This speech made famous the notion of the “Iron Curtain”. Furthermore it defined the parameters of the Cold War. So powerful were Churchill’s words that President Truman had to distance himself from his remarks amid their international notoriety. Yet the speech also outlined the rationale for the “Special relationship” between Britain and the United States. Together, Britain and the US adopted a deep opposition to Communism and, and as a result, it virtually shaped the rest of the rest of the 20th century.
While largely unstated, one of Churchill’s major concerns was limiting Soviet territorial gains in Europe. Having an eye toward the postwar world, he did not want Stalin in control of formerly democratic nations. However, geopolitics required further cooperation with his unlikely ally, and Churchill met Roosevelt for the last time in Stalin’s domain—Yalta in the Crimea, in February 1945. Victory in Europe was visible by then, though with more hard fighting to come in the Pacific. Roosevelt’s premature death in April ended the original Big Three.
“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere.”
I am sure it would be sensible to restrict as much as possible the work of these gentlemen, who are capable of doing an immense amount of harm with what may very easily degenerate into charlatanry. The tightest hand should be kept over them, and they should not be allowed to quarter themselves in large numbers among Fighting Services at the public expense.
In convalescence and political impotence Churchill turned to his brush and his pen. His painting never rose above the level of a gifted amateur’s, but his writing once again provided him with the financial base his independent brand of politics required. His autobiographical history of the war, The World Crisis, netted him the £20,000 with which he purchased Chartwell, henceforth his country home in Kent. When he returned to politics it was as a crusading anti-Socialist, but in 1923, when Stanley Baldwin was leading the Conservatives on a protectionist program, Churchill stood, at Leicester, as a Liberal free trader. He lost by approximately 4,000 votes. Asquith’s decision in 1924 to support a minority Labour government moved Churchill farther to the right. He stood as an “Independent Anti-Socialist” in a by-election in the Abbey division of Westminster. Although opposed by an official Conservative candidate—who defeated him by a hairbreadth of 43 votes—Churchill managed to avoid alienating the Conservative leadership and indeed won conspicuous support from many prominent figures in the party. In the general election in November 1924 he won an easy victory at Epping under the thinly disguised Conservative label of “Constitutionalist.” Baldwin, free of his flirtation with protectionism, offered Churchill, the “constitutionalist free trader,” the post of chancellor of the Exchequer. Surprised, Churchill accepted; dumbfounded, the country interpreted it as a move to absorb into the party all the right-of-centre elements of the former coalition.
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.
“Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous states have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, 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.”
Toye, who has already contributed to the Churchill canon with his acclaimed Churchill’s Empire and a dual study, Lloyd George & Churchill (2), tackles a subject that until now largely has been ignored by other historians. In The Roar of the Lion he examines Churchill’s wartime speeches –how they were written and delivered and, not least, how they were received both at home and abroad, by friend and foe alike. To produce this study, Toye deftly combines secondary source material with archival research, especially in Churchill’s own, often overlooked speech-writing files. The result is a book that is by turns informative, engaging, and, all too often, frustrating.
A careful review of Churchill’s own historical works, starting with his magisterial biography of his forebear John Churchill, the first duke of Marlborough, and continuing with his multi-volume works on the two world wars and his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, will show that it was not merely the repetition of past patterns of history that he could see. History for Churchill was a source of imagination about how the future would change, which is why he wrote, “The longer you look back, the farther you can look forward.”
In the dark early days of the Second World War Churchill had few real weapons. He attacked with words instead. The speeches he delivered then are among the most powerful ever given in the English language. His words were defiant, heroic and human, lightened by flashes of humour. They reached out to everyone in Britain, across Nazi-occupied Europe, and throughout the world. As journalist Beverley Nichols wrote, 'He took the English language and sent it into battle.'
Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill was born into the aristocratic family of the Dukes of Marlborough, a branch of the noble Spencer family on November 30, 1874 to Lord Randolph Churchill and Jennie Jerome. Jennie Jerome, was an American socialite who was the daughter of American millionaire Leonard Jerome. Leonard Jerome was known as ‘The King of Wall Street”, he held interests in several railroad companies and was often a partner in the deals of Cornelius Vanderbilt. He was a patron of the arts, and founded the Academy of Music, one of New York City’s earliest opera houses.
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.
