The world is in crisis-mode because political leaders refuse to lead, and “think” with their poll numbers. We could look to the heavens for a miracle. Or we could look to Winston Churchill
Christmas 1940 in wartime Britain was not much fun. On Sunday, December 22, still a schoolboy in short pants, I sat in a small, brick air-raid shelter in our back garden in Manchester, huddled in the cold with my mother and two infant brothers; Dad was out in the darkness somewhere driving a steam train. We were lonely and very afraid, isolated in a vast cavern of echoing noise—the drone of wave after wave of German bombers overhead, the crump-crump! of our ack-ack guns, the blast of the bombs.
I didn’t know it at the time, but we had been marked for extinction. Three months earlier, the Luftwaffe had flown stealthily at high altitude, photographing our neighborhood. I came across their pictures only recently, crystal-clear and marked with black rectangles enclosing the factories down the street from our home, where Lancaster bombers were being made for the Royal Air Force. The German Heinkels dropped 272 tons of high explosives and 1,032 incendiary canisters over that Sunday-Monday. Next morning, when we emerged from our shelter, fires raged in the city, but the bombers had missed the factories, and us. We’d been lucky. And Britain was lucky in another sound that comforted us when the air-raid sirens wailed and the headlines from the battlefront got ever grimmer: the sound of exalted leadership in the growling declarations of Winston Churchill. “You ask what is our aim? I can answer in one word: it is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be… ”
We believed him, were inspired by him. Does it matter that he was deceiving us and maybe deceiving himself? Leadership has come to be defined as the organization of competence; inspiration is devalued and every “animating vision” cost-analyzed to the point where nothing is worth attempting. But at that time of supreme peril, inspiration was more relevant than calculation. Morale mattered more than arithmetic.
On the evidence, all too plain to see, it was ridiculous for us to think of victory, still less plausible to proclaim it achievable. Survival was the goal. When Churchill succeeded Neville Chamberlain as prime minister on May 10, 1940, at the age of 65, the French Army was in rout, a shredded British Army was abandoning its weaponry as it staggered toward Dunkirk, and we were in a humiliating retreat from Norway. The skeptics had every fact on their side, but the new prime minister boldly assured us that the German Army would be stalled soon—that the spring harvests across Europe would fail; that a mass, uncontainable uprising of the French was imminent; and America would enter the war “in the near future.” Churchill’s citations for optimism proved unfounded—the harvests were safe, the French were easily subdued, and the United States did not enter the war in Europe for another 18 months. That only happened on December 11, 1941, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which prompted Hitler, in a mad—and for us, marvelous—moment to declare war on America. This welcome news came a year after many of our cities had been pulverized. Churchill’s beloved House of Commons had been hit in the moonlight blitz of May 10-11, 1941, its chamber reduced to a smoking shell.
Making predictions is risky for leaders. President Herbert Hoover lost what little of the American people’s trust he still had when he told a delegation to the White House worried about the economic crisis engulfing the nation: “Gentlemen, you’ve come 60 days too late. The Depression is over.” Chamberlain could not hope to survive after having told rapturous crowds upon his return from Munich in September of ’38 that Herr Hitler had signed his name to a document guaranteeing “peace in our time.” He’d been duped and people felt like dummies for believing him. The “Mission Accomplished” banner strung up on the deck of a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier in 2003 became a bad joke for the rest of the presidency of George W. Bush.
How did Churchill manage to retain our trust? Disasters he confronted head-on; minor error he washed away with irony. “The marks of a politician,” he said, “are the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month, next year. And to have the ability afterwards to explain why it didn’t happen.” It counted a lot that he had huge credit for insisting throughout the ’30s that appeasement was a confidence trick. So many politicians had turned tail that we forgave Churchill for clutching at straws to cheer us up. We felt we could count on him. He had what the sociologist Max Weber called charismatic authority—people saw him as special, possessing extraordinary energies and prescience, not bound by rules. Whether he actually had those qualities is not the point. It was how he was perceived.
Today, we are mired in a global leadership vacuum. Our poll-driven politicians are in another place altogether from Churchill—he did not have one ear to the ground listening for the tremors of evanescent public opinion as the current crop in the U.S. Congress so dispiritingly do. It was said that FDR played public opinion like a musical instrument, but that was somewhat similar to what Nelson Mandela once described as “leading from behind.” When Hitler marched into the Rhineland in 1936 in breach of two treaties with America, FDR went fishing. That’s understandable. In an era with less polling, FDR sensed that America wanted to stay out of “Europe’s war” and he needed the isolationists in Congress to support his New Deal. But Churchill didn’t lead by subtly guiding public opinion to a better place. In this, he was more like Theodore than Franklin. He believed himself to be a man of destiny.
