D’Este on Churchill at HNN

Military historian Carlo D’Este had an inspiring piece up at HNN last week on Sir Winston Churchill, drawn from his book Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill at War, 1874-1945:

The Power of Oratory: Why Churchill is Still Relevant

….From the time he became prime minister, until December 1941, when Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the war, Churchill’s strongest weapon was oratory. As a young army officer stationed in India in 1897 he wrote that: “Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory.”

His speeches of 1940 become legendary, not only for their magnetism but more importantly for their effect on public morale. To counter both the disastrous news in France and to put to rest any notion that Britain might capitulate, Churchill delivered one of his many patriotic speeches to Parliament on June 18 that was also broadcast by the BBC. He made no effort to sugarcoat the extent of the dire situation Britain faced. The struggle that lay ahead from the air and likely from invasion would be met with every means and would be rebuffed. Of Hitler and the nations now under the Nazi jackboot, he said, “If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free . . . But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States . . . will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age … Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will say, ‘This was their finest hour.’

Read the rest here.

Churchill was an inordinately creative military leader, deeply interested in all facets of warfare from intelligence to technological innovations in armaments ( famously a proponent of the development of the tank in WWI) to military tactics. The amphibious landing at Gallipoli was a disaster but Normandy a generation later, despite Churchill’s misgivings, was a providential success. When in political disgrace – mostly undeserved – as a result of Gallipoli, Churchill did not retire to the shadows but donned a uniform and went to the Western Front ! Moreover he demonstrated there exemplary bravery under fire.

Can anyone imagine a politician doing that today? Or the public expecting him to do so ?

In the Second World War, in 1940 -1941, Churchill was the  indomitible rock upon which Western civilization rested. A lesser man as Prime Minister would have taken easy terms from Hitler and made Great Britain a satellite empire of the Greater German Reich, akin to the Phonecians’ relationship to ancient Persia. Few people alive today realize how dire the situation was in the Spring of 1941 and how close liberal democracy came to vanishing from history. 

Thanks to Churchill and the bravery of the RAF, the West had a chance to catch it’s breath.

5 comments on this post.
  1. historyguy99:

    How true. The examples of American Presidents with oratorical skills can be counted on your fingers. Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton and Obama to name the most recognized. Bush 43, lacking such skills has left the country confounded after eight years.

  2. zen:

    Hi HG99,
    .
    I agree with you, the Bush family lacks an oratorical gene.
    .
    Teddy Roosevelt, like Churchill, was quite the inventive phrasemaker and writer as well as orator – both men were prizewinning authors who relied upon paid writing as a source of livelihood, or at least a supplement to inherited wealth. Kennedy, Reagan and, I suspect, Obama, tweaked and then delivered great speeches. Clinton was at his best in a conversational, improvisational, give and take. Most presidents though, were painful to listen to in formal speeches.

  3. historyguy99:

    The amphibious landing at Gallipoli was a disaster but Normandy a generation later, despite Churchill’s misgivings, was a providential success. When in political disgrace – mostly undeserved – as a result of Gallipoli, Churchill did not retire to the shadows but donned a uniform and went to the Western Front ! Moreover he demonstrated there exemplary bravery under fire.
    .
     Can anyone imagine a politician doing that today? Or the public expecting him to do so ?

    One more revealing story about Churchill’s grit and sense of leadership came during his trip aboard the Queen Mary to meet Roosevelt in May of 1943, when he had his lifeboat fitted with a machinegun.  He declared, "I won’t be captured. The finest way to die is in the excitement of fighting the enemy….You must come with me in the boat and see the fun."*

    Such balls!

    *W. Averell Harriman and Elie Abel, Special Envoy to Churchill and Stalin, (204-5)

  4. Lexington Green:

    "Thanks to Churchill and the bravery of the RAF."
    .
    And Air Marshall Dowding, and the guys who built the Chain Home radar system. 
    .
    But, yeah, no Churchill, and it all would have been for nought.  Halifax would have cut a deal with Hitler. 

  5. T Cox:

    The Greatest Man of he 2Oth Century,,, bar none …