Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 27, 2012
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Bad History; Manchester's Churchill
I have often said how much I love reading history (though I have zero tolerance for taking part in
guided tours of historical sites). But I really need to be more specific.
What I love is reading accurate history.
Of course, there is no such thing as accurate history, not in any pure sense. History is
relentlessly inaccurate, for reasons that can't be helped:
1. Documents and other evidence are only spottily available. Sometimes we have a wealth of
information, but sometimes we have only the vaguest hints.
2. Whatever documents we have are often of questionable reliability. Just because an account
was written a long time ago doesn't mean it's accurate. For one thing, a 500-year-old account of
a 700-year-old event is not reliable because it is old. Since it was written two hundred years
after the event, it is not an eyewitness account. Gossip does not become more reliable with age,
and legends famously grow with the retelling.
3. Eyewitnesses and participants have their own agendas, conscious or not. Even contemporary
documents can thus be unreliable.
Our view of Richard III, for instance, is colored by the fact that the Tudor usurper Henry VII,
who killed and replaced him, had to legitimize his own illegal rule. The easiest way was to
demonize his predecessor (rather the way that Obama ascribes godlike powers of destruction to
George W. Bush, whose evil influence has continued to overwhelm Obama's heroic efforts
throughout nearly four years in office).
The very parenthetical statement I just made is an example of how eyewitnesses color their
accounts. My sarcasm was obvious to my contemporaries -- you-- but other polemics might be
more subtle, or an ironic frame of reference might be forgotten, making the surviving documents
potentially more deceptive.
4. As long as many documents with different points of view survive, a historian may pick and
choose among them, giving greater weight to some sources than others, and finding where even
the most contradictory accounts agree. But then the historian's own biases will intrude. Just as
some "scientists" look only at data that promote a global-warming-alarmist point of view, some
historians give weight only to evidence that supports their conscious ideology or their
For instance, when I was researching archaeological works about the Fertile Crescent during the
time of the biblical patriarchs for my novels Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel and Leah, I was
amused at how these serious scientists felt obliged to remind readers that there was no evidence
of the existence of Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob.
But many of them went even further, declaring that archaeology showed that they definitely did
not exist. This is a ludicrous claim, of course -- with few inscriptions surviving from the period
in question, there is no way to rule out the existence of any particular person because his name
was never carved on a rock somewhere.
In fact, such a claim by an archaeologist requires that he completely ignore one huge piece of
evidence -- Genesis itself. There is no doubt that it is an ancient record; and it is obviously a far
more reality-based account, at least in the histories after the creation and the flood stories, than a
heavily magical and weird story like the Gilgamesh tales from Mesopotamia.
So the insistence on the non-existence of Abraham is not at all about archaeology; it has
everything to do with the writer trying to assert his non-connection with any organized religion
of today. "I may be writing about the biblical era," the writer is saying, "but I am not writing to
defend the Bible. Instead, I disdain it as a historical document." But that disdain is, in itself, a
distortion of the record. The Bible exists; it makes whatever assertions it makes; the belief or
unbelief of the archaeologist is irrelevant to any scientific discussion, and it cheapens his work,
as science, to include such blanket disclaimers.
The book of Genesis, despite the many markers of compilation, editing, translation error, and
later interpolations, remains a genuinely ancient, if only semi-historical, document, whose
evidence should not be set aside without good reason.
But outright lying for propaganda purposes in ancient as well as modern documents is also
There is no reason, for instance, to believe that Richard III killed his nephews, the "princes in the
Tower," though he is charged with the crime. Already in control of England, with the legitimacy
of his reign fully recognized, he had no reason to kill them.
But Henry VII and his agents had every reason to kill the boys, since if Richard III were not the
legitimate king, those boys' claim was still far superior to Henry VII's.
So how does a later historian sort through the evidence? Thomas More, writing a manuscript
history, is the likeliest source of the account of Richard III apparently used by Shakespeare for
his famous play; but More never finished the account, and may have broken off the effort when
it became clear to him -- a famously honest man -- that the charges against Richard III were a
pack of lies, and that Henry VII, the father of More's friend and patron Henry VIII, was the only
person who needed the princes dead.
All this is speculation -- it can only be speculation. It is the kind of subject on which honest
historians can and do disagree in their conclusions, even as they agree on the lack of evidence
that could settle the question.
