Few historians today question the significance of Winston Churchill and Ronald Reagan. Both men led their nations through challenging times, maintained a singular commitment to their core values, and helped shape the contours of the 20th century. Both were gifted orators, and their recorded speeches and archived papers increasingly reveal the quality of their thought. Furthermore, both illustrate how statesmen rightly respond to crises and conflicts such as America’s current war with Islamic terrorists.
Winston Churchill’s grandson, Winston S. Churchill, has collected and published Never Give In! The Best of Winston Churchill’s Speeches (New York: Hyperion, c. 2003), a 500 page treasury that documents his views from 1897-1963. In his Preface, the editor expresses admiration for his grandfather and indicates his rationale for publishing the collection–a small portion of the five million words in Churchill’s complete speeches. Amazingly, Churchill never used a speech writer! His words are truly his words! And he worked hard to craft them well. One of his wartime secretaries, Sir John Colville, told the editor: “In the case of his great wartime speeches, delivered in the House of Commons or broadcast to the nation, your grandfather would invest approximately one hour of preparation for every minute of delivery” (p. xxv). The speeches are presented in chronological order and divided into five periods, though several themes characterized Churchill: 1) the virtue and necessity of courage, both political and military; 2) opposition to Socialism, both Bolshevism in Russia and the softer version of Britain’s Labor Party; 3) adamant opposition to Nazism, demanding armed response to Hitler’s aggression; 4) the goodness of the “property-owning democracy that explained England’s greatness; 5) the correctness of Conservatism, as he defined it, upholding the grandeur of the Christian tradition and of Western Civilization in general..
The first section, entitled “Young Statesman, 1897-1915,” introduces the reader to a young politician finding himself and his political principles. Churchill launched his political career in 1900 at the age of 25, and would serve in Parliament (with one brief absence) until 1964. Elected as a Conservative in 1900, he broke with his party in 1904, “crossed the floor” and joined the Liberals, primarily because of his commitment to free trade. Subsequently he rapidly rose through the ranks of the British government, becoming First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911, just as the early tremors of WWI rippled across Europe. When the war began he declared, with words he would repeat 25 years later: “We did not enter upon the war with the hope of easy victory; we did not enter upon it in any desire to extend our territory, or to advance and increase our position in the world” (p. 59). Unlike many, he believed: “The war will be long and somber” (p. 59), and it would prove difficult for Churchill himself, for he was forced to resign his cabinet position when his plan to attach Germany from the east, through the Dardanelles, misfired.
This led to the second period of his career, “Oblivion and Redemption, 1916-29.” Following his Dardanelles disgrace, Churchill left the House of Commons and served as a soldier on the front lines in Flanders. But he returned to the House when David Lloyd George asked him to serve in the cabinet, and in 1924 he would serve as Chancellor of the Exchequer under the newly elected Conservative Prime Minister. When the Bolsheviks seized control of Russia in 1917, Churchill immediately declared: “Tyranny presents itself in many forms. The British nation is the foe of tyranny in every form. That is why we fought Kaiserism and that I why we would fight it again. That is why we are opposing Bolshevism. Of all tyrannies in history the Bolshevist tyranny is the worst, the most destructive, and the most degrading. It is sheer humbug to pretend that it is not far worse than German militarism” (p. 77). By 1921, he recognized that: “The lesson from Russia, writ in glaring letters, is the utter failure of this Socialistic and Communistic theory, and the ruin which it brings to those subjected to its cruel yoke” (p. 81). Churchill also opposed those in Britain’s Labor Party who wanted to install Socialism, asserting that they were “corrupting and perverting great masses of our fellow-countrymen with their absurd foreign-imported doctrines” (p. 89). “They borrow all their ideas from Russia and Germany,” he said. “They always sit adulating every foreign rascal and assassin who springs up for the moment. All their economics are taken from Karl Marx and all their politics from the actions of Lenin” (p. 89).
