June 20, 2015

Finest Hour 100, Autumn 1998

Page 43

By Dean Acheson

Four centuries back we may find us equal


My former chief, President Truman, has called Sir Winston the greatest public figure of our age. This is an understatement. One would, I think, have to go back, certainly in the English-speaking world, four centuries to find his equal.

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For his equal could not merely be a soldier, statesman or orator, or all three. Equality would require the ability to create that “romantic attachment” which, as Sir John Neale has written, existed between the English people and the great Queen.

Certainly, in my own country no leader has inspired in his own lifetime this “romantic attachment.” General Washington, great as he was, inspired respect and, all too briefly, gratitude. Bonaparte inspired romantic devotion to be sure; but his influence was divisive and disastrous and he had about him an aura of falsity and self-seeking. But Elizabeth and Churchill needed, and used, all their superb qualities of heart and brain, their indomitable courage, inexhaustible energy, their magnanimity and good sense, to bring their country through its two periods of darkest peril.

But these might not have been enough without their “supreme art.” It was this which fused and multiplied all the rest to inspire the English people with the reckless, gay and confident courage to enable them twice, under adored leaders, to face and fight alone the greatest military and ideological powers of the two ages.

Here, raised to its highest, is the leadership which alone can call forth from a free people what cannot be commanded. Neither courage, nor right decisions, nor speaking good words is enough. Art, great art, transforms all these into something different and superlative. What Churchill did was great: how he did it was equally so. Neither action nor style could have accomplished the result alone. Both were needed.

Not only was the content of his speeches wise and right but they were prepared with that infinite capacity for taking pains which is said to be genius. So was his appearance; his attitudes and gestures, his use of all the artifices to get his way, from wooing and cajolery, through powerful advocacy to bluff bullying—all were carefully adjusted to the need. To call this acting is quite inadequate. Acting is a mode infinitely variable and adjustable. What we are speaking of is a transformation, a growth and a permanent change of personality. Napoleon understood this. So did Roosevelt. Washington did not.

Churchill mastered it. Its manifestation was dramatic and romantic—the endless energy which took him into everything and every place, the siren suit, the indomitable V-sign for victory, the cigar for imperturbability, and so on. Here, too, he and Elizabeth moved together. In his speeches the bedrock of sense and necessity was clothed, as in hers, with romanticism. Of all the words which must, for ever, move English and French hearts are those closing his broadcast, in October, 1940, to the French people:

“Good night then: sleep to gather strength for the morning. For the morning will come. Brightly will it shine on the brave and true, kindly upon all who suffer for the cause, glorious upon the tombs of heroes. Thus will shine the dawn. Vive la France!”

And Elizabeth, at a no less critical moment, with the Armada at sea, clothed resolution in romance:

“I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a King, and of a King of England, too.”

It gives staying and working power, good nerves, ability to sleep at any time, and to wake fresh. It is incompatible with the weakest of human emotions, worry and regret, and leaves a fair field for deliberate judgment. It is the essence of command: and it was, certainly, a Tudor quality. Let Sir Winston be his own witness:

“Thus, then, on the night of the tenth of May, at the outset of this mighty battle, I acquired the chief powers in the State….Therefore, although impatient for the morning, I slept soundly and had no need for cheering dreams. Facts are better than dreams.”


Dean Acheson was Secretary of State in the Truman Administration and a chief architect of the Marshall Plan. This excerpt is from his “The Supreme Artist,” in Churchill by His Contemporaries, An Observer Appreciation (1963).

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