On 1 October 1938, Chamberlain returned to Britain following his meeting with Hitler, pledging that Britain and Germany would never again go to war, and was welcomed with unanimous congratulation, the “usual ... and invariable tributes”. Churchill, however, stood alone against him. This damning speech stands in stark contrast to the praise being heaped upon the Prime Minister. “I will begin by saying what everybody would like to ignore or forget ... we have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat ... All is over ... We are in the presence of a disaster of the first magnitude”. Many people felt strongly that Churchill was wrong. Here Eric Long writes to Churchill after this speech about their differences: “You may rest assured that while I may disagree with the principle as to whether Germany would go to war or not, that appears to be over now and we have got to fight for all we are worth to see that no such situation arises again”. Churchill's speech notes are laid out in ‘psalm style’ to prevent him losing his place and to aid his delivery (his secretaries became skilled in setting out his speech notes in this way).
As William Manchester and Paul Reid explain in The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, the speech was received well in the House of Commons. Churchill’s secretary Jock Colville wrote in his diary, “Went down to the House to see the P.M.’s statement on the evacuation of Dunkirk. It was a magnificent oration that obviously moved the House.” Member of Parliament Harold Nicolson wrote in a letter to his wife Vita Sackville-West, “This afternoon Winston made the finest speech that I have ever heard.” Henry Channon, another MP, wrote that Churchill was “eloquent and oratorical, and used magnificent English… several Labour members cried.”
Against this loss of over 30,000 men, we can set a far heavier loss certainly inflicted upon the enemy. But our losses in material are enormous. We have perhaps lost one-third of the men we lost in the opening days of the battle of 21st March, 1918, but we have lost nearly as many guns — nearly one thousand-and all our transport, all the armored vehicles that were with the Army in the north. This loss will impose a further delay on the expansion of our military strength. That expansion had not been proceeding as far as we had hoped. The best of all we had to give had gone to the British Expeditionary Force, and although they had not the numbers of tanks and some articles of equipment which were desirable, they were a very well and finely equipped Army. They had the first-fruits of all that our industry had to give, and that is gone. And now here is this further delay. How long it will be, how long it will last, depends upon the exertions which we make in this Island. An effort the like of which has never been seen in our records is now being made. Work is proceeding everywhere, night and day, Sundays and week days. Capital and Labor have cast aside their interests, rights, and customs and put them into the common stock. Already the flow of munitions has leaped forward. There is no reason why we should not in a few months overtake the sudden and serious loss that has come upon us, without retarding the development of our general program.
Here was the source of my mother’s indomitable spirit which shone strongly even in her last years. I vividly remember one Christmas, when at the age of 79 she fell from the top of her stairs all the way down to the bottom. Not only did she survive, battered and bruised as she was, but she was up and dressed Christmas morning, determined the day would not be ruined. I knew this amazing toughness had been moulded by the events of the Second World War, and along with all her generation, it had been shaped in steel by Churchill’s remarkable speeches.
“ ....However matters may go in France or with the French Government or with another French Government, we in this island and in the British Empire will never lose our sense of comradeship with the French people. If we are now called upon to endure what they have suffered we shall emulate their courage, and if final victory rewards our toils they shall share the gains, aye. And freedom shall be restored to all. We abate nothing of our just demands—Czechs, Poles, Norwegians, Dutch, Belgians, all who have joined their causes to our own shall be restored.
The Japanese surprise attack on the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, brought America into the war. Churchill was with the President's special envoy, Averell Harriman, and the U.S. Ambassador to Britain, John Gilbert Winant, when he received the news over the telephone from President Roosevelt. Four days later, Germany declared war on the United States, making U.S. involvement in Europe inevitable. Related Objects
For five years I have talked to the House on these matters – not with very great success. I have watched this famous island descending incontinently, fecklessly, the stairway which leads to a dark gulf. It is a fine broad stairway at the beginning, but after a bit the carpet ends. A little farther on there are only flagstones, and a little farther on still these break beneath your feet. [ ... ] Look back upon the last five years – since, that is to say, Germany began to rearm in earnest and openly to seek revenge ... historians a thousand years hence will still be baffled by the mystery of our affairs. They will never understand how it was that a victorious nation, with everything in hand, suffered themselves to be brought low, and to cast away all that they had gained by measureless sacrifice and absolute victory – gone with the wind! Now the victors are the vanquished, and those who threw down their arms in the field and sued for an armistice are striding on to world mastery. That is the position – that is the terrible transformation that has taken place bit by bit.