Sometimes ancient accounts are obviously false on their face. Herodotus has Solon of Athens
meeting Croesus of Lydia. It couldn't have happened. One was dead before the other reached
Then the debate becomes: Is the story true, and Solon's name was merely applied to the "wise
man" of the account? Or do we look at it as a fabrication intended as a fable about hubris or
affirming faith in the wisdom of old Greeks?
We are allowed to wonder whether Herodotus believed it, or knew it was impossible and
included it for its moral value or storytelling pleasures.
Good historians lay out their sources and show their reasoning to their readers. They declare
their conclusions, but leave room for the reader to give a different weight to the items of
evidence and reach a contrary conclusion. Despite his inaccuracies, Herodotus, the first
historian, set the example, often including three contradictory stories, saying, "The Egyptians say
this, the Lydians say that, but I believe the most reliable account is this one."
This technique applies to historians and biographers who are working with original sources.
There is a branch of popular history in which the writer never looks at, let alone weighs, the
original documents. Such a writer merely glances at the work product of previous historians,
picking up whatever facts are needed to make the point the writer wants to make.
This does not mean that such popular histories are valueless. How the Irish Saved Civilization,
for instance, was quite interesting and provided a useful overview of medieval Europe. Nearly
all of the author's conclusions is open to question, if only because so few documents from the
era actually survive, but the conclusions are reasonable and the narrative is interesting and clear.
Twelve Diseases That Changed Our World, by Irwin W. Sherman, should have been a useful and
fascinating book of popular history, as well. Disease has had a powerful effect on human
The barbarians that entered the Roman Empire during the third, fourth, and fifth centuries, for
instance, encountered large areas of untilled farmland and more than a few unoccupied or
seriously underoccupied cities.
Why? Because terrible plagues had depopulated large areas, as people fled disease-ridden cities
and then the hinterland that had supplied these cities also suffered sharp drops in population.
While no one cause toppled the Western Roman Empire, it's worth remembering what an
important role disease played then. It may have been smallpox that first shattered Roman life;
because of global cooling at the time, crops had already been weakened and a series of plagues
encountered a population already weakened by hunger and climate.
Diseases matter. They sweep across national borders and undo the plans of great empires.
They also set in motion great social changes. It is worth pointing out that the Renaissance
corresponded roughly -- perhaps too roughly for significance -- with the Black Death.
The idea is that the Black Death caused social disruption by creating a labor shortage, which
greatly increased the power and freedom of workers. Formerly tied to the land, many now were
free to move away from their oppressive lords and enter city life, invigorating urban life.
So Boccaccio's Decameron, set in the plague years, may be a marker of the Renaissance in more
ways than one: Not only is it a literary marker of the beginning of the Renaissance, but also its
premise -- a group of wealthy young people have fled the city to avoid the plague, and amuse
each other by telling stories, ten stories a day for ten days -- links the newly vigorous literature
quite explicitly with the plague years.
So I was set to enjoy Sherman's book, to see how he treated each disease and traced the
influence of the disease on cultures, governments, and individual lives.
Instead, I ran into serious problems of reliability.
Already disappointed by the sketchiness and erratic nature of the narrative in its discussion of
porphyria and hemophilia in the royal families of Europe, I was absolutely disgusted by the
treatment of the Irish potato blight.
The writing was even more disorganized and haphazard than in the previous chapter. Mentions
of landlord-tenant relationships were scattered across the narrative in nearly random order, and
without any attempt at depth.
Sherman couldn't make up his mind whether, at any given moment, he was telling us about how
the biology of the disease worked, how the disease affected Irish agriculture, how Ireland was
already precariously poised on the brink of famine before the blight ever showed up, and how
emigrants from Ireland were treated when they reached England, Canada, or the United States.
The tone of outrage was the one constant, but without nuance or any serious attempt at
understanding what people did or did not know.
Then there were absurd inaccuracies. Sherman actually says, without irony, "Only about one-fifth of the migrants survived the trip across the Atlantic because of their poor health, the fact
that it took weeks to months to cross, and no food was provided on board ship" (p. 28).
