Finest Hour 156, Autumn 2012
Wit and Wisdom
In the aftermath of Middle East atrocities on the 11th anniversary of “9/11,” the killing of an ambassador and two others and the raising of the al Qaeda black flag over four embassies, we were repeatedly asked for the same two Churchill quotations by politicians and members of the media.
When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand we apply too late the remedies which then might have effected a cure. There is nothing new in the story. It is as old as the Sibylline books. It falls into that long, dismal catalogue of the fruitlessness of experience and the confirmed unteachability of mankind. Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong—these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.”
—House of Commons, 2 May 1935. In a conference at Stresa, Britain, France and Italy had agreed to cooperate to maintain the independence of Austria. His fear was that this plan would be nullified by inertia. Hitler annexed Austria in March 1938. If only, Churchill was saying, these three powers had worked for peace and collective security earlier.
Perhaps even more appropriate for the moment was the second request:
“The Middle East is one of the hardest-hearted areas in the world. It has always been fought over, and peace has only reigned when a major power has established firm influence and shown that it would maintain its will. Your friends must be supported with every vigour and if necessary they must be avenged. Force, or perhaps force and bribery, are the only things that will be respected. It is very sad, but we had all better recognise it. At present our friendship is not valued, and our enmity is not feared.”
—1958 WSC to his private secretary, Anthony Montague Browne, from the latter’s book, Long Sunset, 166-67.
History doesn’t repeat, Mark Twain said, but it sometimes rhymes….
Jamaica is celebrating the 50th anniversary of independence this year, and the story is circulating that Churchill once quoted “If We Must Die,” the famous verse of Jamaican poet Claude McKay. Finest Hour has been able to advise that Churchill did not repeat McKay’s poem, though in our opinion he shared the sentiments:
If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
The Jamaica Observer, which had first asserted the connection, kindly published our correction on September 25th (http://xrl.us/bnrc2z), excerpted from David Freeman’s article in FH 125:33:
“Claude McKay first published his sonnet If We Must Die in the July 1919 issue of The Liberator. McKay was inspired to pen the verse in reaction to the race riots that took place in the United States during the 1919 ‘red scare.’ McKay had been born in Jamaica but emigrated to the US in 1912 and become active in radical politics. After World War II it was alleged that Churchill had quoted all or part of McKay’s poem to Parliament and/or the U.S.: a famous white leader citing a black poet. But there is no evidence in Hansard or the Congressional Record.
“The confusion stems perhaps from the fact that the poem sounds like something Churchill might have said. Perhaps the more egregious appropriation of McKay was carried out by those who seek to restrict the poet to a black studies paradigm that distorts the emphatically international contours of a remarkable career.”