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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
Churchill inevitably viewed the long prelude to World War n as the first act of a mighty drama, and he considered one of his functions was to keep Americans posted on the cast of characters. He regarded Hitler with early and growing concern and Chamberlain’s feeble counterefforts with alarm. When Chamberlain became prime minister, Churchill felt obliged to deal civilly with him before his American readers, concluding a piece in Collier’s (October 16, 1937): “He has a most agreeable voice on the broadcast; he has a disarming smile, a charming wife, and carries the flag of righteous endeavor. We must all wish him well.” But he also quoted Lord Birkenhead’s view of Mr. Chamberlain as “an adequate Mayor of Birmingham in a lean year.”
Churchill watched and faithfully reported to the Americans (in Collier’s , September 3, 1938) what Hitler had been doing to Germany:
The tale he had to tell of a Germany betrayed, her soldiers stabbed in the back by Communists and Jews, was more pleasant to the German ears than the truth. … He marched forward fiercely, attended by a gathering throng. He revived the strong by leading them to the attack of the weak and the unpopular. … He harnessed all prejudice and all difficulties to the wagons of wrath and hate.
Throughout the thirties Churchill warned Americans ( Collier’s , February 16 and June 29, 1935, and June 3, 1939) of a war that “would cost us our wealth, our freedom and our culture, and cast what we have so slowly gathered of human enlightenment, tolerance and dignity to different packs of ravening wolves.”
Yet he likened the momentum in that direction to being in the Niagara River: “And all we can do is to drift along, jabbering, grimacing, bickering in a fleet of boats amid a babel of voices and the low, ever-nearer thunder of the falls.”
He dwelt upon the ironies: “All the vast populations long to be left alone to live their ordinary lives, to better their conditions, bring up their families, cultivate their gardens, and yet everything is in preparation to make them fall upon and rend one another with teeth and claws incomparably more deadly than any ever used. …”
He reminded Americans of how life was in the dictatorships, where “venerable pastors, upright magistrates, world-famous scientists and philosophers, capable statesmen, independent-minded, manly citizens, frail, poor, old women of unfashionable opinions are molested, bullied and brutalized by gangs of armed hooligans. …”
And he raised the question he was to raise often again: “Is there anything in all this which should lead us in the English-speaking world to repudiate the famous chain of events which has made us what we are?—to cast away our Parliament, our habeas corpus, our rights and many freedoms, our tolerances, our decencies?”
As the war moved steadily closer Churchill’s messages to America grew increasingly urgent. Still out of office and free of the disciplines of politics, he seized upon the radio as a powerful instrument of his purposes.
“The lights are going out,” he warned the United States in a broadcast from London on October 16, 1938. “If ever there was a time when men and women who cherished the ideals of the founders of the British and American Constitutions should take earnest counsel with one another, that time is now.”
For, he said, “the dictator in all his pride is held in the grip of his party regime. He can go forward; he cannot go back. He must blood his hounds and show them sport, or else be destroyed by them. …
“We are left in no doubt where American interests and sympathies lie, but let me ask this …: Will you wait until British freedom and independence have succumbed and then take up the cause when it is three-quarters over, and … when it is yours alone?”
America did come in, of course, and if it came a little late, it was still the occasion for deep joy on the part of the man who had meanwhile become Britain’s supreme war leader and the apostle of hope for the free world.
On Christmas Eve, 1941, Churchill stood on the balcony of the White House, less than three weeks after Pearl Harbor, and told the Americans that he did not really feel far from home. “Whether it be the ties of blood on my mother’s side, or the friendships I have developed here over many years of active life, or the commanding sentiment of comradeship in the common cause of great peoples who speak the same language, who kneel at the same altars and, to a very large extent, pursue the same ideals, I cannot feel myself a stranger here … I feel a sense of unity and fraternal association which, added to the kindliness of your welcome, convinces me that I have a right to sit at your fireside and share your Christmas joys.”
Two days later he went before a joint session of Congress and avowed “my hope and faith, sure and inviolate, that in the days to come the British and American people will for their own safety and for the good of all walk together side by side in majesty, injustice and in peace.”