To absorb history, and use it to help understand the chaos of current events requires considerable work. Unfortunately, the current crop of world leaders show a profound aversion to the discipline of historical context and participate in one blind blunder after the next on the world stage. History as context is the key perspective – a recognition of the past events, underlying forces and prejudices, geography, and psychology that so wrap a current action, as to make its future direction at least discernible. In the twentieth century no public figure understood this more than Winston Churchill, who catalogued his own life in a sweeping canvas of historical perspective from My Early Life and Frontiers and Wars, through The World Crisis, and epically, the six volume The Second World War. As stated previously, the absorption of history into your personal fabric is hard work, and I have done the work of reading them all. Ultimately they are told from the perspective of someone who felt as a chief participant, he had a unique perch upon which to delineate the underlying truths, and of course to provide his own best defense of his actions. The impressive inference, is how well Churchill stands up to historians’ analyses, with great historians such as Roy Jenkins, Martin Gilbert, and William Manchester finding Churchill an irresistible subject in the recognition as just how profound the role of an individual can be in effecting huge historical forces. Recognizing character flaws in the man does not prevent them from reveling in the magnificent canvas he presents of history as story, with thousands of antidotes presenting as overarching themes of courage, conviction, persistence, brilliance, and magnanimity that can not help but draw you in through such massive treatises.
I am currently re-reading William Manchester’s The Last Lion with the final volume having been completed after his death by Paul Reid. Manchester pulled better than anyone the essence of Churchill’s heroic humanity out of the many efforts to define his life, and is a wonderful read. Perhaps the greatest learning comes from the second volume, Alone, which focuses on the ten years that Churchill spent as an outcast from both power and contemporary political consensus. From the venue of our current times, in which it seems almost every principle of achievement of our constitutional republic seems under attack from those in power, it is transcendent to observe someone utilize his intellect and whatever resources available to him to sound a clarion call above the madding crowd of appeasement. The appeasers tried to ignore him as irrelevant, then progressively as he maintained his tenacious exposure of their wayward and casual path to calamity, more and more belligerent and attacking of the force that was Churchill. They battled his facts with increased vitriol, calling him warmonger, false prophet, glory seeker, adventurer, and most cuttingly for one of history’s most ambitious leaders, a ‘has been’. Blocked in every way from positions of authority, he used his special gift of language to achieve equal heft of argument with those in power.
And what a gift it was. Soaring prose and clarity of logic was infused with special moments of cutting scorn that left his opponents flummoxed as to what to do about him. On one such daggerous occasion, in which an opponent in the House of Commons attempted to rebut Churchill’s oratory regarding preparedness with a tedious screed of Germany’s diplomatic trustworthiness, Churchill in his accustomed front row seat feigned sleep through the rant. The ever more labored snoring eventually made Churchill impossible for the speaker to ignore. The exasperated opponent relented to Churchill’s machinations and declared, “Mr. Churchill, are you asleep?”, to which Churchill slowly and dramatically elevated his eyelids and growled, ” I wish to God I were.” The entire house collapsed in laughter with the master’s linguistic riposte.
Words as power were incredible weapons for Churchill, but he backed them up with facts that were irrefutable by his opponents and left them constantly on the defensive. Alone as a clarion he was , but he had a small army of unknown collaborators that helped him immeasurably. Having touched base in his long career with every corner of government from the military as First Lord of the Admiralty to economics as Chancellor of the Exchequer, he had many secret passageways into the information available to the government. He used them all to expose to the unwilling the ugly truths of German rearmament and expansionist designs, and used each fact as an arrow into the heart of appeasement rationale. It didn’t hurt his argument at all when events progressively showed the painful verity of his protestations.
For Churchill , the willingness to lean into the blizzard of derision and fight through, was underpinned by his sense of history. To be perceived as popular was immaterial to him, at a personal moment of historical recognition when he felt the very tenets of western civilization were at stake. That was too huge a price to pay, to sit back and risk, without giving his all to the defeat of those that threatened its existence. He saw such basics of humanity in contrasts of light and darkness, when the majority preferred the shades of gray they felt might protect against the potential violence that might be required to defend the ramparts of civilization. This was after all a people that had been asked to sacrifice nearly an entire generation to futility of war not two decades before, and held their positions not as cowards but as exhausted realists. Churchill was asking them to risk all against only one potential outcome out of many, and they felt they had seen his brand of fatal jingoism before.
Churchill’s brilliance was in his understanding of the historical context of their hesitation, and the clarity of his argument that the surest way to avoid conflict was to maintain strength, not weakness, in the face of such challenge. He did not doubt their patriotism, only their illogic, and declared that taking a principled stand made an enemy less likely, not more likely, to seek violence to achieve retribution against perceived injustices from the last war.
Manchester weaves the inner steel skeleton of Churchill through a decade of doubters to the point of crisis when the curtain has been raised on a new calamity and Churchill, once so alone against the appeasers, is seen as the lone defense by all against enormous odds Britain faced against 1940’s triumphant Germany. Churchill, miraculously converted from has been outcast to pinnacle of leadership, accepts his return, not as dictator, but as framer of what is at stake. The magnificent words that framed civilization against the darkness poured out of him, and inspired the civilized world to gird itself to the task at hand:
“The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it; Ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.”
“All the great things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom, justice, honor, duty, mercy, hope.”
“If you will not fight for the right when you can easily win without bloodshed; if you will not fight when your victory is sure and is not too costly; you may come to the moment when you have to fight with all the odds against you and a precarious chance of survival. There may even be a worse case. You may have to fight when there is no hope of victory, because it is better to perish than to live as slaves.”
And there are so many others. When the darkest days were upon it, the nation turned to the man of history who had foreseen history, and asked him to take on the challenge of the ages. The years in the wilderness had shown him to be a prophet, and showed western civilization that the elements of its greatness lay in the principles of its origins.
History leads rather than follows. It is no small coincidence that one of the most anti-historical presidents ever, currently inhabiting the White House, has struggled so mightily to recognize trends and direct policy. It is in keeping with his virulently anti-historical persona, that one of his first official duties upon becoming president was to return to Great Britain the bust of Winston Churchill that had inhabited the oval office as a gift of the people of Britain to their fellow defenders of western civilization’s ramparts, the United States. President Obama was not about to face every day with the silent gaze of one of western civilization’s most zealous defenders peering down on him, as he worked to undo the order of things. But the curve of history is not so easily put aside. The warnings that history provides, so ignored, are destined to be repeated.
As the great man once said so pertinent to our times:
An Appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile – hoping it will eat him last.”