As well as rallying his audience at home, Churchill also appealed to the United States to enter the war against Nazi Germany: ‘And if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or 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’.
In order to appreciate it fully, it’s necessary to grasp the very precise circumstances in which it was delivered on 4 June 1940: shortly after the successful evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk, but before France’s final defeat and surrender to the Germans that took place later that month. Here are some facts about this magnificent oration that you may find surprising.
Churchill was back in the cabinet by mid-1917 and finished the war as minister of munitions. He opposed postwar accommodations with Indian separatists such as Gandhi and was involved in other international affairs as colonial secretary, including establishment of the Iraqi nation in 1921. Over the next several years he was in and out of Parliament and government, earning an exceptional living from writing.
This was such a major speech because it helped convince the US government to focus on the European theatre of war thus helping Britain, rather than focusing on the pacific theatre. Churchill highlighted the common culture and language and his own American lineage by saying: “I cannot help reflecting that if my father had been American and my mother British, instead of the other way round, I might have got here on my own.”
Churchill, even at this relatively young age, demonstrated great writing skill; he understood the way in which words could wield great power, create moods and stir passions. He was clearly aware, however, of a particular “mental flaw”; his tendency to allow the power of certain phrases to govern his principles, to use words that sounded good – with the power to win an audience – over those that reflected a genuine view or argument.With great self-awareness, he writes in this letter to his mother that “I am very much impressed with C. J. R. [Cecil Rhodes] having ... detected my mental flaw. I do not care so much for the principles I advocate as for the impression which my words produce and the reputation they win me ... I vy often yield to the temptation of adapting my facts to my phrases”. He adds, though, that “a keen sense of necessity or ... injustice would make me sincere”.
The speech was generally praised for its accomplished argument and delivery. The Daily Express wrote that “He held a crowded house spellbound”, the Manchester Guardian, of a “carefully turned speech, filled with antitheses of a literary flavor”. In this card, John Cumming Macdonald MP congratulates Churchill on his "brilliant speech", saying that his father's spirit seemed to hover over him; "you have inherited marvellous ability and aptitude". Others were not so sure: H. W. Massingham wrote in the Liberal Daily News: “Mr Churchill has many disadvantages ... [he] does not inherit his father’s voice – save for the slight lisp – or his father’s manner. Address, accent, appearance do not help him”.

Churchill was clearly troubled by that “lisp” to which Massingham referred. All his life he had a speech impediment in which he had difficulty pronouncing the letter “s”. He consulted the noted speech specialist, Sir Felix Semon, in 1897 who at the time felt that “practice and perseverance are alone necessary”. Churchill consulted him again in 1901 for further advice and Sir Felix writes here that he was aware in 1897 “how keenly you felt the deficiency, and how seriously you were handicapped in your speaking in public by your constantly having to think of avoiding as much as possible words with “S””.
“The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the World War by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

In this ‘Appeal to America’, cast as a speech to the British people but “addressed very largely to American ears” (to summon supplies needed for victory), Churchill demonstrates his skill in varying cadence, rhythm and hesitation. All this was part of his “stage craft” and a trick of oratory to increase emphasis and effect. The speech also shows off his ability to use simple, direct language to get a very clear message across: "We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle, nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down. Give us the tools and we will finish the job".
“This was one of the most prescient strategic documents that Churchill ever wrote,” his son Randolph recorded decades later in the official biography. When Arthur Balfour, sometimes a critic of Churchill, re-read this memo shortly after the outbreak of the war in September 1914, he wrote to Churchill’s private secretary, “It is a triumph of prophecy!” More importantly, the Agadir crisis had reawakened in Churchill his previously expressed worries about the prospect of total war between modern nations. It caused him to change his mind about his earlier opposition to a naval buildup. He wrote in retrospect that “although the Chancellor of the Exchequer and I were right in the narrow sense [about the number of battleships], we were absolutely wrong in relation to the deep tides of destiny.”1 Churchill’s political focus would now change from domestic to foreign affairs, where it would remain for most of the rest of his life.
Toye has a theory on why people were -- and in some cases, still are -- so eager to believe this urban myth. “As a piece of psychological speculation one might hazard that they feel that the account of the almost mystical power of Churchill’s oratory, as it is usually presented, is in some sense too good to be true,” he writes in his book. Clearly, the mystique surrounding Churchill’s speeches is too good to be true. He did not have people cheering in the streets, shouting his name, and diving headfirst into the war effort after a single speech. They were certainly not responding to his “husky, rather stuttering” voice, which was not widely heard that day.

