David Reynolds seeks to shed a "revealing light on Winston Churchill's three most important personae--historian, politician, and soldier;" in the process, Reynolds finds himself creating an image of Churchill far more complex than a mere portrait, for he sketches the bureaucratic, emotional and political landscape in which Churchill created his memoirs of the Second World War. In the summer of 1945, Churchill's party lost its majority to Labour. Surprised at his sudden loss of political power, he cobbled together a band of military officials and academics and wrote one of the defining accounts of the Second World War. Publishers on both sides of the Atlantic paid him a fortune for the rights to serialize and publish the words produced through his "Syndicate" of writers. Critical reaction labeled him a hero, not just for his wartime efforts, but for his ability to write his will on the pages of history. He received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1953. In the growing shadows the of Soviet expansion, he cast the Second World War as an unnecessary conflict, "a tragedy in which the misjudgments and kindly dreams of men of good will in our country encouraged wickedness elsewhere to seize its opportunities." Churchill, throughout the war years, used glittering oratory to collapse dissenting opinion and mitigate wartime fears; the powers of oratory stayed with him, and showed themselves at full force his books of history. Churchill, more than any other British statesman of the time, offered hope for victory--he sold hope better than anyone else. Yet after the war, his memoirs and Post-war speeches exacerbated Cold War tensions, and his historical imagination left a lasting (and somewhat incorrect) impression on the minds of many admirers. Churchill intentionally distorted history, sometimes to suit his ego, but just as often to preserve state secrets or to shape the Cold War. For example, to mask British use of technology, Churchill pretends that foreign spies, rather than code-breaking machines, provided most of the actionable intelligence he used in the Mediterranean campaigns.
Despite Reynolds simultaneous interest in wartime history, literary analysis, and biography, his story navigates the rough waters of Churchill's life with remarkable calm. Reynolds offers smooth transitions through seemingly disparate subjects. Even as he admires Churchill, Reynolds shows that Churchill used his memoirs to disparage political opponents, and to craft history to fit his own particular vision. Reynolds' lengthy quotations and historical framing preclude his readers from absolutely needing ready access to Churchill's books; ready access, nevertheless, certainly helps, because the original books grant a sense of pacing, storytelling, and emphasis that Reynolds' descriptions cannot match. Yet In Command of History represents a magnificent and exhaustive introduction to Churchill's magnum opus. Reflecting on his own writing, Churchill coined a phrase that surely Reynold's can empathize with in a unique way after completing 645 pages of fine print: 'To begin with it is a toy, then an amusement, then it becomes a mistress and then it becomes a masters and then it becomes a tyrant and, in the last stage, just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public.'
Reynold's comparison of Churchill's memoirs to accurate historical ledger and various drafts of the memoirs does not debunk Churchill. The original documents paint a more interesting picture, with a man shaping the story of the Second World War in a nuanced and complicated way. Churchill sold a more virtuous and less objective vision to the masses; the proper way to read such a work requires either dogmatic nestling of the text, or else a painful exploration of alternative outcomes at nearly every juncture. In the past half century, many intelligent 'Churchaholics' took the easy way out and gulped the nectar, the way children take to sugar. These Churchaholics manage to find their own views in perfect accord with Churchill's, largely because they never bother to learn or understand the complexity of the underlying story--it would be terribly inconvenient for them to discover that history can pose irresolvable riddles and moral dilemmas. Reynold's book cannot protect Churchaholics from their own narcissism, but it does help rescue a thinking-persons Churchill. The seas of history require an able navigator with plenty of talent, a lot of luck, and a sense of purpose, and that is the Churchill that Reynold's preserves.