But what’s more challenging to historical memory today is that Churchill’s speech was not broadcast live over the radio to the British public. Aside from the audience gathered in the House of Commons, most Britons and Americans did not hear him say those iconic words until several decades later. An enduring conspiracy theory claims he never recorded them at all.
In fact there was a compelling reason for him to make this statement, which was that the American government wanted him to. The USA of course was still neutral at this stage – Churchill’s initial draft included a reference, which he later deleted by hand, to its ‘strange detachment’ in the face of the Nazi menace. However, President Roosevelt made clear via secret channels that he wanted a commitment from Britain that even if she were defeated she would not surrender her fleet but would send it to South Africa, Australia, Canada and other parts of the Empire. If this were done, American intervention could be expected to follow quickly, he promised. So Churchill was giving him the message that he wanted to hear – a message that is now largely forgotten.
Churchill had difficulty getting the U.S. government to look ahead to the potential political difficulties with the Soviet Union after the war. He remarked to Franklin Roosevelt shortly before the Yalta summit in February 1945, “At the present time I think the end of this war may well prove to be more disappointing than was the last.” Churchill’s great fear as he traveled to the United States in early 1946 was that the Western democracies would repeat the same mistakes that had so nearly cost them their lives a decade before. As he wrote in The Gathering Storm, the Western democracies “need only to repeat the same well-meaning, short-sighted behavior towards the new problems which in singular resemblance confront us today to bring about a third convulsion from which none may live to tell the tale.”
Churchill was writing to Cockran, a Democratic congressman from New York City, about the economic problem of the “trusts,” which was then front and center in American politics. As we shall see, Churchill had strong views about how governments would need to respond to social changes in the twentieth century—indeed, that question was the focus of his early ministerial career—but from his earliest days, even before he entered politics, he saw that the new scale of things in the modern world would be felt most powerfully in the area of warfare. His observations about the “terrible machinery of scientific war” in The River War led him to ask what would happen when two modern nations—not Britain and the Sudanese Dervishes—confronted each other with the modern weapons of war. It was a question no one else was asking.
One of the most vivid accounts was written by a journalist who had joined the army and wrote down in shorthand the comments of his friend George—a 24-year-old French polisher from South London—as he listened to Churchill's speech on the fall of Singapore in February 1942. George said:"F- -ing bullshit! Get on with it! What a f- -ing cover-up. Any normal person could see it’s just pulling the wool over their eyes!“
The Allied landings in North Africa necessitated a fresh meeting between Churchill and Roosevelt, this time in Casablanca in January 1943. There Churchill argued for an early, full-scale attack on “the under-belly of the Axis” but won only a grudging acquiescence from the Americans. There too was evolved the “unconditional surrender” formula of debatable wisdom. Churchill paid the price for his intensive travel (including Tripoli, Turkey, and Algeria) by an attack of pneumonia, for which, however, he allowed only the briefest of respites. In May he was in Washington again, arguing against persistent American aversion to his “under-belly” strategy; in August he was at Quebec, working out the plans for Operation Overlord, the cross-Channel assault. When he learned that the Americans were planning a large-scale invasion of Burma in 1944, his fears that their joint resources would not be adequate for a successful invasion of Normandy were revived. In November 1943 at Cairo he urged on Roosevelt priority for further Mediterranean offensives, but at Tehrān in the first “Big Three” meeting, he failed to retain Roosevelt’s adherence to a completely united Anglo-American front. Roosevelt, though he consulted in private with Stalin, refused to see Churchill alone; for all their friendship there was also an element of rivalry between the two Western leaders that Stalin skillfully exploited. On the issue of Allied offensive drives into southern Europe, Churchill was outvoted. Throughout the meetings Churchill had been unwell, and on his way home he came down again with pneumonia. Though recovery was rapid, it was mid-January 1944 before convalescence was complete. By May he was proposing to watch the D-Day assaults from a battle cruiser; only the King’s personal plea dissuaded him.
An introduction by the president of the United States would afford Churchill a world stage—whatever the venue. Though the date of the address, March 5, 1946, was half a year away, the opportunity fueled his imagination. He may have been out of office, but he was still the world’s foremost political figure, a man whose words could still command attention in the world’s leading nation. The thought buoyed his spirit, as he resumed his role of Leader of the Opposition.
