Were it not for Power Line, I would know nothing of the Churchill exhibit that opened at the Library of Congress yesterday, or of President Bush’s great speech celebrating the opening of the exhibit. Rocket Man’s post on the speech yesterday afternoon is “The once and future president.”
The Library of Congress has established a Web site for the exhibit: “Winston Churchill and the Great Republic.” The premise of the exhibit is Churchill’s special relationship with the United States — his American mother, his wartime alliance with President Roosevelt and America, his advocacy of a strategic bond among the English speaking peoples to preserve and promote the heritage of liberty.
“The great Republic” was of course Churchill’s term for the United States. On April 17, 1945, Churchill addressed the House of Commons on the occasion of President Franklin Roosevelt’s death. He said of his friend and ally, “In war he had raised the strength, might and glory of the great Republic to a height never attained by any nation in history.”
Work on the exhibit has resulted in a second look at the Library of Congress’s own Churchill collection. Library staff have discovered a previously unknown set of letters from Churchill to his cousin, the Duke of Marlborough, including a 1912 letter in which Churchill foresees the Great War. As first lord of the Admiralty in 1912, Churchill updated his cousin on the war between Turkey and an alliance of Balkan states. Churchill opposed the Turks.
“But the European situation is far from safe and anything might happen,” he wrote. “It only needs a little ill will or bad faith on the part of a great power to precipitate a far greater conflict.” Two years later a spark ignited the conflagration. Fox News reports the discovery of the letters in “Churchill letters reveal he predicted WWI.”
Churchill’s apparent ability to see into the future is only one of his many remarkable qualities, but it is striking. Despite his own almost romantic idealism, Churchill must have been less susceptible to having his views colored by wishful thinking than anyone who ever lived. In his 1924 essay “Shall We All Commit Suicide?,” Churchill wrote: “The story of the human race is War. Except for brief and precarious interludes, there has never been peace in the world; and before history began, murderous strife was universal and unending. But up to the present time the means of destruction at the disposal of man have not kept pace with his ferocity. Reciprocal extermination was impossible in the Stone Age…” The Olympian detachment which he brought to his reading of the tides of history is insufficient to explain his prescience, but it must have something to do with it.
Churchill brought his prescience to bear most famously in warning his countrymen of the peril they faced in the person of Adolf Hitler and in the resurgence of German power after World War I. At a weekend party in October 1930 Churchill expressed the view that Hitler was a congenital liar who would seize the first available opportunity to wage a war of aggression. After Hitler and the Nazis seized power in 1933, Churchill stated to the German embassy press attache who had called on him in London that there was only one solution to “the German problem” with Hitler in power — “If a dog makes a dash for my trousers, I shoot him down before he can bite.”
In a 1934 stump speech he decried England’s “professional pacifists, who if you are not very careful, will land us in another war, and on the losing side.” In his parliamentary speeches he repeatedly condemned England’s weakening military position vis a Germany. He lamented English disarmament and German rearmament. In a 1936 newspaper column he titled “Gathering Storm,” he characterized England’s drift as a “fatuous feckless course, the sport of every wind that blows.” He asked, “What has happened to our defences in the meanwhile? Three years ago there was time. Two years ago there was danger. One year ago great new programmes of rearmament, and especially of expansion in the Air, were announced. What has happened to them?”
When Neville Chamberlain returned to London from Munich in the autumn of 1938 with the agreement forestalling war, he was celebrated as a national hero. Churchill famously demurred: “We are in the presence of a disaster of the first magnitude which has befallen Great Britain and France. Do not let us blind ourselves to that…Can we blind ourselves to the great change which has taken place in the military situation, and to the dangers we have to meet? This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.”
After the deluge, when Churchill was finally called to form a government in May 1940 under the most inauspicious circumstances, he achieved tranquillity in command. He recalled in the closing paragraph of The Gathering Storm:
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?