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.
The English-speaking world was stunned when Churchill was turned out of office in July 1945. What appeared to be staggering ingratitude by the British voters probably was better explained by the approaching peace. Winston Churchill was a warrior by instinct and by preference; his countrymen recognized that fact and considered Labour’s candidate, Clement Atlee, better suited for peacetime challenges. With Japan’s surrender in September, those concerns became even more immediate. He regained the prime ministership in 1951.
The Cold War emerged as the Soviet Union turned Eastern Europe - the invasion route to Russia for centuries - into a military and political buffer between it and the West. Each saw a different reality; The Soviets wanted troops in Eastern Europe to block an attack from the West; the West saw them as a prelude to an attack on the West. Mutual suspicion, misunderstanding, ideological posturing and rhetorical extravagance, and Soviet-style governments in the East locked the two sides in a tense standoff.
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 term “Iron Curtain” defined the Soviet tyranny that extended its grasp over Eastern Europe. Although the public came to know the phrase from Churchill’s Fulton speech, he had first used it in a telegram to Truman the preceding May, days after the German surrender but before the two leaders met for the first time at the Potsdam conference. “I am profoundly concerned about the European situation,” Churchill wrote. “An iron curtain is being drawn down upon their front,” he wrote of the Soviet forces settling down in Eastern European nations. “We do not know what is going on behind . . . . Meanwhile the attention of our peoples will be occupied in inflicting severities on Germany, which is ruined and prostrate, and it would be open to the Russians in a very short time to advance if they chose to the waters of the North Sea and the Atlantic.”
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.
I spoke the other day of the colossal military disaster which occurred when the French High Command failed to withdraw the northern Armies from Belgium at the moment when they knew that the French front was decisively broken at Sedan and on the Meuse. This delay entailed the loss of fifteen or sixteen French divisions and threw out of action for the critical period the whole of the British Expeditionary Force. Our Army and 120,000 French troops were indeed rescued by the British Navy from Dunkirk but only with the loss of their cannon, vehicles and modern equipment. This loss inevitably took some weeks to repair, and in the first two of those weeks the battle in France has been lost. When we consider the heroic resistance made by the French Army against heavy odds in this battle, the enormous losses inflicted upon the enemy and the evident exhaustion of the enemy, it may well be the thought that these 25 divisions of the best-trained and best-equipped troops might have turned the scale. However, General Weygand had to fight without them. Only three British divisions or their equivalent were able to stand in the line with their French comrades. They have suffered severely, but they have fought well. We sent every man we could to France as fast as we could re-equip and transport their formations.
Lest the account which I have given of these large forces should raise the question: Why did they not take part in the great battle in France? I must make it clear that, apart from the divisions training and organizing at home, only twelve divisions were equipped to fight upon a scale which justified their being sent abroad. And this was fully up to the number which the French had been led to expect would be available in France at the ninth month of the war. The rest of our forces at home have a fighting value for home defense which will, of course, steadily increase every week that passes. Thus, the invasion of Great Britain would at this time require the transportation across the sea of hostile armies on a very large scale, and after they had been so transported they would have to be continually maintained with all the masses of munitions and supplies which are required for continuous battle--as continuous battle it will surely be.
The position of the B. E.F had now become critical As a result of a most skillfully conducted retreat and German errors, the bulk of the British Forces reached the Dunkirk bridgehead. The peril facing the British nation was now suddenly and universally perceived. On May 26, “Operation Dynamo “–the evacuation from Dunkirk began. The seas remained absolutely calm. The Royal Air Force–bitterly maligned at the time by the Army–fought vehemently to deny the enemy the total air supremacy which would have wrecked the operation. At the outset, it was hoped that 45,000 men might be evacuated; in the event, over 338,000 Allied troops reached England, including 26,000 French soldiers. On June 4, Churchill reported to the House of Commons, seeking to check the mood of national euphoria and relief at the unexpected deliverance, and to make a clear appeal to the United States.
This leads back to the crucial year between May 1940 and May 1941. Toye is adamant that Churchill’s speeches during this period did not ‘rally the nation’, nor were they ‘the decisive factor influencing Britain’s willingness to fight on’ (pp. 44, 72). But oratorical skills are but one tool of leadership, and focusing on the impact of one speech or another without placing them in context is to miss the point. Churchill understood that. Unlike Chamberlain, he made full use of the powers and prestige of his office as well as other media. His private secretary John Colville later recalled that during those desperate 12 months he seemed to be everywhere, inspecting military forces and munitions factories, and especially visiting the nation’s bombed-out cities – all captured by the newsreels to be shown in cinemas throughout Britain and around the world. Contrast that with the approach taken by Adolf Hitler, who was seldom heard or seen when the war started to go wrong for Germany.
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.
