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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.
In dealing with Rockefeller ( Collier’s , July 11, 1936) Churchill observed that the billionaire’s Puritan ancestors had been making money ever since they fought Charles i “for the right to acquire wealth in their own way.” Admitting he had heard that Rockefeller, with his benefactions, “puts through a deal with the Baptist God, and buys salvation with parcels of stock,” he countered: “Had the young Baptist attempted to mix Christian principles with business practice he would have been bankrupt in a few months.” Churchill believed the good in Rockefeller outweighed the bad, citing his innovations in selling (creating new wants for new products) and the fact that he was first to endow scientific research on the grand scale, making long-range experimentation possible. In any case the magnitude of Rockefeller’s deeds, good and bad, won him a place in Churchill’s pantheon.
The years and events surrounding the repeal of American Prohibition gave Churchill a topic he could discuss with great conviction. On a visit, he reported in Collier’s (August 13, 1932), some Americans took him to a speakeasy—“I went, of course, in my capacity of a Social Investigator.” He enjoyed the “charm, grace, good will, courtesy” of the relaxed gathering; the musicians even played “God Save the King.”
But—“What a place to eat a dinner! … bad cooking, bad service, bawling jazz bands, funereal lighting, hustle and disturbance! … And here was this large gathering of Americans putting up with all the discomfort, ugliness and craziness of their surroundings for the sake of beingable to do what every man and woman in Europe has never been denied.”
He stoutly approved of the spirit behind the patrons’ lawbreaking: “All their insurgent impulses were enlisted in the enterprise.” And he gave the prohibitionists shot and shell, linking their evil efforts with Mohammed, “whose followers sought to overwhelm the Western world in blood and fire,” with Buddhist asceticism and its “eternal nothingness,” and with Lenin, who also favored the temperance cause.
In the United States, Prohibition “was imposed upon a reluctant nation by a sinister combination of bigotry and graft,” Churchill declared, “and the hideous spawn of organized crime sprang up and flourished in its shadow.” He was on the national wavelength; Prohibition was repealed the following year.
Churchill could barely comprehend the presence of certain foods in the American diet. He wrote in Collier’s (August 5, 1933) that while Americans’ emphasis upon fruit, vegetables, and cereals was doubtless healthful, “I am a beef-eater, and I always expect my wife to provide me with butcher’s meat once a day when I am at home.”
He dourly noted “a dangerous, yet almost universal, habit of the American people” in “the drinking of immense quantities of iced water. … The bleak beverage is provided on every possible occasion.” Worse yet, he found, was the almost invariable custom of starting the meal with a large slice of melon or grapefruit: “Dessert, in my view, should be eaten at the end of the meal, not at the beginning.”
On the credit side he found American coffee “admirable, and a welcome contrast to the anemic or sticky liquid which judicious Americans rightly resent in English provincial towns.” He regarded blue point oysters “a serious undertaking,” shad roe and terrapin “entertaining.” Soft-shell crabs and corn on the cob were “by no means unpalatable, but should not be eaten too often.” He did not say why.
Churchill was a close and fascinated student of American history, and in Scribner’s magazine (December, 1930) he undertook to predict what would have happened if Confederate General Robert E. Lee had won the Battle of Gettysburg. Churchill had Lee sign a defensive and offensive treaty with the by then fired-up British and cut the heart out of the northern cause by abolishing slavery. A peace was signed, the South remained apart, and the slaves remained free. The North, glowering across the border at a reinvigorated South, became increasingly desperate. Both sides rearmed.
But finally a great covenant of the “English-speaking Association” was made, embracing both North and South with Britain in a transatlantic league with common citizenship. Through the good offices of this mighty agency World War I was avoided and peace came to the world. Into the fantasy Churchill wove, once more, the shiny thread of his perennial dream.
In 1932 he wrote an article in Popular Mechanics heralding the nuclear age more than a decade before it arrived:
Nuclear energy is incomparably greater than the molecular energy we use today. The coal a man can get in a day can easily do five hundred times as much work as the man himself. Nuclear energy is at least one million times more powerful still. … What is lacking is the match to set the bonfire alight, or it may be the detonator to cause the dynamite to explode.
The discovery and control of such sources of power would cause changes in human affairs incomparably greater than those produced by the steam engine. Schemes of cosmic magnitude would become feasible.
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.
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.”
Churchill’s exhilaration at being “bound together by common peril, by solemn faith and high purpose” with the United States cropped out in many of his wartime messages. He told Congress on May 19, 1943: “The experiences of a long life and the promptings of my blood have wrought in me the conviction that there is nothing more important for the future of the world than the fraternal association of our two peoples in righteous work both in war and peace.”
The end of the war did not, of course, bring an end to the perils shared by the English-speaking peoples, nor to Churchill’s efforts to persuade those peoples of their common destiny. Churchill had written in the Collier’s issue of September 30, 1939, that Bolshevism and Nazism were like the North and South poles: “If you woke up one morning at either, you would not know which it was.” In the spring following the war’s close Churchill came to Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, and declared in his most memorable American speech: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an Iron Curtain has descended across the Continent.”
In that speech he prophesied the beginnings of the new European community that has since taken shape. But his main theme was, once more, that the British and American peoples should walk forward together “in sedate and sober strength,” with “all British moral and material forces and convictions … joined with your own in fraternal association.”
After the war Churchill turned his literary talents to his massive, multivolume histories. But his lifelong enthusiasm for common cause among the English-speaking nations never wavered. In Churchill’s mind this was first and foremost a union of mind and spirit, a close and warm understanding among members of the family.
He had once found himself at a Washington dinner party (he wrote in Collier’s , August 5, 1933) when the company of forty or fifty surrounded him in a half circle to engage him in “one of the frankest and most direct political interrogations” to which he had ever been subjected:
For two hours we wrestled strenuously, unsparingly, but in the best of tempers, with one another, and when I was tired of defending Great Britain on all her misdeeds, I counter-attacked. …
Nowhere else in the world, only between our two people, could such a discussion have proceeded. The priceless gift of a common language, and the pervading atmosphere of good sense and fellow feeling, enabled us to rap all the most delicate topics without the slightest offense given or received. It was to me a memorable evening, unique in my experience, and it left in my mind enormous hopes of what will some day happen in the world when, no doubt, after most of us are dead and gone, the English-speaking peoples will really understand each other.
Thirty-six years later President Eisenhower gave a dinner for his eightyfour-year-old comrade-in-arms, and Churchill said a few words that were close to his heart:
… And let us be united. Let us be united, and let our hopes lie in our unity. Because we understand each other. We do really understand each other. We understand when things go wrong, or things are said, or anything like that, we really can afford to pass them by. … I earnestly hope that an effort will be made, a fresh and further effort forward, to link us together. Because it is really of the utmost importance that we, who think so much alike, should see clearly before us the plain road onwards through the future.
Unique among the figures of history, Winston Churchill moved his two nations along that road together.