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Churchill Talks To America
FOR SEVEN DECADES OUR EBULLIENT COUSIN INSTRUCTED US ON EVERYTHING: THE BOERS, PROHIBITION, HITLER, CHARLIE CHAPLIN’S FEET, AND THE COMMON CAUSE OF THE ENGLISH-SPEAKING PEOPLES
December 1973 | Volume 25, Issue 1
As our image of Winston Churchill slides back into history—his hundredth birthday comes next November 30—the fine lines of his portrait begin to fade, and he is remembered by a new generation mainly as the wartime leader who intoned of blood, toil, tears, and sweat and prodded his countrymen to their finest hours.
Through some sixty years Churchill had an auxiliary theme to his main purpose of guiding and preserving the British Empire. That was to involve the United States—the American people—in his grand design.
He first visited New York at the age of twenty, and at twenty-six he returned, so famous that his factotum, Major J. B. Pond, proclaimed him as “author of six books, hero of four wars, Member of Parliament, forthcoming Prime Minister of England”; Mark Twain presented him to a lecture audience, and Churchill’s friend and fellow journalist Richard Harding Davis wrote with some reverence: ”… that he is half an American gives all of us an excuse to pretend we share in his successes.”
The next year Churchill wrote his first article for the late Collier’s magazine, which was to be his favorite, though by no means his only, American forum for a half century, until Life provided him more money and a wider market.
Churchill had a firm grasp of his transatlantic mission from the first. He dependably stood by his propaganda guns when the American spirit needed nudging. But his was no two-dimensional relationship with his mother’s people. From the earliest days he viewed himself as the unique and natural bridge between the great English-speaking nations and the instrument to weld America’s strength to Britain’s political, administrative, and moral leadership. This was his lifelong dream, and he was at work on the project in that first Collier’s piece of January 26, 1901: ”…some day a common danger and a common cause may array in appalling battle-line the incalculable energies of the Anglo-Saxon family.”
Almost a half century later, with the prophecy twice fulfilled, Churchill—by now the world’s most renowned statesman but not much changed inside—addressed another American audience. From a podium at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology he regarded another common danger—Russia—and once again summoned up the common strengths of the Englishspeaking nations “in defence of our traditions, our way of life, and the world causes which you and we espouse.” (When he had finished, Mrs. Churchill whispered to a relative seated next to her in the audience: “Papa is very good tonight.”)
But Churchill’s conversations with his American cousins were not entirely dominated by his concern for a communion of the English-speaking nations or his growing personal involvement in global affairs. This was a complicated relationship, not to be neatly explained. He was proud and keenly conscious of his American blood, and there was an undertone of kinship in his approach—a care, a warmth, almost a parental doting. And the United States with its sheer vastness, its productive genius and momentum and exuberant power, appealed to more than simply his political sensibilities. From the days of his childhood, when he moved legions of bright-colored toy soldiers about in mock campaigns, Churchill saw himself striding across the grand stage, tilting with titans, dealing majestically with history, and bending the destinies of generations. The United States was a nation to match the grandeur of his dreams—as well as an audience to cheer his rhetoric and relish his wit.
So he talked with Americans all those years on any and every occasion that offered. He instructed them on the Boer War and the significance of Verdun and the U-boat menace, and later about Adolf Hitler and Mussolini and Stalin. And sometimes he set aside those adjectives that reverberated like the names of British dreadnoughts and talked about the blessings of drinking (he found the use of intoxicants “one of the distinguishing marks of the higher types and races of humanity”); of the evils of the temperance movement; of American food, which he gravely undertook to judge on its merits; of the morality of John D. Rockefeller and the affliction of Franklin D. Roosevelt; of the character of King George VI; and about the significance of Charlie Chaplin’s feet.
Those feet, he reported in Collier’s (October 26, 1935), were the reason Chaplin could never play Napoleon. They were, moreover, not his own feet, Churchill declared, but ”… the feet and walk of an ancient cabman, whom the youthful Charlie Chaplin encountered occasionally in the Kensington Road in London. To their original owner they were not at all humorous. But the boy saw the comic possibilities of that uneasy progress.”
It was a rare and fond insight into the beginnings and the talents of the great pantomimist. It was also, characteristically, a gentle reminder to Americans that Charlie Chaplin was a shared treasure.