In many ways, Churchill’s reputation as a speechmaker has been a prisoner of the success he achieved between the fall of France in 1940 and the victory at El Alamein in 1942. What most people know of these speeches is largely ‘confined to a few famous phrases excerpted from a limited number of radio broadcasts in the summer of 1940'. The result is that these ‘quotable bits’ have crowded out other equally important, if less memorable speeches made throughout the war (pp. 2, 229). Nothing better illustrates this point than a speech delivered by Churchill that same summer. With their nation’s defeat, it was altogether likely that the French navy – the world’s fourth largest – would fall into German hands. Before he would let that happen, Churchill took what he later called ‘a hateful decision, the most unnatural and painful in which I have ever been concerned’. With much of the French fleet anchored at Mers-el-Kebir near Oran in North Africa, he ordered the Royal Navy to destroy his former ally’s warships before they could be used by the Nazis against Britain. Churchill’s address to the House of Commons the following day, like the attack itself, is all but forgotten, at least in the English-speaking world; but the immediate impact of both could not have been more significant. The ruthlessness of the assault demonstrated to the world, and especially to the United States, that Britain, in Churchill’s own words, would ‘prosecute the war with the utmost vigour’. For the first time, Conservative MPs joined their Labour and Liberal colleagues cheering the new prime minister, one witness recorded, ‘like mad’ (pp. 62–3). Even if, as Toye suggests, this show of support was stage managed, the Chamberlainite MP, Henry ‘Chips’ Channon, detected a change. ‘At the end of his speech’, Channon recorded in his diary, ‘the House rose, cheered, waved Order Papers – as I have so often seen them do for Neville. Only it was not little Neville’s turn now. Winston suddenly wept’,(3) (Toye does not fully quote this part of Channon’s diary, which is unfortunate. It is a minor oversight, but there are others that are not – about which more later.)
A Dunkirk veteran even conjured a false memory. The August 1965 issue of National Geographic shares the story of a Scottish man named Hugh, who took three vacation days to attend Churchill’s funeral. “The Nazis kicked my unit to death,” he recalled. “We left everything behind when we got out; some of my men didn’t even have boots. They dumped us along the roads near Dover, and all of us were scared and dazed, and the memory of the Panzers could set us screaming at night. Then he [Churchill] got on the wireless and said that we’d never surrender. And I cried when I heard him… And I thought to hell with the Panzers, WE’RE GOING TO WIN!”
Despite Churchill’s meticulous preparation for his speeches, he soon realized – following “a complete disaster” – that learning them by heart was not enough. In the spring of 1904, as he moved further and further away from his old Tory colleagues, his House of Commons experiences were tense and difficult. He became an increasingly isolated figure. On 22 April, making a speech in favour of improving trades union rights, he had been speaking for 45 minutes, without notes as usual, when he forgot his words. He struggled vainly for what he later called “the most embarrassing 3 minutes of my life”, trying to remember the rest of his speech, and then sat down in silence, distraught. Some believed him to be displaying early signs of the same mental decline from which his father Lord Randolph had suffered, and saw this as an appallingly public display of weakening mental faculties. His breakdown was met with jeers from some Tory members, but also with sympathy by others.
The peroration – quoted below – even at a moment of great apparent danger to British national survival talks not only of national survival and national interest, but of noble causes (freedom, Christian civilisation, the rights of small nations) for which Britain was fighting and for which Churchill thought the United States should – and given time would – fight.[d] The War Illustrated published the speech with the title "'If the Empire lasts a thousand years men will say, this was their finest hour'".
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.
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 1929, when the government fell, Churchill, who would have liked a Tory-Liberal reunion, deplored Baldwin’s decision to accept a minority Labour government. The next year an open rift developed between the two men. On Baldwin’s endorsement of a Round Table Conference with Indian leaders, Churchill resigned from the shadow cabinet and threw himself into a passionate, at times almost hysterical, campaign against the Government of India bill (1935) designed to give India dominion status.
Some of us who were not born then only hear about these leaders. We marvel at their courage, determination, integrity and intelligence. Times have changed, but if we ever had Sir Winston Churchchill with us today, I am sure he would have been the leader the world had then. Not only Great Britan but the world should honor such a illustrious individual.
For the purposes of his study, Toye also disregards public opinion surveys because most were ‘not directed to the reception of speeches per se but to approval/disapproval of Churchill as Prime Minister’ (p. 227). The fault, though, is with his premise, that Churchill’s oratory, and its impact, can be assessed in isolation. Toye admits as much when, at the end of his book, he quotes a December 1942 MO report. According to this assessment, Churchill’s personal popularity along with reaction to his speeches, rose or fell in ‘very close association with the general feelings of cheerfulness or depression about the war situation’ (p. 227). Which is rather stating the obvious.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941) altered, in Churchill’s eyes, the whole prospect of the war. He went at once to Washington, D.C., and, with Roosevelt, hammered out a set of Anglo-American accords: the pooling of both countries’ military and economic resources under combined boards and a combined chiefs of staff; the establishment of unity of command in all theatres of war; and agreement on the basic strategy that the defeat of Germany should have priority over the defeat of Japan. The grand alliance had now come into being. Churchill could claim to be its principal architect. Safeguarding it was the primary concern of his next three and a half years.
He describes a meeting of the junior officer with senior officers: “Aide-de-camp,” said General C., “order these men to extend and advance on the double.” On another occasion, the general is smashed in the head with a fragment of an artillery shell. Churchill wrote, “General C. observing his fate with a look of indifference turns to me and says ‘Go yourself—aide-de-camp.’”
Such a moment came in 1911, when Churchill was serving as Home Secretary in the cabinet of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. Appointed at age thirty-five, he was the second-youngest Home Secretary in history. This post kept Churchill preoccupied with domestic affairs with the never-ending troubles in Ireland. When the navy in 1909 pressed for six new battleships in response to the German buildup, Churchill joined the cabinet opponents in trying to hold the number to four. With typical wit, Churchill described the outcome: “In the end a curious and characteristic solution was reached.
I remember, when I was a child, being taken to the celebrated Barnum's circus, which contained an exhibition of freaks and monstrosities. But the exhibit on the programme which I most desired to see was the one described as "The Boneless Wonder." My parents judged that that spectacle would be too revolting and demoralising for my youthful eyes, and I have waited 50 years to see the boneless wonder sitting on the Treasury Bench.
'... 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 ...'
I do not agree that the dog in a manger has the final right to the manger even though he may have lain there for a very long time. I do not admit that right. I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.