From 1930-1939 Churchill endured his “Wilderness Years,” lonely and ridiculed as he opposed Hitler and those who appeased him. England’s “difficulties,” he said, “come from the mood of unwarrantable self-abasement into which we have been cast by a powerful section of our own intellectuals” (p. 104). Politicians joined them in offering “a vague internationalism, a squalid materialism, and the promise of impossible Utopias” (p. 104). Clergymen were particularly reprehensible insofar as they sought “to dissuade the youth of this country from joining its defensive forces, and seek to impede and discourage the military preparations which the state of the world forces upon us” (p. 155). While pacifists talked peace Hitler armed for war. In the midst of WWII, Churchill remembered: “For the best part of twenty years the youth of Britain and America have been taught that war is evil, which is true, and that it would never come again, which has been proved false.” During that time dictators armed their regimes. “We have performed the duties and tasks of peace. They have plotted and planned for war” (p. 318). They illustrated the fact that “The whole history of the world is summed up in the fact that when nations are strong they are not always just, and when they wish to be just they are often no longer strong” (pp. 132-133). To be both strong and just was Churchill’s goal. That required military strength and the willingness to use it to prevent Hitler’s ambitions. Rifles and battleships, not rhetoric and resolutions, could deter war.
“For five years,” he said in 1938, “I have talked to the House on these matters–not with very great success. I have watched this famous island descending incontinently, fecklessly, the stairway which leads to a dark gulf. It is a fine broad stairway at the beginning, but after a bit the carpet ends. A little farther on there are only flagstones, and a little farther on still these break beneath your feet” (p. 166). To Churchill, Prime Minister Chamberlain’s 1938 pact with Hitler in Munich was a “total and unmitigated defeat” (p. 172). Churchill feared that it would prove to be “only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless, by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time” (p. 182).
Few heeded Churchill’s words until Hitler actually moved, invading Poland in 1939 and attacking France six months later. Then Churchill was called upon to lead his nation through the throes of WWII. These were, his grandson says, “The Glory Years, 1939-45.” The war was not simply against Germany, he insisted: “We are fighting to save the whole world from the pestilence of Nazi tyranny and in defense of all that is most sacred to man” (p. 198). It was a war to restore “the rights of the individual, and it is a war to establish and revive the stature of man” (p. 198). It was a war of words–and Churchill empowered his people with words. He made memorable speeches during these years, offering nothing “but blood, toil, tears and sweat,”elicited courageous resolve. His policy, he said in 1940, was” “to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime” (p. 206). And there was only one goal: victory! Still more, addressing his alma mater, Harrow School, in 1941, he said: “surely from this period of ten months this is the lesson: never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never–in nothing great or small, large or petty–never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy” (p. 307).
As the Battle for Britain began, Churchill declared: “Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free” and the world saved. “But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States . . . will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age . . . Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour'” (p. 229). And, indeed, it was. The RAF defeated the Luftwaffe in the skies over England, and “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few” (p. 245). However dark the prospects, Churchill ever insisted that “these are great days” (p. 308) and that the courageous would prevail.
In due time, with the help of the United States and the Soviet Union, the war was won. Churchill urged his colleagues “to offer thanks to Almighty God, to the Great Power which seems to shape and design the fortunes of nations and the destiny of man” (p. 390). Addressing the nation on 8 May 1945, the day the war in Europe ended, he said “that in the long years to come not only will the people of this island but of the world, whenever the bird of freedom chirps in human hearts, look back to what we’ve done and they will say ‘do not despair, do not yield to violence and tyranny, march straight forward and die if need be–unconquered'” (p. 391).
He fully intended to finish the war against Japan, but England’s Socialists (the Labor Party) turned against him as soon as the war in Europe ceased. They demanded a general election in July, 1945, and Churchill found himself battling to maintain his position as Prime Minister. Feeling betrayed, he strongly denounced Socialism as “abhorrent to the British ideas of freedom.” Though Labor Party leaders portrayed their positions as indigenously English, “there can be no doubt that Socialism is inseparably interwoven with Totalitarianism and the abject worship of the State. It is not alone that property, in all its forms is struck at, but that liberty, in all its forms, is challenged by the fundamental conceptions of Socialism” (p. 396). Desiring to control every aspect of life, Socialists sought to establish “one State to which all are to be obedient in every act of their lives. This State is to be the arch-employer, the arch-planner, the arch-administrator and ruler, and the arch-caucus-boss” (p. 397). But the English voters apparently wanted such a system–as well as escape the burdens of war–and Churchill’s Conservative Party lost the election.
