by The Honorable Caspar W. Weinberger
Finest Hour 40, Summer 1983
It is realty a great thrill and rather intimidating assignment to stand on this roster, which as it has been said, is such a famous one. I thought today I would like to talk to you a little about vision and leadership.
When Winston Churchill turned 80 on November 30, 1954, both Houses of Parliament assembled in Westminster Hall to pay him tribute. He replied by returning that tribute to the British people. It was they, he said: “Who had the lion’s heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.”
Thank you for calling upon me to give the roar here at Westminster College. It was a great honor to be asked to even try to follow in Winston Churchill’s footsteps. And it was a great temptation. But you will all be relieved to hear that I will resist the temptation of trying to talk like Churchill. Out of gratitude, then, you will I hope forgive my not being able to resist the temptation to talk about Churchill.
Oscar Wilde once said about an acquaintance that “his principles were all outdated, but he had some excellent prejudices.” I have heard some dismiss Winston Churchill that way. I have heard some suggest that he was a good man to have around in a war, but perhaps somewhat out of date for the second half of the twentieth century.
But I too have my prejudices, and you should be warned, at the outset, that I come here today as someone who has been an unreconstructed and almost unquestioning admirer of Winston Churchill for nearly 50 years. I also come representing a generation that was profoundly affected by Winston Churchill’s principles – a generation that, to many of you here, may seem more than a little outdated itself. Let me try to explain to you why I and so many others from my generation remain as strongly affected by Winston Churchill today as I was as a Harvard undergraduate.
When Winston Churchill came to Fulton in 1946 he was 71 years old. He had been through three wars. He had been rejected by the voters at the height of his triumph. He was able, as he said in his memoirs, “To say what (he) liked.”And that incidentally is quite rare and a great feeling of relief. I haven’t had it yet. And in giving one of his greatest speeches here at Westminster College he revealed not only the challenges that would face us in the second half of this century, but also the character of a great leader: the character of a prophet, a pragmatist, an idealist, and an enthusiast.
Churchill came to Fulton as a prophet. We forget that the “iron curtain” speech was not an unalloyed success – as usual there were those who found fault. In 1946 we had just finished and won the war, and yet, they said, Churchill was back spreading gloom and doom again.
“It is my duty,” he told the Westminster College audience, “for I am sure you wish me to state the facts as I see them to you, to place before you certain facts about the present position in Europe.” Then he gave his famous sentence: “A shadow has fallen upon the scenes lately so lighted by the allied victory . . . from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.”
Maybe he thought we really wanted to hear the facts. Or maybe he simply decided we had better hear them. By 1946 Churchill had more than earned the right to tell the world the facts, even if the world wanted only optimistic gloss. He had bought that right with years of futile warnings about the growing military might of Nazi Germany. He had bought it when he stood up in Parliament to denounce the appeasement at Munich, even though he could hardly speak above the storms of abuse from his colleagues. And he paid for it bitterly as he watched his young and valiant fellow countrymen go off to war. By the time he came to Fulton, Winston Churchill knew what it was to be the Cassandra of the western world.
Churchill also came to Fulton as a pragmatist. In the second most famous line of his famous speech he said: “I do not believe that Soviet Russia desires war. What they desire are the fruits of war and the indefinite expansion of their power and doctrines. . . . From what I have seen of our Russian friends and allies during the war, I am convinced that there is nothing they admire so much as strength, and nothing for which they have less respect than weakness, especially military weakness.”
Churchill did not propose that we fight the Soviet Union. In fact, he insisted that “I repulse the idea that a new war is inevitable; still more that it is imminent.” What he did propose was that we deter a fight with the Soviet Union by demonstrating, through the strength of our armed force and our strength of resolve and purpose, that the Soviet Union had nothing to gain and everything to lose from aggression. Such deterrence, he predicted, would preserve the peace. And the last four decades have proved that he was right.
But Churchill had believed in a strategy of deterrence long before the atomic bomb inaugurated the era where, as Churchill put it when he spoke here, “war can find any nation, wherever it may dwell between dusk and dawn.” During the 1930s he had repeatedly warned the people of France and Britain that by failing to rearm they were sending fatal signals of weakness to an adversary that worshipped only strength. He warned the British that they must stop basing their defense plans on the assumption that there would be – could be – no war for ten years. In his memoirs years later he would say that his colleagues had “a genuine love of peace and a pathetic belief that love can be its sole foundation.” Throughout his life Churchill knew that a genuine love of peace was not enough to guarantee it.
Churchill came to Fulton as an idealist. “We must never,” he urged, “cease to proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of freedom and the rights of man which are the joint inheritance of the English-speaking world.”
Churchill was crusty and he was intransigent, but in the end the principles he would not compromise were the principles that kept his country going through its darkest hours. Isaiah Berlin described Churchill’s power this way: “So hypnotic was the force of his word, so strong his faith, that by the sheer intensity of his eloquence he bound his spell (upon the British people) until it seemed to them that he was indeed speaking what was in their hearts and minds. Doubtless it was there, but largely dormant until he had awakened it within them.”
