Winston Churchill, with a Little Bit of Luck

Hero of the Empire, by Candice Millard, zeroes in on a low point in Winston Churchill’s life—when he was taken prisoner during the Second Boer War in 1899.

Captivity was antithetical to Churchill’s whole nature. Granted, it’s antithetical to most people’s nature, but Churchill was especially poor at enduring such a state. As Millard explains, while other prisoners kept in shape, Churchill neglected to exercise and, uncharacteristically, struggled to maintain his concentration while reading.

Escaping, however, gave him the sort of struggle he needed, and the danger seemed to rejuvenate him.

I highly recommend Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill for the full details. Millard provides great insight into the character of young Churchill (only in his twenties at the time), as well as a general introduction to the history of South Africa at the dawn of the twentieth century.

But as this book focuses on one small part of Churchill’s long life, I just want to focus on one small part of that small part.

Churchill’s escape, though originally devised by a couple of other prisoners whom he had to leave behind, would never have happened without his own courage, initiative, and resourcefulness. The ultimate success, however, also depended on a little bit of luck.

Bad luck, inevitably, also played a role. Churchill’s plan to board a passing train at night fell through because, as a wartime measure, all trains were forbidden to run after 7 p.m. He considered asking native Africans for help, since they hated the British slightly less than they hated the Boers. He started to approach what he thought was a group of natives but couldn’t bring himself to follow through.

“Churchill continued walking for about a mile in the direction of the fires, struggling with his fears and doubts, and then he stopped, overwhelmed by a sense of the ‘weakness and imprudence’ of his plan,” Millard writes.

Churchill would later write that he was “completely baffled, destitute of any idea what to do or where to turn.”

“This time, for perhaps the first time in his life, he was paralyzed with indecision,” Millard writes.

Somehow, the clouds of doubt lifted—“by no process of logic,” Churchill later said—and he continued on toward the fires, his sense of purpose renewed. But as he neared, he realized he wasn’t approaching a camp of native Africans. He was approaching a coal mine.

This, too, carried risks, perhaps even greater risks, but Churchill was simply too exhausted to withdraw and resume wandering. He had the sense that doing so wouldn’t end well for him.

So he approached the nearest house and knocked on the door.

A man answered, and Churchill improvised a lie about having had an accident. The man wasn’t buying it, though, and Churchill soon saw no other option but to take his chances and tell the truth.

Millard quotes the man as saying, after Churchill revealed his identity, “Thank God you have come here! … It is the only house for twenty miles where you would not have been handed over. But we are all British here, and we will see you through.”

The man’s name was John Howard. He was hired to run the coal mine and had been living in the Transvaal for years, eventually becoming a naturalized citizen. His British origins had excused him from fighting in the war, and his current standing had allowed him to remain in the area.

Howard, at great personal risk, organized the ultimately successful efforts to smuggle Churchill to safety. Had Churchill knocked on any other door that evening, his fate—and possibly the later history of World War II—might have turned out very differently.

“By an incredible stroke of luck, Churchill had stumbled upon one of the few places in the 110,000 square miles of the Transvaal where it was still possible to find an Englishman,” Millard says.

This got me thinking about a key difference between nonfiction and fiction. One of Pixar’s rules of storytelling states, “Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.”

Absolutely true. Whenever a lucky break saves a character in any work of fiction, it just comes across as hollow and can lead to the story feeling pointless and unsatisfying. It might even break suspension of disbelief entirely.

But in nonfiction, when a real-life coincidence saves a real person in a real situation, it’s amazing. And it’s fascinating to consider how the arc of history hinges on some lucky breaks along the way. This is, of course, in addition to a whole lot else, but serendipity is part of the historical equation, too.

Churchill’s successful escape required his own initiative, the help of other capable people, and a pinch of that secret sauce, luck.

The enemy of my enemy is not a trustworthy friend

History is more interesting with additional points of view, and that’s what The Daughters of Yalta accomplishes.

Written by Catherine Grace Katz, the book recounts the Yalta Conference from the perspectives of three eminent daughters: Sarah Churchill, Winston Churchill’s favorite child; Anna Roosevelt, FDR’s daughter who was tasked with guarding the secret of the president’s ailing health; and Kathleen Harriman, daughter and most trusted confidante of U.S. ambassador Averell Harriman.

Their inclusion adds greater depth to the history, and Katz does an excellent job of getting inside everyone’s heads, fathers and daughters alike, to present the personal dimension. For example, we get a sense of how Winston was haunted by Europe’s failure to achieve a lasting peace after the previous World War.

