Finest Hour 113, Winter 2001-02
By Richard M. Langworth
War Speeches 1939-45, by Winston S. Churchill. Three volumes, 1,622 pages, bound in leather with gilt page edges, page-markers, marbled endpapers, $178.50 plus shipping. Order from the Easton Press, 47 Richards Avenue, Norwalk, Connecticut 06857, telephone (800) 367-4534.
Who were Winston Churchill’s speechwriters?,” a noted statesman once asked Churchill’s official biographer. “There weren’t any,” Sir Martin Gilbert replied—”he wrote all his speeches himself.” The assertion was greeted with incredulous disbelief by Douglas Hurd, then foreign minister of Great Britain.
That someone other than the politician uttering them is responsible for the words of politicians seems natural nowadays; yet the hiring of speechwriters is a relatively new practice, an outgrowth of the importance vested nowadays in polls, analysts, and focus groups, manifestations of modern politics that are possibly responsible for the low esteem in which voters hold politicians. Do people not enter politics to advance certain deeply held beliefs, goals or ideals? What happens to them? How serious can they be if they have to employ others to enunciate their views?
For Churchill, who learned statecraft in the palmy, placid days of Queen Victoria, it was inconceivable that anyone but he should craft words like those we read in this new Definitive Edition of his war speeches. Nor was his practice unique. Every statesman of serious mien, from Gladstone and Lincoln to Theodore Roosevelt and David Lloyd George, from Ramsay MacDonald to Clemenceau and FDR, wrote his own speeches. They wrote them because they had become national leaders on the premise of some grand scheme or set of ideas, which they knew intuitively how to present.
For Churchill in the 1940s, the grand scheme was to stand against the greatest threat to liberty yet known in the world, until other nations, “hitherto half-blind, were half-ready.” This was not necessarily the approach of Churchill’s colleagues, many of whom would have preferred to escape the war by a “deal” with Hitler’s Germany which would leave Britain and her Empire intact. Churchill’s greatest achievement was convincing them, in the darkest weeks of 1940, that no accommodation with Nazi Germany could ever be possible.
Churchill’s war speeches, collected here by the Easton Press for the first time in nearly half a century, have gone down among the greatest orations in the English language for multiple reasons. There was a rhythm to them, what Robert Pilpel calls a roast beef and pewter robustness, that not only recalls the urgency of those terrible days but makes the reader proud to be a member of the English-speaking tribe. “Nothing is so exhilarating,” Churchill once wrote, “as to be shot at without result.” Almost as exhilarating is to read these speeches, written when the very survival of civil society was at stake. Though products of their time, the speeches represent an era we can comprehend better in the wake of September 11th.
A recent Churchill Center debate fastened on why Neville Chamberlain thought it right to step down as Prime Minister in May 1940, after surviving a vote of confidence with an 80-vote majority. Survival is easier today; Bill Clinton outlasted an equivalent challenge with smaller margins. But this is an era of relative peace and prosperity; not discounting the war against terrorism, there has been no proximate threat to liberal democracy since the Soviet Union expired.
“People often forget,” Churchill’s daughter Lady Soames often says, “that in 1940 there was no guarantee that we were going to win.” Chamberlain stepped down 80 votes to the good because he knew that only a government of national unity could prosecute a war like this. Less than 24 hours later a national government coalesced, by the blessing of Providence, around Winston Churchill.
Clement Attlee, the Labour Party leader who served the wartime coalition government as Deputy Prime Minister and later replaced Churchill as Prime Minister when party politics resumed in 1945, once said that Churchill’s greatest contribution to the war was “talking about it.” Churchill himself seemed to agree; after the 1940 broadcast in which he had summoned the resolve to fight the likely German invaders on the beaches and the landing grounds, he exclaimed in an aside: “and we shall hit them over the head with beer bottles, because that’s bloody all we’ve got.” (Incidentally, contrary to the claims of the late actor Norman Shelley, when some of these speeches were broadcast after delivery in the House of Commons, Churchill broadcast them himself. Careful research has shown there was never a stand-in, at any time, for any broadcast. The speeches were read over the radio by the Prime Minister, who had first delivered them in Parliament.)
All the more remarkable is that Winston Churchill was not a natural, extemporaneous speaker; his son Randolph was much better off the cuff. Throughout his life Churchill suffered from a lisp, an inability to pronounce the letter “s.” By careful application, he turned it into a kind of prop, a personal characteristic which his listeners warmed to.
