I regard Churchill as one of the alltime overrated figures in history, and certainly enjoy seeing him cut down to size. Charmley provides a veritable all-you-can-eat buffet for Churchill haters, as he recounts in excrutiating detail the extraordinarily flawed personality of Churchill.
After setting the stage by illustrating Churchill's early years as a relentless opportunist and self-promoter, Charmley begins to build his case that Churchill was not the great wartime leader that posterity would have us believe, and in fact did not even have a sound grasp of military operational strategy. The most glaring example is, of course, the Gallipoli Campaign, which was an unmitigated disaster and effectively ended Churchill's political career for more than two decades. Churchill had gotten his shot at the big time (by becoming First Lord of the Admiralty) and had blown it. When he got his second chance, he showed that he had learned effectively nothing in the intervening period about military operations. Throughout World War II, he would attempt to undertake various zany military campaigns, most of which were politely ignored by the Allied commanders.
While demonstrating Churchill's ineptitude in this area, Charmley (clearly a Neville Chamberlain apologist) builds a reasonably convincing case for Chamberlain, arguing that Chamberlain was using appeasement more as a tool for buying time than anything else. Far from being the naive optimist, Chamberlain was quite sure, argues Charmley, that Hitler was not to be trusted in any agreement. While giving Hitler what he wanted, Chamberlain was quietly building up Britain's military strength for the war he was sure to come. Because one cannot create a potent fighting force overnight, Chamberlain knew he had to buy time by whatever means necessary. Churchill, by contrast, was ready to rush into war with Germany in 1937-38, when Britain was in no way prepared to fight a continental war.
Up to this point, Charmley's treatment of Churchill is reasonable from a scholarly standpoint. He can make coherent arguments and back them up with citations and evidence. However, Charmley's main beef with Churchill has never been that he was reckless & impetuous, or that he wasn't the great military mastermind. Charmley's problem with Churchill is that he lost the British Empire. At this point, Charmley's book begins to fall apart.
Charmley is writing from the perspective of someone who thinks the British Empire was a pretty neat thing, and wishes that Britain still had its empire, just like the good old days. In subsequent writings, Charmley has taken his argument even further, casting FDR as an anti-imperial villain who had, as one of his wartime goals, the deliberate destruction of the old colonial empires. In Charmley's opinion, the primary goal of the British High Command during World War II should have been the preservation of the British Empire. The defeat of the Nazis and containment of the Soviet Union? Sure, the British could have tried to do that also, but the preservation of the Empire was the important thing.
In fact, the British High Command was trying to do exactly that, and was continually butting heads with General George Marshall over priorities in strategy. The US wanted as its goal the invasion of Europe proper, and had hoped to launch the Normandy campaign in 1943, a full year before D-Day. The British, by contrast, favored a peripheral approach, sending valuable resources to reclaim portions of British territory that had been seized by Germany & Japan. The British also wanted opportunities for their commanders (such as Montgomery) to win glory on the field. The concessions the US made to Britain, it can be argued, prolonged the war in Europe by up to a year.
So Charmley's argument that Churchill did not do enough militarily to preserve the Empire is not particularly valid. Charmley probably understands this, because he also comes as close he can to stating (without actually doing it) that maybe, just maybe, Churchill might have been well-advised to cut a deal with the Nazis, keep the Empire intact, and focus on the real enemy, which was (in Charmley's conservative viewpoint) the Soviet Union. Charmley does not explicitly say this, because he would then run the risk of being lumped into the same category as the likes of David Irving. However, he makes this argument repeatedly, in as an oblique a fashion as he can muster.
The whole problem is that Charmley bases his argument on the premise that the British Empire could in fact have been saved, and this is where the biggest flaws in this book creep in. Charmley would like to ignore the fact that the British Empire had been slowly coming apart at the seams since the Boer War. Even during Victoria's reign, Britain had been struggling to provide the resources necessary to maintain Imperial control. The attrition of World War I was effectively the final nail in the Imperial coffin; it was only a matter of time before the inevitable occurred. One only has to look at post-war France, which tried to restore its colonial empire by force, to see how things probably would have turned out for Britain.
One can also ask the question, is Charmley's belief that the Empire deserved to be preserved valid? This is definitely a matter of perspective. Did the British Empire ultimately do more harm than good? Conservatives like Charmley and Thomas Sowell may think that the British Empire overall was a good thing, but I do not agree with that at all. When you get right down to it, the Empire was simply the subjugation by Britain of other peoples & cultures by naked military force. I don't recall too many subject people voluntarily entering the British Empire. If FDR wasn't bent on destroying the British Empire, he should have been.
While Charmley does provide some valid criticism of Churchill in this book, overall his most important criticisms are based on some seriously flawed premises. In the end, this calls into question the ultimate scholarly value of the book. While it has certainly been controversial enough, does this book truly contribute much to the scholarly debate over Churchill and the history of the 20th century? I don't believe so.