Winston Churchill awakened an entire generation on both sides of the Atlantic the generation that would fight what Churchill always called “the unnecessary war, ‘the generation of which I am a part.
In 1940 John F. Kennedy was still an undergraduate at Harvard, and, incidentally, a fellow toiler with me at the Harvard Crimson, when he wrote his first book: Whv England Slept. In the final pages he wrote of the lessons England held for America: “England has been a testing ground. It has been a case of a democratic form of government, with a capitalistic economy, trying to compete with the new totalitarian system, based on an economy of rigid state control. For a country whose government and economic structure is similar to England’s, and which may some day be similarly in competition with a dictatorship, there should be a valuable lesson.”
The lesson Kennedy drew was this: “We must always keep our armaments equal to our commitments.” Or, as he would say twenty years later in his inaugural address: “Only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.”
The lessons the wartime generation learned from Churchill were these: We had to took danger in the face. We had to prepare to meet it – in fact, we had to accept that preparing for war was the only way to prevent it from happening. And we had to maintain confidence in ourselves, in our values, in our institutions, and in our right to defend freedom.
I know that here at Westminster College you believe Churchill has lessons to teach generations far beyond ours. If you did not, you would not be maintaining your splendid Churchill Memorial Library which I just had the pleasure of seeing. Since Churchill can teach us so much about leadership, and since there are surely future leaders among the students here, I would like to apply some of those lessons to the world we see today.
We continue to face dangers, and dangers greater than ever before. Over the past twenty years we have seen the Soviet Union accumulate enormous military power. And for too many of those years we, like the British in the 1930s, unilaterally restrained our own efforts all through the decades of the 70’s in fact, which was the second decade of the Soviet’s enormous growth. Today the Soviets out-invest us by nearly 2 to 1 in defense. Even with our defense increases of the past two years, they outproduce us substantially in every category of weapons.
But there are warning signs beyond these. The Soviet military is not just acquiring more and better weapons. They are developing and training what can only be interpreted as an offensive force. And they are extending their military power throughout the world, to the point where they can now threaten our access to vital resources and our air and sea lines of communication, where they can undermine our forward lines of defense in Europe and Korea, to the point where they can support revolutions worldwide and challenge us now even in our own hemisphere.
This need not be cause for alarm – if it is properly viewed as a cause for action. Our policy of deterrence, like Churchill’s, is eminently pragmatic. We do not believe that the Soviets will risk aggression if they are convinced that the risks would far outweigh any possible benefits. In upgrading our aging nuclear deterrent forces, in modernizing our conventional forces to keep them up-to-date with the increasingly flexible, mobile, and accurate Soviet forces, we are simply maintaining the calculus of deterrence and ensuring that these terrible equations, which I must confront every day, will produce the answer to our survival and to the survival of peace with freedom for all of us and our posterity. As a defensive power we do not start wars, and we do not develop our military forces to start wars. But we need to ensure, in a changing and dangerous world, that our adversaries never conclude they could best us in a fight of their own choosing.
At the end of World War II Churchill came to Fulton with a proposal for preserving deterrence. He urged the American people to acquire what he called, in the title of his speech, “The Sinews of Peace.” More specifically, he urged a political and military alliance between the British Commonwealth and the United States. That specific program was never adopted. But Churchill issued the first call for what eventually became the NATO Alliance, and the strategy he proposed is today our own strategy of deterrence through collective defense.
The peace that began in 1945 between the United States and the U.S.S.R. is with us still. The longer we have that peace the longer we are blessed. And the longer we have that peace the more some question whether it really is deterrence, and collective defense, and the sinews of peace, that keep us from war.
Let us admit we will never know. But let us also affirm that the burden of proof is with those who would argue against maintaining a strong defense. We have tested the theory of appeasement and the theory of deterrence. We have applied the principles of Munich and the principles of Fulton. Maybe we cannot draw conclusions for all times, but we can surely draw conclusions from our times.
I want also to convey the greatest of the lessons we learned from Churchill: the lessons of the idealist.
I have great respect for many in the nuclear freeze movement. I know they are sincerely motivated, and they too want peace, but I greatly differ with their belief that by freezing ourselves into a position of nuclear inferiority we would preserve peace. But I hear one argument that frightens me, because this argument could destroy our ability to deter war as surely as any unilateral disarmament. And that is the argument that in the end the United States and the Soviet Union both pose a threat, and the same kind of threat to the peace and freedom of our world.
We have been reflecting on history today, and I would like to reply to that argument with a very simple historical point.
The United States in 1945 had a nuclear weapons monopoly and a total military superiority. If we wished we could have blackmailed the world. We could have exacted political or economic tribute. Instead we inaugurated a massive aid program to help our former allies and adversaries alike rebuild their nations.
