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Winston Churchill in Downing Street giving his...

Winston Churchill in Downing Street giving his famous ‘V’ sign. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Christmas 1940 in wartime Britain was not much fun. On Sunday,
December 22, still a schoolboy in short pants, I sat in a small,
brick air-raid shelter in our back garden in Manchester, huddled
in the cold with my mother and two infant brothers; Dad was out
in the darkness somewhere driving a steam train. We were lonely
and very afraid, isolated in a vast cavern of echoing noise—the
drone of wave after wave of German bombers overhead, the
crump-crump! of our ack-ack guns, the blast of the bombs.
I didn’t know it at the time, but we had been marked for extinction.
Three months earlier, the Luftwaffe had flown stealthily
at high altitude, photographing our neighborhood. I came across
their pictures only recently, crystal-clear and marked with black
rectangles enclosing the factories down the street from our home,
where Lancaster bombers were being made for the Royal Air
Force. The German Heinkels dropped 272 tons of high explosives
and 1,032 incendiary canisters over that Sunday-Monday. Next
morning, when we emerged from our shelter, fires raged in the
city, but the bombers had missed the factories, and us.
We’d been lucky. And Britain was lucky in another sound that
comforted us when the air-raid sirens wailed and the headlines
from the battlefront got ever grimmer: the sound of exalted leadership
in the growling declarations of Winston Churchill. “You
ask what is our aim? I can answer in one word: it is victory, victory
at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and
hard the road may be… ”
We believed him, were inspired by him. Does it matter that he
was deceiving us and maybe deceiving himself? Leadership has
come to be defined as the organization of competence; inspiration
is devalued and every “animating vision” cost-analyzed to
the point where nothing is worth attempting. But at that time of
supreme peril, inspiration was more relevant than calculation.
Morale mattered more than arithmetic.
On the evidence, all too plain to see, it was ridiculous for us
to think of victory, still less plausible to proclaim it achievable.
Survival was the goal. When Churchill succeeded Neville Chamberlain
as prime minister on May 10, 1940, at the age of 65, the
French Army was in rout, a shredded British Army was abandoning
its weaponry as it staggered toward Dunkirk, and we were in
a humiliating retreat from Norway. The skeptics had every fact
on their side, but the new prime minister boldly assured us that
the German Army would be stalled soon—that the spring harvests
across Europe would fail; that a mass, uncontainable uprising
of the French was imminent; and America would enter the war
“in the near future.” Churchill’s citations for optimism proved
unfounded—the harvests were safe, the French were easily subdued,
and the United States did not enter the war in Europe for
another 18 months. That only happened on December 11, 1941,
after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which prompted Hitler,
in a mad—and for us, marvelous—moment to declare war on
America. This welcome news came a year after many of our cities had been
pulverized. Churchill’s beloved House of Commons had been hit in the moonlight
blitz of May 10-11, 1941, its chamber reduced to a smoking shell.
Making predictions is risky for leaders.
President Herbert Hoover lost what little of the American people’s trust he
still had when he told a delegation to the White House worried about the economic crisis engulfing the nation: “Gentlemen, you’ve come 60 days too late. The Depression is over.” Chamberlain could not hope to survive after having told rapturous crowds upon his return from Munich in September of ’38 that Herr Hitler had signed his name to a document guaranteeing “peace in our time.” He’d been duped and people felt like dummies for believing him. The “Mission Accomplished” banner strung up on the deck of a U.S. Navy aircraft
carrier in 2003 became a bad joke for the rest of the presidency of
George W. Bush.
How did Churchill manage to retain our trust? Disasters he
confronted head-on; minor error he washed away with irony.
“The marks of a politician,” he said, “are the ability to foretell
what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month, next
year. And to have the ability afterwards to explain why it didn’t
happen.” It counted a lot that he had huge credit for insisting
throughout the ’30s that appeasement was a confidence trick.