Like Theodore Roosevelt, Churchill dramatized his romantic self in politics. In 1900, when he was not yet 30, the descendant of the first Duke of Marlborough became the member of Parliament for my parents’ industrial constituency of Oldham on the strength of his exploits as a soldier and writer. He was the young cavalry man with the 21st Lancers who’d charged the Dervishes at Omdurman, the war correspondent who’d escaped a Boer prison camp, and the officer-reporter on India’s northwest frontier who’d come close to death in the Swat Valley that is still making bloody headlines, isolated with a handful of Sikhs who were ambushed by hundreds of Pashtun tribesmen.
He also knew the value of icons. By the time he was prime minister, he was entitled to wear umpteen military uniforms and appeared in all of them. He sported an aggressive stogie, his taste for Havanas acquired while reporting on the Spanish-American war from Cuba. Everywhere he went he flashed index and middle fingers in a V-sign (it would be nice to believe the legend that the gesture derived from English long bowmen showing their arrow-shooting fingers to the French at Agincourt).
Disasters he confronted
head on; minor error he
washed away with irony.
When I became a daily newspaper editor in 1962 in the north of England, I wrote to Churchill and asked his permission to depict his adventurous early career in serial drawings, on the basis of his exciting and very funny book, My Early Life. He gave it gladly. It was typically generous of him—there was no fee involved. His interpretation of history as acts of heroism, which our drawings reinforced, was an essential element of his genius for leadership; the English language was another. Both skills require further examination, but in the vivid observation of Isaiah Berlin, Churchill’s triumph was rooted in his ability to impose “his imagination and his will upon his countrymen.” He saved the future by invoking a vision of the past that encouraged us to see ourselves as brave as the legends of British history. Churchill had a profound sense that he was at one with the tribe of the ordinary British.
There was a huge gap between popular opinion, which was resolutely with Churchill for fighting on, and the British patricians, who were in a funk over the victories of the German Army on the Continent. In the spring of 1940, it was fortunate that the remnants of the British army, the RAF pilots in the Spitfires and Hurricanes, the Royal Navy destroyers hunting U-Boats in the mid-Atlantic, the machinists working all hours in the factories didn’t know that in Parliament and the London clubs the establishment talked not of victory but of surrender.
The British establishment—meaning the senior civil servants and the mainly upper-class Conservative majority in the House of Commons—didn’t for a moment believe that victory was possible. They saw no point in a gallant last stand that would destroy their green and pleasant land. And they didn’t trust Churchill. They could hardly ignore the fact that his condemnation of appeasement in the ’30s had been cruelly vindicated, but they regarded him as a party-changing hot-head with soaring ambition, erratic ability, and too many ideas. Emperor Joseph II may never have said Mozart’s Il Seraglio had too many notes, but Churchill certainly had more ideas than his exasperated military chiefs could manage. (One he fathered was the floating Mulberry Harbor, which proved vital for sustaining the D-Day invaders. Pressing its importance, he wrote: “Don’t argue the matter. The difficulties will argue themselves.”)
The spokesman for surrender was the “Holy Fox,” Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, a landowner who’d been a moderate appeaser. King George VI would have sent for him to succeed Chamberlain—Tory MPs favored him—but Halifax preemptively demurred on the grounds that he wasn’t qualified because he wasn’t in the House of Commons. In War Cabinet meetings, Halifax begged for the approval to have Mussolini act as a mediator to secure a negotiated peace with Hitler. It would have meant accepting Nazi dominance of Europe, but Britain could have hoped it would be left alone across the Channel. In just three days—May 26, 27, and 28—there were nine long, tense meetings of the coalition War Cabinet of five men: the Conservatives Churchill, Chamberlain, and Halifax, and Labor Party stalwarts Arthur Greenwood and Clem Attlee. Churchill and Halifax were both battling for Chamberlain’s ear, since he still led the Conservatives. Halifax’s diary note says that “Winston talked the most frightful rot... it does drive one to despair when he works himself into a passion of emotion when he ought to make his brain think and reason.”
Say this for emotion—it gave him the physical and moral courage to stand fast. The weakness of the defeatists made him more determined. He had made three dangerous trips to France to stiffen French resistance, and ordered a small British force at Calais to fight to the last man to give a chance of escape for the hundreds of thousands fleeing to the beaches of Dunkirk —and then was physically sick at the thought of the slaughter he’d willed. On the evening of Monday, May 27, with the War Cabinet still deadlocked, he called a meeting of 25 ministers of Cabinet rank but not in the War Cabinet. On whether it was chance or a cunning tactic, his memoirs are maddeningly silent, but the effect was profound. “Of course,” he told them, “whatever happens at Dunkirk, we shall fight on…” According to one minister, Churchill said, “If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.” That sounds a little purple for Churchill, but it was true to his character to summon images of Britain’s mythic history: Queen Elizabeth I and Francis Drake seeing off the Spanish Armada; Admiral Nelson at Trafalgar flag-signaling to his battle fleet that “England expects every man to do his duty”; the Iron Duke Wellington dethroning Emperor Napoleon at Waterloo. Whatever the exact words, Churchill’s pronouncement stirred the group. Cheers erupted; ministers shouted and jumped from the table to run to his chair and pat him on the back.
