William F. Buckley, Jr.
Boston, 27 October 1995
WHEN I was a boy I came upon the line, “Let us now praise famous men.” In succeeding decades I found myself running its implications through my mind. The evolution of my thinking is of possible interest to you under the auspices of this celebration.
Early on I found myself wondering why exactly it was thought appropriate, let alone necessary, to praise famous men. If such men as were to be praised were already famous, as the biblical injunction presupposes, then would they not disdain as either redundant, or immodest, the solicitation of more praise than they had already? It seemed, in that perspective, just a little infra dig to enjoin such praise.
Sometime later I bumped into the melancholy conclusion of the historian who wrote that “great men are not often good men.” That finding curdled in the memory. Does it require of a famous man to be praised, that he be praiseworthy? And if he is not a good man, merely a successful man who became famous by inventing the wheel or invading Russia or writing War and Peace, should not the praise be confined to bringing to the attention of those who are behind in the matter that which the person being praised actually did that merits more vociferous admiration? Or is that obvious? Jack the Ripper was famous, but our praise of him, if such it is to be called, does not focus on his attainments.
And then much later, much much later, on reading recently a review of the life of Abraham Lincoln justified, or so it seemed, primarily by the author’s diligence in bringing to light episodes in Lincoln’s life, and aspects of his character that serve to diminish the myth, I found myself wondering: At what point ‘is it in the interest of civilization to devise a line between research designed to satisfy the curiosity, and research bent upon defacement, this last often an instinct of the egalitarian, who really thinks that all men should be equally famous, in the absence of which all men should be equally infamous. As in, “If everybody can’t be rich, then everybody should be poor.” I am at this stage in the development of my thought on that passage from Ecclesiastes more and more inclined to believe that the point comes when it is prudent, unless one’s profession is in historical clinics, to accept that which was legendary as legend; that which was mythogenic as myth; fortifying myth, ennobling myth.
WHEN I was a junior in college and editor of the student newspaper I received an invitation to attend the speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to be given by Winston Churchill, commemorating a mid-century celebration. I drove with a fellow editor to Cambridge and awaited the appearance of the great man with high expectation, made higher by advance notice given by Mr. Churchill to the press, to the effect that the speech he would give at the M.I.T. celebration would be an important historical statement.
Mr. Churchill’s preceding visit to the United States had been to Fulton, Missouri, and we wondered whether he would go further in characterizing the Soviet Union and its leader. We watched him with fascination come to the chair-he was shorter than I had envisioned, less rotund. He guided a cane with his right hand, but even so needed help to rise to the lectern. The hypnotizing voice boomed in, and our attention was at tip toe.
I remember rushing back to New Haven with some trepidation that the story I would write might feature something Winston Churchill had said that was different from what The New York Times and the Associated Press and the United Press agreed was the major news story. In fact Mr. Churchill hadn’t said anything different from what he had said before, which was that the discovery of the atom bomb, as we then called it, might prove to be the greatest humanitarian invention in history, making war so awful that wars would never again be fought. That hope did not prove prophetic, in that many millions have been killed in warfare since he gave it voice, but then it is true that most of them were killed in battles in which there was no general at hand with the atom bomb in his quiver.
But what mattered in 1949 was the possession of the bomb. When Mr. Churchill spoke it was exclusively ours, copyright Los Alamos, USA; but the pirate paid no attention and within months he would develop his own or, more exactly, succeed in transforming blueprints provided by U.S. and British spies into a nuclear bomb.
But of course the real nightmare had already come, by the time of the mid-century celebration of M.I.T, to Eastern Europe, and had only a year before spread to Czechoslovakia. Mr. Churchill was to some extent on a diplomatic rein that night, because he did not mention the name of Stalin, referring instead to “thirteen men” in the Kremlin. But the image of Stalin was clearly in his mind when he reminded his audience that the Mongol invasion of Europe, well underway seven hundred years earlier, had been interrupted by the death of Genghis Khan. His armies returned seven thousand miles to their base to await a successor, and they never returned. Might such a thing happen again? Churchill wondered.
Four years later, Stalin obliged us all by going, one hopes, to a world even worse than the one he created, assuming such exists; but it was not as when Genghis Khan left the world without a successor: Stalin’s successors would keep intact the evil empire for almost forty years. The plight of the captive nations, the dismaying challenges that lay ahead, the struggles in Berlin and Korea and Vietnam, the hydrogen bomb, the Cuban crisis, all unfolded with terrible meaning for those whose statecraft had failed us.
IN OCTOBER of 1938, a despondent Churchill had spoken in Commons about the failed diplomacy of his colleague, Neville Chamberlain. He said then, “When I think of the fair hopes of a long peace which still lay before Europe at the beginning of 1933 when Herr Hitler first obtained power, and of all the opportunities of arresting the growth of the Nazi power which have been thrown away; when I think of the immense combinations and resources which have been neglected or squandered, I cannot believe that a parallel exists in the whole course of history.” Well but of course a parallel would come again, in Mr. Churchill’s lifetime, and in that parallel he was a major player, if not, alas, the critical player.
