June 1, 2015

Finest Hour 108, Autumn 2000

Page 30


The Churchill Legend in the World War II American Media

A messenger of disaster and misfortune in Greek mythology was Cassandra, lovely maiden daughter of King Priam of Troy. The god Apollo offered Cassandra the gift of prophecy in exchange for favors commonly asked of beautiful young women. She gladly accepted Apollo’s gift, but slyly reneged on her part of the bargain. Frustrated and angry, Apollo sought revenge by ensuring that none followed her prophetic advice. Cassandra predicted the disastrous Trojan War, but her desperate attempts to warn her father proved futile. After the fall of Troy, the mythical Cassandra was captured and carried to Greece, where she faded into obscurity… until she was reincarnated in the 1930s as Winston Churchill.

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Churchill was seen as a modern Cassandra who foretold a disastrous war started by Adolf Hitler. The outbreak of war in 1939 seemed to vindicate Churchill. Likewise vindicated were his suspicions of the Soviet Union, in light of the Stalin-Hitler non-aggression pact, his assessments of Nazi intentions and renewed German militarism, his criticisms of Neville Chamberlain’s Munich agreement, and his vision of Britain as a global force for democracy and human progress.1 The day Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940, a U.S. radio reporter in London commented that he had voiced “unheeded warnings” and that “he enters office with the tremendous advantage of being the man who was right.”2

The U.S. media delighted in telling stories of Churchill’s predictive powers and embellished his prophecies. In March 1941, The New York Times Magazine ran “An Amazing Prophecy by Winston Churchill,” excerpts from speeches that Churchill had made in 1936, as Germany remilitarized the Rhineland. Churchill was portrayed as the one voice that had foretold events. As with Cassandra, Churchill’s prophecy was ignored.3 But one important difference between Cassandra and Churchill was noted by the media. Unlike the old Greek myth, Churchill’s advice was finally accepted, averting the fall of Britain and the collapse of European democracy. Then, in the global war which developed, Churchill was transformed into an international hero.

Part of Churchill’s prophetic image in the United States was founded upon his numerous articles for Collier‘s in the 1930s. Since the start of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Churchill had argued that Nazis and Communists were bent on dividing the world between them. In articles designed to arouse public concern with world events, Churchill stressed Anglo-American ties and insisted that free nations could not survive in a world dominated by dictators. Three months before World War II he made a hopeful, if not desperate, plea in predicting that the American people would be so repulsed by Nazi aggression that the “New World would come storming to the rescue of the Old.” In the autumn of 1940, what seemed most prophetic to the editors of Collier‘s were Churchill’s articles that challenged the ability of air power to terrorize civilians and subjugate nations. Collier‘s reminded its readers that, only months before the Blitz, Churchill had proclaimed that air assaults on civilian populations were criminal acts that would lead the perpetrators to their own demise.4 As the British people rallied round Churchill’s defiance of Nazi air attacks, Collier‘s admired how the Royal Air Force had proved Churchill correct.

When war abruptly halted Churchill’s writing, the radio became the primary medium by which he communicated with the public. Beginning with the Battle of Britain, the BBC beamed Churchill’s messages directly to the United States. The text of each broadcast was typically reprinted in major U.S. newspapers and magazines, which allowed commentators to put his words in context for American audiences. Churchill’s speeches were considered highly entertaining and served as valuable propaganda. Edward R. Murrow, the leading U.S. radio reporter in wartime London, said that Churchill had the advantage of being the best broadcaster in Britain.5 Murrow later summed up the feeling of most in the news media when he ascended Churchillian heights himself in proclaiming that Churchill had “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle to steady his fellow countrymen and hearten the Europeans upon whom the long dark night of tyranny had descended.”6

A collection of Churchill’s public pronouncements between May 1938 and February 1941 (Into Battle in the British edition) were published in the U.S.A. under the title, Blood, Sweat, and Tears, The book became a national best seller and its title a Churchillian hallmark. Reviews hailed it as a portrait of the greatest statesman of the modern era. The Saturday Review of Literature suggested that “If British democracy wins the war, Winston Churchill will rank with Abraham Lincoln in the annals of freedom.”7 Americans generally agreed that Churchill passed the true test of democratic leadership by reaching the masses without resorting to demagoguery or compromising his principles.