10. The mood of Britain is wisely and rightly averse from every form of shallow or premature exultation. This is no time for boasts or glowing prophecies, but there is this – a year ago our position looked forlorn, and well nigh desperate, to all eyes but our own. Today we may say aloud before an awe-struck world, ‘We are still masters of our fate. We still are captain of our souls. House of Commons, 9 September 1941
The British public also felt conflicted. In The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor, Jonathan Rose details a Ministry of Information survey the next day which charted “a mood of growing public pessimism.” The social research organization Mass Observation uncovered similar findings at that time. According to the MO report, “Churchill’s speech has been mentioned frequently and spontaneously this morning. There does not appear to have been a great deal in it which was unexpected, but its grave tone has again made some impression, and may be in part the cause of the depression.”
Thus it was that the port of Dunkirk was kept open. When it was found impossible for the Armies of the north to reopen their communications to Amiens with the main French Armies, only one choice remained. It seemed, indeed, forlorn. The Belgian, British and French Armies were almost surrounded. Their sole line of retreat was to a single port and to its neighboring beaches. They were pressed on every side by heavy attacks and far outnumbered in the air.
Here we see the significance of Churchill’s remark that he was confident that Britain could continue the war for years, ‘if necessary alone’. At this point the French were still in the war, so the hint that they might drop out was alarming to many. Churchill’s warning was timely and necessary but, by the same token, the concern that it generated was also wholly understandable. It may well be true that millions of people were, at the same time, galvanised and invigorated by the speech. But the recorded reactions of contemporaries show us that Churchill’s task was in some ways more complicated than is generally credited.
His simple and frequently repeated advice can be boiled down to two words “Study history, study history.” He added, “In history lie all the secrets of statecraft.” It was a familiar lesson for those close to Churchill. He gave the same advice to his grandson, Winston S. Churchill II, when the boy was only eight years old. “Learn all you can about the past,” Churchill wrote to his grandson in 1948, when the younger Winston was away at boarding school, “for how else can anyone make a guess about what is going to happen in the future.”
Matthews further complains that I too frequently quote negative comments about speeches ‘even when those comments represented “minority feeling”’. But minority feeling is exactly what I was trying to elucidate! No historian need apologise for paying attention to society’s dissidents, because even heretical opinions can illuminate the assumptions of the orthodox. Matthews observes: ‘negative reactions often say less about Churchill’s oratory than they do about a war-weary, but also fickle public.’ But my point is exactly that reactions to the speeches cast light on issues far beyond what people happened to think about the man who gave them. I would add further that, perfectly naturally, Churchill’s critics tended to be more expansive in their accounts of why they didn’t like speeches than admirers were in explaining why they did. When I found diary entries that detailed the reasons for approval (such as that of Naomi Royde Smith) I quoted them at length. With respect to the Chips Channon passage that Matthews upbraids me for excluding, it should be noted that I included several other quotations, one from Churchill himself, attesting to the powerful response evoked by the speech in question. Meanwhile, I failed to quote (although I cited) the memoirs of the journalist Paul Einzig, who recalled Tory backbenchers on that occasion remaining ‘seated and silent’ until they received a signal from their Chief Whip, whereupon ‘they rose to a man and burst into enthusiastic cheering at the top of their voices’.(1) Channon’s words, perhaps, were not quite as straightforward as Matthews suggests.
These lapses in memory had another interesting permutation: people started believing they had heard not Churchill, but an impersonator, deliver his words. The actor Norman Shelley claimed in 1972 that he had recorded the “fight on the beaches” speech as Churchill for the radio. Shelley voiced several children’s characters for the BBC in the 1930s and 1940s and did impersonate Churchill in at least one recording dated 1942. But it’s unclear if this record was ever put to any use.
There is no evidence that any version of the speech, imposter or not, was broadcast on June 4, 1940. But Smithsonian writes that there are a few reasons behind the false memories. Perhaps there is a drive to remember the war in rosier terms than the actual details reveal. Or potentially people long to be part of a cultural moment, even if it didn’t exist.
Churchill’s reputation as an orator is based principally on his speeches and broadcasts as Prime Minister during the summer of 1940, in particular those known usually as ‘Blood, toil, tears and sweat’ (13 May), ‘We Shall Fight on the Beaches’ (4 June) and ‘This was their Finest Hour’, which was delivered to the House of Commons on 18 June and broadcast by the BBC to the nation later that evening.