August 2, 2013

Finest Hour 122, Spring 2004

Page 30


I had intended to talk tonight about Churchill’s literary career, but here in New York, where I grew up and worked for many years, it is hard to think about anything except what happened two years ago a few blocks away. So I thought I would reflect on how Churchill’s experience and words may or may not apply today. That is what The Churchill Centre is in business to do, especially in its work with young people: not to pronounce what he would do in today’s situation, but to get people thinking in the ways he did.

For weeks after 9/11, from the White House to the Worldwide Web, Seattle to Sri Lanka, The Churchill Centre was kept busy finding quotations. What did Churchill say in similar circumstances? What effect did it have? Is it appropriate now?

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Churchill remarked in the House of Commons after the 1938 Munich agreement bought temporary peace at the expense of Czechoslovakia, “I will begin by saying the most unpopular thing.” So here is another unpopular thing: we are not united. Some assure us that we brought these calamities on ourselves, that we have no plan. Others inflexibly defend the plan in place. Is Iraq part of the war on terrorism, or isn’t it? We must not say what Churchill would do, but I think it is fair to suggest that he would be saddened over our disunity, our lack of clarity about our objectives.

Part of this may be the result of the instant communication we have today: the lack of time, which Churchill had, to reflect, to consult, to formulate policy. Reaction times were longer then. Nearly a month went by between the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and the touching off of World War I. We didn’t know for weeks that the death of Jan Masaryk in Prague in 1948 signaled the extinction of Czech liberty for the second time in a decade. The slower pace of 1940 meant that Lord Halifax, on May 28th of that year, finding his ideas of a peace deal with Hitler rejected by Churchill, could not appear on Larry King the same evening to air his grievances—not that such an act of public disloyalty would ever have occurred to him.

Leaders today must react instantaneously. As a result, they are very skittish about ad-libbing. Someone who disagrees with them will be on the air immediately, and the more extreme the objection, the better their chances of being on the air. So there exists what Churchill once described as “a tendency to hush everything up, to tell what is called the official truth, to present a version of the truth which contains about 75 percent of the actual article….”

He said that in 1901 at the age of 26. About three decades later, as Hitler was coming to power in Germany, he urged his government:

Tell the truth to the British people! They are a tough people, a robust people. They may be a bit offended at the moment, but if you have told them exactly what is going on, you have insured yourself against complaints and reproaches which are very unpleasant when they come home on the morrow of some disillusion.

Disunity has also been caused by the way we have been led, which I don’t say in any pejorative sense. These are different times. Yet I believe Churchill would urge us to be consistent. We’ve been told for example that we are at war. Yet no war is declared. It was suggested after 9/11 that Congress be asked for a declaration of war against “the nation of terrorism”—a stark yes or no vote, not open to the vagueness or misinterpretation of the so called use-of-force resolution, which Senator Kerry has remarked; that the Defense Department readopt its old name of the War Department, and that “Defense” be applied to the Department of Homeland Security. Nothing of the sort happened—except some new laws abridging civil liberties, some of which may be warranted in wartime, but which are inappropriate at any other time among free peoples.

We’ve been told to prepare to sacrifice, but no sacrifice has been asked of us, only of our soldiers. There is no draft, no rationing, no public drives to support the troops (some private ones), no war bonds to finance the war (and as a result it is costing a good deal of the general revenue). Churchill’s wars were different. He ensured with words and deeds that all parties rose as one to defend the nation.

A friend here in New York suggested to me that while modern leaders, unlike Churchill, shun bad news, they are far too anxious deliver the good. Churchill, he said, would have never pulled a stunt like Bush did on the aircraft carrier, before the war was won. I disagreed. Not only would Churchill have happily visited a warship (he actually did so on several occasions)—had it been a carrier he might have insisted on landing the plane himself. But he would not have strung up a big sign reading “Mission Accomplished.” His sign would more likely have read: “Onwards to Victory.”

Raymond Seitz, a former U.S. Ambassador to London, said at our first Churchill Lecture in 1998:

…when you look around the world today, I think it is safe to say that we do not have the structure nor the vocabulary nor the leadership to describe where we are. Perhaps this is why the political Churchill seems to loom so large at the end of the century. Less his fullness than our inadequacy.

Throughout the last two years, except in the immediate aftermath, we seem to have lacked a sense of urgency, even of realism. Could it be that the reality is so frightening that our leaders fear its blunt recitation would damage them politically? Churchill never let his political fate interfere with telling people exactly what he felt they should hear. Speaking in Parliament in 1936 he gave a ringing definition of this prime, but rare, political responsibility:

I would endure with patience the roar of exultation that would go up when I was proved wrong, because it would lift a load off my heart and the hearts of many Members. What does it matter who gets exposed or discomfited? If the country is safe, who cares for individual politicians, in or out of office?

