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The Splendid and the Vile

A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz

By Erik Larson
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The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson
Synopsis

The Splendid and the Vile (2020) is a meticulously researched account of Winston Churchill’s first year of leadership. Beginning in 1940, he led the country through France’s surrender, the miraculous rescue at Dunkirk, and the Nazi air force’s bombing blitz of the UK, which killed over 44,000 Brits. Through it all, he retained his sense of humor and charming eccentricities that ensure him a fond place in our collective memory.

Key idea 1 of 12

From day one, Churchill was clear on his goal: getting American help. 

By May 1940, the writing was on the wall. The Nazi army had invaded France, Britain’s ally. War was coming to the British people, whether they liked it or not. 

Churchill came to power after Parliament passed a vote of no confidence in Neville Chamberlain, who had tried to appease Hitler’s expansionist tendencies. It was a scary time for the UK. Any observer would have said that Britain had no chance against the massive Nazi war machine. But unlike Chamberlain – and essentially everyone else – Churchill was brazenly confident that Britain could win the coming war. 

Now all Churchill had to do was convince his country and, just as importantly, US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that the UK had a chance. Churchill knew he couldn’t win the war without the Americans. 

The key message here is: From day one, Churchill was clear on his goal: getting American help. 

For their part, the Americans weren’t at all interested in sending their young men, yet again, to the battlefields of Europe. The US government was also leery of working with Churchill. “Apparently,” said the secretary of the interior, “he is very unreliable under the influence of drink.”

It’s true that Churchill did things differently. For one thing, he favored working during his twice-daily bath. If the phone rang while he was in the bath, he would climb naked and dripping from the tub to retrieve it from his private secretary. At all hours, he would pad through the halls of the official residence in brilliantly flowered dressing gowns, stabbing a dead cigar in the air when he wanted to make a point.

The British people loved him, and he took their trust seriously. His first speech to the House of Commons demonstrated his signature oratory style: a sober appraisal of facts followed by reason for measured optimism. “I have nothing to offer,” he said, “but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”

Despite the grim state of affairs, his government was imbued with energy from day one. Everyone, from the lowest secretary to the highest minister, was pulling in the same direction – stop Germany from invading England, and win the war. Respectable civil servants could actually be seen running through the corridors to their appointments. 

The new resolve Churchill brought to his office didn’t come a moment too soon. Things were about to get a lot worse.

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