In the same speech after the Munich conference in 1938 Mr. Churchill had ruminated on British history. Only an Englishman, surely, is capable of the following commentary except in parody. “In my holiday,” he said, “I thought it was a chance to study the reign of King Ethelred the Unready.” (What did you study during your holiday, Mabel?) “The House -Mr. Churchill was addressing Parliament-
will remember that that was a period of great misfortune, in which, from the strong position which we had gained under the descendants of King Alfred, we dove swiftly into chaos. It was the period of Danegeld and of foreign pressure. I must say that the rugged words of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, written a thousand years ago, seem to me apposite, at least as apposite as those quotations from Shakespeare with which we have been regaled by the last speaker from the Opposition Bench. Here is what the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle said, and I think the words apply very much to our treatment of and relations with Germany. ‘All these calamities fell upon us because of evil counsel, because tribute was not offered to them at the right time nor yet were they resisted; but when they had done the most evil, then was peace made with them.
“That,” Mr. Churchill said, “is the wisdom of the past, for all wisdom is not new wisdom.”
Seven years later, after England’s and his finest hour began to tick when England denied to Herr Hitler the right to enslave Poland, Churchill prepared for the Yalta summit meeting in January, 1945. He confided to his private secretary, “All the Balkans except Greece are going to be Bolshevised. And there is nothing I can to do prevent it. There is nothing I can do for poor Poland either.” To his cabinet, he reported that he was certain that he could trust Stalin. The same man whose death he so eagerly anticipated at M.I.T. five years later, in 1945 he spoke of as hoping he would live forever. “Poor Neville Chamberlain,” he told Mr. Colville, “believed he could trust Hitler. He was wrong. But I don’t think I’m wrong about Stalin.”
His concluding experience with Stalin came just six months later, at Potsdam, at which Winston Churchill had come upon another historical force, for which he was, this time, substantially unprepared. The first week in June he had gone on BBC to alert the voters against a domestic catastrophe which he was quite certain would never overpower even a country exhausted by the exertions of so fine an hour. “My friends,” he spoke,
I must tell you that a Socialist policy is abhorrent in the British ideas of freedom. Although it is now put forward in the main by people who have a good grounding in the liberalism and radicalism of the early part of this century, there can be no doubt that socialism is inseparably interwoven with totalitarianism and the abject worship of the state. It is not alone that property, in all its forms, is struck at, but that liberty, in all its forms, is challenged by the fundamental conception of socialism.
But it was the fate of Winston Churchill to return to power in 1951 resolved not to fight the socialist encroachments of the postwar years. He, and England, were too tired, and, as with East Europe and Poland, there was nothing to be done. There was n5 force in Europe that could move back the Soviet legions, no force in Great Britain that would reignite, until twenty-five years later, the vision Mr. Churchill displayed, speaking to the BBC microphones on June 5th, 1945, since nobody else was listening.
Mr. Churchill had struggled to diminish totalitarian rule in Europe which, however, increased. He fought to save the Empire, which dissolved.
He fought socialism, which prevailed. He struggled to defeat Hitler, and he won. It is not, I think, the significance of that victory, mighty and glorious though it was, that causes the name of Churchill to make the blood run a little faster. He spoke diffidently about his role in the war, saying that the lion was the people of England, that he had served merely to provide the roar.
But it is the roar that we hear, when we pronounce his name. It is simply mistaken that battles are necessarily more important than the words that summon men to arms, or who remember the call to arms. The battle of Agincourt was long forgotten as a geopolitical event, but the words of Henry V, with Shakespeare to recall them, are imperishable in the mind, even as which side won the battle of Gettysburg will dim from the memory of those who will never forget the words spoken about that battle by Abraham Lincoln. The genius of Churchill was his union of affinities of the heart and of the mind, the total fusion of animal and spiritual energy:
You ask what is our policy? I can say It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all the might and with all the strength that God can give us.. ..You ask what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory-~ victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be.
IN OTHER days, from other mouths, we would mock the suggestion that extremism in defense of liberty was no vice. Churchill collapsed the equivocators by his total subscription to his cause. “Let’ em have it,” he shot back at a critic of area bombing. “Remember this. Never maltreat the enemy by halves.” Looking back in his memoirs on the great presidential decision of August, 1945, he wrote, “There was never a moment’s discussion as to whether the atomic bomb should be used or not.” That is decisiveness we correctly deplore when we have time to think about it, but he was telling his countrymen, and indirectly Americans, that any scruple, at that time of peril to the nation itself, was an indefensible and unbearable distraction. He was from time to time given to reductionism in other situations, and Churchill could express frustration in searing vernacular. Working his way through disputatious bureaucracy from separatists in New Delhi he exclaimed, to his secretary, “I hate Indians.” I don’t doubt that the famous gleam came to his eyes when he said this, with mischievous glee- an offense, in modern convention, of genocidal magnitude.
But this was Churchill distracted from his purpose. The little warts Cromwell insisted be preserved; which warts, however, do not deface the memory of Churchill, because of the nobility of his cause and his sense of the British moment:
Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known or cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. 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.’
It is my proposal that Churchill’s words were indispensable to the benediction of that hour, which we hail here tonight, as we hail the memory of the man who spoke them; as we come together, to praise a famous man.
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