As a student of Churchill I approved when I heard that President Bush told his cabinet to consider the Iraq troop strength issue “as if an election were not happening.” I approved when Governor Dean began his campaign by opposing the Iraq war because he was convinced it was right to do so long before it became fashionable. That is, I think, why he was initially so successful. Both of these actions were in their way Churchillian. Neither, if Churchill’s experience is any guide, may prove politically advantageous in the long run.

Let us admit too that we haven’t been Churchill’s equal at handling allies, especially the French. He was a master at this, in part, ironically, because his French was so bad it amused them. Just last week I stumbled over an account in the Alanbrooke Diaries of his journey to France during November 1944, for the first celebration of Armistice Day since 1939.

Many people think Brooke wrote only terrible things about Churchill in his Diaries, but if you read them you will find a lot of humor. Here is what he wrote about Armistice Day 1944: One other incident that day that left a mark in my mind was Winston at lunch. He arrived completely frozen and almost rolled up on himself like a hedgehog. He was placed in a chair with a hot-water-bottle at his feet and one in the back of his chair; at the same time good brandy was poured down his throat to warm him internally. The results were wonderful, he thawed out rapidly, and when the time came produced one of those indescribably funny French
speeches which brought the house down.

Two days later the Churchill party arrived to visit General Lattre’s headquarters at Brensancon. Brooke writes:

As we arrived in the station which was filled with generals, bands, guards of honour and dignitaries of every description, Winston was expected to alight from the train gracefully. However, at this moment Winston was still only half dressed, and he completed his toilet, a process that lasted a full quarter of an hour….Finally Winston emerged in the dining-carriage dressed as an airman. There Sawyers, his valet, proceeded to adjust his coat whilst he admired the general effect in the glass. At the correct moment Sawyers handed him from behind the two ends of the belt. This produced a thunderstorm of abuse: “Sawyers, you damned fool, why have you not removed that bastard! You know I never want that bastard round me again! Cut off the damned thing!” Mary [Churchill] was standing beside me at the door that led into the corridor, and, not knowing what further language the paternal anger might produce, withdrew gracefully down the corridor with a smile. Finally and at last Winston was ready, and out he stepped into the snow with a smile on his face, large cigar, and his coat no longer adorned by that “bastard thing.”

In contrary to popular belief Churchill almost always sought to avoid war. The Churchill Centre created a book a few years ago about the many occasions when he served as peacemaker. One chapter was on Cairo in 1921, where he drew up the borders of modern Iraq—which everybody says is inherently unstable but which has managed to remain intact for eighty years. And there he tried also to establish a Kurdish homeland, “to protect the Kurds,” as he put it, “from some future bully in Iraq.” When Osama bin Laden spoke after 9/11 of “eighty years of injustice,” he was referring to this Cairo conference held by Churchill—which for a time colonized Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and refused to bar Jews from Palestine.

Senator McCain said recently, “One of the reasons we don’t like going to war is that it never goes as planned.” Churchill warned similarly:

Never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that any one who embarks on that strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The Statesman who yields to war fever must realise that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.

Despite their unpredictability and horror, in the wars of old we were never allowed to see reality. There was censorship. We look sadly today at 500 deaths and declare them unacceptable, Alistair Cooke remarked in his BBC “Letter from America.” He remembers when we had to cope with 20,000 deaths in the first day of the Battle of the Somme. But they were not conveyed to the public in the way they are today.

Knowing all he did about war, when Churchill judged matters beyond diplomacy he never looked back. In the 1930s he concluded that soft, quiet voices would not stop Nazi Germany. Later he wrote:

This idea of not irritating the enemy did not commend itself to me. Good, decent, civilized people, it appeared, must never themselves strike till after they have been struck dead….On the one side endless discussions about trivial points, no decisions taken, or if taken rescinded, and the rule “Don’t be unkind to the enemy; you will only make him angry.” On the other side, doom preparing.

Thus also in 1941. Hours after Pearl Harbor and the invasion of southeast Asia, having obtained Privy Council authority, Churchill declared war on Japan, delivering the message with due deference. Informing the Japanese ambassador that a state of war existed between their two countries, he concluded, “I have the honour to be, with high consideration, Sir, Your obedient servant, Winston S. Churchill.” “Some people did not like this ceremonial style,” he wrote later, “but after all, when you have to kill a man, it costs nothing to be polite.”