Effective as Churchill was as a writer and speaker, he required the assistance of the many foreign correspondents who covered the Blitz. The most important U.S. journalist in London was the aforementioned Ed Murrow, head of CBS’s European bureau, who broadcast war news on a nightly 15-minute program. Beginning each program with his famous call words, “This is London,” Murrow allowed Americans to experience vicariously what it was like to live in London during the war. Once live broadcasts during air raids became part of Murrow’s routine, Americans could hear sirens wailing, bombs exploding, and anti-aircraft guns firing into the night sky. From London rooftops, streets, and shelters, Murrow and his colleagues brought the war to American living rooms and communicated war sounds more powerfully than print.

Murrow later recalled that his impressions of prewar England, like those of many Americans, were mostly negative. Before 1939, he thought the English offensively class conscious, indifferent and complacent: “I admired your history, doubted your future, and suspected that the historians had merely agreed upon a myth.”8

With the onset of war, Murrow perceived a change. He noted that repeated visits to public air raid shelters promoted class interaction.9 When bombs fell on Buckingham Palace, he discussed how the war had symbolized the demise of old values and traditional bases of power and prestige.10 He later declared that Britain, then undergoing “a revolution of consent,” had signaled the end of the age of aristocracy.11 Having been won over by the people of London, Murrow gave his listeners a new image of Great Britain: its society had become less rigid, more democratic. According to Murrow, Britain had become more like the United States.

To Murrow, Churchill’s Premiership was the most important event of 1940.12 He acknowledged that “so long as Winston Churchill is Prime Minister, the House of Commons will be given an opportunity to defend its traditions and to determine the character of government that is to rule this country.”13 The House of Commons was a democratic body, the traditions he spoke of were those of representative government. For the American people, Murrow showed how the war had transformed Britain into a bastion of democracy, thanks in no small part to Winston Churchill.

The image of Churchill—courageously standing alone against Hitler and Nazi Germany—proved irresistible, as increasingly the U.S. media served as a vehicle for British wartime propaganda. In articles that appeared in Time, Life, the Saturday Evening Post, Readers’ Digest, The New York Times Magazine, and even The New Republic, Churchill was used to symbolize values that British officials knew were extolled in the United States: courage and perseverance, individual initiative, self-reliance, hard work, generosity, and love of freedom and independence. Called a progressive Tory, a self-made aristocrat, and “the Rough Rider of Downing Street,” Churchill was depicted as standing for tolerance, equality, and social justice, things he had not always been feted for by his political opponents back home.14 Such wartime characterizations prompted sympathy for the underdog and encouraged Americans to see admirable qualities in both the British nation and its leader. When compared to Hitler, Churchill symbolized all that was good in the Western World.

The superlatives used to describe Churchill became cliches as neutrality waned in the United States and Churchill’s popularity rose. Several weeks before President Roosevelt publicly announced his Lend-Lease plan in January 1941, Murrow implied that the United States was obligated to aid Britain and that assistance as a non-belligerent was not enough.15 At the end of 1940, Churchill was named “Man of the Year” by Time.16 By 1941, articles portrayed him as the personification of all that was good: “there are no neutral hearts, Winston Churchill, except those that have stopped beating.”17

One of the most a strident critics of American isolationism was Henry Luce, chairman of the board and editor-in-chief of Time Inc. Disturbed by what he believed was widespread indifference to the war, Luce used his magazines to bring it to the forefront of public debate. Time was among the first to label the conflict “World War II,” in part to heighten public concern.18 In July 1940, Luce sent a confidential memo to his senior executives that stated the company’s position on the world crisis. This memo reads like a mission statement: 1) continue to sound the danger signal; 2) cultivate martial spirit; 3) demonstrate that America is worth fighting for; 4) criticize delays and mishandlings of preparedness; 5) develop a sense of foreign policy among as many readers as possible.19 After traveling to Europe following France’s fall in 1940, Luce called for increased aid to Britain. He so admired Churchill that the wartime Prime Minister became a favorite of both Time and Life, two of the most powerful publications in the United States.

