Finest Hour 115, Summer 2002
By JOSEPH R. ABRAHAMSON
Readers too young cogently to remember Winston Churchill are far more numerous today than those of us who do. What can we teach them? Learn by imagining!
On May 10th, 1940, Churchill became Prime Minister of Great Britain. The appointment was a vindication of the wisdom he had demonstrated, almost alone, in opposition to the appeasement of Hitler.
On that same day the Germans attacked the Low Countries and France. Within two weeks France collapsed, and the British army was cornered at Dunkirk. It seemed to many that Germany had won the war. Churchill declared otherwise.
Powerful forces opposed him, even within his own cabinet. Lord Halifax wanted to broker the best peace Hitler would offer, cut Britain’s losses and avoid destruction. Halifax had actually contacted Swedish diplomats who were prepared to approach Hitler to learn his terms.
Realizing that once such contact with the Germans was made, the game would be truly over, Churchill fought to prevent that approach. In the end—with support from Chamberlain, whom he had treated well— Churchill prevailed. Five years later Germany was defeated. This is our history.
But what if Churchill had not prevailed?
Only those who were alive and sentient in 1940 can appreciate how different public opinion was then. Today we value democracy and the free market. Sixty years ago there was much less confidence in both. People had lost faith in democratic forms of government. Many admired Mussolini who, after all, had reduced the Italian crime rate, made the trains run on time, and brought order to a chaotic society. The murders of his political opponents were casually overlooked.
Nazi Germany was also admired; an early form of Political Corrrectness even held that she should not be antagonized. Had not Hitler ended Germany’s earlier, rampant anarchy? Had he not put a stop to inflation, built Autobahns and Volkswagens, ended unemployment, and brought pride to a defeated people? Even his anti-Semitism found wide acceptance.
The desire for political and economic stability in the depression-plagued West was so great that people actually wanted more authoritarian government. Walter Lippmann, in his widely read newspaper column, “Today and Tomorrow,” wrote on 17 February 1933: “The danger we have to fear is not that Congress will give Franklin D. Roosevelt too much power, but that it will deny him the power he needs.”
Writing in 1934, Reinhold Niebuhr, in his book Reflections on the End of an Era, stated: “Next to the futility of liberalism we may set down the inevitability of fascism as a practical certainty in every Western nation….the drift is inevitable.”
Many other influential Britons and Americans agreed that democratic forms of government were effete, and that the efficiency of fascist government was the future. Joseph P . Kennedy, United States Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, expressed his view publicly in his famous interview with Louis Lyons of The Boston Globe in November 1940: “Democracy is done…. Democracy is finished in England. It may be here.”
In the context of this reality, let us try to imagine the results of a British surrender.
Hitler’s terms for Britain are known today. They were not punitive. He did not look upon the AngloSaxon as his inferior, or even his enemy. Britain would be allowed to keep her Empire, and her navy. Germany was to be given a free hand in Europe, but abroad all she wanted was the African colonies that had been taken away after World War I. How reasonable, after all!
From this point we can only speculate, using information that has since come to light.
With support for fascism waxing, Britain elects a fascist government headed by Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists. With Hitler’s approval, Edward VIII is returned to the throne, with Wallis Simpson his queen. Hated by Hitler, Churchill is in danger for his life. He seeks asylum in America. Thus Britain is removed as a platform for any possible future assault on Hitler’s Europe.
Without Britain at his back, Hitler is free to attack the Soviet Union, much earlier than he had planned. (Even with Britain in the war and despite a late start on June 22nd, his troops pushed to within fifteen miles of the Kremlin before winter set in.)
With an early start, Hitler takes Moscow and Stalin signs a peace. (It is now known that an armistice was discussed within the Soviet government as the Germans were advancing.) Once the Volga is reached and the oil of the Caucasus secured, Hitler has no further territorial demands on the Soviets.
The United States, just beginning to rearm, has an ill-equipped army of 100,000 men, antiquated tanks and obsolete aircraft. Politically she is divided between supporters of Britain and “America Firsters” led by Charles Lindbergh. Many are just Americans who don’t want to die. Others are members of the German-American Bund, or admirers of Hitler or his policies.
While appreciating the danger of Japan, the U.S. government cannot be concerned with Japan’s hegemony over far-off China. Rearmament is perceived neither as necessary nor universally desirable. (In early 1941 a bill to extend the military draft for one year passed the House of Representatives by one vote. The leading Republican conservative of his day, Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, opposed the draft and rearmament because, as he said, “I do not want to offend the Japanese.”)
The United States has several choices. She can simply go fascist, like the rest of the world. But Americans decide to keep their democratic traditions and, as competition mounts in the Pacific, America goes to war with Japan. Hitler, free of serious challenge, aids his Japanese ally but does not declare war himself. Germany develops formidable rocketry and jet aircraft; America develops the bomb. In time, Japan is defeated.
But the U.S. does not turn on Germany. Worn out by war with Japan, America brings her troops home. In view of Hitler she remains armed, but has no wish for a European war. (Without the base that Britain provided, from where could it begin?) In time the Germans develop their own atomic bomb, and a nuclear stalemate ushers in the “new Dark Age” Churchill had imagined in his speech of 18 June 1940.
This scenario is as sanguine as one could envision, since it leaves the United States democratic. Far worse scenarios are entirely possible.
To our great good fortune, none of this happened.
It did not happen because Churchill was in command. He did win his struggle with Halifax in those fateful days of May 1940. For this we owe him our freedom. Let each of us young and old raise a glass to Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill. Never was so much owed, by so many, to one man.
Dr. Abrahamson is a retired M.D. living in San Diego, California.