LITERARY TRAVELER, February 2011 – In 1940, from deep beneath the buildings of Whitehall in London, in an underground complex known as the Cabinet War Rooms, Winston Churchill saved Britain. This secret cavern became the nerve centre of the war. Churchill would even sleep here on occasions. In Room 60 of this political bunker, he made his historic radio speeches to the nation, speeches which gave the people the strength and resolve to win the war.
For the purposes of his study, Toye also disregards public opinion surveys because most were ‘not directed to the reception of speeches per se but to approval/disapproval of Churchill as Prime Minister’ (p. 227). The fault, though, is with his premise, that Churchill’s oratory, and its impact, can be assessed in isolation. Toye admits as much when, at the end of his book, he quotes a December 1942 MO report. According to this assessment, Churchill’s personal popularity along with reaction to his speeches, rose or fell in ‘very close association with the general feelings of cheerfulness or depression about the war situation’ (p. 227). Which is rather stating the obvious.
Churchill knew that mastering the art of speech-making and writing was very important in a political career; he also believed in his abilities as an orator, despite being relatively inexperienced. During the July 1899 Oldham by-election campaign, he writes to his mother Lady Randolph Churchill of his conviction that he would win the election: “My speech last night at the club produced great enthusiasm ... and there is no doubt that if anyone can win this seat I can”.In the event, although he did slightly better than his running-mate in the polls, he did not win, losing a previously held Conservative seat. He might have been defeated, but he was conscious that in this fight he had not been disgraced. According to the Manchester Courier, “he made a splendid impression on the constituency, but the time was too short”.
Matthews is right to suggest that Churchill re-recorded the ‘Finest Hour’ speech in 1949.(3) He also makes a valuable point about the variant versions floating around, and about the lack of care that broadcasters have exercised over the years. The post-war history of the speeches is certainly a very interesting issue, and my reference to it, it is true, is buried in a footnote (p. 252, n.173). It is certainly a topic deserving of more extensive treatment, but examining it in the book would not have materially altered my findings about the speeches’ contemporary reception. This may, however, be a good moment to own up to a genuine error, which was kindly drawn to my attention by Allen Packwood, director of the Churchill Archives Centre. The book makes the clear suggestion that Churchill broadcast his famous 20 August 1940 speech which referred to ‘The Few’, having earlier given it in the House of Commons (pp. 69, 231). This is in spite of the fact that there is no evidence whatsoever that he did so. But having heard the recording of it he made later, I gave into the powerful sense that somehow he ‘must’ have delivered it on the radio at the time. This, I think, is strong testimony to the cognitive dissonance generated when familiar historical myth collides with historical fact, even when one is doing one’s utmost to be hard-headed.
We ask no favours of the enemy. We seek from them no compunction. On the contrary, if tonight the people of London were asked to cast their votes as to whether a convention should be entered into to stop the bombing of all cities, an overwhelming majority would cry, "No, we will mete out to the Germans the measure, and more than the measure, they have meted out to us." The people of London with one voice would say to Hitler: "You have committed every crime under the sun. Where you have been the least resisted there you have been the most brutal. It was you who began the indiscriminate bombing. We remember Warsaw! In the first few days of the war. We remember Rotterdam. We have been newly reminded of your habits by the hideous massacre in Belgrade. We know too well the bestial assaults you're making upon the Russian people, to whom our hearts go out in their valiant struggle! We will have no truce or parley with you, or the grisly gang who work your wicked will! You do your worst! - and we will do our best! Perhaps it may be our turn soon. Perhaps it may be our turn now."
Churchill went on to give many speeches on international affairs, calling for Europe to unite against communist encroachment and for France and Germany to ally to prevent future wars. He even predicted that communism would ultimately die out in Russia, telling some of his younger aides that they would live to see it — Muller says that one of the those associates actually died in 1987, just missing out on witnessing the collapse of the Soviet Union. Churchill himself would also regain his position as prime minister in 1951.
Truman might have understood the dark intentions of the Soviet Union, but many leading American liberals, such as FDR’s former vice president, Henry Wallace, and his widow, Eleanor Roosevelt, still affectionately referred to the Communist dictator Stalin as “good old Uncle Joe.” It was difficult for Americans, in the space of a few months, to go from regarding the Soviet Union as our ally in war to a potentially lethal enemy. Much of the liberal press was trying to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Britain, while rightwing isolationists opposed any long-term American alliance with European nations.