In June 1941, Churchill received an Honorary Doctorate of Laws from the University of Rochester. This was the first such honor awarded to him by a university in the United States. Churchill could not accept the degree in person, but the ceremonial message and his reply were broadcast on both sides of the Atlantic. Churchill was honored for “his distinction as a historian, his position as the elected leader of a great and friendly democracy, [and] the courage, candor, and effectiveness with which he is leading his nation.” The presentation was made by the university’s president, Alan Valentine, a Quaker and close friend of arch-isolationist Charles Lindbergh, who in 1939 and 1940 had campaigned to prevent the United States from joining Britain in war.20

Media coverage of the Atlantic Conference in August 1941 confirmed Anglo-American cooperation, as newsreels and magazines carried images that symbolized agreement between Churchill and President Roosevelt. The most potent images were of the Anglo-American church service on the quarterdeck of HMS Prince of Wales. The Sunday meeting affirmed Christian unity, with Churchill and Roosevelt sitting together, singing the same hymns and praying together, while war planes circled the sky above, armed boats patrolled the surrounding waters, and the battleship’s massive guns stood ready. The service, conveying not only unity of purpose but unity of strength, gave the impression that the two nations were already bound together for a mighty undertaking.21

Immediately following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and Germany’s declaration of war on the United States, Churchill resolved to meet Roosevelt again in order to coordinate strategy. With war enthusiasm rampant in Washington, the media had a field day with Churchill’s visit. It was the first by a British premier during wartime, the second time that a British prime minister had addressed Congress, and the first British mission at the White House since the one that arrived for an entirely different purpose in 1814.22 Churchill’s primary aim was to convince the United States that the Atlantic and Europe were the most vital theaters of war. He so successfully achieved his goal that there was an impression that he could have had whatever he wanted at the end of 1941.

On the afternoon of December 23rd, Churchill and Roosevelt conducted a joint press conference for about 200 journalists and broadcasters in the Presidents executive office. Churchill, seated in the back of the room, could not be seen very well by the crowd of reporters. When the President introduced him, he suggested that the Prime Minister stand to give his audience a better view. After Churchill climbed on his chair to be seen better, “loud and spontaneous cheers and applause rang through the room.” Although Churchill had some difficulty hearing, his wit charmed everyone. He quipped, “If we manage [the war] well, it will only take half as long [to win] as if we manage it badly.” Later he was asked if he considered the U.S. entry into the war as one of its “great climacterics.” Churchill smiled and answered in his best Texan drawl, “I sho’ do.”23 Newsweek reported that the spontaneous and “lusty cheers” were the first in the annals of presidential press conferences.24

The most dramatic event of Churchill’s three-week visit was his appearance before a joint session of Congress in the Senate chamber on December 26th. The contents of the speech were less revealing than the media’s coverage of the address and its enthusiastic reception. Newsweek reported that the chamber was packed with senators, representatives, Supreme Court justices, cabinet members, diplomats, reporters, congressional secretaries and citizens. When Churchill entered the room, he received a standing ovation. Amid the cheers, he slowly walked onto the rostrum, situated his shell-rimmed glasses, adjusted his notes, and began to speak.

He “made eyes glisten with his tender reference to his American mother.” He made his audience laugh when he joked that if his father, instead of his mother, had been an American, it might not had taken him so long to address Congress. “He entwined himself still further in the American tradition by offering allegiance to the Gettysburg idea of government of the people, by the people, for the people.”25 Life commented how Churchill had triumphantly “uncovered some of the most telling oratory that ever echoed within the Senate walls,” as “he held erstwhile isolationists spellbound with the power of his prose.”26 Time, wondering whether the gallery had ever before heard “such a moving and eloquent speech,” believed “it was not so much the speech as the personality that put it over.”27 When Churchill ended, he signaled “V” for Victory. As cameras flashed, Chief Justice Harlan E Stone replied with his own “V.” Newsweek concluded that Churchill had received “the greatest ovation which has been accorded to any person in that chamber in living memory…28