The shock of rejection by the nation fell heavily on Churchill. Indeed, though he accepted the role of leader of the parliamentary opposition, he was never wholly at home in it. The economic and social questions that dominated domestic politics were not at the centre of his interests. Nor, with his imperial vision, could he approve of what he called Labour’s policy of “scuttle,” as evidenced in the granting of independence to India and Burma (though he did not vote against the necessary legislation). But in foreign policy a broad identity of view persisted between the front benches, and this was the area to which Churchill primarily devoted himself. On March 5, 1946, at Fulton, Missouri, he enunciated, in the presence of President Truman, the two central themes of his postwar view of the world: the need for Britain and the United States to unite as guardians of the peace against the menace of Soviet Communism, which had brought down an “iron curtain” across the face of Europe; and with equal fervour he emerged as an advocate of European union. At Zürich, on September 19, 1946, he urged the formation of “a council of Europe” and himself attended the first assembly of the council at Strasbourg in 1949. Meanwhile, he busied himself with his great history, The Second World War, six volumes (1948–53).

“We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.”


In this situation he found relief, as well as profit, in his pen, writing, in Marlborough: His Life and Times, a massive rehabilitation of his ancestor against the criticisms of the 19th-century historian Thomas Babington Macaulay. But overriding the past and transcending his worries about India was a mounting anxiety about the growing menace of Hitler’s Germany. Before a supine government and a doubting opposition, Churchill persistently argued the case for taking the German threat seriously and for the need to prevent the Luftwaffe from securing parity with the Royal Air Force. In this he was supported by a small but devoted personal following, in particular the gifted, curmudgeonly Oxford physics professor Frederick A. Lindemann (later Lord Cherwell), who enabled him to build up at Chartwell a private intelligence centre the information of which was often superior to that of the government. When Baldwin became prime minister in 1935, he persisted in excluding Churchill from office but gave him the exceptional privilege of membership in the secret committee on air-defense research, thus enabling him to work on some vital national problems. But Churchill had little success in his efforts to impart urgency to Baldwin’s administration. The crisis that developed when Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935 found Churchill ill prepared, divided between a desire to build up the League of Nations around the concept of collective security and the fear that collective action would drive Benito Mussolini into the arms of Hitler. The Spanish Civil War (1936–39) found him convinced of the virtues of nonintervention, first as a supporter and later as a critic of Francisco Franco. Such vagaries of judgment in fact reflected the overwhelming priority he accorded to one issue—the containment of German aggressiveness. At home there was one grievous, characteristic, romantic misreading of the political and public mood, when, in Edward VIII’s abdication crisis of 1936, he vainly opposed Baldwin by a public championing of the King’s cause.
For Churchill to maintain optimism of British victory in the darkest days of World War II required a sense of hope that appeared to civilians and advisors to border on lunacy. In September 1940, German bombers began to appear over London. Hitler changed tactics in his attempt to subdue Great Britain. In the previous two months, the Luftwaffe targeted RAF airfields and radar stations in order to weaken the nation to the point that he could launch a German invasion. When he realized such an offensive launch was impossible, because it would deplete too much manpower from the Eastern front, he switched to a campaign of fear and intimidation. Bombing London to ruin would demoralize the population to the point of hopelessness and surrender.
He justified the low level of support it had been possible to give to France since Dunkirk, and reported the successful evacuation of most of the supporting forces. He resisted pressure to purge the coalition of appeasers, or otherwise indulge in recrimination. He reviewed the forces still available to prevent or repel any attempted invasion,[b] summing up the review as follows:

In 1897, Churchill wrote ‘The Scaffolding of Rhetoric’ on the art of public speaking and the various techniques that can enhance the speaker’s art. He had only one public speech to his name at this point, but this unpublished essay illuminates his aspirations. Here he observes that "Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it wields a power more durable than that of a great king”.
Mister Speaker, on Friday evening last I received His Majesty's commission to form a new Administration. It was the evident wish and will of Parliament and the nation that this should be conceived on the broadest possible basis and that it should include all parties, both those who supported the late Government and also the parties of the Opposition. I have completed the most important part of this task. A War Cabinet has been formed of five Members, representing, with the Liberal Opposition, the unity of the nation. The three party Leaders have agreed to serve, either in the War Cabinet or in high executive office. The three Fighting Services have been filled. It was necessary that this should be done in one single day, on account of the extreme urgency and rigor of events. A number of other key positions were filled yesterday, and I am submitting a further list to His Majesty tonight. I hope to complete the appointment of the principal Ministers during tomorrow. The appointment of the other Ministers usually takes a little longer, but I trust that when Parliament meets again, this part of my task will be completed, and that the administration will be complete in all respects.

