It is just over 130 years since a boy christened Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was delivered at England's Blenheim Palace. He survived the trenches of France, political reversals and even being struck by a New York City cab to lead Britain from its greatest peril in May 1940 to victory over Nazism five years later. Monday marked the 40th anniversary of his death. In the age of Islamist terror, can we draw inspiration from his career?
Yes, but only, it seems, from his finest hour. Until his moment arrived in 1940, Churchill was frequently dismissed even within his own party as an imperialist adventurer with baroque ambitions, a throwback to an earlier epoch, an author of military debacles out of touch with a supposedly emergent world of international comity. In short, he was regarded then as most contemporary liberals might view George W. Bush or Ariel Sharon today.
And yet, if Churchill had faltered, bowing to party consensus in the 1930s or to counsel urging that Britain sue for peace in 1940, world history might have been very different. Assuming Western civilization had survived, he would have joined the ignominious company of men like Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain.
Instead, he sacrificed high office for years to sound the warning against appeasing the violent forces of totalitarianism. No one save he who foresaw the danger so far ahead was fit to lead when the supreme test arrived. And lead he did, for 18 months when Britain stood alone with but a slender lifeline to an isolationist United States. His mistakes were legion and often costly, but his leadership carried the allied cause.
Churchill was guided by a few elementary ideas: that Britain and the Anglo-sphere more generally was a force for good; that its division and vacillation invited destructive forces to fill the vacuum; and that "democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." Together, they might even be called the Churchill Doctrine.
Once stated, it is easy to see his political descendents. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan faced down another totalitarianism that Churchill had galvanized an ascendant United States into opposing in 1946 with his memorable "Iron Curtain" speech. In the end, decades of vigilant containment produced a relatively bloodless victory, which suggests that some of the lessons of the 1930s had been learned.
But have they and if so, how widely? The American public knows an enemy when it sees it crashing planes into skyscrapers or kidnapping and gruesomely beheading Westerners. It disdains the idea that the aggression of someone like Osama bin Laden is any more rational than Hitler's, which also came deftly packaged in grievances supposedly amenable to negotiation.
Hitler decried encirclement and claimed a place in the sun as a passport to dominating a continent and perhaps the world. In the end, after averting eyes and handing him victims on a platter, Western publics turned and fought, harder and longer than would have been necessary if the revelation had come even a year earlier. It took Hitler's occupation of Prague in March 1939 for Britons and Frenchmen to repudiate the seductive illusion that they could control Hitler's aggression by conceding to his demands.
In the case of militant Islam, it was another long awakening: from the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Teheran in 1979 to the mass-homicides in Manhattan and Washington, D.C. The U.S. decamped from Lebanon (1983) and Somalia (1993), and responded with rhetoric-coupled-with-pinpricks to the terrorist outrages of the 1990s. Only after September 11, 2001, did the U.S. raise a posse to confront the latest totalitarianism, which has had decades to consolidate, plant terrorist cells, and orchestrate its deeds. Three years later, it is all too apparent that we are also in for a longer war than would have been otherwise necessary. Yet Americans, like the rudely awakened Europeans of 1939, have also rejected al-Qaeda's psychological warfare. By and large, they understand that they face an unappeasably cruel enemy. The understanding has dawned that utopian political claims – and here is where Islamism takes up company with Nazism and Communism – are violent doctrines, achievable purely by unbounded force.
For all that, today the Churchill Doctrine – embodied, in effect, in the "Coalition of the Willing" – is denigrated or even despised in various polities, especially in Europe, but also here. In confronting assorted totalitarianisms, Churchill and his disciples have been subjected to charges of warmongering that have not been confined to their totalitarian opponents alone. The Nazi propaganda machine railed against Churchill as a fanatic bent on destruction. But so did some of Churchill's colleagues, not least Baldwin who sedulously locked him out of assorted cabinets throughout much of the 1930s.
