During times of national crisis, we often look to our leaders for guidance and reassurance. Perhaps that is why, during these uncertain times, I was compelled to read two recently-published books about wartime leaders who, though very different in personality and upbringing, were both cognizant of their responsibility to the people they represented, and extremely conscious of how their decisions and actions would be viewed through the lens of history.
As you’ve probably gathered from the title of Alexis Coe’s book, You Never Forget Your First is not your typical dry, dusty biography. The book opens with a number of bulleted lists: from Washington’s likes/dislikes, and friends/frenemies and adversaries, to the ridiculous number of diseases he survived, the animals he raised, and the many tales mythologizing Washington that we heard growing up. Can a list of bullet points really tell you anything of significance about a person? Maybe not. And yet, I found the lists fascinating and was immediately hooked.
From the title, you might expect this biography to be irreverent or tongue-in-cheek; in actuality, Alexis Coe writes that her goal was to examine Washington’s life from a female perspective. She argues that male biographers – hers is the first Washington biography written by a woman in 40 years – have frequently romanticized Washington’s legendary status, sometimes ignoring historical evidence in order to uphold the masculine ideal Washington has come to represent. Coe disputes previous biographers’ portrayals of Washington’s mother as an unfeeling, illiterate harpy by providing evidence of letters written by Washington’s mother and speculating that her no-nonsense attitude was no different than most mothers of that day. She also maintains that aspects of Washington’s handling of slaves have been glossed over in order to leave Washington’s legacy untarnished.
You Never Forget Your First is a quick-reading primer on George Washington and his life, perfect for those dabblers in history who want to gain broad insight into some of the events, people, and other factors that influenced and informed Washington’s life. If you are a hard-core history buff interested in a more comprehensive biography, you may want to check out Ron Chernow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography Washington: a Life, a book that Coe specifically mentions and counterpoints throughout her book. For those who would like to learn more about the U.S. presidents who followed in Washington’s footsteps, I’d highly recommend listening to the “Presidential” podcast. Created and hosted by Washington Post reporter Lillian Cunningham, each hour-long episode focuses on one president, revealing little-known or long-forgotten facts about him while also delving into the impact of his presidency.
By contrast, Erik Larson’s book The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family and Defiance during the Blitz is a deep dive into Winston Churchill’s first year as Prime Minister, during which Germany began a massive air campaign against England that resulted in more than 44,000 British citizens’ deaths. For much of the period between May 1940 – May 1941, England was in the precarious position of solitary defiance against the Nazis. The U.S. had not yet joined in the war and most of Europe, including France, had conceded to Germany. When I imagine wartime strategizing, it’s by committee, in a war room, by stoic military figures. What Larson reveals, however, are the intimate, heart wrenching moments Churchill faced when making impossible decisions. Afraid that French naval ships would fall under Axis control and alter the balance of power at sea, Churchill gave the controversial order to proceed with an attack against their former allies, the French navy, at Mers-el-Kébir. After giving the go-ahead, Churchill dragged Lord Beaverbrook, his Aircraft Production Minister, into the gardens behind 10 Downing at 2am, and wept.
It’s no surprise that Larson, the author of numerous nonfiction books, is fastidious with the research and details in this book. One of the sources Larson relied heavily on was the Mass Observation program. This organization, founded before WWII, was meant to be a record of ordinary British society, but when the war began, became an invaluable testimony of life during the Blitz. It’s these small moments and descriptions of life observed by everyday citizens living through extraordinary circumstances that I found most riveting and revealing. [Become a part of history by sharing your own story of life during the covid-19 pandemic on the CMPLD digital archive.]
The stories recounted in people’s diaries and letters encapsulate the incredible capacity that people have to adapt, both recognizing and accepting that which was once absurd as a surreal new normal. British civilians could watch air battles unfold in the skies while picnicking in their gardens or even listen to air fights between the RAF and German Luftwaffe planes broadcast on BBC radio in exciting play-by-plays similar to commentary you’d hear during a baseball game. But the most vivid descriptions are the recollections of the blitzkrieg bombings of London starting in September 1940 and continuing relentlessly for 57 consecutive days. One woman recalls lying in the grass with her friend and counting more than 150 planes “like clouds of insects moving northwest in the direction of the capital.” The sounds of bombs falling were described by another woman as “an appalling shriek like a train whistle growing nearer and nearer.” After the first night’s bombings, one man emerged to see dead bodies among what had been a peaceful London neighborhood just hours before. He wrote, “I thought well I must be dead, as they were, so I struck a match, and tried to burn my finger, I kept doing this with a match to see if I was still alive. I could see, but I thought I cannot be alive, this is the end of the world.”
I can’t imagine a more personal account of the Blitz than this, written in the words of those who experienced it firsthand. Winston Churchill’s crucial leadership, decision-making, and courage may have led Britain to victory in WWII, but it was his words – defiant, heroic, yet compassionate and human – that rallied the overwhelming support of British citizens: “Victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.” Erik Larson’s latest book successfully showcases the leaders – both splendid and vile – with the everyday heroes that made Winston Churchill’s legacy – and victory over evil – possible.
If you want to learn more about Winston Churchill, check out Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill by Candice Millard. One of my favorite nonfiction reads of 2016, it reveals a little-known side of the legendary Prime Minister.