He had always committed each speech to memory, but after missing a line as a young Member of Parliament, he invariably carried the text, typed in “Speech Form,” a kind of poetic arrangement emphasizing the individual phrases and pauses. His impeccable timing and pace was the result of assiduous rehearsals. Once he dismissed an anxious valet, who thought Churchill had summoned him to his bath: “I wasn’t addressing you, I was addressing the House of Commons!”
These speeches originally constituted seven volumes, one for each year of World War II and one containing Churchill’s speeches in Secret Sessions of the House of Commons. Most of the originals were printed on pulpy, wartime-rationed paper and indifferently bound. Easton Press correctly chose the superior 1951-52 Definitive Edition of speeches, also published by Cassell, but on much finer paper with typographically superior text.
Churchill’s war speeches need not be read consecutively. Indeed, the reader may derive more pleasure from choosing them at random. For those anxious to get to the great ones first, remember that the first 14 speeches were made before war was declared— but among these, do not miss Churchill’s reaction to the Munich agreement on 5 October 1938, when the rest of his country was praising Chamberlain for having preserved peace: “We have sustained a defeat without a war…and this is only the first step, the first foretaste of a bitter cup, which will be proffered to us year by year unless, by a supreme recovery of moral strength and martial vigour, we rise again to take our stand for freedom, as in the olden time.”
Move then to Churchill’s months as First Lord of the Admiralty (September 1939 to May 1940), particularly his famous oration, “The Navy is Here,” to the crews of HMS Exeter and HMS Ajax (23 February 1940), who had hunted down the German battleship GrafSpee and liberated hundreds of British seamen aboard the prison ship Altmark. Go on to Churchill’s first speech as Prime Minister (13 May 1940): “You ask what is our policy? I will answer in one word: it is Victory…”; then to the finest of them all, on 18 June 1940: “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.'” Turn to August 1940, and his immortal tribute to the Royal Air Force: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed, by so many, to so few….”
The great orations did not end in 1940. Perhaps the noblest argument ever made for Anglo-American unity was delivered by Churchill at Harvard on 6 September 1943. American readers will also want to look up his two wartime speeches to the United States Congress, on 26 December 1941 (“If my father had been American and my mother British, instead of the other way round, I might have got here on my own…”) and 19 May 1943 (“I was driving the other day not far from the field of Gettysburg, which I know well, like most of your battlefields….”) And there are his brief, sad speeches of resignation in July 1945, when the British electorate dismissed him “from all further responsibility for their affairs.”
Writing of Churchill’s first volume of war speeches in 1941, Cecil Driver of The Yale Review suggested: “‘Majestic’ is, to me, the word that comes nearest to indicating Churchill’s essential oratorical quality; it is something that wells up from deep within the man himself….Time has been when, to some of his critics, the rhetoric seemed more apparent than the majesty, and when it seemed that he had needlessly adorned the passing episode with a brocaded panoply of diction that ill became its meagre form. But here again the man and the moment have fused into a higher manifestation. In Britain’s crisis, the grandeur of his manner has matched the gravity of the occasion….
“This book could be analyzed with profit as an anthology of English prose wherefrom one might learn much concerning both the orator’s technique and the Prime Minister’s personality….More than that, there is in these pages a patriotism which burns at such intensity that it has transcended the boundaries of a state until it has become the beacon of the Western way of life.”
All who admire the great man will be delighted to have these speeches back in print. At just under $180, Easton’s set cost less than fine first editions of the original seven volumes, and less than most copies of the three-volume Definitive Edition. This represents a literary service akin to Easton’s reprints of The World Crisis, Churchill’s memoirs of World War I, and their 12-volume edition of Martin Gilbert’s official biography, whose later volumes grow increasingly scarce. Everything I say next must remain subservient to that overriding accomplishment.
The faults of this edition are those common to other Easton efforts. The leather binding is not top quality; heavily varnished, the pigskin cracks audibly when opened, and the gilt on the page edges can easily be rubbed off if handled carelessly. In this sense it is not a “fine binding” in the way that term is understood by bibliophiles. On the other hand, it doesn’t cost $500 either, and Easton’s broad market means it will reach many people for whom the earlier editions are either unknown or unobtainable.
All credit, then, to the publishers. Now—when can we expect Easton Press to serve humanity (and profits) by a new edition of the ultra-rare Companion Volumes to Volume V of the official biography, Churchill papers from 1922 to 1939? The Churchill Center will bore them to death with this request until they acquiesce!
This review is partly an abridgement of an introduction to the Easton Press edition which is included with each set. We are grateful to Easton Press for inserting a Churchill Center brochure into each set shipped.