Clear winner in war of words
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