On May 7, Jonathan Schneer delivered a lecture titled “Ministers at War: Winston Churchill and his War Cabinet,” in which he discussed the main arguments and findings of his book, which was published in April.
Schneer works at the Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of History, Technology and Society as a modern British historian. He earned his B.A. from McGill and his Ph.D. from Columbia and has written seven books.
Chris Waters, professor of history at the College, organized the talk. Schneer also ate dinner with three faculty and three students following the lecture.
In his talk, Schneer focused on the men that Churchill selected to work closely with him during World War II – his war cabinet. This group consisted of five to eight people during its existence.
“I discovered while doing the research that these men were divided on all sorts of issues,” Schneer said. “They were divided for personal reasons, some of them were jealous, some of them didn’t like each other.” He explained that there were also ideological differences within the group, as the war cabinet consisted of both socialists and conservatives.
Schneer compared these differences to the contemporary divide between Tea Party Republicans and liberal Democrats. “The ideological difference between the different factions in the war cabinet was even wider than it is today,” he said.
He explained that despite this ideological divide, the men in Churchill’s war cabinet worked together for a common purpose.
Before America and the Soviet Union entered World War II, Britain was alone and “didn’t see how they could win the war.”
“But Churchill decided not to give up and held on for a year and a half,” Schneer said. “During that time, these men in the cabinet by and large worked around their differences. If they hadn’t, the country would have fallen.”
However, by the end of 1941, when the Soviet Union and the United States had joined the British side, members of Churchill’s government were less willing to overlook their differences.
“Churchill kept the team going anyway,” Schneer added. “Although most people don’t think about him as a manager of men, he was a very good one. Sometimes he employed humor to keep them going when they were disheartened or angry. Sometimes flattery. Sometimes he encouraged them. Although he was very, very stubborn, he could be overruled, and the cabinet sometimes did in fact take decision that he disagreed with.”
Schneer also painted a picture of Churchill as “an odd man,” with many foibles, including his drinking habits and his sentimental attitudes.
“He was a terrible chairman and those meetings used to last forever,” Schneer said. He explained that several of the men in the war cabinet believed that they would be better ministers than Churchill. One member, Stafford Cripps, came closest to trying to replace Churchill, according to Schneer.
“Churchill understood what Cripps was trying to do and beat him,” Schneer said. “He was also a very odd man.” Churchill appointed him to the position of Leader of the House of Commons in the War Cabinet, a role for which he was not well-suited. “The House was critical of Cripps and Churchill got him to retire in this way.”
“Everybody paints that government and Churchill as the greatest man who ever walked earth, and he did do great things, but they had all sorts of troubles and difficulties and Churchill was not perfect … I tried to shape the kaleidoscope and show familiar and unfamiliar pieces and patterns of this story … to avoid airbrushing history.”