The next morning, the front page of The New York Times featured Mr. Churchill in various poses during his address with the headline: “British Prime Minister Speaks and Members of Congress and Cabinet Listen.”29 Time, the following week, beneath the photo of “Churchill Before Congress,” had a caption that simply stated, “This was a man Americans liked.” The accompanying article maintained that Churchill’s arrival had been like “a breath of fresh air, giving Washington new vigor, for he came as a new hero.”30 Life summed it up by concluding: “… Churchill sold Washington on die war and on Britain. And he sold America on himself.”31

The first wartime visit contributed much to the Churchillian folklore that has been preserved over the decades. One of the best and most often told stories is how Churchill appeared “stark naked and gleaming pink” before the president.32 Walter Thompson, Churchill’s personal bodyguard, recalled that shortly after Churchill arrived at the White House, he went upstairs to his suite to unpack and bathe. While Churchill was splashing about in the tub and inspector Thompson was checking over the room, there was a knock at the door. Thompson opened the door and was surprised to find President Roosevelt in his wheelchair all alone. Thompson remembered the President looking “curiously beyond me, not with fright but with something very unlike approval.” Thompson turned around to see Churchill standing in man’s most natural state, smiling cordially, a drink in one hand, a cigar in the other. When Roosevelt tried to excuse himself, Churchill insisted that he come in. In Thompson’s words, “the Prime Minister posed briefly and ludicrously before the President,” then said, “you see, Mr. President, I have nothing to hide.”33

Much of the Churchill folklore that took shape during the war involved tales of his smoking and drinking. In October 1943, James Reston of The New York Times, wrote a light-hearted appraisal of Churchill’s cigars. Reston joked that it takes a man of great popularity to get away (in newsreels) with puffing smoke at people. He recounted Churchill’s flight to Moscow, after which the co-pilot exclaimed, “he filled the plane so full of smoke that we had to open the bomb doors.”34 One of Churchill’s more celebrated quotes came from a conversation that purportedly took place when General Bernard Montgomery was appointed by Churchill to command the British Eighth Army. According to the Associated Press, Montgomery commented, “I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, and I am 100 percent fit.” Churchill replied, “I both smoke and drink, and I am 200 percent fit.”35

Drinking, and especially smoking, did not carry the same negative connotations with Americans in the 1940s that they do today. Alcohol had been rejuvenated by the repeal of Prohibition, and the dangers of smoking were not fully understood. During the war, rumors of Churchill’s drinking capacity projected a manly image and his cigars were tangible symbols captured frequently on film. His drinking and smoking were not viewed as detrimental to his work, but only served to enhance his popularity. It became part of the legend that Churchill out-drank the Russians and out-smoked the Americans, but had the prowess to out-fight the enemy.

Much of Churchill’s popularity was derived from the impression that he was made for the job of leading his country. A terrific showman, he performed all his tasks with vigor, as he always seemed on the move. A child’s impression of Churchill during the war read as follows: “Mr. Churchill is a very busy man. He never seems to be in the place we think he is. He smokes a lot of cigars. I wonder where he gets them. He annoys the enemy a lot by holding up two fingers and by calling them Naarzies…. He is a very busy man.”36

During the Blitz, British newsreels captured the energy of Churchill’s wartime leadership. He was shown visiting factories, shipyards, and portions of cities demolished by German bombs. Cantering rather than walking, he always seemed to be in a hurry. He carried walking sticks, which were not crutches, but devices to prod and strike. He chewed cigars and flashed his V-signs for victory, or gave two thumbs up. The British bulldog became the “superman with the big cigar.”37

Before the United States entered the war, such images were rarely shown to American audiences. Efforts by private newsreel companies to capture the war on film were lackluster. Despite public interest in the war, many theater owners remained reluctant to show war footage because they regarded movies as an escape from harsh realities. Newsreels continued to focus on sports and other news stories that had entertainment value. It was widely accepted that hard news was most effectively disseminated through print or over the radio. Furthermore, the United States in 1940-1941 was still divided over how to respond to the global crisis. Some theaters even proclaimed their neutrality with signs that read, “no war news shown here.”