Public opinion surveys were conducted during the war by the Gallup organization and these, too, show widespread support for Churchill. Yet, Toye by and large dismisses these findings by noting that questions have been raised about the polls’ methodology. Beyond that, he argues that, especially during the war’s early years, there was a lot of pressure to conform, to give ‘socially acceptable’ answers (p. 7). Why Toye believes that average Britons would have been any more honest when interviewed by an official from the MoI’s Home Intelligence Division (a government agency after all), or why they would have been more open with MO interviewers or, even in diaries handed over to these same strangers, he does not say. Even after making allowances for sampling errors and the like, the fact remains that Churchill’s popularity during the war was, in Toye’s own words, ‘astonishingly high’ (p. 6). This was still the case when large discrepancies appeared between Churchill’s MO ‘satisfaction figures’ of 66 per cent, and a Gallup approval rating of 81 per cent for the same month (p. 228). That month, March 1942, happened to be one of the worst of the war: British forces were reeling under hammer blows from the Japanese, including the loss of Singapore just weeks earlier; Axis forces threatened Egypt; and German U-boats were winning the Battle of the Atlantic. What is astonishing is not the gap between these surveys of public opinion but that they were still so high despite this string of disasters.
The speech takes on an inexorable rhythm, which coupled with the use of repetition, acquires a kind of imperial power reminiscent of Shakespeare. The extraordinary potency of these words transformed the nation. It filled everyone who heard it with faith and conviction, and it enabled our small island to withstand pure evil. It somehow reaches into the very soul of England and calls up that lion spirit which lies dormant within every English heart.
In the five years that followed, Churchill’s early liberalism survived only in the form of advocacy of rigid laissez-faire economics; for the rest he appeared, repeatedly, as the leader of the diehards. He had no natural gift for financial administration, and though the noted economist John Maynard Keynes criticized him unsparingly, most of the advice he received was orthodox and harmful. His first move was to restore the gold standard, a disastrous measure, from which flowed deflation, unemployment, and the miners’ strike that led to the general strike of 1926. Churchill offered no remedy except the cultivation of strict economy, extending even to the armed services. Churchill viewed the general strike as a quasi-revolutionary measure and was foremost in resisting a negotiated settlement. He leaped at the opportunity of editing the British Gazette, an emergency official newspaper, which he filled with bombastic and frequently inflammatory propaganda. The one relic of his earlier radicalism was his partnership with Neville Chamberlain as minister of health in the cautious expansion of social services, mainly in the provision of widows’ pensions.
In Churchill’s veins ran the blood of both of the English-speaking peoples whose unity, in peace and war, it was to be a constant purpose of his to promote. Through his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, the meteoric Tory politician, he was directly descended from John Churchill, 1st duke of Marlborough, the hero of the wars against Louis XIV of France in the early 18th century. His mother, Jennie Jerome, a noted beauty, was the daughter of a New York financier and horse racing enthusiast, Leonard W. Jerome.
The young Winston was not a good scholar and was often punished for his poor performance. In 1888 he was sent to Harrow school where he did well in History and English. In 1893 he was accepted at Sandhurst Military College. He saw action in India and the Sudan and supplemented his pay by writing reports and articles for the Daily Telegraph. In 1899 Churchill was in South Africa working as war correspondent for the Morning Post newspaper.
Churchill persevered and worked on his pronunciation diligently, rehearsing phrases such as “The Spanish ships I cannot see for they are not in sight”. He tried to avoid words beginning and ending with an ‘s’, but when he did, his pronunciation became a part of his intonation and oratory, later mispronouncing “Nazis” as “Narzees” to great effect and advantage.
To make note of the complexity of the origins and responses to this wonderful speech by no means implies criticism of Churchill. Rather, it prompts us to rethink the factors that contributed to his oratorical success. He did not merely provide uplifting soundbites; he presented a factual and reasoned case, provided the public with new information and, crucially, provided them with the context necessary to understand it. He was willing to run the risk of depressing his audience if this would serve the greater purpose of bringing them into contact with reality; he did not attempt to win easy popularity by providing false hope. He followed this formula throughout the war, not always with complete success in terms of audience response, but with the ultimate achievement of establishing his credibility as someone who would deliver the facts no matter how unpalatable they might be. This is a lesson which modern orators will do well to follow.