At the very end of Troublesome Young Men, Lynne Olson writes, “It was…not impersonal historical forces, not ‘parliamentary spontaneous combustion,’ not some intangible dues ex machina—that resulted in Neville Chamberlain’s resignation and Winston Churchill’s accession to power in May 1940.” This book is about what it was: an ongoing struggle over the course of years by a handful of people who paid for their work in one way or another often with most unexpected outcomes.
Reading TYM was a strange experience because it was like seeing a mirror image of our own time. Instead of a president eager to go to war with a country that was no immediate threat, there was Chamberlain reluctant to go to war with a country that telegraphed broadly its intentions—and refusing even when war was declared to make any move in order not to antagonize Germany. Instead of a government that used the press to whip people into fearful support, there was a government that used the press to soothe the populace into believing everything was fine.
What I most appreciated was seeing how major changes in direction are preceded by almost infinitesimally small changes, that it isn’t a dues ex machina at work, but lots of people behind the scenes, holding meetings, making phone calls, standing up and speaking, even at great cost to themselves.
But also that you never knew what the cost would be. When Churchill finally became PM, most of the people who had helped him to get there didn’t get major positions in his government—bad news! But the positions they did get often turned out to be the ones that made their careers. Harold McMillan, one of the early supporters of Churchill, became PM later in part because of his supposedly awful posting to Algeria in which he became a political force and power to be reckoned with.
I was struck by how imperfect it all was, how you never knew exactly how it would play out, how people played roles you didn’t foresee for them, how flawed the heroes were, and how miraculous it seems that things turned out as they did. All of which also reminds me of the struggles of our own day, and of Churchill's quote: “Never, never, never, never give up.” It gives me hope that my own small contribution can be part of the whole that changes things.