Then came the crucial final line, which is often forgotten amidst the cries to battle on beaches and streets. “And even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving,” Churchill said. “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.”
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.
Even though the U.S. was desperately trying to build up its military forces throughout 1941, Roosevelt decided to give the British some of the United States' most advanced weapons. Military aid to Britain was greatly facilitated by the Lend-Lease Act of March 11, 1941, in which Congress authorized the sale, lease, transfer, or exchange of arms and supplies to "any country whose defense the president deems vital to the defense of the United States." Related Objects
We may now ask ourselves: In what way has our position worsened since the beginning of the war? It has worsened by the fact that the Germans have conquered a large part of the coast line of Western Europe, and many small countries have been overrun by them. This aggravates the possibilities of air attack and adds to our naval preoccupations. It in no way diminishes, but on the contrary definitely increases, the power of our long-distance blockade. Similarly, the entrance of Italy into the war increases the power of our long-distance blockade. We have stopped the worst leak by that. We do not know whether military resistance will come to an end in France or not, but should it do so, then of course the Germans will be able to concentrate their forces, both military and industrial, upon us. But for the reasons I have given to the House these will not be found so easy to apply. If invasion has become more imminent, as no doubt it has, we, being relieved from the task of maintaining a large army in France, have far larger and more efficient forces to meet it.
It was an experience of great interest to me to meet Premier Stalin ... It is very fortunate for Russia in her agony to have this great rugged war chief at her head. He is a man of massive outstanding personality, suited to the sombre and stormy times in which his life has been cast; a man of inexhaustible courage and will-power and a man direct and even blunt in speech, which, having been brought up in the House of Commons, I do not mind at all, especially when I have something to say of my own. Above all, he is a man with that saving sense of humour which is of high importance to all men and all nations, but particularly to great men and great nations. Stalin also left upon me the impression of a deep, cool wisdom and a complete absence of illusions of any kind. I believe I made him feel that we were good and faithful comrades in this war – but that, after all, is a matter which deeds not words will prove.
Other painful and more debatable decisions fell to Churchill. The French fleet was attacked to prevent its surrender intact to Hitler. A heavy commitment was made to the concentrated bombing of Germany. At the height of the invasion threat, a decision was made to reinforce British strength in the eastern Mediterranean. Forces were also sent to Greece, a costly sacrifice; the evacuation of Crete looked like another Gallipoli, and Churchill came under heavy fire in Parliament.
We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I will 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.
After the Allied successes in the Mediterranean, Churchill's American allies made known their desire to come to grips with Hitler's armies in northwest Europe in a series of additional wartime conferences. These began with the TRIDENT meeting in Washington in May 1943 and culminated in the first meeting of Churchill, Roosevelt, and Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in Teheran, Iran, at year's end. At the conclusion of the Teheran meeting the Americans and Soviets had overridden Churchill's lingering doubts and had secured a firm commitment to launch a cross-Channel attack in northwest France by the late spring of 1944, together with a supporting amphibious operation in southern France. Related Objects
The train stopped at the St. Louis station in the early morning of March 5. Churchill took a leisurely breakfast in his stateroom before he and the presidential party switched to a local train for Jefferson City. There, Churchill and Truman entered their open-car limousines for the motorcade into Fulton. Churchill found, to his dismay, that he was lacking the requisite prop—a cigar. So he stopped at a local tobacconist for the purchase.
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.
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.”
In any age and time a man of Churchill’s force and talents would have left his mark on events and society. A gifted journalist, a biographer and historian of classic proportions, an amateur painter of talent, an orator of rare power, a soldier of courage and distinction, Churchill, by any standards, was a man of rare versatility. But it was as a public figure that he excelled. His experience of office was second only to Gladstone’s, and his gifts as a parliamentarian hardly less, but it was as a wartime leader that he left his indelible imprint on the history of Britain and on the world. In this capacity, at the peak of his powers, he united in a harmonious whole his liberal convictions about social reform, his deep conservative devotion to the legacy of his nation’s history, his unshakable resistance to tyranny from the right or from the left, and his capacity to look beyond Britain to the larger Atlantic community and the ultimate unity of Europe. A romantic, he was also a realist, with an exceptional sensitivity to tactical considerations at the same time as he unswervingly adhered to his strategical objectives. A fervent patriot, he was also a citizen of the world. An indomitable fighter, he was a generous victor. Even in the transition from war to peace, a phase in which other leaders have often stumbled, he revealed, at an advanced age, a capacity to learn and to adjust that was in many respects superior to that of his younger colleagues.
At the outbreak of World War II, Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty in command of the Royal Navy. At the same time the current Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, wanted to appease Germany and Hitler. Churchill knew this would not work and warned the government that they needed to help fight Hitler or Hitler would soon take over all of Europe.