I tried to ignore the word "migrants" -- few people really understand the difference between
"migrant," "emigrant," and "immigrant," and it doesn't necessarily mean the author is careless.
(To whom it may concern: A "migrant" is a person who regularly moves between one place and
another, or among many places, usually in a regular pattern that crosses borders; "immigrant" is
someone coming into a country from outside; "emigrant" is someone leaving a country.
(Thus the Irish were "emigrants" when you think of them leaving their homeland to escape the
famine and poverty, but they same people became "immigrants" when they entered the United
States or Canada in large numbers. What they definitely were not was "migrants.")
What matters here is the ludicrous statement that only one-fifth of the Irish emigrants survived
the voyage. Even slave ships did better than that. Other, more reliable sources have the opposite
proportion: One-fifth died, with higher losses among children.
Those numbers are dreadful enough. But if the death rate had been eighty-percent, nobody
would have boarded the ships. There is a limit to human desperation -- survival rates were
better than that in Ireland itself.
The chapter is also damaged by sweeping generalizations that link unlinkable causes.
Widespread prejudice in England against the Irish may have kept some from feeling any
responsibility to deal with starvation in Ireland -- which had already been a problem before the
potato famine -- but it is absurd to link it to Malthusian ideas. The anti-Irish prejudice and
Malthusian theories were generally held by groups whose membership did not overlap.
Moreover, the failure of the English to provide relief was primarily a problem of culture.
Governments were not seen as having a responsibility to give aid -- or, rather, that responsibility
was only gradually coming to be recognized.
Also, there were well-known effects of government aid that have since been largely forgotten:
Government aid can destroy markets. During a time of famine, food prices soar -- it's a way of
allocating scarce resources to those who are willing to pay more for it.
The trouble is that this gives a preference to the rich, and the consequences to the poor can be
fatal. However, when governments, or charities, intervene to relieve hunger, they can
inadvertently destroy the market for locally grown food. By giving away or seriously
underpricing food, they can make it uneconomical for farmers to bring food to market or grow it
in the first place.
Also, with the price so low it becomes uneconomical to transport food over long distances.
When the aid stops, old channels of food distribution may be gone.
To provide aid without destroying markets requires a delicate balance -- one beyond the reach
of sophisticated systems available today, and certainly beyond the reach of the English
Add to this the fact that aid channels simply did not exist and had to be set up on the fly, and you
get a famine that persisted even after the decision to help had been made.
The high moral dudgeon of the book, therefore, seemed to me to be misapplied. This was the
history-book equivalent of yellow-journalism, in which villains are picked without any attempt
to explain or understand motives of the miscreants.
Add to this the sort of shotgun -- nay, machine-gun -- method of choosing villains, and the
result was inaccurate and absurdly judgmental "yellow history."
There are other absurdities that seemed to result from the author's ignorance. There is reference
to the attempt to send corn to the starving Irish. In England, though, "corn" means "edible
grain," and what we Americans call "corn" is generally called "maize." Thus in England the
"corn laws" referred to wheat and rye, which can be made into bread.
But maize cannot be made into bread using the same methods. So the Irish, who would have had
no trouble baking with the grain they called "corn" would indeed be baffled by the grain we call
corn. What was missing was any notion that Sherman understood the difference.
I realized that this book was irredeemably ignorant and/or imprecise with this series of
statements: "The churches offered little hope since the Church of Ireland was entitled to collect
taxes from tenants regardless of their religion. Indeed, the Catholic Church increased its
ownership of property in Ireland during the famine. The Church was vehemently on the side of
the absentee English landlords ..." (P. 26).
This statement is stupid in so many ways. The author seems to think that the Church of Ireland
was the Catholic Church. But it was not -- it was the Irish version of the protestant Anglican
Church, imposed on the Catholic majority by England.
So it is hard to believe that the Catholic Church, which was powerless in Ireland during this era,
could have increased its property holdings; only the Church of Ireland was in a position to do so.
Certainly the Catholic Church was not "vehemently on the side of the absentee English
landlords" -- Catholics and the Catholic Church hated the English landlords.
If a writer is so ignorant of history that he thinks the Church of Ireland and the Catholic Church
are the same organization -- which Sherman clearly seems to say -- then how can any other
statements he makes be relied upon?
It seems clear to me (though I'm making assumptions here), that this is a thrown-together book.