So many politicians had turned tail that we forgave Churchill
for clutching at straws to cheer us up. We felt we could count on
him. He had what the sociologist Max Weber called charismatic
authority—people saw him as special, possessing extraordinary
energies and prescience, not bound by rules. Whether he actually
had those qualities is not the point. It was how he was perceived.
Today, we are mired in a global leadership vacuum. Our poll-driven
politicians are in another place altogether from Churchill—he
did not have one ear to the ground listening for the tremors of eva-
nescent public opinion as the current crop in the U.S. Congress so
dispiritingly do. It was said that FDR played public opinion like a
musical instrument, but that was somewhat similar to what Nelson
Mandela once described as “leading from behind.” When
Hitler marched into the Rhineland in 1936 in breach of two treaties
with America, FDR went fishing. That’s understandable. In an
era with less polling, FDR sensed that America wanted to stay out
of “Europe’s war” and he needed the isolationists in Congress to
support his New Deal. But Churchill didn’t lead by subtly guiding
public opinion to a better place. In this, he was more like Theodore
than Franklin. He believed himself to be a man of destiny.
Like Theodore Roosevelt, Churchill dramatized his romantic
self in politics. In 1900, when he was not yet 30, the descendant
of the first Duke of Marlborough became the member of Parliament
for my parents’ industrial constituency of Oldham on the
strength of his exploits as a soldier and writer. He was the young
cavalry man with the 21st Lancers who’d charged the Dervishes
at Omdurman, the war correspondent who’d escaped a Boer prison
camp, and the officer-reporter on India’s northwest frontier
who’d come close to death in the Swat Valley that is still making
bloody headlines, isolated with a handful of Sikhs who were ambushed
by hundreds of Pashtun tribesmen.
He also knew the value of icons. By the time he was prime minister,
he was entitled to wear umpteen military uniforms and appeared
in all of them. He sported an aggressive stogie, his taste
for Havanas acquired while reporting on the Spanish-American
war from Cuba. Everywhere he went he flashed index and middle
fingers in a V-sign (it would be nice to believe the legend that the
gesture derived from English long bowmen showing their arrowshooting
fingers to the French at Agincourt).
When I became a daily newspaper editor in 1962 in the north of
England, I wrote to Churchill and asked his permission to depict his
adventurous early career in serial drawings, on the basis of his exciting
and very funny book, My Early Life. He gave it gladly. It was
typically generous of him—there was no fee involved. His interpretation
of history as acts of heroism, which our drawings reinforced,
was an essential element of his genius for leadership; the English
language was another. Both skills require further examination,
but in the vivid observation of Isaiah Berlin, Churchill’s triumph
was rooted in his ability to impose “his imagination and his will
upon his countrymen.” He saved the future by invoking a vision of
the past that encouraged us to see ourselves as brave as the legends
of British history. Churchill had a profound sense that he was at one
with the tribe of the ordinary British.

There was a huge gap between popular opinion, which was resolutely
with Churchill for fighting on, and the British patricians, who
were in a funk over the victories of the German Army on the Continent.
In the spring of 1940, it was fortunate that the remnants of
the British army, the RAF pilots in the Spitfires and Hurricanes,
the Royal Navy destroyers hunting U-Boats in the mid-Atlantic,
the machinists working all hours in the factories didn’t know that
in Parliament and the London clubs the establishment talked
not of victory but of surrender.
The British establishment—meaning the senior civil servants
and the mainly upperclass Conservative majority in the House of Commons—
didn’t for a moment believe that victory was possible. They
saw no point in a gallant last stand that would destroy their
green and pleasant land. And they didn’t trust Churchill.
They could hardly ignore the fact that his condemnation of
appeasement in the ’30s had been cruelly vindicated, but
they regarded him as a partychanging hot-head with soaring
ambition, erratic ability, and too many ideas. Emperor
Joseph II may never have said Mozart’s Il Seraglio had too
many notes, but Churchill certainly had more ideas
than his exasperated military chiefs could manage. (One
he fathered was the floating Mulberry Harbor, which proved vital for sustaining the D-Day invaders. Pressing its importance, he wrote: “Don’t argue the matter. The difficulties will argue themselves.”)