The Soviet Union, in contrast, used the immense power of the occupying Red Army to establish an empire. That empire is still standing and is still expanding today.
Let us never lose the power to question ourselves. But let us also never lose sight of the enduring value of our principles, of the good they have wrought for millions of people all over the world without the slightest thought of any recompense.
There is a final lesson to take from Winston Churchill, a lesson I want to especially address to all of you who are lucky enough to be students here.
You are the future leaders of this nation. And we ask a lot of our leaders in a democracy. You will be called upon to be prophets, but we may not want to listen if you give us bad news. You will be called upon to be pragmatic, but we may resist your advice if it involves sacrifice. You will be called upon to be idealists, but we may not always recognize the ideals in our own hearts.
But it is not enough, in the end, to possess a keen eye, a clear head, and a patriotic heart. You need fire too, if you are to persevere in the face of opposition, of ridicule or worse.
Teddy Roosevelt once said that it is far better “to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”
A contemporary described the young Winston Churchill in a strikingly similar way. Churchill, he said, “Does not ‘Hum and Ha.’ He is not paralysed by the fear of consequences, nor afraid to contemplate great changes. He is out for adventure. He follows politics as he would follow the hounds.”
You do not have to agree with all the politics Winston Churchill chased in his long career to admire deeply his enormous zest for the task. Even as an old man Winston Churchill brought enthusiasm and youthful joy to the fierce challenges he faced, and to the exercise of the power he needed to meet those challenges. He took great pride in his vast achievements. He savored his many triumphs. And his enthusiasm and excitement sustained him through the dark days of defeat that preceded and sometimes followed these triumphs.
And even with all of these there were some other qualities of greatness which he possessed in the fullest measure. These qualities help explain the profound influence he exerted over his own age and over future generations. He had vision in the fullest sense of the term . -. .the ability to see things in a cosmic fashion in much the same way that our first men in space suddenly realized the oneness and the wholeness of our globe as their spaceship proceeded farther and farther into space until the earth itself seemed to be another spaceship.
Churchill had the rare capacity to arouse the imagination of people everywhere. It is perhaps the reason that he was such a remarkable painter. Even though he came to his artistic expressions comparatively late in his life, this ability to arouse imagination and to inspire is possessed by few of our politicians or statesmen, just as few of them have the ability to paint or to consider the whole picture. This role seems to have been largely turned over to, or even abandoned to writers and historians. the best of our musicians and artists, and to a few . . . a very few journalists.
We have left to (these people) the roles of gathering together all the threads of these myriads of individual activity, which taken and viewed together, make up the large mosaic. We have left to them the task of articulating the hopes and dreams of mankind. In one way we can say that the best of these artists, musicians, and writers have become the politicians . . . indeed the only politicians who can arouse the imagination and paint the visions which inspire mankind.
These are quite different times from the years in which Churchill held sway. One of the things that strikes me most about today is the enormous explosion and wealth of information that exists, and the vast amount of details about the threads of each of them. We really know too much about many small things. Indeed we seem to some extent paralyzed by the enormous volume of material and details available to us. Perhaps, in a sense, we are actually intimidated by it. At best, we are far too close to it to be able to stand off and see how all the threads can be nipped together and what will happen to us when they are.
We are in danger of becoming a nation of aesthetic system analysts without the glowing fire and the vision, and the ability to inspire that Churchill possessed in such full measure. Another unwelcome change is (on us). With all this enormous volume of information and concentration on minute and highly compartmentalized small pieces, we don’t have nearly enough people to learn or have time to love literature. Their lives, unfortunately, are taken up with reading articles, analyses, reports, and other matters connected only with their vocations. If they know (literature well, they can learn and appreciate the lessons of history and more people who can or will want to write about that history. And the more people who know our literature and language so well can use it to inspire, and not just to analyze.
The greatest of all lessons that we can learn from Churchill – because he did it in such enormous full measures – is that we must do far more than our job, no matter how narrow or broad its compass may be. If we are to inspire to lead, we must know firsthand what has inspired in the past and given visions of hope to mankind like) Churchill often inspired as he led men and women all over the world. He always offered them, as he put it in some of his great speeches in the House of Commons and elsewhere, a view of the bright sunny uplands that were always beckoning to those who had ascended part of the way. He always urged mankind’s flagging spirits on to something better.
In the end we cannot choose to be prophets without plans, pragmatists without a moral purpose, idealists without some means of preserving those ideals, or enthusiasts for less than the most noble of causes. It was that combination of all these qualities in Churchill that created the great leader. May we all be so blessed as we together work to preserve our great nation, and to serve both peace and freedom in our world.
Reprinted by permission of ICS Honorary Member, Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger, and the Winston S. Churchill Memorial and Library in the United States, Fulton, Missouri. Secretary Weinberger, a longtime Churchill-follower, is a book collector with a very impressive Churchill library. We can scarcely imagine that WSC would not share his thoughts above.
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