Streetcar Line

Dunkirk Conservatism

On the 70th anniversary of the greatest evacuation of World War II, American conservatives should understand they've won nothing yet.

By 5.27.10

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The greatest rescue operation in history began in full 70 years ago today. In nine days beginning May 27, 1940, the British Navy and hundreds upon hundreds of private vessels rescued an astonishing 338,266 men from the harbor and beaches of Dunkirk, France, all while under constant bombardment from German air and land forces that killed 68,111 Brits and captured as many as another 80,000. Instead of Great Britain being left at the mercy of the German death machine, the island nation had saved an army big enough to repel a Nazi invasion.

As Winston Churchill rightly noted: "We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations."

American conservatives right now do not seem to realize that we are in the immediate post-Dunkirk phase of a desired political recovery.

All around the country, I hear conservatives talking giddily about how many seats Republicans will pick up in this fall's congressional elections, and about how many of those Republicans will be true conservatives.

Newt Gingrich, for instance, is out there playing his usual game of speaking extravagantly about a coming victory. On May 18, he forecast up to a 70-seat gain in Republican House seats. On May 20, on the basis of one special election, he downgraded his prediction to "the 30-to-50-seat range" -- which still would be mighty impressive, by historical standards. This sort of volatility is nothing new: This is the same Gingrich who promised a 30-seat Republican House pickup in 1998, only to see an actual loss of five seats instead.

Maybe we should learn something from 1998. Or from 1980, where polls six days before Election Day had Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter in a dead heat, only to see Reagan win 489 out of 538 electoral votes. Conventional wisdom says that "six months is an eternity in politics." Actually, six days is an eternity in politics. Six months might as well be "infinity and beyond."

WHICH LEADS US BACK to Dunkirk. On the same day the evacuation began, the British War Cabinet came close to an ignominious deal with Italy's Mussolini that would amount to agreeing to permanent Nazi/Fascist domination of the European continent -- so close that only Churchill's dogged willpower stood between the deal and a continued battle for civilization. Yet six days after coming so close to what amounted to surrender, a quarter-million soldiers already had been evacuated, and it was clear that the Brits would indeed live to fight another day. Six days from apparent defeat to survival.

Yes, six days is an eternity.

That's why the current conservative giddiness is misplaced. Yes, the more conservative candidates won general elections in New Jersey, Virginia, Massachusetts, and Hawaii, and conservatives have won primaries in Utah, West Virginia, and Idaho, while conservatives have surged or even forced more liberal candidates out of races in Florida, Pennsylvania, Nevada, and elsewhere. Good. But all that means is that conservatives can now again wage a real fight. It means we have avoided the rout that the Obama-Pelosi-ACORN-SEIU brigades had planned for us. We have been evacuated. But our political D-Day, and V-E Day, and V-J Day, remain a long, long way off, and the outcome is by no means assured.

Some indicators, meanwhile, are not good at all. The Republican National Committee has just about $12 million cash on hand, compared to $40 million at this point in the most recent comparable cycle. All three of the main national party committees are reeling from embarrassments, and poorly led. Thousands of dollars for strip clubs and softball equipment. Chairman's feet continually in mouth. Blown endorsements and elections in New York-23, Florida Senate, Utah Senate, Kentucky Senate, Pennsylvania-12. Ham-handed interference in primary battles across the nation rather than letting locals choose their own candidates while the committees save their money and prestige and keep their powder dry until it's time to beat Democrats rather than fellow Republicans.

And, lest anybody forget, conservatives continue to lose legislatively. Health care has been nationalized. Student loans have been nationalized. The financial industry has been turned on its head. Spending continues to go through the roof. The auto industry has been partly nationalized. Half of the 1996 reforms of welfare have been gutted. The Justice Department is run by corrupt, leftist ideologues. The census has been politicized. AmeriCorps has been expanded ten-fold and altered into the first makings of a political army, while its inspector general has been illegally hounded from office -- and thus the internal controls against rank politicization have been torn asunder. Civil rights are now protected only for minorities, but not for whites or Asians. In a North Carolina case, civil rights were even adjudged to be nonexistent unless Democrats are virtually guaranteed electoral victory. The Supreme Court now features its most radical member ever, a truly dangerous Latina who is anything but wise -- and she seems likely to be joined by another leftist, this one bright and personable enough to have a chance to sway Justice Anthony Kennedy in her direction.

And on and on the disasters have gone. While conservatives pick up popular support and occasional off-year electoral victories, the Left has gobbled up vast amounts of the political continent -- and much of that land will be exceedingly difficult to re-take. Anzio, anyone? Guadalcanal? The Somme in World War I? Korea above the 38th parallel? Can anybody doubt that possession of territory, along with the levers of power within it, does anything other than confer huge advantages?

Friends, the fight to retake what already has been lost will be a long, long, hard, hard slog. Giddiness is out of place.

Yes, it is true that confidence, tempered by grim realism, is certainly not out of line, considering the poll numbers, the grassroots enthusiasm, the Tea Parties, and the incompetence and clueless of much of the leftist opposition. But confidence must be backed not just by hard work but also by smart work. Conservatives must not fall prey to mere attitudinal action based on an unfocused anti-establishmentarianism. Some people already in office are not "bums" who merit being thrown out. And some maverick outsiders aren't really competent or wise. Conservatives must learn to discern which are which.

Sobered by the task ahead, but justifiably confident that victory can indeed be attained, conservatives can indeed learn not just from Churchill's warning that evacuations are not victories, but also from the determination to earn real victories even against tough odds. At the risk of repeating what has become so familiar as to almost be trite, let us remember what else Churchill said immediately after the deliverance of Dunkirk. Remember his words, but read them and savor them as if they are new:

We shall go on to the end. We shall fight… in the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air; we shall defend our [land], whatever the cost may be. We shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

It should hearten us that Barack Obama banished the bust of Churchill from the White House. Obama doesn't understand. Pray Lord that we conservatives do understand. And never surrender.

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About the Author
Quin Hillyer is a senior editor of The American Spectator and a senior fellow at the Center for Individual Freedom. Follow him on Twitter @QuinHillyer.