In Churchill on the Far East in The Second World War: Hiding the History of the ‘Special Relationship,’ Dr. Cat Wilson studies Winston Churchill’s treatment of India and the war against Japan in his six volume-memoirs of the war. Acknowledging her “debt” to In Command of History by David Reynolds, the author seeks to provide the “scrutiny” of Churchill’s memoirs regarding the Far East that was lacking in Reynolds’ ground-breaking work. Wilson observes that in both the war itself and in the ensuing memoirs Churchill was primarily concerned with the European War and devoted little attention to India and the Japanese war.
As with the genre of autobiography and memoirs, Churchill’s memoirs were his story of events. Wilson, however, convincingly argues that beyond merely telling his version of events the memoirs were intended to enhance his “future political career” and return as prime minister, secure his post-war reputation, and reinforce the Anglo-American special relationship. To do so Churchill and his syndicate of advisors had to “bury his wartime mistakes” and play down his “errors of judgment.” The success of the war memoirs in telling his version of the war leads Wilson to comment that Churchill was “arguably […] the most influential memoirist of the twentieth-century” and that the impact of the memoirs was such that “it still proves hard to break free from a Churchillian-like narrative when examining almost any aspect of the Second World War.”
The book, which consists of 153 pages of text and 90 pages of notes and bibliography, is divided into seven chapters. In chapter one Churchill’s approach to writing the memoirs is considered, while chapter two studies his notion of the British Empire, and chapter three covers the treatment in the memoirs of the causes of the war with Japan. Chapter four studies Churchill’s narrative of the disastrous defeats at Hong Kong, Malaya, and Singapore, chapter five considers the treatment of India in the volumes (which included only 2 pages on the Quit India movement), and chapter six studies the negative portrayal of the Indian Army in the memoirs as well as the very brief treatment of the Burma campaign. The final chapter recounts Churchill’s influence on the British official history which Wilson observes could not compete with the Second World War. Churchill’s “version of history was secure.”
Dr. Wilson contends that Churchill’s narrative for the origins of the Japanese entry into the war reflected his overall theme that the Second World War was an easily preventable war. The long and short term causes of the war were attributed to the ending of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance under American pressure as well as the failures of American diplomacy. Wilson argues that this version was intended to “misdirect” readers away from the British role in the origins of the war, including the weakness of the British Empire and appeasement over the Burma Road. While the author’s interpretation may be correct in regard to his intentions, Churchill’s regret over the ending of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance was not a post-war creation. In 1937 Churchill had made similar statements. In an article, entitled “Big Navy” published in the Sunday Chronicle, he wrote that the ending of the alliance was a “misfortune” which “may well lead to a tragic chapter of history.” The ending of the alliance, which had been a concession to the United States, was taken by the Japanese as a “frightful blow.” Churchill added that he had always been “strongly in favour” of the Japanese alliance, although not at the expense of the relationship with the United States.
In the book Wilson also notes that the detailed study of Pearl Harbor in the memoirs reflected “the depth of importance with which Churchill wanted to imbue the scene.” It was Pearl Harbor that brought the United States into the war and created the special relationship between Britain and America, the “shared identity” and “common bond” that would win the war.
Churchill on the Far East in The Second World War is a thorough academic study that makes many interesting points and successfully fills the gaps in the historical literature regarding Churchill’s memoirs and the Far East.