The book also shows the friction within the U.S.-British-Soviet alliance, and how the Soviets were generating the bulk of that friction. The Americans and British were indeed swimming with sharks to defeat the Nazis (sharks who were previously allied with the Nazis, who of course could also be described as sharks themselves).

On one hand, the Soviets showed excessive hospitality at Yalta. Their guests’ most casual wishes were granted. Sarah Churchill mentioned how lemon would go nicely with the caviar she was eating, and wouldn’t you know it, a lemon tree appeared on the premises the next day.

But the wish-granting had a dark side. The Soviets were spying on the Americans and British. They planted non-metallic bugs and installed microphones to eavesdrop on their guests.

“They steered FDR toward their listening devices in the Livadia gardens by tidying certain garden paths, so he could manage them in his wheelchair, practically guaranteeing that they could follow his every move,” Katz writes.

Soviets would transcribe private conversations and report summaries to Stalin in advance of meetings.

The NKVD secret police were an ominous presence at the conference. Katz explains that they were “an elite force of terror under Stalin’s leadership. The agency became the secret police and assassination squad. It made the supposed enemies of the people, whether political dissidents or an entire ethnic minority, disappear.”

Kathy Harriman had already learned to be suspicious of the Soviet government, and she was not alone in her concerns. Working as a newspaper reporter in London, she was tasked with covering press conferences given by leaders of exiled European governments, such as those of Poland and Czechoslovakia.

“At these press conferences, the issue that raised the most immediate concern was not Nazi aggression, but rather Britain’s new alliance with the Soviet Union. The exiles were not pleased with the sudden rush of support for Stalin in Britain and the United States,” Katz writes.

“The exiled Polish leaders were particularly vocal. They argued that Stalin would look for any opportunity to seize Poland and install a de facto Soviet regime. Kathy believed them. Not until the late summer of 1944 would Averell realize that Kathy had been right to listen.”

Even before the conference, Kathy Harriman experienced the Soviets’ duplicity firsthand, though she didn’t realize it until later. She and several other journalists were invited to Katyn Forest in Russia to observe a mass grave containing the remains of thousands of Polish soldiers.

What had actually happened was that the Soviets executed nearly 22,000 Polish citizens in 1939. This included “soldiers, intellectuals, and aristocrats — anyone who might have the means and desire to actively resist Soviet rule,” Katz writes. 

“With so many ‘enemies of the state’ in their clutches, the Soviet leaders realized they had a prime opportunity. They could begin liquidating the Polish ruling class, thus making it easier to control the country once the war was over.”

Stalin ordered the executions, and the Soviet agents tampered with the evidence to make it look like the Nazis committed the massacre. The Soviets then fooled the journalists, including the skeptical Kathy Harriman, into believing their innocence regarding this particular atrocity.

“The Nazis committed countless crimes against humanity … but the Katyn Forest massacre was one crime they did not commit,” Katz says.

She later adds, “No matter how much the British and the Americans abhorred the atrocities the Soviets committed, defeating the Nazis remained paramount.”

The Daughters of Yalta is an excellent, insightful book. I’ve provided only a glimpse of it. Read the whole the thing!

Herbert Hoover, hero of Belgium

Herbert Hoover typically ranks fairly low among U.S. presidents. It’s certainly hard to consider his presidency a success when it coincided with the Great Depression.

For some time, a myth persisted that Hoover was a do-nothing, laissez faire president who stood idly by while the economy collapsed. That’s blatantly false, and historians have been correcting the record on that. He may not have taken the correct courses of action as president, but doing nothing was not in his nature.

Herbert Hoover

At his core, Herbert Hoover was a hands-on problem solver, a trait he demonstrated during World War I when he, as a civilian, took it upon himself to organize food relief for Belgium’s entire population of 7.5 million people.

The German army had invaded and occupied Belgium, and among the tragic results, shipments stopped coming into a country that imported eighty percent of its food supply. The Germans consumed much of what was on hand, and they felt no obligation to feed the occupied population.

The British believed the Germans were responsible for feeding its captured territories, and the Germans blamed the British navy for blocking shipments. Meanwhile, 7.5 million people faced the prospect of starvation.

According to Kenneth Whyte in his biography Hoover, Herbert Hoover was living in London at the outset of World War I, and he met an American engineer, Millard Shaler, who was tasked with shipping 1,500 tons of cereals into Belgium. British trade officials wanted the neutral United States to supervise the delivery.

Washington, sadly, was slow to act, and $100,000 worth of food wasted away on a dock. A newspaper headline at the time read, “U.S. red tape starves Brussels.”

Hoover, Whyte writes, “was as galvanized by Belgium’s distress as he was furious at Washington’s foot dragging.”