Likewise, Cold Warriors such as Reagan and Thatcher were cordially detested and denigrated at home. Britons will remember the Marxist firebrand unionist Arthur Scargill deriding "President Ray-Gun." (Fewer will remember that Scargill also condemned Poland's brave anti-communist trade union movement, Solidarity.) Here, the Democrat eminence grise Clark Clifford described Reagan as an "amiable dunce." Today, comparable slights are leveled at George W. Bush, a Churchill admirer.
Contemporary political passions across a range of policies make denigration of a Bush or a Reagan an easy trick. But Churchill cannot die so easily a death by a thousand cuts. In particular, his astonishing literary and oratorical attainments make it impossible for opponents of muscular anti-totalitarianism to level convincing charges of stupidity. This has presented them with a problem. Diminishing the Churchill Doctrine has usually demanded more subtle portraiture: a whisky-sodden brooder, an unrestrained military enthusiast, an imperialist. And there is truth in all this, although these critics have also been unscrupulous, inasmuch as they do not acknowledge his enormous industry, corrective high sense of purpose and overriding desire to avoid still greater bloodbaths, whether in Europe or India.
Some are less scrupulous still. In a frantic effort to discredit Churchill, Michael Lind, writing in the British Spectator last year, gleefully quotes Churchill from 1919, "I do not understand the squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes." Crows Lind, "citing Churchill to support Bush's war to rid Iraq of alleged weapons of mass destruction was particularly ironic."
In fact, the full quote reveals that Lind has lifted two isolated sentences from a passage indicating the very opposite: Churchill believed in upholding the ban on Weapons of Mass Destruction but favored the use of non-lethal agents:
I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. We have definitely adopted the position at the Peace Conference of arguing in favor of the retention of gas as a permanent method of warfare. It is sheer affectation to lacerate a man with the poisonous fragment of a bursting shell and to boggle at making his eyes water by means of lachrymatory gas. I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes. The moral effect should be so good that the loss of life should be reduced to a minimum. It is not necessary to use only the most deadly gasses: gasses can be used which cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively terror and yet would leave no serious permanent effects on most of those affected.
More significant than the sleight of hand and the implicit contradictions in Lind's demolition job – either Bushies are untutored militarists, or they wrongly claim descent for democratic and humane ends from an imperialist Churchill – is the clear urge to invalidate the Churchill doctrine by besmirching the man as a potential war criminal.
Others have also tried to burrow into the doctrine. Radical British historian A.J.P. Taylor argued once to the late Churchill biographer, William Manchester, that Churchill's Anglo-sphere "had few merits...he never considered how far England and America had been associated, which was very little, and – particularly – how far they could be associated in the future." Yet post-war history has vindicated Churchill's unfashionable view. Surely Korea, the Falklands, Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq suggest the opposite?
Though an anti-appeaser in the 1930s, Taylor wrote his Origins of the Second World War (1961) in part to discredit the cause of confronting the Soviets in the present. And indeed, it is risky to argue from historical analogy, if only because history never exactly repeats itself. It is perfectly possible to argue that dispatching troops to the Rhineland in 1936 was imperative, whereas dispatching them to Iraq in 2003 was not.
The Iraqi campaign might prove ultimately an important or negligible factor in the war against militant Islam. Yet American power remains indispensable in securing the world from a new totalitarianism. Whatever the strategic judgment on Iraq, Saddam's removal is a boon for human prospects – which is why the totalitarians and their fellow travelers revile it and seek to discredit the Churchill Doctrine that inspires it.
What would Churchill counsel today for America if it had to stand alone? Here, we do not need to hypothesize. In 1938, at a dinner party, the American ambassador in London, Joseph Kennedy, an appeaser through and through, predicted to Churchill that England would go under. It drew from Churchill an impromptu oration that included these words:
It will then be for you, for the Americans, to preserve and maintain the great heritage of the English-speaking peoples. It will be for you to think imperially, which means to think always of something higher and more vast than one's own national interests.
This counsel is risky, hard to execute, and liable to earn unpopularity. But it remains the indispensable meaning of the Churchill Doctrine today.