The spokesman for surrender was the “Holy Fox,” Foreign Secretary
Lord Halifax, a landowner who’d been a moderate appeaser.
King George VI would have sent for him to succeed Chamberlain—
Tory MPs favored him—but Halifax preemptively demurred
on the grounds that he wasn’t qualified because he wasn’t in the
House of Commons. In War Cabinet meetings, Halifax begged
for the approval to have Mussolini act as a mediator to secure a
negotiated peace with Hitler. It would have meant accepting Nazi
dominance of Europe, but Britain could have hoped it would be
left alone across the Channel. In just three days—May 26, 27, and
28—there were nine long, tense meetings of the coalition War
Cabinet of five men: the Conservatives Churchill, Chamberlain,
and Halifax, and Labor Party stalwarts Arthur Greenwood and
Clem Attlee. Churchill and Halifax were both battling for Chamberlain’s
ear, since he still led the Conservatives. Halifax’s diary
note says that “Winston talked the most frightful rot… it does
drive one to despair when he works himself into a passion of emotion
when he ought to make his brain think and reason.”
Say this for emotion—it gave him the physical and moral courage
to stand fast. The weakness of the defeatists made him more
determined. He had made three dangerous trips to France to
stiffen French resistance, and ordered a small British force at Calais
to fight to the last man to give a chance of escape for the hundreds
of thousands fleeing to the beaches of Dunkirk —and then was physically sick
at the thought of the slaughter he’d willed.
On the evening of Monday, May 27, with the War Cabinet still deadlocked, he called a meeting of 25 ministers of Cabinet rank but not in the War Cabinet. On whether it was chance or a cunning tactic, his memoirs
are maddeningly silent, but the effect was profound. “Of course,” he told them, “whatever happens at Dunkirk, we shall fight on…” According to one minister, Churchill said, “If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each of us lies choking in his own blood
upon the ground.” That sounds a little purple for Churchill, but it was true to his character to summon images of Britain’s mythic history: Queen Elizabeth I and Francis Drake seeing off the Spanish Armada; Admiral Nelson at
Trafalgar flag-signaling to his battle fleet that “England expects
every man to do his duty”; the Iron Duke Wellington dethroning
Emperor Napoleon at Waterloo. Whatever the exact words,
Churchill’s pronouncement stirred the group. Cheers erupted;
ministers shouted and jumped from the table to run to his chair
and pat him on the back.
It was very much Churchill’s style to march toward the sound
of gunfire, but my view is that he had made a calculated gamble
that evening, betting that declaring a “fight-on” decision—one
that hadn’t been declared—would shame the doubters. A buoyant
Churchill went from that encounter to a 20-minute War Cabinet
meeting. Chamberlain now sided with Churchill; Halifax retreated.
There would be no capitulation.
“Magnanimity in victory” was a Churchill watchword. As his
sympathetic biographer Roy Jenkins noted, it was a breathtaking
piece of mendacity for Churchill thereafter to pretend that there
had been unanimity in the War Cabinet over the decision to “fight
on.” He was only 5-foot-5, but he was a very large human being.
He didn’t nurse grudges. He wore his heart on his sleeve. When
FDR’s emissary, Harry Hopkins, made his first visit to London in
early 1940, he ended his visit with a memorable speech at a state
dinner. He said that he would like to sum up what he’d learned
on the trip by using the words from the Book of Books: “Whither
thou goest, I will go, and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy
people shall be my people, and thy God my God.” He paused and
then added very quietly, “Even to the end.” Churchill was in tears.
He felt he had FDR at his back.
It’s too often said Churchill succeeded by oratory, but oratory
without substance is flatulence. President Warren Harding was a
grand orator, his alliterative speeches an army of pompous phrases
moving across the landscape in search of an idea. Language, to
borrow a presidential verb, is a misunderestimated force in leadership.
