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Churchill Weeps

May 2018

It was V-E Day, 1945. By common consent the Office of Strategic Services staff in London was taking the day off, but somehow the whole occasion seemed anticlimactic. We recalled those flickering newsreels of Armistice Day in 1918 and wondered where those frenzied mobs were now. Piccadilly Circus was crowded but tame. At Buckingham Palace the king and queen—two tiny specks—dutifully waved from a balcony, and we dutifully waved back.

We wandered down Birdcage Walk to Whitehall and Parliament. It was growing dark now, but I was aware of a group of musicians apparently waiting for something. Suddenly, onto a floodlit balcony directly overhead strode Winston Churchill, complete with cigar. A great shout went up, and in a few seconds the whole street was packed with people. When the din had died down, Churchill briefly assured the crowd, “This is your victory,” and made his famous V sign. The effect shattered one of my pet theories. I have always held that no song falls as flat as “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” whether at a birthday, wedding, or political rally. Somehow it never goes over and always trails off in awkward embarrassment. I now know that it can succeed perfectly in certain rare circumstances—namely, if it is sung by thirty thousand people, accompanied by a ninety-piece band, on V-E Night, to a triumphant war leader, standing on the floodlit balcony of a flag-draped building. Under these conditions it can even move a crowd, including me and Winston Churchill, to tears.