A Splendid Retelling
Winston Churchill believed that fate had placed him at the head of Britain’s government at its hour of greatest peril. On May 10, 1940, Germany, having defeated the Polish army in the east and partitioned that tragic country with its accomplice Soviet Russia, launched its attack in the west against France and the Low Countries.
That same day, Churchill became Prime Minister. Years later in The Gathering Storm, he reflected on that moment. “I felt,” he wrote, “as if I were walking with Destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.”
For nearly a decade Churchill had been consigned to the political wilderness, a lonely voice trying to alert Britain and the world about the danger of Nazi Germany. Throughout much of the 1930s, in speech after memorable speech, Churchill decried British and Western unpreparedness and appeasement in the face of Germany’s military build-up and geopolitical aggression.
When Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain lost the confidence of the House of Commons, the King reluctantly asked Churchill to form a national government in the midst of the crisis.
Churchill’s leadership during the late spring and summer of 1940 is the subject of John Kelly’s latest book, Never Surrender, which is now out in paperback. It is a story that has been told before, most prominently by historian John Lukacs, but Kelly’s gripping narrative makes it worthwhile to read about again.
Although history is not simply biography, there are times when certain people shape events and impose their will for good or ill. In the summer of 1940, Winston Churchill probably saved Western civilization, and he did so by the force of his character when lesser men wanted to make a deal with the devil.
Kelly notes that “several leading members of the old British ruling class—men who bore historic titles such as the Duke of Wellington, the Duke of Westminster, the Duke of Buccleuch, and Lord Tavistock—were quietly agitating for a compromise peace.” Other prominent Englishmen that favored negotiating with Hitler included former Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Montagu Norman of the Bank of England, George Bernard Shaw, Basil Liddell Hart, and Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax.
Given Britain’s tenuous position after France surrendered, getting the best deal possible with Hitler was not an unreasonable viewpoint. The survival of Britain was at stake. But what Churchill understood better than any British or Western leader was that a negotiated peace with Hitler and the Nazis would only be temporary. Peace at any price was unacceptable.
At the climax of what Kelly rightly calls one of the most important policy debates of the twentieth century, Churchill told an assembly of key members of Parliament, including his war cabinet, that neither negotiation nor surrender was an option:
I am convinced that every man of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender. If this long island story of ours is to end, let it end only when each of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.
In public, Churchill was equally resolute. In his first speech to the British public as Prime Minister, he offered them only “blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” After the miracle of Dunkirk, he told the House of Commons that the “survival of Christian civilization,” the British way of life, and democratic institutions depended upon the outcome of the struggle against Hitler.
If Britain failed to defeat the Nazis or surrendered, Churchill said, the whole world “will sink into the abyss of a new dark age.” Britain’s goal could only be “victory, victory at all costs, victory however long and hard the road may be.”
“We shall not flag or fail,” Churchill pledged. “We shall go on to the end … We shall never surrender.” His determination was infectious. The British public increasingly reflected their leader’s courage and steadiness. They “embraced,” writes Kelly, “Churchill’s heroic narrative” and made it their own.
Reading John Kelly’s splendid retelling of the dramatic events of the summer of 1940, we can understand why Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff during World War II, once remarked about Churchill that we should “thank God … that occasionally such supermen exist on this earth.”
Francis P. Sempa is the author of books including Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century. He is an attorney and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.
Posted: March 12, 2017
The Perceptivity of Isaac Hecker
Volume 30, Number 4 (Summer 1990)