Murrow); Mary Churchill (the prime minister’s youngest child) whose engagement to Eric Duncannon did not survive the opposition of her mother and father; John Colville, Churchill’s private secretary, who suffered unrequited love and yearned to fly with the RAF; Lord Beaverbrook, Churchill’s wealthy friend, who ruthlessly oversaw increased aircraft production and repeatedly sought to resign from the government.
Larson does not neglect the German side. He writes about Rudolf Hess and his friendship with German geopolitician Karl Haushofer, and Hess’ mysterious flight to Scotland in an effort to promote peace between Germany and England. He provides the perspective on the blitz of Luftwaffe air ace Adolf Galland, who shot down more than 100 Allied planes during the war and who flew a jet aircraft at the end of the war. Larson also shows the megalomania and thievery of Goring, as well as the sycophancy of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister.
But it is Churchill, unsurprisingly, who dominates the book just as he dominated the world stage in the early years of the Second World War. He was a human dynamo, frequently visiting the bombing wreckage in London and other British cities (often weeping out of the sight of the suffering British people), relentlessly prodding his friend Frederick Lindemann (“the Prof”) to bring science to the aid of the war effort, exasperating his generals and strategists with new and unconventional military schemes, and dealing with family problems like any other father.
Churchill was the public face and voice of a defiant British lion. At an early age, Churchill believed that it was his destiny to lead the British nation to victory in a desperate struggle for existence. He fulfilled that destiny and then some.
The Splendid and the Vile is a tale of courage, perseverance, sacrifice, fear, tragedy, human drama, and ultimately, inspiration for free peoples everywhere. In the end, Larson’s book further confirms historian John Lukacs’ observation that in the most extreme of circumstances—alone against a ruthless, horrible totalitarian onslaught—Churchill and the British people saved Western Civilization.