A Review of Lynne Olson’s Troublesome Young Men
“The future is unknowable, but the past should give us hope.”
– Winston Churchill
“Thirty resolute men in your House of Commons could save the world.”
– Felix Frankfurter to Richard Law, July 1939
How profoundly different the past century of blood and tears might appear today without the unique and essential role that Winston Churchill played in the narrow triumph of good over an incomparable evil.
In retrospect, it is nearly impossible to conceive the course of the Second World War without his unparalleled energy, vitality and dynamism at the helm of beleaguered Britain, the catalyst of victory, the sine qua non of survival for Western democracy. Yet Churchill’s advent was not by any means an historical inevitability. On the contrary, it was the very narrowest of chances.
Lynne Olson’s Troublesome Young Men is an excellent account of “the rebels who brought Churchill to power and helped save England,” and, not merely incidentally, saved freedom in the world. As she writes, “it was the actions of these individuals — not impersonal historical forces, not ‘parliamentary spontaneous combustion,’ not some intangible deus ex machina — that resulted in Neville Chamberlain’s resignation and Winston Churchill’s accession to power in May 1940. However cynical, jaded, opportunistic, or politically wrongheaded they might have become in later life, Macmillan and the other parliamentary rebels showed resolution and moral courage when it mattered most, during the greatest crisis in Britain’s history. ‘Politics, it is truly said, is the “art of the possible,”‘ Paul Emrys-Evans once observed. ‘But great causes have only prevailed through the vigour and energy of resolute men who attempted — and succeeded — in making the impossible possible.’”
My own perception of Olson’s work may be colored by the fact that I had just finished the two volumes of William Manchester’s biography of Churchill, The Last Lion, before leaving for Europe, then read most of Troublesome Young Men on the flight from Minneapolis to Amsterdam. In this context, the added texture and detail of Olson’s focus on the very events with which Manchester’s history ends were especially intriguing. It may be that some would find that larger context essential to a true appreciation of the work. As for me, I share the opinion of the Christian Science Monitor’s Terry Hartle that it is “an extraordinary tale of political courage in perilous times — and a wonderfully written book.”
[For two brief excerpts, see the following post.]