It was very much Churchill’s style to march toward the sound of gunfire, but my view is that he had made a calculated gamble that evening, betting that declaring a “fight-on” decision—one that hadn’t been declared—would shame the doubters. A buoyant Churchill went from that encounter to a 20-minute War Cabinet meeting. Chamberlain now sided with Churchill; Halifax retreated. There would be no capitulation.
“Magnanimity in victory” was a Churchill watchword. As his sympathetic biographer Roy Jenkins noted, it was a breathtaking piece of mendacity for Churchill thereafter to pretend that there had been unanimity in the War Cabinet over the decision to “fight on.” He was only 5-foot-5, but he was a very large human being. He didn’t nurse grudges. He wore his heart on his sleeve. When FDR’s emissary, Harry Hopkins, made his first visit to London in early 1940, he ended his visit with a memorable speech at a state dinner. He said that he would like to sum up what he’d learned on the trip by using the words from the Book of Books: “Whither thou goest, I will go, and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.” He paused and then added very quietly, “Even to the end.” Churchill was in tears. He felt he had FDR at his back.
It’s too often said Churchill succeeded by oratory, but oratory without substance is flatulence. President Warren Harding was a grand orator, his alliterative speeches an army of pompous phrases moving across the landscape in search of an idea. Language, to borrow a presidential verb, is a misunderestimated force in leadership. When Churchill wanted war aid from America, he told FDR, “Give us the tools and we’ll finish job.” If he’d said, “Donate the implements to us and we will finalize the assignment,” he might have received a dusty answer from Roosevelt, himself a master of the telling phrase (he sold the Lend-Lease program to the American public with a homely metaphor of lending a fire hose to a neighbor). Churchill, too, was adept at framing a situation by metaphor so that people would not only understand it, but also be able to adopt it. He invented the language of the Cold War: An Iron Curtain has descended across Europe. The aim is peaceful co-existence. We must solve our differences at a summit.
In the memoir of his early life, Churchill attributes his linguistic skill to flunking Latin at school. He saw no reason to learn the correct way to speak to a table (O Mensa). “Thus,” he wrote, “I got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence—which is a noble thing.” He had devoured Gibbon and Macaulay. One of his most famous passages, written out like a poem in the original, bears scrutiny for its monosyllabic simplicity and rhythmic insistency. Just before the fall of France, speaking in Parliament, he summoned up the spirit of St Crispin’s Day: “We shall not flag or fail. 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 and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, will carry on the struggle, until in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the Old.”
At the time of supreme peril, inspiration
was more relevant than
calculation. Morale mattered
more than artihmetic.
Only words—but as he once remarked, “words are the only things which last forever.”
Europe sorely misses having someone with Churchill’s grand vision. We like to say God is in the details, but if we always look down we are liable to stumble in the weeds, as the euro zone has stumbled in the debt and currency crises of 2011-12. It is 60 years since Churchill campaigned for a United States of Europe. He would have been ardently for closer political union, provided it did not in any way impede Britain’s special relation with the United States (after all, his mother was born in Brooklyn and the United States had made him an honorary citizen). He recognized full well that closer economic and military cooperation in Europe necessitated “some sacrifice or merger of national sovereignty.” I think he would have distrusted the embrace of austerity for the masses as he distrusted the British establishment’s appetite for a return to a new gold standard in 1925. When I recently visited the current young Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. George Osborne, we talked in the paneled room where Chancellor Churchill heard out the arguments, but his best contribution was a minute he wrote: “The Treasury has never, it seems to me, faced the pro- found significance of what Mr. Keynes calls ‘the paradox of un- employment amidst dearth,’” he wrote. “The Governor [of the Bank of England] shows himself perfectly happy in the spectacle of Britain possessing the finest credit in the world simultaneously with a million and a quarter unemployed. Obviously if these million and a quarter were usefully and economically employed, they would produce at least 100 pounds a year a head, instead of costing at least 50 pounds a head in doles.... It is impossible not to regard the object of full employment as at least equal, and probably superior, to the other valuable objects you mention…”
Churchill ultimately bowed to the overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom—with disastrous results for Britain in deepening the gathering storm of the Great Depression. He is portrayed so often as the indomitable war leader that one might forget that what he desired above all was peace and freedom. He considered Britain’s 1956 invasion of Suez “the most ill-conceived and ill-executed imaginable.” He thought he could have ended the Cold War in a face-to-face summit with the top Soviet leader—“To jaw-jaw always is better than to war-war.” He was appalled that U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower even for a moment considered using the H-bomb in Indo-China in the ’50s. He would have been stalwart after 9/11 in taking out the Taliban and al Qaeda, but he knew too much about Afghanistan to have been sanguine about any prolonged military involvement there, and with his deep personal experience of what war meant, I doubt he would have backed the invasion of Iraq as one of his successors, Tony Blair, did so eloquently. “The statesman who yields to war fever,” Churchill wrote, “must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.”