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How Winston Churchill Saved the World

Lukacs.jpgAfter my recent post in memory of Winston Churchill, I have had a number of inquiries asking how it was that I could assert that Winston Churchill had saved civilization. Several correspondents politely asked if this wasn’t overstepping things a little?

The Great Man theory seems to have fallen out of favor in recent decades, but there have been turning points of history when one individual quite literally made all the difference in the world. In May 1940, as a smashed British Expeditionary Force streamed over the Channel to Britain from Dunkirk — without its equipment — we all know that Churchill and the British Isles resolved to fight Hitler to the death. But a close parsing of the historical record shows that there was a moment’s hesitation, a slight wavering in resolve by a good many members of the leadership. Casting oneself back to that time, the urge to negotiate with Herr Hitler seems logical, and a deal made sense to some: give up Gibraltar and Malta, throw in a few African colonies and perhaps elements of the Fleet, and Hitler might leave a demilitarized Britain alone.

The Italian ambassador had several meetings with the British Foreign Secretary at which an intermediary negotiating role for Signor Mussolini was discussed. And the Japanese foreign minister put out similar feelers to the British ambassador in Tokyo.

But Winston Churchill, after first testing the waters and finding opposition to fighting on against Germany among several members of his five-man War Cabinet, worked to stiffen the wobbly backbones of his less resolute colleagues. There can be no agreement with a toxic Adolf Hitler, he argued. Then he rallied the political class and the British people to their finest hour. However, he could have chosen a different course, and had he alone done so, the world would be quite another place today.

Handwritten notes show that on May 28, 1940 Churchill exhorted the thirty-man Outer Cabinet with one of his greatest speeches. No formal record of the meeting exists, but the great man later confirmed one listener’s notes that he had made the following peroration:

“If this long island history of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”

Note: Historian John Lukacs’ slim, thrilling book details the episode as it came to pass over five days in May 1940. However, Churchill himself — placing the importance of a glowing national narrative ahead of his own reputation — elided it entirely in his own voluminous writings on The Second World War. In his second volume, entitled Their Finest Hour, he went so far as to write:

Future generations may deem it noteworthy that the supreme question of whether to fight on alone never found a place in the War Cabinet agenda. It was taken for granted and as a matter of course by these men of all parties in the State, and we were much too busy to waste time upon such academic, unreal issues.

As Lukacs points out, the War Cabinet devoted the better part of nine meetings, some of which went on for as long as four hours, to the issue of negotiating, or not, with Adolf Hitler.

Note: Winston Churchill did not win the Nobel Peace Prize — in 1945 that honor went to Cordell Hull, the U.S. Secretary of State, who was instrumental in founding the United Nations — but one can imagine him happier to have been awarded the Prize in Literature in 1953 “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values”.

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