Fighting for Civilization Against the Despots of Every Age - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Fighting for Civilization Against the Despots of Every Age
by

It was the fall of 1943 when Churchill addressed the House of Commons. The hinge of fate had begun to turn. The Nazis had been driven from North Africa, but most of the rest of Europe was still tightly in Hitler’s grip. Stalingrad had been won, but the Germans still held vast territory in Russia. Japan had not even begun its ambitious attack into British-held India. The war was far from won.

Churchill began matter-of-factly and let the words sink in without any preface:

I have an announcement to make to the House arising out of the Treaty signed between this country and Portugal in the year 1373 between His Majesty King Edward III and King Ferdinand and Queen Eleanor of Portugal.

This quickly got the attention of the MPs.

Churchill went on to read from the treaty:

Article I of the Treaty of 1373 runs as follows:

In the first place we settle and covenant that there shall be from this day forward … true, faithful, constant, mutual and perpetual friendships, unions, alliances and needs of sincere affection and that as true and faithful friends we shall henceforth, reciprocally, be friends to friends and enemies to enemies, and shall assist, maintain and uphold each other mutually, by sea and by land, against all men that may live or die.

Churchill was only incidentally teaching a history lesson, His main purpose was to announce that Britain had just concluded an agreement whereby Portugal allowed Britain to use the Azores as a base in the Battle of the Atlantic, the supreme test of survival for Britain. This Azores base proved to be a great help in conquering the mortal threat the German U-Boats posed to the ocean pathways that supplied food and materiel to Britain as well as the American divisions that would prepare and execute the D-Day landings.

A democracy cannot win a war without popular support. The barbarism of the Nazis, even before the full horrors of the Holocaust became widely known, persuaded first Britain and then the United States that the alternative to taking up arms against Hitler was the death of civilization. Part of Churchill’s contribution to the destruction of Nazism was his brilliance in framing the challenge that faced the democracies in such terms. His “Finest Hour” speech is only the most notable among many for its brilliant evocation of the war’s existential challenge to civilization:

If we can stand up to [Hitler], 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 and 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.

When Churchill spoke to Parliament about the invocation of a 600-year-old treaty to further the defeat of Nazism, he was demonstrating the true power of civilization, something far more deeply significant than the mere acquisition of another strategic base. The keeping of covenants is fundamental to civilization. That understandings can be reached and peoples may bind themselves to these understandings sets in motion a power greater than war.

Churchill, like Sir Matthew Hale, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, was familiar with John Selden, that great English jurist and courageous Parliament man. Selden was a scholar and not noted for piety. Nonetheless, he saw divine law in our intuitive grasp of the necessity of being faithful to our word, even though he saw it very few other places:

Our minds might change; whence than comes the restraint? From a higher power, nothing else can bind … It must be a superior power, even God Almighty. If two of us make a bargain, why should either of us stand to it? What need you care what you say, or what need I care what I say? Certainly because there is something about me that tells me, fides est servanda [faith must be kept], and if we alter our minds and make a new bargain, there’s fides servanda there too. 

In placing the history of the centuries-old treaty with Portugal before Parliament and the world, Churchill was invoking the presence of a higher authority in human affairs, and affirming the power of the word and of law over power and will divorced from good faith and duty to a higher good.

The freedom of democracy allows the voice of those who are cynical about these things. It has been fashionable to maintain that solemn covenants such as our Constitution should not be binding, that solemn agreements made with other nations need not hold us if we find their violation more comfortable or expedient. While we have the freedom to do such things, we do not have the freedom to avoid their consequences. Don’t be surprised, as an African proverb puts it, that if you defecate on the road, you will find flies when you return.

The despots of every age seek a shortcut, something that seems easier than the hard work and self-control it takes to keep faith. They run to force and to the military, and because their lives have been cleaned of other commitments, they can often bring a single-mindedness that gives them a temporary yet powerful advantage. The Hitlers and Putins of the world can get the jump on those more bound to good faith. But, having disregarded principles that are of nature itself, as it has been designed, their end is inevitable. Their lack of faith isolates them even more thoroughly, not only from others’ goodwill, but from all that sustains.

Civilization, as Churchill pointed out, is about the primacy of civilian life, not the militarized state in which power is an end in itself and surveillance and secret police enforce order from without. The lies on which such societies are built hollows them out at the core until suddenly they drop. The power of Solzhenitsyn, who exposed the centrality of lies to the Soviet system, will far outlast that once-mighty system that threw him and millions more into the icy hell of the Gulags.

It is up to us not to lose faith in that which makes us great. Breaking faith with our own national covenant has weakened us; breaking faith with our neighboring nations has empowered the tyrants to step forward. The toxic combination of self-flagellation and violent intolerance of dissenting voices has been meant to break faith with our constitutional commitment, and it has hurt us and left us looking confused, purposeless, and vulnerable in the eyes of despotic predators. We have treated our treaty partners the same way, ducking responsibility for transient ease. (READ MORE: Who Will Be America’s Churchill?)

Democracy, for all its historical failings, seems to have a genius that, precisely when needed most, someone arises who brings its power and goodness back into sharp focus. The extraordinary bravery of the Ukrainians, like that of the Londoners during the Blitz, has summoned forth our own neglected vision, and given renewed hope. A somewhat funny comedian has turned Churchillian, as Jon Stewart noted this last week, and suddenly, democracy wakes itself from its stupor all across Europe and even in the halls of Congress.

Let us use this reawakening to brace ourselves to our duties; we must not squander the precious energy of the moment and sink back into the self-indulgent and lazy nihilism that has so captured so much of our culture. The fight for civilization begins with keeping faith, faith with the past that we inherit, faith we bequeath to our future, and faith with the source within that constantly places the choice to keep faith into our free hands.

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