by Paul Kennedy

Some 70 years ago, on the evening of May 10, 1940, a sturdy and controversial British politician entered Buckingham Palace for an audience with King George VI. The king asked him to become prime minister and to form a government. The politician then left to carry out his new job. His name was Winston Churchill.

At the time, and to this day, that change in leadership -- with the appeaser Neville Chamberlain shuttling off the stage to the left, and the great war hero Churchill advancing from the right -- has been regarded as decisive. The dull, dishonest decade of the 1930s had gone; now came "blood, sweat, toil and tears" -- and an eventual, hard-fought victory. If anything proved Thomas Carlyle's argument about the importance of the Great Man in history, then here it was. There was also ample contemporary evidence for this leader-centered theory in the form of Hitler (who adored Carlyle and was still reading him in his bunker in April 1945), Stalin and Roosevelt.

Nor is there any reason to doubt that Churchill's accession to power did indeed change a lot of things. He unified the British nation in a remarkable way, bringing Labour and Liberal politicians into his national War Cabinet, making Clement Attlee, the Labour Party leader, his deputy prime minister, unifying the separate defense command structures, and assuming enormous executive powers. Nor was it merely a matter of constitutional and organizational changes, like rearranging the deck chairs on an ocean liner.

Churchill brought with him his extraordinary talents for rhetoric and language, the greatest since Shakespeare's own, and so electrifying that if one listens even today to the recorded broadcasts of his great wartime speeches, one finds it hard not to weep a little (I certainly do). As more than one observer noted, the new prime minister mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.

His visits to the bombed-out houses of East London, his surprise flights to the troops in Egypt, his insistence on "Action this Day!", his incredible interest in new weapons, new forms of fighting war, new ways to bring down the Fascist foes -- anything, anything, to bring Hitler down -- re-energized the British nation, and many smaller nations as well. Little wonder that he regularly tops the polls -- American as well as British -- as the most significant figure of the 20th century. Here was a man who placed his stamp upon world affairs.

Yet was he -- or, indeed, any of the other Great Men -- really all that decisive in altering the tides and currents of world affairs? This is a general question which has attracted attention from historians, philosophers and political scientists for over 2,000 years, and rightly so, because it is about the causality of changes over time. What, after all, changes the course of history?

Interestingly, and coincidentally, the most important challenge to Carlyle's great-leader theory came from his fellow Victorian, that émigré, anti-idealist philosopher-historian and political economist, Karl Marx. In the opening paragraphs of his classic "The Eighteenth Brumaire," he offers those famous lines: "Men make their own History, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past."

What an astonishing sentence. In it Marx captures not only the agency of human endeavor, but reminds us of how constrained even the most powerful people are by time and space, by geography and history.

And so it was with Churchill. For all the powers he gathered under himself, he could not prevent the Nazi Blitzkrieg from sweeping across Europe, tumbling his British divisions out of Norway, France, Greece, Crete. He could not prevent the mesmerizing Japanese capture of so much of the British Empire in the Far East, Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore, Burma (only the Americans could turn the tide there). He could not prevent the Red Army from gobbling up all of Eastern Europe, including the Poland, for whom he had urged the cause for war in September 1939. And he could not, doughty though he was, prevent the decline and fall of his beloved British Empire.

In sum, Churchill's accomplishments as a wartime leader were remarkable, in fact staggering; but he could not alter the larger tides of History, and he had to make his policies within the limits which he had inherited, just as Marx observed. By the 1940s, there were deep forces at work -- forces like the rise of Asia and the relative shrinking of Europe -- which were beginning to change the planet's geopolitical landscape and which are, all too obviously, still advancing today. The marvel, really, is that Churchill and his relatively small island-state achieved so much, and for so long.

Is this practical point, about the natural limitations of any leader and government, however powerful, not true of any of our Great Men of History? Just consider the chief candidates of the previous century. Hitler stomped his way across Europe, north, south, west and east; but when he rashly went to war against the USSR and USA in 1941 -- while already fighting the British Empire -- his Thousand-Year Reich was swept away by far larger forces. Mussolini claimed, in late 1943, that History had grabbed Italy by the throat; what really grabbed Italy were medium bombers, landing craft, and battle-hardened Anglo-American regiments. Stalin survived Operation Barbarossa and all later Wehrmacht attacks, not through his own pathological genius, but because his armies had the best anti-tank guns in all the world. Years later, Kennedy and Johnson lost in Vietnam because fighting guerrilla armies in dense jungles and swamplands was hopeless and, more broadly, the West was in retreat from Asia. Four centuries earlier the all-powerful Philip II of Spain had ordered north his Castilian infantry to crush the revolt of the Dutch Protestants. But the tides of History, not to mention the tides of the Schelde, were going against a Catholic supremacy in Europe. The greater trends were in motion, whether emperors or presidents liked it or not.

What does this mean for national and international politics today? To me, it means that we should abjure our pathetic obsessiveness with political personalities, and ridicule the tabloid-press and talk-show-host sensationalism for being what it is: an insult to our intelligence. Surely the media (in particular) has the duty to report accurately, but also to put things in context. Does the coming of the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition in Britain herald a new age in that country's long history? One doubts it, since they in their turn have to grapple with the massive deficits, the overstretched armed forces, the immigration issue and the contorted relationship with Europe. Does Putin's rule in Russia make much of a difference? He certainly knows how to put bankers in prison, screw Western energy firms and stiffen up the armed forces; but what can even his authoritarian government do to alter the mass alcoholism, the demographic disintegration, the impossible climate, the mutterings of the minorities and the incompetencies of a non-incentive social order?

Such conclusions bring us logically (finally?) to a few thoughts upon the record of the recent Obama administration. Their policies have been, in essence, ones of damage control and repairing the ship's masts. How could it have been otherwise? They entered office when the American banking system, and the international financial order, appeared close to collapse. They inherited an impossible-to-win war in the Hindu Kush and still have to figure out how to handle it (and the repercussions of a pullout) over the longer term. They have also inherited environmental disasters, not caused but surely exacerbated by lax regulations and the profligate misuse of our natural resources. They are ruling a country where the social fabric, especially in a great many inner cities, is badly damaged -- yet without funds for repair.

And they, and all who watched Obama's amazing electoral campaign in awe, entered this troubled political and economic field far too deeply influenced by over-large expectations and exaggerated promises. The powers of the American president and the Congress (if it chooses to cooperate with him) are huge, and there is much that can sensibly be done to improve national and international affairs. But all those powers are set within limits, and national leaders should be humble about that.

And, who knows, perhaps the time may be coming when even inward-looking American politicians might read a little of the early Karl Marx, and ponder on his observation that men only "make" History under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. They might then be a bit less glib with their promises to transform the world if only they are elected.


Available at

The Virtues of Mendacity: On Lying in Politics

Bush on the Home Front: Domestic Policy Triumphs and Setbacks

The Political Fix: Changing the Game of American Democracy, from the Grassroots to the White House


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Do Great Leaders Make History or Are They Carried Along by the Tides of Change | Politics