So, Hoover developed a plan. With the support of U.S. Ambassador Walter Page, he met with various officials over the course of four days to discuss the situation and what could be done. Issues ranged from dietary requirements to difficulties of wartime shipping. The main challenges would be convincing the British to allow the food to be shipped into enemy territory and preventing the Germans from seizing the food for themselves.

The cold-hearted militaristic perspective was that if Belgium starved, the citizens would revolt and thus divert the attention of the German forces, thereby helping the Allies. To counter this, Hoover proposed a public relations campaign to elicit sympathy for the suffering nation, and that was merely one facet of the overall plan.

Hoover drafted a charter for the Committee for the Relief of Belgium (CRB). Based in London and chaired by Hoover, the organization would be private, neutral, and run by volunteers. Its officers were to be men with relevant commercial experience also working for free, ensuring that the money raised actually went toward the mission of feeding Belgium. 

The CRB would fundraise from public and private sources alike, purchase food from different countries, and ship the food to Rotterdam and then into Belgium. A Belgian committee would handle the distribution from there.

Hoover insisted on strong centralization within the organization, and he believed a monopoly would be most effective, rather than diluting relief efforts among numerous well-meaning organizations, none of which would be vigorous enough to accomplish the monumental job.

Whyte notes that the CRB was not the first international humanitarian relief effort, but it possessed an unprecedented scope.

“The aim of the CRB was to provide almost the entire food supply for a nation of 7.5 million people, indefinitely. Hoover, representing a neutral country, intended to move massive supplies of food from the capital of one belligerent country (London) to the capital of a captive country (Brussels) occupied by their mutual enemy (Berlin). He would manage all of this in an atmosphere of war-bred suspicion and hate, and despite the disruption of conventional transportation and commercial activity in what was already shaping up to be the most destructive war in history,” Whyte says.

He continues, “No humanitarian venture, public or private, had ever approached Hoover’s initiative in scale or audacity.”

As CRB chair, Hoover acquired a unique form of diplomatic immunity. “Perhaps no other individual in the world moved so easily across enemy lines during the Great War,” Whyte says.

Hoover was also willing to sacrifice his personal fortune for the cause. “Let the fortune go to hell,” he’s quoted as saying.

There were, of course, difficulties. Costs exceeded projections, with a monthly $1 million tab ballooning into $4 million a month, and then $6 million a month. In 1915, the CRB expanded its scope to include feeding an additional 2 million people in Northern France.

Hoover sought government subsidies, which weren’t so easy to come by. The British believed relief efforts would ultimately just help the enemy and prolong the war, and the Germans weren’t eager to help either. Hoover realized that appealing to the combatants’ better natures wasn’t an effective strategy in this situation, so he played on their fears, telling both sides whatever he thought they needed to hear. Hoover saw his job as keeping Belgium fed, and if he had to bend the truth to accomplish that goal, so be it.

At one point, Hoover toured Belgium to observe the situation firsthand. He described the country as “a land of imprisonment” and said the Belgians were “surrounded by a ring of steel and utterly unable by any conceivable effort to save themselves.”

However, Hoover couldn’t bring himself to look at the food lines or directly interact with anyone receiving aid.

Whyte quotes an unnamed U.S. official as saying, “He told of the work in Belgium as coldly as if he were giving statistics of production. From his words and his manner he seemed to regard human beings as so many numbers. Not once did he show the slightest feeling.”

Reticent though Hoover was, those human feelings apparently did exist deep within, and he was particularly bothered by the plight of hungry children. “It is difficult to state the position of the civil population of Belgium without becoming hysterical,” Hoover said.

It’s true that Hoover was no saint. He could be rather thin-skinned and vain in the face of criticism, often resorting to ad hominem to defend himself. In any situation like this, it’s easy to take the cynical view and question a person’s motives in undertaking such a mission, especially when the person later goes into politics.

But the bottom line is that the CRB succeeded in saving many from starvation.

Hoover chaired the CRB for thirty months, until the United States entered World War I and he could no longer pass for a neutral entity. During those thirty months, according to Whyte, the CRB spent $200 million and shipped 2.5 million tons of food. Dutch and Spanish authorities then took over its operations, and by the war’s end, the organization had spent $865 million in total, with only $4 million of that going to administrative overhead.

Without Hoover’s intervention, the situation in Belgium could have been so much worse.

Whyte writes that Hoover’s “vision and experience enabled him to foresee the demands of industrial-scale humanitarianism in an age of industrialized global war.”

Hoover may not have been the man America needed during the Great Depression, but he was the man Belgium needed during World War I.