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.
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.
Having said all that, The Roar of the Lion is a valuable addition to the study of Churchill’s wartime premiership and demonstrates that there is still much to say about the man and his work. What is remarkable is not the number of complaints that contemporary listeners registered about this or that speech, but the number of times Churchill hit his mark. That was never more true than during the early days of the Blitz when his broadcasts helped reassure the British people. The novelist Naomi Royde Smith put it best when she described one of those broadcasts in September in 1940. ‘The statement of facts made’, she wrote in her diary, ‘the danger is presented, [and] long successions of monosyllables beat on in the ear like the sound of an army marching to drums ... It sounds simple enough, but how few men can do it’ (p. 74).
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’.
Churchill’s essay is a personal, first-hand account of two days of combat, interspersed with personal asides. The aide-de-camp is exhausted after two days: “I am so tired that I can’t write anymore now. I must add that the cavalry reconnaissance party found that there is no enemy to be seen. Now I wish for a good night, as I don’t know when I get another sleep. Man may work. But man must sleep.”
By repeating “we shall” ten times as a mantra, Sir Winston was employing a rhetorical device that originated with the classical Greek orators and continues to be used to the present day. In a prior Forbes post, I wrote about how Emma Gonzalez, a teenage survivor of the Florida high school shooting, rocketed to media fame with a speech using the same technique.
Churchill’s reception reflected his audience’s recognition that a great leader had honored their town and college with his visit rather than their appreciation of the stern message. In Washington and around the world, the speech precipitated a storm of denunciation. Both Truman and Attlee took shelter by disowning Churchill’s message; Truman denied that he had any foreknowledge of what Churchill was going to say.
For the next year Britain held its resolve. It was battered but did not crumble. In fact, the war energized Churchill, who was sixty-five years old when he became Prime Minister. Churchill maintained his private strength by taking each day at a time. Churchill resolved that the only way to move past The Darkest Hour was to keep moving. He commented that “success consists of going from failure to failure without a loss of enthusiasm.” Alternatively, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
In 1911 the provocative German action in sending a gunboat to Agadir, the Moroccan port to which France had claims, convinced Churchill that in any major Franco-German conflict Britain would have to be at France’s side. When transferred to the Admiralty in October 1911, he went to work with a conviction of the need to bring the navy to a pitch of instant readiness. His first task was the creation of a naval war staff. To help Britain’s lead over steadily mounting German naval power, Churchill successfully campaigned in the cabinet for the largest naval expenditure in British history. Despite his inherited Tory views on Ireland, he wholeheartedly embraced the Liberal policy of Home Rule, moving the second reading of the Irish Home Rule Bill of 1912 and campaigning for it in the teeth of Unionist opposition. Although, through his friendship with F.E. Smith (later 1st earl of Birkenhead) and Austen Chamberlain, he did much to arrange the compromise by which Ulster was to be excluded from the immediate effect of the bill, no member of the government was more bitterly abused—by Tories as a renegade and by extreme Home Rulers as a defector.
Churchill’s warnings about Hitler, however, were not simply about the numbers of tanks and planes. Armaments alone, he understood, were not the cause of war; it was the character and designs of a nation’s leaders that determined war or peace. Churchill grasped early on that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the enthusiasm for disarmament after World War I would increase the likelihood of another European war, even without a Hitler.
The domestic labours and battles of his administration were far from Churchill’s main concerns. Derationing, decontrolling, rehousing, safeguarding the precarious balance of payments—these were relatively noncontroversial policies; only the return of nationalized steel and road transport to private hands aroused excitement. Critics sometimes complained of a lack of prime ministerial direction in these areas and, indeed, of a certain slackness in the reins of government. Undoubtedly Churchill was getting older and reserving more and more of his energies for what he regarded as the supreme issues, peace and war. He was convinced that Labour had allowed the transatlantic relationship to sag, and one of his first acts was to visit Washington (and also Ottawa) in January 1952 to repair the damage he felt had been done. The visit helped to check U.S. fears that the British would desert the Korean War, harmonized attitudes toward German rearmament and, distasteful though it was to Churchill, resulted in the acceptance of a U.S. naval commander in chief of the eastern Atlantic. It did not produce that sharing of secrets of atom bomb manufacture that Churchill felt had unfairly lapsed after the war. To the disappointment of many, Churchill’s advocacy of European union did not result in active British participation; his government confined itself to endorsement from the sidelines, though in 1954, faced with the collapse of the European Defense Community, Churchill and Eden came forward with a pledge to maintain British troops on the Continent for as long as necessary.
As a twenty-six-year old, Churchill took his seat as a Conservative member in the new Parliament and four days later made his maiden speech. He spoke immediately following Lloyd George, ensuring the young politician a very full house. Churchill had, of course, prepared his speech very carefully and more or less learned it by heart. Although this isn’t unusual in a maiden speaker, Churchill – more unusually – continued this meticulous preparation throughout his career.
What is important is that the version found on the BBC’s ‘School Radio’ site is the one used in documentaries, such as ITV’s 1973–4 World at War series. It is the version that people, including those who listened to the actual broadcast, think of when they think of this speech. But is it what the British people heard in the summer of 1940? There are hints here and there that Churchill ‘re-recorded’ some of his wartime speeches for Decca Records around 1949. Strangely, none of Churchill’s biographers mention this, and neither does Toye. More’s the pity. It is a mystery that, if solved, could help explain why reactions to Churchill’s broadcasts when they were given differ from the impressions we have of them today.
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.”
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.
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.
After the evacuation of Dunkirk was complete, Churchill had a very specific tone to strike in his speech on June 4. He also had to address a reluctant ally in the United States: Franklin Roosevelt. Much of the American public was still hesitant to get involved in the war, and Roosevelt was trying not to anger the isolationists as he mounted a re-election campaign. But Churchill nevertheless saw an opportunity to make an appeal.
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 and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: 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. Let that be realized; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal. But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, "Come then, let us go forward together with our united strength."
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 sentence ending in 'surrender' only the last word – "surrender" – does not have Old English roots according to some sources. However, it is often forgotten that other words used in the speech such as "confidence", "defend", "Empire" and "liberation" among others originated from Old French. The popular yet false idea that only the word "surrender" does not have Old English roots is most likely grounded in Francophobia. There is no similar overwhelming preponderance in the peroration as a whole; nor do the perorations of other Churchill speeches largely exclude words with foreign origins. However, Churchill himself had attended a speech given by Georges Clemenceau in Paris in June 1918, in which Clemenceau had used similar diction ("I will fight [the Germans] in front of Paris, I will fight in Paris, and I will fight behind Paris"). Both orators used the accumulation of similar-sounding statements to emphasise their uncompromising will to fight.
Marshal Josef Stalin makes a toast to Churchill on 30 November 1943, the British premier's 69th birthday, during the Tehran Conference. Stalin was a difficult ally and relations were not always this friendly. With Russia taking the brunt of the war against Germany, Stalin had aggressively insisted on an invasion of northern France. Churchill resisted. He believed that any premature 'Second Front' was likely to fail. At Tehran, a date was finally set for June 1944.