Sherman is no historian. He decided on his title, and then did sketchy research to cobble
together an incoherent narrative that actually reduces the reader's reliable knowledge of the past.
This is bad history. But if I had not already known something about Irish history, would I have
spotted these problems?
However, any reader would notice the incoherence of the narrative line, the way thoughts jump
around and thoughts are not pursued to their conclusions. It is impossible to follow the story
lines, and time after time I think that any reader would be baffled by the non sequiturs.
This is actually a good thing -- the book's bad writing and nonexistent thinking will make it so
the misinformation will not be effectively transmitted to the reader.
But the best course of action is not to read the book at all. Which is what I will do with the
remaining chapters. When I finished quoting from the book while writing this column, I left it
on the plane.
How can you guess, before reading a history book, whether it is any good or not?
One way is to look at what you know of the author. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., for instance, was so
closely tied to the Kennedys and to liberal causes, that he (and his disciples) were ridiculously
biased in their judgment of dead presidents. The much-publicized "ratings of presidents by
historians" invariably quote the conclusions of this group. How surprising is it, then, that
conservatives generally get short shrift, and liberals are extravagantly overpraised?
Other historians, though they have their own political opinions, have earned a reputation for
following the evidence wherever it leads. Such a historian was the late William Manchester. I
first encountered his work as a teenager, when I read The Arms of Krupp.
His account of the German arms-making family was fascinating to me, and while it was clear
that Manchester disapproved of weapons of long-range destruction in general, he was
scrupulously fair in his assessment of the Krupps themselves, and even-handed in his portrayal
of German culture and politics, even though he was writing at a time when the memory of World
Wars I and II was still fresh.
Thus I had no trouble trusting Manchester's biography of Winston Churchill, The Last Lion.
This three-volume work, published over decades, was incomplete when Manchester died. It has
now been finished by other hands and will soon be released.
In preparation for the final volume, I downloaded the first two volumes of The Last Lion from
Audible.com and am nearly finished with the first one. It is such a pleasure to be in
Manchester's capable hands. He shows his work, but never tediously; you always get every
view of Churchill.
Yet Manchester also makes his judgments, and he does not "split the difference." Recognizing
that he is dealing with a controversial figure, he nevertheless makes clear judgments,
distinguishing between politically-motivated attacks, self-serving dismissals, and actual
Thus, though Manchester's own politics were probably closer to those of the Liberal and, later,
the Labor parties in England, he nevertheless dismisses their attacks on Churchill's behavior in
World War I, particularly in the battle for Antwerp and the Gallipoli campaign, and also in
Churchill's promotion of aviation and sponsorship of the tank against great opposition.
Manchester shows that Churchill's behavior in all these matters was exemplary, often prescient
and, despite mistakes here and there, quite correct, while his critics are often exposed as petty,
motivated by blind malice or political cowardice.
Yet he does not hesitate to show when Churchill was flat wrong, or when his behavior bordered
on the idiotic or politically suicidal. His critics were often stupider men who resented
Churchill's superiority; they yearned to believe, and therefore often claimed, that he only
prevailed because he outtalked everyone else.
They also charge him with motives identical with their own -- a common, if usually
unconscious, practice -- so that Churchillian projects that were clearly in England's best
interest, especially when viewed with historical hindsight, were dismissed or attacked as
evidence of Churchillian "megalomania" or his desire to control every ministry instead of
sticking to his own bureaucratic niche.
It's true that Churchill's interests were wide-ranging and he often strayed out of his territory.
But that's what people with their country's true interests at heart will always do -- nations are
not well-served when their leaders mind only their own business.
Churchill's "land battleship" -- the tank -- if used when and how he intended, could have ended
World War I much earlier, and without the needless slaughter of trench warfare, which he
constantly campaigned against. His plan for the Gallipoli campaign is universally agreed to have
been excellent and, had it been carried out with mere competence, let alone courage and vigor,
would almost certainly have ended World War I after less than two years, saving the lives of
One of the real delights of Manchester's biography of Churchill is not really Manchester's fault.
A usual flaw in most biographies is the paucity of information about the famous person's
childhood and adolescence. Nobody keeps adequate records of their lives until their adult
achievements start to leave a significant paper trail.