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.
This memorandum and other actions of Churchill around the time of the Agadir made the prime minister, H. H. Asquith, realize that Churchill needed a more prominent government post from which to influence the nation’s strategic destiny. Within a few weeks of the resolution of the Agadir crisis, Asquith had elevated Churchill to First Lord of the Admiralty, in which office Churchill introduced a number of forward-looking reforms and innovations that echo down to the present day.
Lloyd George’s speech had the desired sobering effect on Germany. Old-fashioned quiet diplomacy—perhaps the last of the nineteenth-century style—resolved the crisis, but the war drums had sounded, and Britain’s military planners had begun contemplating how a war against Germany might be conducted. A few days before a key meeting of the Committee of Imperial Defense, Churchill set down in a long memorandum how a war on the continent would begin. “It was,” Churchill wrote later, “only an attempt to pierce the veil of the future; to conjure up in the mind a vast imaginary situation; to balance the incalculable; to weigh the imponderable.”
Accumulation of Argument. Today’s business presentations are defined as the slide deck. But the deck is more often than not shuffled like a pack of cards at a gaming table in Las Vegas—which results in fragmentation and, ultimately, disruption of the story. When you shuffle your deck (and you know you will) be sure to maintain the logic of your flow.
In the defense of this Island the advantages to the defenders will be much greater than they were in the fighting around Dunkirk. We hope to improve on the rate of three or four to one which was realized at Dunkirk; and in addition all our injured machines and their crews which get down safely--and, surprisingly, a very great many injured machines and men do get down safely in modern air fighting--all of these will fall, in an attack upon these Islands, on friendly soil and live to fight another day; whereas all the injured enemy machines and their complements will be total losses as far as the war is concerned.
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.
Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. 

The final speech was wide-ranging. Churchill gave a detailed recap of the Battle of Dunkirk, praising every member of the Allied forces. But he did not dwell on the lives saved. He warned that the rescue “must not blind us to the fact that what has happened in France and Belgium is a colossal military disaster.” Invasion, he insisted, could be imminent. But he was ready to fight.
The German breakthrough had not been exploited southwards, and the French had improvised a relatively thinly held defensive line along the Aisne and the Somme. The British military evaluation was that this was unlikely to withstand any major attack by the Wehrmacht. In the air, the French were short of fighter planes and the shortage was worsening due to their many losses in combat. The French military commanders had hence asked for additional British fighter squadrons to be sent into the fight in France. Politically, there were considerable doubts over the French willingness to continue the war, even in the absence of any further military catastrophes. Churchill had argued in favour of sending the fighter squadrons to France because he considered that that move would be vital to sustain French public morale, and also to give no excuse for the collapse of the French Army. That would possibly lead to a French government that would not only drop out of the war, but also become hostile to the United Kingdom. The British War Cabinet discussed this issue at meetings on 3 June and on the morning of 4 June, but it decided to take the advice of the Royal Air Force and the Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair, that the British priority must be to prepare its own defences. The three squadrons present in France would be kept up to fighting strength, but no further squadrons could be spared for the Battle of France.[4]

4. 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 on the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender. House of Commons, 4 June 1940
The Story of the Malakand Field Force (1898) Savrola (1899 novel) The River War (1899) London to Ladysmith via Pretoria (1900) Ian Hamilton's March (1900) Lord Randolph Churchill (1906) The World Crisis (1923–1931, five volumes) My Early Life (1930) Marlborough: His Life and Times (1933–1938, four volumes) Great Contemporaries (1937) Arms and the Covenant (1938) The Second World War (1948–1963, six volumes) A History of the English-Speaking Peoples (1956–1958, four volumes)

This would present a serious difficulty if the diarists had only reported their own thoughts, but in fact they also reported the opinions of others around them. […] Of course, those who disliked Churchill may have been biased in terms of what they recorded. But, crucially, some people who did like Churchill’s speeches recorded that others didn’t, and expressed their surprise at this. Taken in combination with survey evidence – with which they often correlate – diaries can be a potent source. Although they cannot by themselves provide definitive evidence of how many people held a particular opinion about Churchill’s speeches, they do give a good illustration of the range of views that were held. (pp. 8–9)
As War Prime Minister Churchill was tireless in his refusal to surrender Britain to Germany. His now famous speeches were an inspiration to British people to stand firm in the face of adversity. His strong relationship with Roosevelt led to an influx of American supplies to support the war effort. He also maintained an alliance with Stalin following Germany’s invasion of Russia in 1941.
Almost a year has passed since I came down here at your Head Master's kind invitation in order to cheer myself and cheer the hearts of a few of my friends by singing some of our own songs. The ten months that have passed have seen very terrible catastrophic events in the world - ups and downs, misfortunes - but can anyone sitting here this afternoon, this October afternoon, not feel deeply thankful for what has happened in the time that has passed and for the very great improvement in the position of our country and of our home? Why, when I was here last time we were quite alone, desperately alone, and we had been so for five or six months. We were poorly armed. We are not so poorly armed today; but then we were very poorly armed. We had the unmeasured menace of the enemy and their air attack still beating upon us, and you yourselves had had experience of this attack; and I expect you are beginning to feel impatient that there has been this long lull with nothing particular turning up!
78 rpm: HMV (JOX.33), Gramophone (C3198) [issued as part of Gramophone Album The Progress of the War, No. 348], BBC, World Record Club EZ.1026, World Record Club ME-2121-2123; 33 rpm: EMI/Odeon 1-2, Capitol, Caedmon TC 2065, Decca 5, London XL.10, Caedmon TC 2018; Tape: BBC Radio Collection, Argo 1118; CD: BBC Audiobooks, This England, EMI, Enlightenment, SpeechWorks, ProArte
×