It is a few weeks past 140 years since a boy christened Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was delivered at England’s Blenheim Palace. He survived the trenches of France, political reversals, and even being struck by a New York City driver to lead Britain from its greatest peril in May 1940 to victory over Nazism five years later. This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of his death. In the age of radical Islam, can we draw inspiration from his career?
Yes, but only, it seems, from his finest hour. Until his moment arrived in 1940, Churchill was frequently dismissed even within his own party as an imperialist adventurer with baroque ambitions, a throwback to an earlier epoch, an author of military debacles, out of touch with a supposedly emergent world of international comity. In short, he was regarded then as most contemporary liberals might view Ted Cruz or Benjamin Netanyahu today.
And yet, if Churchill had faltered, bowing to party consensus in the 1930s or to counsel urging that Britain sue for peace in 1940, world history might have been very different. Assuming Western civilization had survived, he would have joined the ignominious company of men like Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain.
Instead, he sacrificed high office for years to sound the warning against appeasing the violent forces of totalitarianism. No one save he who foresaw the danger so far ahead was fit to lead when the supreme test arrived. And lead he did, for 18 months when Britain stood alone with but a slender lifeline to an isolationist United States.
His mistakes were legion and often costly –– to name one example, he diverted forces from North Africa in 1941, when they were on the brink of driving Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s forces from the continent, in a vain bid to save Greece from the Nazi onslaught. As a result, victory in North Africa had to be postponed until 1943, after German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s onslaught had been brought to a halt and reversed by General Bernard Montgomery at El Alamein in November 1942.
To name another, Churchill endlessly fixated on opening up secondary fronts, probably to the detriment of opening up the vital Western Front in June 1944. Victory in Europe might have looked much better, with Anglo-American forces taking all of Germany and sparing Czechoslovakia from Soviet occupation, had the Western Front been opened the previous year.
Scarcely small criticisms, they nonetheless recede in the context of his enormous achievement of holding the line against Hitler when no one else was willing. His leadership carried the allied cause.
As the military historian Victor David Hanson has just observed, “The United States was not just neutral. It had no intention of entering another European war — at least not until after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor a year and half later. From August 1939 to June 1941, the Soviet Union was an accomplice of the Third Reich. Russian leader Joseph Stalin was supplying Hitler with critical resources to help finish off Great Britain, the last obstacle in Germany’s path of European domination… [the] British role in winning World War II is often forgotten. But Britain was the only major power on either side of the war to fight continuously the entire six years, from September 3, 1939, to September 2, 1945. Britain was the only nation of the alliance to have fought Nazi Germany alone without allies. Churchill’s defiant wartime rhetoric anchored the entire moral case against the Third Reich.”
Churchill was guided by a few elementary ideas: that Britain and the Anglosphere more generally was a force for good; that its division and vacillation invited destructive forces to fill the vacuum; and that “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Together, they might even be called the Churchill Doctrine.
Once stated, it is easy to see his political descendants. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan faced down another totalitarianism that Churchill had galvanized an ascendant United States into opposing in 1946 with his memorable “Iron Curtain” speech. In the end, decades of vigilant containment and rollback produced a relatively bloodless victory, which suggests that some of the lessons of the 1930s had been learned.
But have they and if so, how widely? The American public knows an enemy when it sees it crashing planes into skyscrapers or kidnapping and gruesomely beheading journalists.
Ten years ago, I wrote that Americans disdain the idea that the aggression of someone like Osama bin Laden is any more rational than Hitler’s, which also came deftly packaged in grievances supposedly amenable to negotiation. But now I am less sure. Engagement and negotiations with Iran and the Taliban, those who have spent years killing Americans and despoiling the Middle East, suggest a willingness to forget history’s lessons.
Hitler decried encirclement and claimed a place in the sun as a passport to dominating a continent and perhaps the world. In the end, after averting eyes and handing him victims on a platter, Western publics turned and fought, harder and longer than would have been necessary if the revelation had come even a year earlier. It took Hitler’s occupation of Prague in March 1939 for Britons and Frenchmen to repudiate the seductive illusion that they could control Hitler’s aggression by conceding his demands.