And that was it, you see. However polite the communication, he knew that we would have to try to kill people, and they to try to kill us.

We’ve heard much lately about the United Nations, and at The Churchill Centre we get a lot of questions from students asking for references to what Churchill thought of world organization in his day. His attitude was diffident. “Some people say: ‘Put your trust in the League of Nations,'” he remarked in 1935. “Others say: ‘Put your trust in British rearmament.’ I say we want both….

Those who believe, as I do, sincerely, that the League of Nations is a priceless instrument of international comity, which may play as great a part as the most daring, hopeful founders ever forecast for it, should be especially careful not to put upon the League strains which in its present stage it is utterly incapable of bearing.

His thinking may suggest that self-preservation lies in national sovereignty and natural allies, but even in this realm he had his quarrel with inertia, which I think he feared more than anything. In the mid-1950s he said:

We shall hear in succeeding generations a lot of talk about the pacific virtues we displayed; how we exhausted every expedient; how we flaunted a magnificent patience; how we never lost our heads or were carried away by fear or excitement; how we turned the second cheek to the smiter seven times or more. Some historians will urge that admiration should be given to a Government of honourable high-minded men who bore provocation with exemplary forbearance and piled up to their credit all the virtues, especially those which command electioneering popularity…

I hope it will also be written how hard all this was upon the ordinary common folk who fill the casualty lists. Under-represented in Government and Parliamentary institutions, they confide their safety to the Ministers and the Prime Minister of the day. They have just cause of complaint if their guides or rulers so mismanage their affairs that in the end they are thrust into the worst of wars with the worst of chances.

Whether declared or not, we are thrust into another war, hopefully not the worst of wars or with the worst of chances. Will we get it right this time, or to paraphrase Triumph and Tragedy, resume the follies that may someday cost us our lives?

Our inertia in defending our liberty dogs our history. We are rightfully reluctant to contemplate the loss of our children on distant battlefields. It’s not like fighting World War II. Some ask, “How will we know when we have won?” Like Churchill we must remain on the side of the optimists. We must believe we will know when we have won.

In the dark days of December 1941, Churchill brought his message of optimism to Washington. The enemy, he said, may be “dazzled and dizzy with their own schemes of aggression and the prospect of early victories.” But it is

difficult to reconcile [their] action with prudence or even with sanity. What kind of a people do they think we are? Is it possible they do not realize that we shall never cease to persevere against them until they have been taught a lesson which they and the world will never forget?

The Congress of the United States, including many a grim old isolationist, stood on its collective feet and roared. He went on:

Some people may be startled or momentarily depressed when, like your President, I speak of a long and hard war. But our peoples would rather know the truth, somber though it be. And after all, when we are doing the noblest work in the world, not only defending our hearths and homes but the cause of freedom in other lands, the question of when deliverance comes falls into its proper place in the grand proportions of human history.

Having seen every kind of fighting, from guerrilla insurgencies to the Western Front, Churchill knew that war is horrible. Not for him the 1914 formulation, “It will all be over by Christmas.” On the contrary, he warned when he became a wartime prime minister in 1940, “We must prepare ourselves for hard and heavy tidings.” Which reminds me of Mr. Rumsfeld’s declaration that we are in for a long, hard slog.

Like the Axis powers of his day and others since, we have intelligent, well organized, amply financed enemies, who closely monitor our political affairs and will use them to maximum advantage. It was no coincidence that the Tet Offensive in Vietnam occurred in the spring of an election year. The enemy, Churchill warned in 1944, “has two hopes. The first is that by lengthening the struggle he may wear down our resolution; the second and more important hope is that division will arise.”

This certainly sounds familiar. But few today have come out and told us the unvarnished truth, as he did in 1940: “Death and sorrow will be the companions of our journey; hardship our garment; constancy and valour our only shield. We must be united, we must be undaunted, and we must be inflexible.”

Churchill’s courage calls to us across the years: two decades’ battle experience, from Afghanistan ‘through Africa to the trenches of Flanders. Yet once he was convinced that there was no alternative, he pursued battle with fixed purpose and stout resolution. Since 9/11, the world has been reminded of how vital his example remains: how relevant his words, how contagious his resolve, how necessary his fortitude. Even his critics agree there was nobody like him: nobody as inspiring, as remarkable, as human. His thoughts and deeds will be worthy of reflection in the current crisis, and those ahead. We have plenty of time. It’s going to be a long, hard slog. 

Mr. Langworth is editor of Finest Hour. This speech was delivered at a celebration of Sir Winston Churchill’s 129th birthday at the Kenneth Rendell Gallery, New York City, 2 December 2002.

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