Winston Churchill gave his maiden broadcast to the United Kingdom as prime minister 80 years ago May 19. It was a day long in coming.
He was a brave, irritating, complex, frustrating, energetic, enigmatic, and confounding figure. He had a storied family background — along with an American mother — but difficult upbringing. He demonstrated his personal courage first in the military and then as a journalist who was captured during the Boer War, an aggressive spasm that showed the British Empire at its worst. He managed an extraordinary escape and reenlisted in the military. He then put pen to paper and wrote about his adventures, demonstrating yet another talent.
He was elected to parliament at age 25 as a Conservative. A dedicated imperialist, he supported free trade and opposed increased spending on the army — he wanted funds to go to the Navy instead. His unorthodox stands included support for labor unions. In 1904 his character shone brightly when he opposed a government bill to limit Jewish immigration. He soon defected to the Liberal Party, where he remained for two decades.
His interests and talents were manifold. He wrote, traveled, gambled, and played polo, among other diversions. He served in different positions in the Liberal government and went through what one biographer called a “pro-German phase,” denying the inevitability of war and opposing even increased naval expenditures. In 1909 he visited Germany, viewed German army maneuvers, and met Kaiser Wilhelm, soon to become the UK’s great antagonist. During complex maneuvering over the government’s budget, which included his proposed social reforms, he urged elimination of the obstructive House of Lords.
To his colleagues he declared, “If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”
In 1911 Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty and soon began pressing for increased Navy spending. He stoked the flames of conflict in June 1914 as World War I impended. During the war, he orchestrated the illegal starvation blockade of Germany, risking a confrontation with the greatest neutral nation, the United States.
He also proposed an almost masterstroke, the invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war. But the operation ultimately failed and seemingly destroyed his career, though the mistakes were made by others. After his demotion and later resignation, he took time off, picking up painting as a hobby. He rejoined the army, serving on the Western Front. In 1917 he was recalled to London as Minister of Munitions. Prime Minister Lloyd George spoke of Churchill’s “fertile mind, his undoubted courage, his untiring industry and his thorough study of the art of war.”
After the war’s end Churchill criticized the harsh terms of the Versailles Treaty. He opposed demobilizing the German army out of fear of the revolutionary government in Russia and urged marching to destroy the “foul baboonery of Bolshevism.” Years later he explained, “I think the day will come when it will be recognized without doubt, not only on one side of the House, but throughout the civilized world, that the strangling of Bolshevism at its birth would have been an untold blessing to the human race.” But allied peoples were weary of war, and his plan was stillborn.
In 1922 the coalition between Liberals and Conservatives split, leading to a new election and a decisive victory for the latter, costing Churchill his seat. He was defeated twice more before returning to the Conservative party and triumphing in a new constituency. He was promptly selected as Chancellor of the Exchequer, the budget chief and unofficial No. 2 man in the Cabinet. While serving in that position he argued for cutting navy spending and supped with Mussolini, infamously declaring, “Had I been an Italian, I am sure I would have been wholeheartedly with you from start to finish in your triumphant struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism.”
In 1929 the Labour Party ousted the Tories, though he retained his seat. He wrote extensively, campaigned against moving India toward independence, and visited the U.S. in 1931 on a speaking tour. Despite his influence and fame, he was not wealthy and needed the money. In New York City he looked the wrong way crossing the street and was hit by a car, landing him in the hospital. Had the driver been going a bit faster, one of World War II’s dominant personalities would have died before he made history.
Out of government, he traveled and worked on a multi-volume biography of his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough. After Adolf Hitler’s appointment as German Chancellor, Churchill abandoned his earlier advocacy of military cutbacks. He became a lonely prophet, pushing for rearmament against Nazi Germany. He recognized an uncontrollable evil missed by others.
This collective myopia was less surprising than it seems in retrospect. World War I was the fault of many governments, including the Entente powers. Their tragic mix of moral certitude, geopolitical ambition, military ego, and incompetent execution turned Europe into a continent-wide abattoir. London sacrificed an entire generation to maintain the balance of power after allying with a collection of revanchist, imperial, aggressive, and terrorist powers. There was only one person who wanted war in 1939, but tragically he was chancellor of Germany, soon to establish a monstrous dictatorship, create the totalitarian Third Reich, and inflict endless murder and mayhem upon his neighbors.
Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain tried “appeasement,” a normally sensible policy that could have prevented World War I, then known as the Great War. Hitler, however, could not be appeased. His ambitions went beyond human reason: seizing territories, subjugating nations, enslaving populations, and ultimately slaughtering an entire people. The 1938 Munich conference left his target largely defenseless — leading to its absorption by Berlin early the following year. Yet the Führer was angry about being denied the pleasure of invading Czechoslovakia.
Nevertheless, conflict came on September 1, 1939, with the attack on Poland, resulting in a far greater conflict than the one before. And the war started badly for the United Kingdom, which, joined by France, declared war on Germany but then did little as the latter swallowed Poland. Churchill was recalled to the Admiralty, managing the service branch tasked with preventing any invasion and preserving trade with and aid from the rest of the world, most importantly the United States. During the Sitzkrieg or phony war, while the contending armies merely glowered at each other, the British navy was his nation’s main weapon, burnishing Churchill’s reputation.
