Proceedings of the International Churchill Societies 1994-95
William A. Rusher
Banff, Alberta, 25 September 1994
When I was in my teens I was politically aware for a person of that age, watching very closely the developments in Europe as war approached. I found an early hero several years before he became Prime Minister in Mr. Churchill. The first thing I remembered about him was in an article by Vincent Sheehan, an American journalist. I can still remember after all these years what he said describing Churchill walking along the shore in southern France: “When you see him coming he reminds you of an army with banners fluttering. Your first impulse is to get out of his way” My father, noticing how I felt, said to me, “If you have to have a hero, I guess you picked a good one.”
One of the advantages of being seventy-one is that you get to live and remember experiences, rather than just hearing about them. Just fifty-five years ago, when I was sixteen, I remember my mother dashing into my room one morning and saying, “Bill! Bill! Wake up! Wake up! Hitler’s invaded Poland and the dirty devil’s on the radio. Come and listen.” It was September 1st, 1939.
I went into the living room and sure enough, here was Hitler in that high, strident, tenor voice of his, shouting away to the Reichstag. Every time he stopped they’d yell, “Sieg Heil!” Then he’d go another sentence or two and they’d echo, “Sieg Heil!” It sounded like thousands of them.
I was soon able to listen to liberty’s reply those great wartime broadcasts by Winston Churchill, over the inadequate shortwave of those days, contemporaneously. I’m sure those who can’t remember it can imagine how it lifted the spirit. Many years later I finally visited the Cabinet War Rooms in London, and saw the little rooms from which he occasionally directed the war during the worst of the Blitz. I could not imagine anything more primitive. It filled in the loop for me, completing my connection to the broadcasts I’d heard years before.
I went on to college and after Pearl Harbor I joined the Army Air Corps. I was sent to Calcutta, in the India-Burma Theater, the Eastern Air Command, which fell under general command of Lord Mountbatten, whose headquarters were in Kandy, Ceylon. Calcutta was a combined headquarters with both British and American officers.
Fast forward to 1946. The war was over and in June I was waiting to enter Harvard Law School, a class they had started for returning veterans. That spring I met in New York two young fellows with whom I shared an intense admiration for Winston Churchill. One, Noah Karlin, born in Jerusalem and educated at Harrow, very British in manner; the other, a copy boy at Time who had emigrated from Austria, was Henry Anatole Grunwald. He later became the editor-in-chief of Time and United States Ambassador to his mother country. 1965 he wrote one of the finest tributes to Churchill, in Churchill The Life Triumphant, published by American Heritage.
After he delivered his “Iron Curtain” Fulton speech in March, Churchill to return through New York. Noah Karlin had the idea of holding an Harrovians’ dinner with Churchill as guest of honor. He could round up New York and booked a private club Henry Grunwald and signed on as waiters, so that at least we the great man. Churchill did actually speak in New York, at University Club, of which I was not then a member. But he had no time for appearance and the deal fell through.
In later years when he would visit New York he would stay with Bernard who had an apartment at Fifth Avenue and 66th Street (4 East 66th). I stood on the corner and waited for him to come in or go out, but they didn’t give out his schedule. Thus I was never able to succeed in my goal of seeing my hero.
Henry Grunwald came across an unpublished despatch filed by the Time correspondent in Athens in December 1944, which I think he later published in his book, when Churchill arrived there to try to set up a democratic government. The Communists were trying very hard to take over, but Churchill hoped to set up a democracy with backing and prestige that the Western powers could support. The man the British thought might lead it, uniting all the disparate fighting elements was Archbishop Damaskinos.
According to Grunwald’s correspondent, Churchill was met on arrival by Lieutenant-General Sir Ronald Scobie, the British officer commanding, and immediately began questioning Scobie about the political situation. According to Times’ man, Churchill said: “Who is this Damaskinos? Is he a man of God, or a scheming prelate more interested in the combinations of temporal power than in the life hereafter.”