The next era, “The Sunset Years 1945-63,” witnessed Churchill leading the opposition to the Labor Party of Clement Atlee, speaking out against Russia’s aggression, and returning to power in 1951 and retiring in 1955, soon after his 80th birthday. He still spoke prophetically, especially at Westminister College in Fulton, Missouri, in 1946, where, in the presence of President Harry Truman, he warned that we must ever oppose “war and tyranny.” To do so “we must never cease to proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of freedom and the rights of man which are the joint inheritance of the English-speaking world and which through Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, the Habeas Corpus, trial by jury, and the English common law find their most famous expression in the American Declaration of Independence” (p. 417). Such goods were endangered, however, because “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent” (p. 420). This was not the “Liberated Europe we fought to build up” (p. 421). Soviet aggression threatened the world’s peace, and Stalin was as much a threat in the late ’40s as Hitler had been in the late ’30s. Thus began the “cold war.”
Elected Prime Minister again in 1951, he sought to reverse the corrosive Socialist policies established by the Labor Government. He stood for “a property-owning democracy” and detested “the philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance and the gospel of envy” basic to Socialism. High taxes and petty regulations had betrayed the traditions of the nation, he believed. “In our view the strong should help the weak. In the Socialist view the strong should be kept down to the level of the weak in order to have equal shares for all. How small the share is does not matter so much, in their opinion, so long as it is equal” (p. 457). “Socialists pretend they give the lower income groups, and all others in the country, cheaper food through their system of rationing and food subsidies. To do it they have to take the money from their pockets first and circulate it back to them after heavy charges for great numbers of officials administering the system of rationing” (p. 460).
Few single volumes better illustrate the great issues of the 20th century, for no one I can think of stood for so long at the center of world events. Churchill’s wisdom and courage, anchored to the realities of the political world, still command respect and (far better than many theoretical treatises) provide direction for making decisions today.
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Three Ronald Reagan scholars–Kiron K. Skinner, Annelise Anderson, and Martin Anderson– have edited Reagan In His Own Hand: The Writings of Ronald Reagan That Reveal His Revolutionary Vision for America (New York: The Free Press, c. 2001). During the late 1970s, Reagan broadcast some 1,000 weekly radio talks. His wife, Nancy, says he wrote these messages at his desk at home, rooting his ideas in “voracious” reading. He rarely watched TV but devoted himself to reading, thinking, speaking. Though he often appeared to speak spontaneously, in fact he carefully prepared and followed his written texts. In his Foreword, George Schultz remembers his close association with Reagan: “I was always struck by his ability to work an issue in his mind and to find its essence, and by his depth of conviction. . . . [and] his intense interest and fondness for the spoken word, for caring very deeply about how to convey his thoughts and ideas to people” (p. ix).
The editors have collected Reagan’s radio talks into four categories, meticulously retaining the spelling and revisions in his handwritten texts. In the first section, “Reagan’s Philosophy,” the reader discovers the bedrock principles that guided him. Looking back, in 1989, he noted: “We meant to change a nation, and instead, we changed a world” (p. 4). This resulted, in part, from the lessons he learned from WWII–lessons Churchill tried unsuccessfully to teach his countrymen in the 1930s. Military weakness encourages aggression. One month before Pearl Harbor, Reagan noted, the U.S. “Congress came within a single vote of abolishing the draft & sending the bulk of our army home” (p. 8). The Japanese doubted America’s resolve and thus dared attack her. We learned, Reagan said, citing an academic study, “that ‘to abdicate power is to abdicate the right to maintain peace'” (p. 8). This extended to opposing the USSR and Communism in the Post-WWII era. To those who argued “better red than dead,” he replied: “Back in the ’20s, Will Rogers had an answer for those who believed that strength invited war. He said, ‘I’ve never seen anyone insult Jack Dempsey [then the heavyweight boxing champion]'” (p. 480).
