Winston’s Way with Words
On the day that changed everything, September 11, 2001, then New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani seized the moment and guided that most unmanageable of all municipalities through its unsurpassed dark day.
When the mayor reached the point of exhaustion in the early hours of Wednesday, September 12, he went home and revisited a book he’d been reading the previous few nights. It was the full-length biography of Winston Churchill written by Roy Jenkins. He just happened to be reading the part about how the courageous British Prime Minister led his country through another horror in another time – the Battle of Britain. Giuliani drew strength from how Churchill inspired his people as Nazi bombs fell with indiscriminate horror during his nation’s very own protracted 9/11.
Churchill didn’t get a honeymoon period when he took over the premiership in May of 1940. He also didn’t inherit a lot of tangible resources. All he had was what had been long-simmering in his soul, as he watched from afar the approach of storm clouds and the sobering reality of lightning war.
And the great man had a way with words.
Legendary American broadcaster Edward R. Murrow once said of Winston Churchill that, “he mobilized the English language and sent it into battle to steady his fellow countrymen and hearten those Europeans upon whom the long dark night of tyranny had descended.” These sentiments were echoed by President Kennedy in April of 1963 in his remarks when signing a proclamation making Winston Churchill an honorary U.S. citizen:
“In the dark days and darker nights when England stood alone – and most men, save Englishmen, despaired of England’s life – he mobilized the English language and sent it into battle. The incandescent quality of his words illuminated the courage of his countrymen.”
When he gave his first address as Prime Minister to the House of Commons on May 13, 1940, his remarks were brief and to the point. He used a phrase that day – one that has come to embody his bulldog-like spirit. But the speech was not enthusiastically received by all in that historic room, nor was it ever actually broadcast to the nation. The words appeared in print, but it would take a little time before they would come to resonate as they are now remembered: Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat.
Historian John Lukacs has written the definitive account of these immortal words in his new book: “BLOOD, TOIL, TEARS, and SWEAT – The Dire Warning, Churchill’s First Speech as Prime Minister.” Such rhetoric was initially dismissed by some of his contemporaries. There were no ovations that day. And it continues to be seen by a few agenda-driven revisionists as the ravings of someone guided primarily by unbridled personal ambition. Lukacs, however, hits the nail on the head when he reminds us:
“What they did not know – and what not many people, including some historians, do not know now, nearly seventy years later – was that beneath Churchill’s bravery lay his understanding of a looming catastrophe, still unimaginable to most: that it was late, probably too late, that Adolf Hitler was winning, that he was about to win, that he was close to winning the Second World War, his war.”
Dr. Lukacs has previously written an in-depth account of five crucial days during that very month of May 1940, a period when the future of life as it was then known hung in the balance. He is well-versed in the tenor and nuance of those troubled times. And he writes about history with literary flare and great attention to detail.
One of the things brought out in the book – something that doesn’t fit the common caricature promoted by those seeking to turn history upside down – is an insight into an often overlooked facet of Mr. Churchill’s personality. Yes, he was indomitable, often rude, terribly stubborn, and clearly enamored of his own words and opinions – but he also had a great capacity for graciousness.
Though he had been Neville Chamberlain’s persistent, and at times vociferous, intra-party critic, Churchill was overwhelmingly kind to his predecessor, who was, though no one knew it at the time, not long for this earth. One of the first things Churchill did after coming to power was to tell the embattled Chamberlain that they could stay in their home for the immediate future. Neville’s wife, Anne, not only enjoyed living in the Prime Minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street, but had actually done much to improve the dwelling. Lukacs suggests that this “gesture had an effect on Chamberlain.”
Dr. Lukacs reminds his readers that this was, in fact, “typical of Churchill,” and that the new Prime Minister’s “prime virtue was magnanimity, something even larger and deeper than generosity.” Though Chamberlain had taken chronic offense at Winston for his personal attacks in the House of Commons and the press, considering him something of an enemy (even once having Churchill’s phone tapped), this feeling was not reciprocated. His “loyalty to Chamberlain was more than unexceptionable: It was absolute.” This would pay significant political dividends during fragile moments when the War Cabinet was debating whether or not to make peace overtures toward Hitler. Chamberlain backed Churchill.
Blood, toil, tears, and sweat, are famous and familiar words to us today. They evoke thoughts of courage, fearlessness, and an unwavering determination to succeed. Other Churchillian phrases echo down to us through the corridors of time – words like: “finest hour,” “we shall never surrender,” “we shall fight on the beaches,” and so forth. They are timeless and meaningful.
Dr. Lukacs told me during a recent interview that in his opinion Winston Churchill’s best oration from those days was the eulogy he shared about Neville Chamberlain, who succumbed to complications due to stomach cancer on November 10, 1940, six months after leaving office:
“It fell to Neville Chamberlain in one of the supreme crises of the world to be contradicted by events, to be disappointed in his hopes, and to be deceived and cheated by a wicked man. But what were these hopes in which he was disappointed? What were these wishes in which he was frustrated? What was that faith that was abused? They were surely among the most noble and benevolent instincts of the human heart–the love of peace, the toil for peace, the strife for peace, the pursuit of peace, even at great peril, and certainly to the utter disdain of popularity or clamour. Whatever else history may or may not say about these terrible, tremendous years, we can be sure that Neville Chamberlain acted with perfect sincerity according to his lights and strove to the utmost of his capacity and authority, which were powerful, to save the world from the awful, devastating struggle in which we are now engaged. This alone will stand him in good stead as far as what is called the verdict of history is concerned.”
Frankly, Winston Churchill was not the one-dimensional warmonger some in his day thought him to be, and that some even today persist in insisting he was. He was an inspiring leader at the right time and in the right place.
It’s vital that he not be forgotten, nor demonized through the writing of specious history. A new generation, one easily influenced by fleeting images and drawn to the simplistic rhetoric of political gurus, needs to get a sense of this great man and glean from his courage and character.
John Lukacs concludes his narrative with an excerpt from a speech made by Mr. Churchill in 1955, when his active political life was drawing to a close at the age of eighty:
“Which way shall we turn to save our lives and the future of the world? It does not matter so much for old people; they are going soon anyway; but I find it poignant to look at youth and wonder what would lie before them if God wearied of mankind.”
Something to think about before a torch is passed to yet another new generation of Americans.