Sir John H. Plumb , F.B.A., May 8, 1983

Mr. President:

My theme today is 'The Dominion of History' - an appropriate title, I think, for a series in honor of Sir Winston Churchill, who, after all was, if anyone, the master general of that dominion.

The British reaction to the Falklands crisis astonished many Americans, astonished all Germans, and indeed most all Europeans, except the French whose historical experience is also concerned with the struggle for liberty. Many feared that Mrs. Thatcher's furious belligerence would be inflamed in the future by similar threats to Hong Kong or Gibraltar. Such reactions betrayed a lack of historical judgment and complete ignorance of the role that history has played in Britain's sense of itself. A similar lack of historical empathy has bedevilled understanding of the French by an American president since the war. None of them could respond with warmth to de Gaulle, Pompidou, Giscard d'Estang and now Mitterand: The French, like the British, are gripped by their past. Churchill, of course, would have understood instinctively why the overwhelming majority, left or right, supported Mrs. Thatcher, just as he found it easy to understand why French men and women acclaimed de Gaulle: even though he, himself, found him unbearable. Or why so much of Mitterand's policy has his nation's, as well as his party's support.

The reason, of course, lies in the dominion history. The British people are still entangled in their past, far less may be than they were, but still very deeply. And so are the French. Memories of their greatness still influence Mitterand just as they did de Gaulle: hence their common attitude both to NATO and the independent nuclear deterrent. Any past, however, is multifaceted: at times liberating, at times dangerous. In Ireland, William III and Oliver Cromwell are real presences, bloodying the present in the most tragic and desperate way. And, even in the Falklands crisis, the legality of the past was endlessly and uselessly argued about. Whether John Smith first sighted the islands seemed to matter to some English intellectuals far more than the fact that an entirely British community had lived there for generations, displacing no one. That history should matter, comes as no surprise to most Britons, nor it would seem to most Argentineans, although the majority of the world's governments were bewildered. No historian, however, commented with much sense on the historical dimension of the Falkland crisis. Those who did largely confined themselves to a legalistic investigation of the nature of territorial sovereignty. Mrs. Thatcher had a much firmer grasp - and history told her that the British stood for the liberty of the free Britons and the rule of law. For her, as for Churchill, that was what British history had been about, especially English history, from Magna Carta to the defeat of Hitler. In this crisis of the Falklands the latter mattered more than the former, particularly to anyone over 50. But undoubtedly there was a very real sense of the past, which Mrs. Thatcher rightly sensed and used.

Of course, that essentially simple belief that British history had witnessed the slow unfolding of parliamentary democracy which protected not only property but also the liberties of the individual - free speech, free trial, free assembly - is no longer held by any, or scarcely any, professional historian. Indeed, by scarcely, any popular historian either. Its greatest popular exponent today is Sir Arthur Bryant but his books belonged to a previous age - to the age of Churchill for whom the British past was a part of his daily life. There is a myth, which I myself held for time, that Churchill only found the delights and the truths of history as a young subaltern in India when he spent long afternoons in his hammock reading Gibbon, Macaulay, and ancient volumes of the Annual Register, living again the grim parliamentary battles of his father's day. But this is not true. He was far from being a model schoolboy - he was idle, willful, self-involved and quite stupid about mathematics or Latin, but he was well-ahead of his class at Harrow in history and top of the examination in history for the examination of Sandhurst every time he took it: he failed of course, many times, but never in history. So his reading in history in India strengthened and furthered attitudes that were already burgeoning in childhood and adolescence. History for Churchill was not a subject like geography or mathematics, it was a part of his temperament, as much a part of his being as his social class and indeed closely allied to it. It became a part of his politics, his diplomacy, his strategy and tactics: I think that it is extremely difficult for anyone not born into Churchill's world or time to realize what a dominance the past had over all of his thinking and action. And one should recall that for Churchill the past was very personal. Think, merely, of Blenheim Palace where he was born, which is not so much a house as the greatest war memorial ever built, by a grateful nation for his ancestor, indeed, to proclaim Marlborough's victories over Louis XIV. And the extent of his personal commitment to his family's, as well as his country's past, can be measured by his refusal to acknowledge Marlborough's greed, his vaunting ambition, his capacity for duplicity, even his treachery. In Churchill's Life of Marlborough, he certainly becomes sans peur and almost sans reproche. And what was true of Churchill was true of so many of his political colleagues: some like the Salisburys to a greater, some like the Chamberlains, to a lesser degree. The former could claim the great age of Elizabeth, the latter merely Birmingham in the nineteenth century. A man like Churchill with an intensely creative mind, a natural capacity for the resplendent phrase and a huge need for money was drawn to the writing of history live a lover. His success, as we know, was prodigious. He certainly sold more books on history than any historian in this century and perhaps any century. And yet I am sure that these books could not be written today as they were written, even by a Churchill; I doubt whether, if submitted, any publisher would accept today - were it by an unknown author - The History of the English Speaking Peoples.


“Leave the past to history especially as I propose to write that history myself.”

Winston S. Churchill