Learning from Churchill

Yale computer science professor and renaissance man David Gelernter has a thought-provoking article in the new issue of the Weekly Standard on the wisdom of joining issue with the leftist moralizers on the war: “Bush’s rhetoric deficit.”
Gelernter invokes the history of the arguments over appeasement in the 1930’s to make his case: “We misunderstand 1930s appeasers when we miss the fact that they cared about moral issues first and foremost. And we misunderstand Europe today when we let historians convince us that the Euro-American rift is pure power politics–that Europe has come to disdain military power because she no longer has any, that she is merely making an (ideological) virtue of necessity. Englishmen rallied for peace in 1938 just as enthusiastically as modern Europeans did in the run-up to Iraq. Yet in 1938 Britain was a great power (or thought she was), America’s military equal if not superior. She had no need to make the best of a bad military situation. But Englishmen cheered their heads off when Chamberlain returned from Munich repeating Disraeli’s proud claim to have brought home ‘peace with honor’ from Germany. They did not cheer because they were determined to make the best of military impotence; they cheered on principle, for peace.”
Earlier in the piece, Gelernter notes that Churchill knew well how to argue from duty and yet chose not to in the 1930’s: “Churchill understood acutely the conflict between the appeasers’ thoughts on Christianity and his own view of statesmanship. ‘The Sermon on the Mount,’ he writes in ‘The Gathering Storm,’ ‘is the last word in Christian ethics. . . . Still, it is not on these terms that Ministers assume their responsibilities.’ Under certain conditions, a statesman must be willing to wage war. Such decisions make for ‘tormenting dilemmas’–but there is one helpful guide to action. ‘This guide is called honour. It is baffling to reflect that what men call honour does not correspond always to Christian ethics.'”
Gelernter also quotes a speech of Churchill’s in April 1925, unveiling a memorial to the Royal Naval Divivsion, to show that Churchill knew well how to argue from the moral high ground: “They only saw the light shining on the clear path to duty. They only saw their duty to resist oppression, to protect the weak, to vindicate the profound but unwritten Law of Nations, to testify to truth and justice and mercy among men. They never asked the question ‘What shall we gain?’ They only asked the question, ‘Where lies the right?'”
As I say, Gelernter provides much food for thought, though he does not try quite hard enough to learn from Churchill before he uses him as an example of the supposed errors President Bush is making. Churchill avoided arguments from duty in the 1930’s because of how such arguments had been discredited by the experience of his generation in World War I; he believed (I think correctly) that prudence dictated the arguments he made to his fellow countrymen. They were the only arguments that had any chance of success in persuading them of the necessity of confronting Germany.
Churchill summoned his countrymen to meet the challenge that Hitler presented to their survival rather than what would have under the circumstances been an equally futile — and more easily resisted — call to duty. I think that President Bush is likewise acting prudently to confine his public argument on Iraq to the context of the war on terrorism in which it fits.


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