William Manchester: Compared with Robert Caro

Historians in the News

Jeff Guinn, in fortwayne.com (June 16, 2004):

Anyone who doesn't believe we lost one of our finest historians when 82-year-old William Manchester died June 1 should check out the 34-page preamble in 1988's "Winston Spencer Churchill, Alone: 1932-1940," the second volume of Manchester's justly lauded "Last Lion" series on the life of the world leader.

The preamble in "Alone" presents Churchill after his warnings about the looming danger of Hitler have isolated him from British political power. He is struggling to maintain his beloved country estate by churning out magazine articles and yet remains so certain of his own gifts and instincts that he "knows" his country will summon him back to lead the coming struggle against Nazism. Everything Manchester describes here adds to our understanding of Churchill. Clues are found even in the structure of the old manor where he lives:

"The house is a metaphor of its squire. It is all above staunch. On the outside, the red bricks meet neatly; within, the walls are upright. Studs join beams with precision, doors fit sensibly. Like the householder it is complex, and, like him, steeped in the past ... the oldest part of the building, now occupied by Churchill's study, was built 20 years after the Battle of Hastings ..."

Three pages later, we learn Churchill "likes to play in his bath, and when on impulse he turned a somersault, `exactly like a porpoise,' a spectator recalls, the tub overflowed, damaging the ceiling below and, worse, drenching the frock coat of an eminent Frenchman there who called to pay his respects."

With the possible exception of Robert Caro writing about Lyndon Johnson, no other historian has ever so completely captured the disparate, even conflicting, dimensions of a complex giant in history - except maybe Manchester himself when he wrote about Douglas MacArthur in the majestic "American Caesar," or coldblooded German munitions manufacturers in "The Arms of Krupp."

He never wrote a bad or even mediocre book, though 1967's "The Death of a President" suffered from some censoring by Jacqueline Kennedy, who had originally asked old friend Manchester to write about her husband's assassination.

Manchester was at his best focusing on one individual as subject. In 1980, he even wrote about himself. "Goodbye, Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War" used the author's experiences as a soldier in World War II to illustrate the lasting horrors of combat. Much of what he related was harsh rather than heady:

"I lack small-muscle skills, and I have a mechanical IQ of about 32, but I became adroit with all infantry arms. I had no choice. It was that or my a--."

Wielding a handgun, Manchester comes face-to-face with a Japanese soldier on a small Pacific Island and shoots him before the soldier can aim his rifle. Manchester watches as his foe dies. Then he reacts:

"I began to tremble, then to shake, all over. I sobbed, in a voice still grainy with fear, `I'm sorry.' Then I threw up all over myself."


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