Beginning in 1942, Churchill appeared frequently on film. The images that had earlier boosted British morale now had a similar effect on audiences in the United States. Churchill was shown conferring with Allied leaders, inspecting Allied troops and positions, and parading before cheering crowds. Americans were especially fascinated by his attire. Held by some of his detractors to be an exhibitionist, Churchill dressed in a variety of costumes, including zippered blue or gray coveralls he called “siren suits.” In September 1943, Churchill launched the Third U.S. War Loan drive by purchasing the first $ 100 bond from Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau. Donning a white suit and lighting a fresh cigar, Churchill modeled what he thought the perfect costume for the 50,000,000 Americans to whom Morgenthau hoped to sell an extra $100 war bond.38

As the war went on, Churchill was occasionally upstaged. For example, in the newsreel footage of the 1943 Teheran Conference, Churchill appeared as only one of the Big Three leaders, seated alongside Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin. Churchill looked tired as he slumped over in his chair, while Roosevelt sat next to Stalin, smiling and chatting with the Soviet leader. In contrast, Churchill seemed almost left out. Relying mainly on hindsight, some historians have used this particular episode to support the idea that Churchill had been demoted to junior partner and that Britain had become a second rate power. It is true that, by 1943, the British war effort had been overshadowed in the U.S. media by the growing might of the United States and the horrendous fighting in the Russian theater. Yet Churchill’s warrior image remained largely intact. He had already secured the admiration and gratitude of the American people. He continued to be portrayed in a positive manner and remained immensely popular.39

On 8 May 1945, Churchill formally proclaimed an end to the war in Europe. Though he called for unity in the unfinished fight against Japan, it was clear that Britain’s coalition government was splitting apart. Although Churchill’s popularity was never in question, there was a growing sense in Britain that postwar issues required new approaches and solutions that the Conservative Party could not provide. This sense began to spread beyond Britain. Gradually, the American media gained a better understanding of British politics and the shifting mood of the electorate, although few commentators predicted that Churchill would lose his job.

As the results of die British elections came pouring in on July 26th, it was clear that Labour had won by a landslide. After recovering from the initial shock, the U.S. media attempted to put the results in perspective. It was apparent that the overriding concern of the British electorate was not Churchill but employment and the rebuilding of the country. A reprint of an editorial from The Times of London suggested that contact with U.S. soldiers had impressed many Britons with the idea that a higher standard of living could be reached if traditional class restraints were replaced by more egalitarian practices. It was also explained that Churchill’s willingness to support the far right in Italy, Spain, and Greece too closely resembled the old Tory adventurism.40 A popular notion in the United States was that the results signaled a repudiation of the Conservative Party for the practice of appeasement, which was blamed for leading to war. Solace was taken in the fact that, unlike the United States, the British electorate had to vote for a party, not a leader, and that Churchill himself was reelected.

What later critics have called “the Churchill legend” developed almost naturally out of Churchill’s achievements as a war leader and qualities as a statesman. He not only led his nation through its greatest peril, but came to embody British determination in sombre times. By injecting his personality into his statesmanship, he became a sensation in the U.S. media. More flamboyant, witty, and candid than most politicians, he always made good copy for reporters. He also carefully flattered the United States and its citizenry, which enhanced his popularity. He was adored by U.S. photographers who focused their lenses on his cigars, walking sticks and V-signs, all of which became Churchillian symbols. Although short, bald, and overweight, the media transformed him, wearing an assortment of suits and headgear, into an affable figure. Finding it easier to generate public support for a person rather than abstract ideas, the media latched on to Churchill and made him larger than life. Their promotion of Churchill cultivated the martial spirit and helped prepare the United States to defend its interests.

It is an exaggeration to say that Winston Churchill cast U.S. leaders under his spell, but it is clear that through the American media, Churchill’s legend charmed the American people. He was such a dominating personality throughout the war that, had he retired from public life in 1945, he still would have remained a hero in the United States. But Churchill’s legend was to grow even larger, with ramifications that have outlasted the man.

Mr. Sikorsky ([email protected]) is a doctoral student in Chandler, Arizona. This article is abridged from the first chapter of his dissertation.

