The triumphs and tragedies of the twentieth century are the backdrop that illuminates the greatness of Winston Churchill. The subject is inexhaustible, the drama unsurpassed. Would that we paused to study his life and works with the patience and humility necessary to learn all that he has to teach us about the statesmanship of freedom.
Churchill of course spent much of the 1930’s vainly warning of the dangers posed by Adolf Hitler to peace and freedom. His climactic speech of this period on the Munich Agreement in October 1938 seems to me the greatest speech of the century. By the time England turned to him (at the age of 65) in May 1940, its position was nearly hopeless. This is the point at which Churchill concludes the first volume of his history of the Second World War:
“During these last crowded days of the political crisis, my pulse had not quickened at any moment. I took it all as it came. But I cannot conceal from the reader of this truthful account that as I went to bed at about 3 a.m. I was conscious of a profound sense of relief. At last I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene. I felt as if I were walking with Destiny, and that all my past had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial. Eleven years in the political wilderness had freed me from ordinary party antagonisms. My warnings over the last six years had been so numerous, so detailed, and were now so terribly vindicated, that no one could gainsay me. I could not be reproached either for making the war or with want of preparation for it. I thought I knew a good deal about it all, and I was sure I should not fail. Therefore, although impatient for the morning, I slept soundly and had no need of cheering dreams. Facts are better than dreams.” Is there a more remarkable passage in the literature of the twentieth century?
Tomorrow’s Washington Post Book World carries a good roundup on five new books on Churchill. The pick of the lot is Franklin and Winston by Jon Meacham. The reviewer recounts a scene from the book: “Few dramatists could match the poignant scene when Britain stood alone against the Nazi power that dominated a conquered or fawningly neutral Europe. Roosevelt sent his envoy Harry Hopkins to Churchill. At dinner Hopkins quoted from the Book of Ruth: ‘Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people and their God my God,’ softly adding, ‘Even to the end.'”
And this: “Before Pearl Harbor, Churchill knew that his only hope of victory was to ‘drag the United States in’ to war. Churchill admitted, ‘No lover ever studied the whims of his mistress as I did those of President Roosevelt.'” What a man.
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“Arise and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.” Winston Churchill
“Proclaim Liberty throughout All the land unto All the Inhabitants Thereof.” Inscription on the Liberty Bell