Reagan also believed, in accord with Churchill, that the subtly socialistic views of American liberals threatened disaster for the nation. America’s strength resided in her confidence in “the individual genius of man” (p. 13). Liberating the individual from government was a major Reagan theme, one he tirelessly repeated. Summing up his position, he said: “The choice we face between continuing the policies of the last 40 yrs. that have led to bigger & bigger govt, less & less liberty, redistribution of earnings through confiscatory taxation or trying to get back on the original course set for us by the Founding Fathers. Will we choose fiscal responsibility, limited govt, and freedom of choice for all our people? Or will we let an irresponsible Congress set us on the road our English cousins have already taken? The road to ec. ruin and state control of our very lives?” (p. 10).
Thus he applauded the stance of Britain’s Margaret Thatcher. Having visited her before she became Prime Minister in 1979, he predicted she would “do some moving & shaking of Englands once proud industrial capacity UNDER WHICH THE LABOR PARTY has bees running downhill for a long time. Productivity levels in some industrial fields are lower than they were 40 yrs. ago. Output per man hour in many trades is only a third of what it was in the 1930’s. Bricklayers for example laid 1000 bricks a day in 1937–today they lay 300. I think ‘Maggie’–bless her soul, will do something about that” (p. 47). Indeed she did! And she and Reagan became the staunchest of allies once he became President in 1981.
A commitment to freedom stood rooted in a belief in God, who had providentially guided this nation. Reagan shared and often repeated Thomas Jefferson’s view that: “‘The God who gave us life gave us liberty–can the liberties of a Nat. be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God'” (p. 14). Still more: America has a mission to spread the blessings of freedom. Indeed, as Pope Pius XII said soon after the end of WWII: “‘America has a genius for great and unselfish deeds. Into the hands of Am. God has placed the destiny of an afflicted mankind.’ I don’t think God has given us a job we cant handle” (p. 16).
Such convictions shaped Reagan’s “Foreign Policy,” the second section in the book, summed up by these words: “We want to avoid a war and that is better achieved by being so strong that a potential enemy is not tempted to go adventuring” (p. 21). Since these radio talks were given while Jimmy Carter was President, there was much for Reagan to criticize. He discussed, insightfully, developments in Cambodia, Vietnam, Taiwan, Korea, Chile, Panama, Palestine, the USSR and Cuba (rebuking the tyrant Castro as a “liar”). By contrast, Senator George McGovern, visiting Castro, “found the Cuban dictator to be a charming, friendly WELL INFORMED fellow. It sort of reminds you of how we discovered Joseph Stalin was good old Uncle Joe, shortly before he stole among other things our nuclear secrets” (p. 183). Everywhere, he argued, the U.S. should support freedom, especially regarding religious expression and private property rights, and he endorsed “Somerset Maughams admonition: “If a nation values anything more than freedom, it will lose it’s freedom; and the irony of it is, that if it’s comfort of money THAT it values more, it will lose that too'” (p. 85).
Part Three of the book, “Domestic and Economic Policy,” delineates what came to be called “Reaganism” in the ’80s. Personal freedom, limited government, and minimal taxation anchored Reagan’s positions. To reduce the rightful role of government to a brief sentence, he said: “Govt. exists to protect us from each other” (p. 288). He favorably cited the words of an English editorialist: “‘What the world needs now is more Americans. The U.S. is the 1st nation on earth deliberately dedicated to letting people choose what they want & giving them a chance to get it. For all it’s terrible faults, in one sense Am. still is the last, best hope of mankind, because it spells out so vividly the kind of happiness which most people actually want, regardless of what they are told they ought to want'” (p. 227).
Reading Reagan, in his own hand, reveals a thoughtful man cruelly maligned by his critics as an ignorant actor. He routinely refers to the books and articles he was reading, carefully crediting quotations, and blends (with that justly renowned Reaganesque touch) human interest stories into his talks.