After Germany beat the UK to occupy Norway, Chamberlain’s government tottered. Sentiment shifted in favor of a unity government, but Labour refused to serve under the discredited premier. On May 10, as Germany invaded Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, on the road to France, Foreign Secretary Halifax, a Chamberlain intimate, refused the post. That prompted a Tory colleague to complain that he “had weakly surrendered to a half-breed American.”
In contrast, Churchill was not one to surrender to anyone. So a reluctant call went to a man widely recognized for his prodigious abilities and weaknesses. The appointment of the 65-year-old, only months before seemingly being headed for retirement rather than wartime leadership, seemed a wild gamble, but times were dire. He met with King George VI and became prime minister. Churchill believed that his hour had come: “I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.”
On May 14 German armor broke through the French lines at Sedan, where 70 years before the Prussians had captured Emperor Napoleon III and destroyed the last vestige of the French Empire. The Netherlands surrendered the following day. The UK began to plan for a troop withdrawal to Dunkirk, from which British and allied troops would later be rescued.
On the 19th, he made his maiden broadcast to the nation as premier. He had spoken famously and courageously before the House of Commons; his “blood, toil, tears, sweat” speech was on the 13th. It was important, however, for him to address those who would bear the cost of future battles. He put an optimistic face on the battle for France — he could not believe that its fate was sealed with most of its forces not yet engaged. Nevertheless, he warned of the tough battle to come: “We must expect that as soon as stability is reached on the Western Front, the bulk of that hideous apparatus of aggression which gashed Holland into ruin and slavery in a few days will be turned upon us. I am sure I speak for all when I say we are ready to face it; to endure it; and to retaliate against it — to any extent that the unwritten laws of war permit.”
Then he asked, “Is not this the appointed time for all to make the utmost exertions in their power?” Such effort would be necessary for victory, he informed the British people: “Our task is not only to win the battle – but to win the war. After this battle in France abates its force, there will come the battle for our Island — for all that Britain is, and all the Britain means. That will be the struggle. In that supreme emergency we shall not hesitate to take every step, even the most drastic, to call forth from our people the last ounce and the last inch of effort of which they are capable. The interests of property, the hours of labor, are nothing compared with the struggle of life and honor, for right and freedom, to which we have vowed ourselves.”
He was sure of the result, however: “If we fight to the end, it can only be glorious.”
Hitler, an admirer of the British Empire, offered to negotiate. A number of influential Britons, including Lord Halifax, thought an accommodation was necessary, given the lack of any obvious means of defeating Germany or overthrowing Hitler. But Churchill stood firm and carried the Cabinet and Commons with him. To his colleagues he declared, “If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”
So the UK did fight to the end. There were manifold trials to come. The Blitz and Battle of Britain. The North Atlantic fight to maintain UK’s supply lifeline to America. The North African campaign. Japan’s entry into the war and capture of Singapore. D-Day and the invasion of Germany’s Festung Europa. Hitler committed suicide in the ruins of Berlin as the Soviet Union’s Red Army closed in. On May 7, 1945, Germany formally surrendered the ruins of Hitler’s Reich, which was supposed to last a thousand years. It fell 988 years short.
Churchill’s and the British people’s indomitable spirit mattered. But frankly more important were three events over which he had no control: Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Japan attacked the U.S. in December 1941, and Hitler declared war on America four days later. The result was to make Moscow and Washington co-belligerents, and turn the U.S. into the USSR’s armorer. Germany fielded the world’s finest military but could not defeat two emerging superpowers alongside a fading global empire.
Unfortunately, the end was other than glorious. His war-time record was hardly pristine, though his postwar memoirs, The Second World War, allowed him to make his version the semi-official understanding. The Red Army occupied Eastern and much of Central Europe, including Poland, whose conquest by Nazi Germany began the conflict, and much of Germany. The allies acquiesced, even assisted, in some horrors, such as Operation Keelhaul, in which Soviet POWs and even earlier Russian émigrés were forcibly returned to the USSR, where they were imprisoned or killed.
While negotiating the war’s end at the July Potsdam conference, Churchill was unceremoniously defenestrated by British voters (the election occurred three weeks before, but counting overseas ballots delayed the results). His eloquence remained unabated: he coined a descriptive and enduring phrase in a speech delivered in Fulton, Missouri: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.” He returned to office in 1951, serving until 1955, and retiring as his health declined after several strokes. He died in January 1965 and was the first commoner since 1898 (former prime minister William Gladstone) to receive a state funeral.
Churchill was a fascinating character, with prodigious talents and manifold flaws. Absent World War II, he probably would have ended his political career in the 1940s, adjudged a wunderkind who failed to reach his full potential and the premiership. While it is impossible to say that no one else could have led the UK through the conflict, Lord Halifax, the principal alternative, would have found it much tougher to rally the public, been less likely to remain resolute amid setbacks and fears, and far more likely to make an agreement with Berlin. History would have been far different, and far less friendly to America and liberty elsewhere.
Every generation a few “essential” people arise, who transform the world, often for ill, but sometimes for good as well. Winston Churchill was one of the latter. He made his claim to that status when he addressed the British people and insisted that they would have to fight and fight hard. But if they did, he added, the future would be theirs.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.