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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
He then went on to spin equally fantastic dreams involving television, synthetic foods, climate control, and test-tube babies “specialized to thought or toil.”
It did not escape Churchill’s attention that as the European drama was unfolding through the 1930*5, the United States was involved in another of its own epochal upheavals and that Franklin D. Roosevelt was its protagonist. Churchill found Roosevelt his kind of man. He warmed to his indomitable spirit, his geniality, his imagination, and his daring.
“A single man,” he wrote in Collier’s (December 29, 1934), “whom accident, destiny, or Providence has placed at the head of one hundred and twenty millions of active, educated, excitable, and harassed people, has set out upon this momentous expedition … his success could not fail to lift the whole world forward into the sunlight of an easier and more genial age.”
He wrote of Roosevelt’s heroic struggle back from paralysis, noting that the President had fought despair with the same rebellious spirit that marked his policy against other “commonly adopted conventions.” He admired Roosevelt’s political craft, appreciatively observing that he “pulled his wires and played his cards in such a way that Fortune could befriend him.” And he hailed Roosevelt’s attempt to reduce unemployment by shortening working hours and dividing the labor more evenly. This was Churchill’s own kind of benevolent use of power, and he thought it would become a path that would “soon be trodden throughout the world. …”
But he had his doubts about the “intermingling” of this kind of reform with “class warfare,” which he took to be a likely result of America’s burgeoning trade unionism. As Churchill saw it, the United States under Roosevelt faced a choice between two vast systems, and Roosevelt would have much to do about the choice, ff the capitalist system was to be preserved, with its rights of private property, its “sanctity of contracts,” the freedom to profit from one’s toil, then it had to be “given a fair chance,” he said, adding: “It is the same for us in the Old World.”
America went on having its grinding problems through those long Depression years, but it managed to hang onto its capitalistic system.
When the time came that two of his kings—Edward VIII and George VI—needed to be explained to an American audience enthralled with the royal drama involving Mrs. Wallis Warfield Simpson of Baltimore, Churchill did not fail.
Edward, having abdicated to marry the woman he loved, was denounced by the Archbishop of Canterbury and assailed in a book by Hector Bolitho. Churchill, who as a youth had once responded to chastisement by kicking the Harrow headmaster’s hat to pieces, told America ( Collier’s , June 5, 1937) how it really was to be a prince of the realm:
The Prince must set an example in every field which he enters. … All must be impeccable and conventional: never a game which a headmaster could not consider salutary; never a word which could not be recorded in a copybook; never a smile which could not appear upon a stained-glass window.
In eighteen years, Churchill pointed out, Edward as Prince of Wales had fulfilled seven thousand public engagements in Britain alone—without uttering a single controversial word. “Who can live in the modern workaday world,” Churchill asked, “without developing strong views on this and that?” He believed that Edward had indeed earned his respite.
Churchill was one of the rare Britons—not excepting the queen mother —who could rally as vigorously to the side of one brother as to the other. The shy, stammering, courageous George vi commanded his fierce loyalty as much because he was humble as because he was king. “His personality is, indeed, less colorful than that of his older brother,” Churchill declared ( Collier’s , May 15, 1937). “And he has ascended the Throne in unhappy circumstances which no one, perhaps, regrets more keenly than himself. … Could any sacrifice of his have prevented King Edward’s abdication, he would gladly have made it. In relation to his brother he was always self-effacing.”
Churchill used the opportunity to unravel for the American public a bit of the paradox of the British system of constitutional monarchy:
… a King over free men pledges faith to them, and they pledge faith to him, according to ancient rites that have an abiding significance and validity. …
Long before Caesar landed on the shores of Britain warriors met in a forest glade—perhaps on that very spot where Westminster Abbey now stands—to raise upon a shield, so that all might see and do homage to him—the man upon whom the uneasy lot of chieftainship had fallen.