In these hard days the exchange of U.S. overage destroyers for British Caribbean bases and the response, by way of lend-lease, to Churchill’s boast “Give us the tools and we’ll finish the job” were especially heartening to one who believed in a “mixing-up” of the English-speaking democracies. The unspoken alliance was further cemented in August 1941 by the dramatic meeting between Churchill and Roosevelt in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, which produced the Atlantic Charter, a statement of common principles between the United States and Britain.
In the most famous passage of his speech, Churchill warned Britain about the possible collapse of France and that, consequently, she would stand alone against Germany and face an invasion. He left the House in no doubt what the resolution would be should that occur: '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!'.
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.
But what’s more challenging to historical memory today is that Churchill’s speech was not broadcast live over the radio to the British public. Aside from the audience gathered in the House of Commons, most Britons and Americans did not hear him say those iconic words until several decades later. An enduring conspiracy theory claims he never recorded them at all.
Descended from the Dukes of Marlborough, Churchill was primed for success despite his parental problems. He graduated from the Sandhurst military academy in 1895 and embarked upon a dizzying army career. He reported news from Cuba, served in India, and in 1898 he fought in the battle of Omdurman in Sudan, where he rode in one of the last great cavalry charges. The following year he was a newspaper correspondent in South Africa, covering the Boer War. Not yet twenty-five, he received a thousand dollars a month plus expenses—a staggering amount, but London’s Morning Post considered him worth it. He was audacious and innovative, and as a later biographer said, ‘‘Churchill used the English language as if he invented it.’’ He also provided drama: captured by the Boers, he completed a daring escape and returned to safety despite a bounty on his head.
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.
To make note of the complexity of the origins and responses to this wonderful speech by no means implies criticism of Churchill. Rather, it prompts us to rethink the factors that contributed to his oratorical success. He did not merely provide uplifting soundbites; he presented a factual and reasoned case, provided the public with new information and, crucially, provided them with the context necessary to understand it. He was willing to run the risk of depressing his audience if this would serve the greater purpose of bringing them into contact with reality; he did not attempt to win easy popularity by providing false hope. He followed this formula throughout the war, not always with complete success in terms of audience response, but with the ultimate achievement of establishing his credibility as someone who would deliver the facts no matter how unpalatable they might be. This is a lesson which modern orators will do well to follow.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
War came as no surprise to Churchill. He had already held a test naval mobilization. Of all the cabinet ministers he was the most insistent on the need to resist Germany. On August 2, 1914, on his own responsibility, he ordered the naval mobilization that guaranteed complete readiness when war was declared. The war called out all of Churchill’s energies. In October 1914, when Antwerp was falling, he characteristically rushed in person to organize its defense. When it fell the public saw only a disillusioning defeat, but in fact the prolongation of its resistance for almost a week enabled the Belgian Army to escape and the crucial Channel ports to be saved. At the Admiralty, Churchill’s partnership with Adm. Sir John Fisher, the first sea lord, was productive both of dynamism and of dissension. In 1915, when Churchill became an enthusiast for the Dardanelles expedition as a way out of the costly stalemate on the Western Front, he had to proceed against Fisher’s disapproval. The campaign aimed at forcing the straits and opening up direct communications with Russia. When the naval attack failed and was called off on the spot by Adm. J.M. de Robeck, the Admiralty war group and Asquith both supported de Robeck rather than Churchill. Churchill came under heavy political attack, which intensified when Fisher resigned. Preoccupied with departmental affairs, Churchill was quite unprepared for the storm that broke about his ears. He had no part at all in the maneuvers that produced the first coalition government and was powerless when the Conservatives, with the sole exception of Sir William Maxwell Aitken (soon Lord Beaverbrook), insisted on his being demoted from the Admiralty to the duchy of Lancaster. There he was given special responsibility for the Gallipoli Campaign (a land assault at the straits) without, however, any powers of direction. Reinforcements were too few and too late; the campaign failed and casualties were heavy; evacuation was ordered in the autumn.
It is said that immediately after giving the speech, Churchill muttered to a colleague, "And we’ll fight them with the butt ends of broken beer bottles because that's bloody well all we've got!" Nonetheless, Churchill impressed his listeners and the speech was immediately recognised to be historic. One of Churchill's secretaries noted in his diary "A magnificent oration, which obviously moved the House". A Conservative MP wrote in his diary "he was eloquent and oratorical and used magnificent English; several Labour members cried". A Labour MP, Josiah Wedgwood, 1st Baron Wedgwood, friend and admirer of Churchill since the Dardanelles campaign, wrote to him, "My dear Winston. That was worth 1,000 guns and the speeches of 1,000 years".
As a political courtesy, Churchill called the White House and inquired if the president wanted to look over a draft of his Fulton speech. The White House replied that Under Secretary of State Dean Acheson would instead call at the British embassy. Lester Pearson, the Canadian ambassador, had already told Churchill that Acheson not only had a sound diplomatic head but also had a keen ear for the elegant phrase.
We have, therefore, in this Island today a very large and powerful military force. This force comprises all our best-trained and our finest troops, including scores of thousands of those who have already measured their quality against the Germans and found themselves at no disadvantage. We have under arms at the present time in this Island over a million and a quarter men. Behind these we have the Local Defense Volunteers, numbering half a million, only a portion of whom, however, are yet armed with rifles or other firearms. We have incorporated into our Defense Forces every man for whom we have a weapon. We expect very large additions to our weapons in the near future, and in preparation for this we intend forthwith to call up, drill and train further large numbers. Those who are not called up, or else are employed during the vast business of munitions production in all its branches--and their ramifications are innumerable--will serve their country best by remaining at their ordinary work until they receive their summons. We have also over here Dominions armies. The Canadians had actually landed in France, but have now been safely withdrawn, much disappointed, but in perfect order, with all their artillery and equipment. And these very high-class forces from the Dominions will now take part in the defense of the Mother Country.
8. Far be it from me to paint a rosy picture of the future. Indeed, I do not think we should be justified in using any but the most sombre tones and colours while our people, our Empire and indeed the whole English-speaking world are passing through a dark and deadly valley. But I should be failing in my duty if, on the other wise, I were not to convey the true impression, that a great nation is getting into its war stride. House of Commons, 22 January 1941
Churchill was, above all, a great writer. Words were his great strength. The peroration of this speech has justly become one of the most iconic passages of all Churchill’s speeches, clearly demonstrating his mastery of the English language: “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty and so bear ourselves that if the British Commonwealth and Empire lasts for a thousand years men will still say “This was their finest hour”.
Already in 1944, with victory in prospect, party politics had revived, and by May 1945 all parties in the wartime coalition wanted an early election. But whereas Churchill wanted the coalition to continue at least until Japan was defeated, Labour wished to resume its independence. Churchill as the popular architect of victory seemed unbeatable, but as an election campaigner he proved to be his own worst enemy, indulging, seemingly at Beaverbrook’s urging, in extravagant prophecies of the appalling consequences of a Labour victory and identifying himself wholly with the Conservative cause. His campaign tours were a triumphal progress, but it was the war leader, not the party leader, whom the crowds cheered. Labour’s careful but sweeping program of economic and social reform was a better match for the nation’s mood than Churchill’s flamboyance. Though personally victorious at his Essex constituency of Woodford, Churchill saw his party reduced to 213 seats in a Parliament of 640.