When Churchill wanted war aid from America, he told
FDR, “Give us the tools and we’ll finish job.” If he’d said, “Donate
the implements to us and we will finalize the assignment,”
he might have received a dusty answer from Roosevelt, himself
a master of the telling phrase (he sold the Lend-Lease program
to the American public with a homely metaphor of lending a fire
hose to a neighbor). Churchill, too, was adept at framing a situation
by metaphor so that people would not only understand it, but
also be able to adopt it. He invented the language of the Cold War:
An Iron Curtain has descended across Europe. The aim is peaceful coexistence.
We must solve our differences at a summit.
In the memoir of his early life, Churchill attributes his linguistic
skill to flunking Latin at school. He saw no reason to learn the
correct way to speak to a table (O Mensa). “Thus,” he wrote, “I
got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British
sentence—which is a noble thing.” He had devoured Gibbon and
Macaulay. One of his most famous passages, written out like a
poem in the original, bears scrutiny for its monosyllabic simplicity
and rhythmic insistency. Just before the fall of France, speaking
in Parliament, he summoned up the spirit of St Crispin’s Day:
“We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight
in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight
with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall
defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the
beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in
the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall
never surrender and even if, which I do not for a moment believe,
this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then
our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British
Fleet, will carry on the struggle, until in God’s good time, the New
World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and
the liberation of the Old.”
Only words—but as he once remarked, “words are the only
things which last forever.”
Winston Churchill’s most famous words will resound at the Morgan Library, New
York City, from June 8 through September 23 in an exhibition, “The Power of Words,” curated by Declan Kiely and Allen Packwood, with guest curator British historian Andrew Roberts.
Europe sorely misses having someone with Churchill’s grand
vision. We like to say God is in the details, but if we always look
down we are liable to stumble in the weeds, as the euro zone
has stumbled in the debt and currency crises of 2011-12. It is 60
years since Churchill campaigned for a United States of Europe.
He would have been ardently for closer political union, provided
it did not in any way impede Britain’s special relation with the
United States (after all, his mother was born in Brooklyn and the
United States had made him an honorary citizen). He recognized
full well that closer economic and military cooperation in Europe
necessitated “some sacrifice or merger of national sovereignty.”
I think he would have distrusted the embrace of austerity for the
masses as he distrusted the British establishment’s appetite for
a return to a new gold standard in 1925. When I recently visited
the current young Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. George Osborne,
we talked in the paneled room where Chancellor Churchill
heard out the arguments, but his best contribution was a minute
he wrote: “The Treasury has never, it seems to me, faced the profound
significance of what Mr. Keynes calls ‘the paradox of unemployment
amidst dearth,’” he wrote. “The Governor [of the
Bank of England] shows himself perfectly happy in the spectacle
of Britain possessing the finest credit in the world simultaneously
with a million and a quarter unemployed. Obviously if these million
and a quarter were usefully and economically employed,
they would produce at least 100 pounds a year a head, instead of
costing at least 50 pounds a head in doles…. It is impossible not to
regard the object of full employment as at least equal, and probably
superior, to the other valuable objects you mention…”
Churchill ultimately bowed to the overwhelming weight of
conventional wisdom—with disastrous results for Britain in deepening
the gathering storm of the Great Depression.
He is portrayed so often as the indomitable war leader that one
might forget that what he desired above all was peace and freedom.
He considered Britain’s 1956 invasion of Suez “the most
ill-conceived and ill-executed imaginable.” He thought he could
have ended the Cold War in a face-to-face summit with the top
Soviet leader—“To jaw-jaw always is better than to war-war.” He
was appalled that U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower even for a
moment considered using the H-bomb in Indo-China in the ’50s.
He would have been stalwart after 9/11 in taking out the Taliban
and al Qaeda, but he knew too much about Afghanistan to have
been sanguine about any prolonged military involvement there,
and with his deep personal experience of what war meant, I doubt
he would have backed the invasion of Iraq as one of his successors,
Tony Blair, did so eloquently.
“The statesman who yields to war fever,” Churchill wrote, “must
realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of
policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.


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