Churchill’s place in history is assured; with Hitler he remains a towering political figure of the twentieth century. His courage, determination, and leadership during Britain’s greatest peril mark him for the ages. However unlikely the success of a German invasion of Britain in 1940 now seems—‘‘Overlord in reverse’’—it did not seem so at the time. When some of his fellow Britons and not a few Americans called for capitulation or accommodation, Winston Churchill chomped his cigar, flashed his V-for-victory sign, and uttered a defiant ‘‘No!’’ that echoes down the ages.
If Hitler can bring under his despotic control the industries of the countries he has conquered, this will add greatly to his already vast armament output. On the other hand, this will not happen immediately, and we are now assured of immense, continuous and increasing support in supplies and munitions of all kinds from the United States; and especially of aeroplanes and pilots from the Dominions and across the oceans coming from regions which are beyond the reach of enemy bombers.
Churchill lived such a long life that he had many London residences: it would be nice to feel that, as a result of interest such as yours, blue plaques will one day be put on all of them. For example, in the same street where Churchill spent several years as a child, there is a blue plaque on another house informing passers by that “from this house Chopin went to give his last concert.” Nor is there any plaque on 105 Mount Street, his first bachelor apartment, in which he lived from 1900 to 1905, and from which, incidentally, he went to the House of Commons to make his maiden speech; and in which he was living when he crossed the floor of the House from the Conservative to the Liberal benches.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Churchill bounced from government job to government job, and in 1924 he rejoined the Conservatives. Especially after the Nazis came to power in 1933, Churchill spent a great deal of time warning his countrymen about the perils of German nationalism, but Britons were weary of war and reluctant to get involved in international affairs again.
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, would 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.
The whole question of home defense against invasion is, of course, powerfully affected by the fact that we have for the time being in this Island incomparably more powerful military forces than we have ever had at any moment in this war or the last. But this will not continue. We shall not be content with a defensive war. We have our duty to our Ally. We have to reconstitute and build up the British Expeditionary Force once again, under its gallant Commander-in-Chief, Lord Gort. All this is in train; but in the interval we must put our defenses in this Island into such a high state of organization that the fewest possible numbers will be required to give effective security and that the largest possible potential of offensive effort may be realized. On this we are now engaged. It will be very convenient, if it be the desire of the House, to enter upon this subject in a secret Session. Not that the government would necessarily be able to reveal in very great detail military secrets, but we like to have our discussions free, without the restraint imposed by the fact that they will be read the next day by the enemy; and the Government would benefit by views freely expressed in all parts of the House by Members with their knowledge of so many different parts of the country. I understand that some request is to be made upon this subject, which will be readily acceded to by His Majesty’s Government.
Even so, Churchill’s appointment as minister of munitions in July 1917 was made in the face of a storm of Tory protest. Excluded from the cabinet, Churchill’s role was almost entirely administrative, but his dynamic energies thrown behind the development and production of the tank (which he had initiated at the Admiralty) greatly speeded up the use of the weapon that broke through the deadlock on the Western Front. Paradoxically, it was not until the war was over that Churchill returned to a service department. In January 1919 he became secretary of war. As such he presided with surprising zeal over the cutting of military expenditure. The major preoccupation of his tenure in the War Office was, however, the Allied intervention in Russia. Churchill, passionately anti-Bolshevik, secured from a divided and loosely organized cabinet an intensification and prolongation of the British involvement beyond the wishes of any major group in Parliament or the nation—and in the face of the bitter hostility of labour. And in 1920, after the last British forces had been withdrawn, Churchill was instrumental in having arms sent to the Poles when they invaded the Ukraine.
While shaving one morning in 1953, Churchill remarked to John Colville, “Today is the 24th of January. It’s the day my father died. It’s the day I shall die, too.” He repeated this prediction to his son-in-law Christopher Soames shortly after his ninetieth birthday, in 1964. A few weeks later, on January 10, 1965, Churchill lapsed into a coma. Earlier that evening, during the nightly ritual of brandy and cigars, he had said to Soames, “It has been a grand journey, well worth making.” He paused and added, “once.”