1. Time, 4 September 1939, p. 24.

2. CBS broadcast, 10 May 1940, on Edward R. Murrow, A Reporter Remembers: The War Yean, Vol. 1 (New York: Columbia Masterworks, 1966), 33 1/3 rpm sound recording, In Search of Light: The Broadcasts of Edward R. Murrow, 1938-1961, edited by Edward Bliss (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967), p. 24.

3. New York Times Magazine, 2 March 1941, p. 6.

4. Collier’s, 17 June 1939, p. 58; 2 November 1940, p. 17.

5. CBS broadcast, 10 May 1940, A Reporter Remembers. In Search of Light, p. 24.

6. D. F. Wenden, “Churchill, Radio, and Camera,” in Churchill, edited by Robert Blake and William Roger Louis (Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 222.

7. Saturday Review of Literature, 19 April 1941, p. 5.

8. CBS broadcast, 24 February 1946, A Reporter Remembers.

9. CBS broadcast, 4 September 1939, A Reporter Remembers.

10. CBS broadcast, 15 September 1940, in Edward R. Murrow, This is London (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1941), p. 175.

11. CBS broadcast, 1 October 1940, This is London, p. 196.

12. CBS broadcast, 29 December 1940, This is London, p. 226.

13. CBS broadcast, 9 March 1941, In Search of Light, p. 46.

14. For characterizations of Churchill during the first two years of the war see Time, 30 September 1940, p. 22; 26 January 1941, p. 23; 25 August 1941, p. 76; Life, 27 January 1941, p. 68; 21 April 1941, p. 79; Saturday Evening Post, 21 October 1939, p. 5; Readers’ Digest, January 1941, p. 119; June 1941, p. 79; New York Times Magazine, 19 May 1940, p. 4; 8 September 1940, p. 7; 14 September 1941, p. 3; 28 December 1941, p. 3; New Republic, 10 June 1940. p. 787. During the war, the New Republic and The Nation were the most widely circulated journals that generally subscribed to a leftist ideological viewpoint. Both praised Churchill’s defiance of Hitler, but regularly criticized his support of British imperial interests and handling of relations with the Soviet Union.

15. CBS broadcast, 3 December 1940, This is London, pp. 216-7.

16. Time, 6 January 1941, p. 23.

17. Life, 26 January 1941, p.70.

18. Robert T. Elson, Time Inc.: The Intimate History of a Publishing Enterprise, 1923-1941, edited by Duncan Norton-Taylor, Vol. 1 (New York: Athenaeum, 1968), p. 409.

19. Ibid., p. 429.

20. Time, 23 June 1941, p. 59.

21. See especially Life, 25 August 1941, pp. 26-29.

22. The New York Times, 23 December 1941, p. 5.

23. Complete Presidential Press Conferences of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Vol. 18, no. 794, 23 December 1941 (New York: Da Capo Press, 1972), pp. 382-92.

24. Newsweek, 5 January 1942, p. 23.

25. Ibid., p. 5.

26. Life, 5 January 1942, p. 28.

27. Time, 5 January 1942, p. 12.

28. Newsweek, 5 January 1942, p. 19.

29. The New York Times, 27 December 1941, p. 1.

30. Time, 5 January 1942, p. 11.

31. Life, 5 January 1942, p. 28.

32. Robert E. Sherwood, Roosevelt and Hopkins: An Intimate History (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1948), pp. 442-43.

33. Walter Henry Thompson, Assignment Churchill (New York: Farrar, Straus and Young, 1955), p. 248.

34. The New York Times Magazine, 17 October 1943, p. 33.

35. The New York Times, 17 November 1942, p. 1.

36. The New York Times Magazine, 22 August 1943, p. 11.

37. Wenden, “Churchill, Radio, and Cinema,” p. 236. Martin Gilbert, The Complete Churchill. 4 Vols. Produced by BBC-TV in association with Arts and Entertainment Network, 1992. VHS video recordings

38. The New York Times, 4 September 1943, p. 1.

39. Radio Yesteryear. December 1940-1945. 8mm films

40. Life, 6 August 1945, p. 26.

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