But Churchill was a copious letter writer even as a child, and everything was saved. Even during
the years when he was a terrible student, nearly everyone around him (except his parents)
recognized his genius and the likelihood that he would amount to something in the world. In
short, Churchill was, even in failure, memorable.
So Manchester has copious amounts of information -- letters, memoirs, and eyewitness accounts
-- about Churchill's childhood.
He is also fortunate that Churchill was himself a journalist and historian of considerable ability,
and while Churchill's histories are often colored by his own participation in the events -- why
would he not defend his own views and decisions when writing histories about events he helped
to shape? -- it is also true that every claim he makes about his own actions, including
extraordinary heroism, leadership, and correctness in battle -- is corroborated by independent
witnesses, often by people who disliked Churchill personally but could not deny his genius,
courage, and determination.
The result is a superb biography of the man I consider to be the greatest human being whose life
overlaps my own. America has had no statesman of comparable ability since Abraham Lincoln,
and few before him (Alexander Hamilton is the only likely candidate, with George Washington a
Churchill changed the world, and he changed it for the better. Even though he was blamed for
defeats he did not cause and some of his achievements were treated as defeats (his stiffening of
the defense of Antwerp arguably saved the British and French from having their flank turned by
the German invaders), he can be credited with doing more than any other person to bring victory
to the democracies not only in World War II, but in World War I as well. And had his advice
been followed and his policies pursued after World War I, there would have been no World War
II, and quite possibly no Cold War either.
Of course, he also was wrong or semi-wrong about other things; even geniuses have blind spots,
and certain, detailed foreknowledge is not vouchsafed to anyone. Sometimes it seems that the
only person in Churchill's life more prescient was his wife, Clementine. She was able to foresee
the results of his errors before he committed them; had he listened to her a little more often, he
might have suffered fewer of the slings and arrows of outraged anti-Churchillians.
If he had listened to Clementine, there would have been no Black & Tans during Churchill's
time as Colonial Secretary dealing with Ireland in the last days of British rule there. Yet
Churchill was also the leading member of the government to abandon reprisal and repression and
seek whatever political compromise was possible. What was worked out by him and others,
Michael Collins died for; but Churchill was also a leading target of IRA assassins, whose
murderous path -- matched by murderous opponents in Northern Ireland -- blackened Irish
history for a century.
Indeed, Churchill became the lightning rod for every government he was part of, even when, as
often happened, he had opposed the very policy for which he then took the lion's share of the
blame. It was not his policy that failed in the Dardanelles in World War I, it was the hash that
others made of it; and they, fully knowing this, later dared to taunt him openly for the failure of
When the Lloyd George government foolishly supported Greek designs on Constantinople, it
was Churchill who advocated withdrawing British occupation of the city and working out a
political compromise with Kemal Ataturk. Lloyd George refused -- but it was Churchill who
was blamed for not being able to leave the Dardanelles alone! He made enough mistakes of his
own not to need to bear the blame for other people's.
If he had been prime minister during World War I, then the war would probably have lasted only
a couple of years, and Britain would have won it decisively. The Tsar of Russia would not have
fallen when and as he did, so that Communism might never have achieved power there; Germany
would not have been treated so badly after the war and Hitler probably would never have
But Churchill was not prime minister of England then. His policies were not followed; the world
paid the consequences; then, miraculously, Churchill, as an old man, was still available when
England and the world absolutely required him to stop Hitler.
The life of Winston Churchill is well worth studying, and while I've read many good books
about him, each one illuminating, in detail, episodes and eras that Manchester's broader account
can deal with only lightly, I have found no other account that contradicts Manchester.
He is a trustworthy historian. He is an excellent writer.
And in the audiobook, you will find that the narrator of the first volume, Frederick Davidson,
is absolutely superb. His imitation of Churchill's voice is accurate without being annoying; his
pronunciation of the occasional long foreign-language quotations is excellent; and throughout, he
does a fine job of differentiating voices and bringing them to life.
It is in narrating Manchester's narrative voice, however, that he does his most important work,
for Manchester's perfect clarity is undiminished in the reading. This is one book that is greatly
improved by listening, and not just because the volumes themselves are so thick and heavy that
if you fall asleep reading them in bed, you may be suffocated by morning.