From the archives, this was first posted six years ago today:
Continuing with our focus this week on the importance of optimism…in this post Winston Churchill, in the next, George Washington.
As the political right works on getting its act together so it can finally enter the information war in a serious way, it’s helpful to look back in history to times when other groups had to rally themselves in a dark hour.
In the following passage from his biography of Winston Churchill, historian John Keegan described the period of time when France had fallen and the U.S. had still not entered the war:
What sustained Churchill, and the British people, during the second six months of “standing alone,” January-June 1941, now defies easy understanding. Bombing was killing thousands of civilians every month and burning out not only central London but also the centers of provincial cities Bristol, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Glasgow, Cardiff, Belfast. U-boat warfare had reduced the individual’s diet to one egg and a few ounces of meat each week. Clothing was wearing out and could not be replaced. Fuel for domestic heating was harshly rationed, like every other commodity. Luxuries had disappeared; alcohol was hard to come by; only tobacco, judged essential to morale, could readily be bought. The war was dragging out into an apparently interminable and cheerless future.
Churchill privately confessed to depression…
Robert Menzies, the Australian prime minister, recorded at this time that Churchill “will steep himself (and you) in gloom,” concluding, however, “that there is no defeat in his heart.”
“[Churchill] certainly communicated none to the outside world,” Keegan wrote, and continued:
Early 1941 was the era of some of his greatest speeches, made both to the Commons and to a wider audience, particularly and deliberately to America, via the BBC. Ed Murrow reflected that one of Churchill’s greatest achievements as wartime prime minister was to have “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.
A good example of that was Churchill’s first speech after becoming prime minister in May 1940 — it’s now known as the “Blood, toil, tears, and sweat” speech.
We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.
[W]e are in the preliminary stage of one of the greatest battles in history, that we are in action at many points in Norway and in Holland, that we have to be prepared in the Mediterranean, that the air battle is continuous and that many preparations have to be made here at home.
I would say to the House, as I said to those who’ve joined this government: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.
In his college course on Winston Churchill (available here) Professor J. Rufus Fears introduced the “Blood, toil, tears, and sweat” speech by explaining that no one was sure what the policy of the nation was going to be under the new leadership. The Battle of France wasn’t going well, and there was a lot of talk of seeking accommodation with Hitler’s Germany. Very soon after being appointed Prime Minister, Churchill definitively answered the question:
You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: victory. Victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.
You can listen to the entire speech here — enjoy…