Scobie replied, “I think the latter, Prime Minister.”
Churchill said: “Good, that’s our man.”
Archbishop Damaskinos, the Greek Orthodox prelate, was duly named premier and Churchill, of course, met him during that visit to Greece. Gerald Pawle, in his book The War and Colonel Warden, recounts an episode which occurred right before their meeting in December 1944.
It is a tradition in the Royal Navy that on Christmas Eve members of the crew dress up and go around the deck japing and joking, and occasionally, at random, tossing a colleague into the sea. They wear very strange costumes. On this occasion one of them, it is said, was dressed up as a hula dancer, with a grass skirt and brassiere with red and green lights that blinked on and off Others were similarly attired. They had been very carefully isolated from the roped-off VIP area around the Captain’s quarters, but nonetheless they wandered a little closer than they were supposed to be. Just then the official party including the Archbishop arrived.
Now Damaskinos stood well over six feet, and of course, he was wearing a mitre that reached a good foot or more above that. He had a long, flowing black cloak and had a huge, bushy grey beard. The sailors looked at him and beheld a fellow celebrant! Massing happily, they advanced on the Archbishop with dear intention of tossing him into the sea.
From this objective, they were deterred only with difficulty. The Archbishop went on to Mr. Churchill’s cabin, and when it was explained to him who these people were and what the tradition was, it is said that he looked as if he had fallen among a group of lunatics.
CHURCHILL was one of those public figures who was fortunate enough to be recognized, immediately before his death and certainly afterwards, the great man he is going to be historically. This doesn’t always happen. Sometimes a great personage ends a life unhappily and not much thought of, and only later, historically does he or she begin to be appreciated. What’s a historian to do? Everything nice that can be said about Churchill having already been said, something new has got to be something bad, doesn’t it? And that’s what we’re getting now, as they come along and pick up this old theme: the wrong war at the wrong time, as if we had any choice in the matter.
Speaking for myself, I don’t worry about it at all. If there is anything certain in history, it is the place and the stature of this man. For one thing, his career was so long. We don’t appreciate that. A politician who has ten or twenty or, God forbid, thirty years in the public eye has had an enormous career. Winston Churchill had upwards of sixty Let me give you an example of the skein of his tenure.
After World War II, Attlee’s Labour government wanted to curb the power of, or perhaps even eliminate, the House of Lords. Churchill, leading the Conservatives, opposed the idea. Attlee had the poor judgment (c. 1948) to quote what Churchill, as a member of the Liberal cabinet of 1911, had said when that Party had first curbed the Lords’ power. Churchill had called the House of Lords “one-sided, hereditary, unpurged, unrepresentative, irresponsible, absentee.”
After Attlee had read this transcript, Churchill replied: “Really, I do believe there ought to be a statute of limitations on my remarks. I’m willing to be held responsible for anything I’ve said for the past thirty years, but before that I think a veil should be drawn over the past.” How many politicians last long enough to make that particular request?
Winston Churchill’s place in history is assured. As long as humanity admires courage, eloquence and tenacity, he will be remembered and honored–and these are virtues which will come into fashion again, ladies and gentlemen.
I KNOW that we have a tendency to be discouraged about how things are going—although in our time, you know, they haven’t gone all that badly. The Soviet Union lies in ruins. Free market economics, which I wouldn’t have given you a plugged nickel for at the end of World War II, is now so popular that even Red China calls its policy “Market Socialism,” whatever that is. These are big victories. Still there is much that is wrong and much that is worrisome. I’m sure that Winston Churchill, if he were here, would encourage us not to give up: “Never, never, never, never.”
That is why I think he would enjoy a little quatrain by the 19th-century poet Coventry Patmore, with which I like to end my talks, because it is, optimistic and true.
For want of me the world’s course will not fail
When all its work is done the lie shall rot.
The Truth is great anti shall prevail
When none cares whether it prevail or not.
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