In the case of radical Islam, it was another long awakening: from the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Teheran in 1979 to the mass-homicides in Manhattan and Washington, D.C on 9/11. The U.S. decamped from Lebanon (1983) and Somalia (1993), and responded with rhetoric-coupled-with-pinpricks to the terrorist outrages of the 1990s –– and again now to those of the 2010s. After 9/11, the U.S. raised a posse to confront the latest totalitarianism, which has had decades to consolidate, plant terrorist cells, and orchestrate its deeds. That too has proved a longer war than might otherwise have been necessary, augmented by far-reaching mistakes in Iraq following the deposition of Saddam Hussein in 2003. America can declare victory and leave Iraq and now Afghanistan, but these steps merely create the vacuum filled by the Islamic State and a resurgent Taliban.
Churchill’s message in all this would undoubtedly be that utopian political claims — and here is where radical Islam takes up company with Nazism and Communism –– are violent doctrines, achievable purely by unbounded force that mandate powerful resistance. His opponents since 9/11 have instead spoken of raising the drawbridge and letting things burn as the acme of wisdom and morality.
Today the Churchill Doctrine is denigrated or even despised in various polities, especially in Europe, but also here. Patrick J. Buchanan, for example, devoted an entire book to arguing that Churchill was largely to blame for both world wars and managed only to destroy Western civilization in the process. The late Christopher Hitchens before him also devoted a whole book to denigrating the Anglo-American relationship and its Churchillean bedrock –– but then converted to its mercurial advocate after 9/11 when he belatedly realized it might prove of some importance to fighting the radical Islam he detested. He even paid Churchill the tribute, “a lover of war and wine and brandy, genial in victory and unbowed in defeat.”
Hitchens’ turn is the exception. Those who disliked Churchill before 9/11 continue to do so. Likewise, Cold Warriors such as Reagan and Thatcher were cordially detested in their day. Britons will remember the Marxist firebrand unionist Arthur Scargill deriding “President Ray-Gun.” (Fewer will remember that Scargill also condemned Poland’s brave anti-communist trade union movement, Solidarity.) Here, the Democrat éminence grise Clark Clifford denigrated Reagan as an “amiable dunce.”
Contemporary political passions across a range of policies make denigration of a Reagan an easy trick. But Churchill cannot die so easily a death by a thousand cuts. In particular, his astonishing literary and oratorical attainments make it impossible for opponents of muscular anti-totalitarianism to level charges of stupidity. This has presented them with a problem. Diminishing the Churchill Doctrine has usually demanded more subtle portraiture: a whisky-sodden brooder, an unrestrained military enthusiast, an imperialist. And there is truth in all this, although these critics have also been unscrupulous, inasmuch as they do not acknowledge his corrective high sense of purpose and overriding desire to avoid still greater bloodbaths, whether in Europe or India.
Some are less scrupulous still. Michael Lind, writing in the British Spectator a decade ago, gleefully quotes Churchill from 1919, “I do not understand the squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes.” Crows Lind, “citing Churchill to support Bush’s war to rid Iraq of alleged weapons of mass destruction was particularly ironic.”
In fact, the full quote reveals that Lind lifted two isolated sentences from a passage indicating the very opposite: Churchill believed in upholding the ban on Weapons of Mass Destruction but favored the use of non-lethal agents. Why? “The moral effect” said Churchill, “should be so good that the loss of life should be reduced to a minimum.”
More significant than the sleight of hand and the implicit contradictions in Lind’s demolition job –– either the muscular anti-totalitarians are untutored militarists, or they wrongly claim descent for democratic and humane ends from a bloodthirsty imperialist –– is the clear urge to invalidate the Churchill Doctrine by besmirching the man as a potential war criminal.
Others have also tried to burrow into the doctrine. Radical British historian A.J.P. Taylor argued once to the late Churchill biographer, William Manchester, that Churchill’s Anglosphere “had few merits… he never considered how far England and America had been associated, which was very little, and — particularly — how far they could be associated in the future.” Yet post-war history has vindicated Churchill’s unfashionable view. Surely Korea, Kuwait, Afghanistan, and Iraq suggest the opposite?
What would Churchill counsel today for America if it had to stand alone? Here, we do not need to hypothesize. In 1938, at a dinner party, the American ambassador in London, Joseph Kennedy, an appeaser through and through, predicted to Churchill that England would go under in a fight. It drew from Churchill an impromptu oration that included these words:
It will then be for you, for the Americans, to preserve and maintain the great heritage of the English-speaking peoples. It will be for you to think imperially, which means to think always of something higher and more vast than one’s own national interests.
This counsel is risky, hard to execute, and liable to earn unpopularity. But it remains the indispensable meaning of the Churchill Doctrine today.