Clear win­ner in war of words

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS -

IT was John F. Kennedy, hon­our­ing Win­ston Churchill with Amer­i­can ci­ti­zen­ship, who de­scribed Churchill’s or­a­tor­i­cal pow­ers best. It was April 1963 and the US pres­i­dent made these re­marks: “... he mo­bilised the English lan­guage and sent it into bat­tle. The in­can­des­cent qual­ity of his words il­lu­mi­nated the courage of his coun­try­men.’’

This was a de­served ref­er­ence to Churchill as war­time leader, es­pe­cially dur­ing the dark­est pe­riod when Bri­tain stood alone against the might of Nazi Ger­many in the sum­mer of 1940.

These two books, Never Give In! Win­ston Churchill’s Speeches and The Sec­ond World War, re­leased in new edi­tions by Blooms­bury, demon­strate again Churchill’s com­mand of lan­guage, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing the ex­is­ten­tial times of lead­er­ship in bat­tle.

That Churchill was a mag­nif­i­cent speaker is never se­ri­ously chal­lenged. Never Give In! merely un­der­lines his pow­ers of per­sua­sion and his abil­ity to pen­e­trate is­sues of pub­lic de­bate and ar­gue a po­si­tion elo­quently and de­ci­sively. But this abridged edi­tion of The Sec­ond World War, which dis­tils six vol­umes of his war­time his­tory into a sin­gle edi­tion, con­firms that Churchill is also a first-rate mil­i­tary his­to­rian.

Never Give In! has been edited by his grand­son, Win­ston S. Churchill. Churchill’s great­est speeches sug­gest them­selves, but Churchill the younger has done well in com­pil­ing a collection re­flec­tive of his grand­fa­ther’s con­tri­bu­tions to pub­lic life and of his pas­sions. Sig­nif­i­cantly, Churchill’s maiden speech in par­lia­ment fol­low­ing his elec­tion as a Tory MP was re­lated to the con­tin­u­ing Boer War. He ar­gued for mag­na­nim­ity, to open the door to a peace set­tle­ment the Boer op­po­nents could sign. This is the young Churchill at his best. On other oc­ca­sions, he was far less ac­com­mo­dat­ing or for­giv­ing, as in his de­nun­ci­a­tions of so­cial­ism.

It is dif­fi­cult in any re­view to do jus­tice to Churchill’s speeches over the best part of half a century. Read­ers can de­cide for them­selves the ad­dresses they find most im­pres­sive or in­spir- ing. To my mind, three speeches that stand out in par­tic­u­lar re­late to World War II and the early part of the Cold War.

In a broad­cast from Lon­don on June 17, 1940, in the wake of Mar­shal Philippe Pe­tain’s sign­ing of an ar­mistice with Adolf Hitler, Churchill ad­dressed the Bri­tish people, be­gin­ning with a blunt hon­esty that could not fail to ar­rest at­ten­tion: ‘‘The news from France is very bad and I grieve for the gal­lant French people who have fallen into this ter­ri­ble mis­for­tune.’’ This speech led to Churchill’s ad­dress to the House of Commons the next day, for which he is jus­ti­fi­ably most fa­mous. He cel­e­brated the mir­a­cle of Dunkirk, then went on: What Gen­eral Wey­gand called the Bat­tle of France is over. I ex­pect that the Bat­tle of Bri­tain is about to be­gin. Upon this bat­tle de­pends the sur­vival of Chris­tian civil­i­sa­tion. Upon it de­pends our own Bri­tish life, and the long con­ti­nu­ity of our in­sti­tu­tions and our Em­pire. The whole fury and might of the en­emy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Is­land or lose the war.

By con­trast, one of Churchill’s worst speeches, from the 1945 gen­eral elec­tion, is also in­cluded. He claimed Labour would cre­ate a mod­ern Gestapo to dis­ci­pline pub­lic opin­ion. This was of­fen­sive non­sense, at­trib­uted by Labour to Lord Beaver­brook. It was not Churchill’s finest mo­ment.

His finest mo­ment in the post­war years prob­a­bly oc­curred at Ful­ton, Mis­souri, in March 1946, where, in the pres­ence of pres­i­dent Harry Tru­man, Churchill de­liv­ered a sombre anal­y­sis of the open­ing of the Cold War: ‘‘From Stet­tin in the Baltic to Tri­este in the Adri­atic an iron cur­tain has de­scended across the Con­ti­nent.’’ The ex­pres­sion iron cur­tain, usu­ally at­trib­uted to Churchill, in fact was first used by Joseph Goebbels as the Red Army ad­vanced on Berlin.

It is es­ti­mated that Churchill earned £450,000, in to­day’s money, from his writ­ings. Of­ten, at Chartwell, he was si­mul­ta­ne­ously writ­ing a his­tory, news­pa­per opin­ion pieces and speeches. He came from a wealthy fam­ily but lacked an in­her­i­tance. It was his skill as a writer and an or­a­tor that kept the fi­nan­cial wolf from the door. He is the only politi­cian to have won the No­bel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture. And, de­spite be­ing an in­dif­fer­ent stu­dent, he ex­celled in his­tory. The Sec­ond World War was edited down from six vol­umes by De­nis Kelly in 1958. Blooms­bury has had the good commercial and cul­tural sense to re­pub­lish this out­stand­ing work.

Churchill as war­lord ex­hib­ited all the dra­mat­ics of his speeches. At his best, as in the de­struc­tion of the French fleet at Mers-el-Ke­bir on the coast of Al­ge­ria, Churchill was a ro­bust strate­gic thinker. At his worst, he was an in­ter­fer­ing and im­pa­tient dilet­tante.

Churchill the his­to­rian leaves no one in doubt. The ten­sions in ad­ver­sity are clear. Grow­ing op­ti­mism as for­tunes change be­comes in­creas­ingly ev­i­dent. The loom­ing clouds of the Cold War are cov­ered in an epi­logue.

The best book on Churchill as war­lord is John Lukacs’s Five Days in Lon­don: May 1940, which cov­ers the pe­riod in which the prime min­is­ter re­jected Hitler’s peace over­ture and won the de­bate in the war cab­i­net con­vinc­ingly.

The war­lord him­self does not dis­ap­point. But these two im­pres­sive com­pi­la­tions would be well bal­anced by Lukacs, or equally by Churchill’s most in­sight­ful bi­og­ra­phers, Wil­liam Manch­ester or Roy Jenk­ins. How­ever, in Churchill’s own mo­bil­i­sa­tion of words are found man­i­festly ap­par­ent his for­mi­da­ble skills as or­a­tor and leader, along with a his­to­rian’s gifts.

Bri­tish prime min­is­ter Win­ston Churchill vis­its the 1st Army in North Africa with for­eign sec­re­tary Anthony Eden in 1943

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