The Indispensable Man

Among Winston Churchill’s many accomplishments, the most important was his successful defiance of Hitler in 1940.  Below you will find (1) an essay by Charles Krauthammer persuasively making the point that Churchill was truly the Man of the 20th Century, because  he was indispensable in 1940; (2) an essay by Boris Johnson, Britain’s current Prime Minister, making the same point, and (3) excerpts from speeches Churchill made in 1940.

Winston Churchill – 1940 Speeches

From Churchill’s speech in the House of Commons on May 13, 1940:

“We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind.  We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.  You ask, what is our policy?  I can 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, lamentable catalogue of human crime.  That is our policy.  You ask, what is our aim?  I can answer in one word:  It is 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.”

From Churchill’s radio broadcast, May 19, 1940:

“After the battle in France abates its force, there will come the battle for our Island—for all that Britain is, and all that Britain means.  That will be the struggle.  In that supreme emergency we shall not hesitate to take every step, even the most drastic, to call forth from our people the last ounce and the last inch of effort of which they are capable.  The interests of property, the hours of labour, are nothing compared with the struggle of life and honor, for right and freedom, to which we have vowed ourselves….Behind the Armies and Fleets of Britain and France gather a group of shattered States and bludgeoned races:  the Czechs, the Poles, the Norwegians, the Danes, the Dutch, the Belgians—upon all of whom the long night of barbarism will descend, unbroken even by a star of hope, unless we conquer, as conquer we must; as conquer we shall.”

From Churchill‘s speech in the House of Commons, June 4, 1940:

“Even though large tracts of Europe have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail.  We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

From Churchill’s speech in the House of Commons, June 18, 1940:

“The Battle of France is over.  I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin.  Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization… The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us.  Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war.  If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.  But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister by the lights of perverted science.  Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour’.”

From Churchill’s speech in the House of Commons, August 20, 1940:

“The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the World War by their prowess and by their devotion.  Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

Winston Churchill Man of the Century

At the end of the year 1999, Time Magazine ventured to designate the most important person of the 20th century. It declared that Albert Einstein was the “Man of the Century”. Charles Krauthammer responded in his December 31, 1999 column in the Washington Post, reprinted in his 2013 book, Things That Matter (the following is an abridgement of the full article):

Albert Einstein is an interesting and solid choice. Unfortunately, it is wrong. The only possible answer is Winston Churchill.

Why? Because only Churchill carries that absolutely required criterion: indispensability. Without Churchill the world today would be unrecognizable—dark, impoverished, tortured.

Without Einstein? Einstein was certainly the best mind of the century. Einstein also had a deeply humane and philosophical soul. I would nominate him as most admirable man of the century. But most important? If Einstein hadn’t lived, the ideas he produced might have been delayed. But they would certainly have arisen without him.

Take away Churchill in 1940, on the other hand, and Britain would have settled with Hitler–or worse. Nazism would have prevailed. Hitler would have achieved what no other tyrant, not even Napoleon, had ever achieved: mastery of Europe. Civilization would have descended into a darkness the likes of which it had never known.

The great movements that underlie history—the development of science, industry, culture, social and political structures—are undeniably powerful, almost determinant. Yet every once in a while, a single person arises without whom everything would be different. Such a man was Churchill.

After having single-handedly saved Western civilization from Nazi barbarism—Churchill was, of course, not sufficient in bringing victory, but he was uniquely necessary—he then immediately rose to warn prophetically against its sister barbarism, Soviet communism.

The uniqueness of the 20th century lies not in its science but in its politics. The 20th centruy was no more scientifically gifted than the 19th.

No, the originality of the 20th surely lay in its politics. It invented the police state and the command economy, mass mobilization and mass propaganda, mechanized murder and routinized terror—a breathtaking catalog of political creativity.

Totalitarianism turned out to be a cul-de-sac. It came and went. It has a beginning and an end, 1917 and 1991, a run of 75 years neatly nestled into this century. That is our story.

And who is the hero of that story? Who slew the dragon? Yes, it was the ordinary man, the taxpayer, the grunt who fought and won the wars. Yes, it was America and its allies. Yes, it was the great leaders: FDR, de Gaulle, Adenauer, Truman, John Paul II, Thatcher, Reagan. But above all, victory required one man without whom the fight would have been lost at the beginning. It required Winston Churchill.

Winston Churchill He Stands Alone

The following is an abridgement of an essay by Boris Johnson, current mayor of London, England, that was published in the Wall Street Journal, November 8, 2014, adapted from his book, The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, published November 2014.

When I was growing up, there was no doubt about it: Winston Churchill was the greatest statesman Britain had ever produced,

My brother and I pored over Sir Martin Gilbert’s biographical “Life in Pictures” enough to memorize the captions. I knew that Churchill had led my country to victory against one of history’s most disgusting tyrannies. I knew that he had a mastery of the art of speechmaking, and I knew, even then, that this art was dying out. I knew that he was funny, irreverent and (even by the standards of his time) politically incorrect.

I knew that he had been amazingly brave as a young man, that he had killed men with his own hand and that he had been fired at on four continents. I gathered that there was something holy and magical about him because my grandparents kept the front page of the Daily Express from the day he died in 1965, at the age of 90.

These days, we dimly believe that World War II was won with Soviet blood and U.S. money; and though that is in some ways true, it is also true that, without Churchill, Hitler would almost certainly have won, and Nazi gains in Europe might well have been irreversible.

We need to remember the ways in which this British prime minister helped to make the world in which we still live. Across the globe — from Europe to Russia to Africa to the Middle East — we see traces of his shaping mind.

He believed that the future of the world lay in America’s hands, and he was right. In our own time, it has fallen to the Americans to try to hold the ring in Palestine, to reason with the Israelis, to try to cope with what Churchill called “the ungrateful volcano” of Iraq. As a British imperialist, trying to salvage an empire destined to fade, he was inevitably a failure. As an idealist, summoning humanity’s grander values and fending off its worst demons, he was lastingly a success.

Churchill is the resounding rebuttal to all Marxist historians who think history is the story of vast and impersonal economic forces. Time and again in his seven decades of public life, we can see the impact of his personality on the world and on events – far more of them than are now widely remembered.

He was crucial to the beginning of the welfare state in the early 1900s. He helped give British workers job centers and tea breaks and unemployment insurance. He was the dominant force behind the invention of the Royal Air Force and the tank, and he was absolutely critical to the conduct of World War I. He was indispensable to the foundation of Israel (among other countries), not to mention the campaign for a united Europe.

At several moments, he was the beaver who dammed the flow of events; and never did he affect the course of history more profoundly than in 1940. Churchill spoke to the depths of people’s souls when Britain was alone, when the country was fighting for survival, and he reached them and comforted them in a way no other speaker could have done. His language—stirring and old­fashioned—met the moment.

Churchill did possess a titanic ego, but one tempered by humor, irony, deep humanity and sympathy for other people, and a commitment to public service and a belief in the democratic right of the people to kick him out—as they did in 1945.

Many historians and historiographers have taken the Tolstoyan line, that the story of humanity isn’t the story of great people and shining deeds. It has been fashionable to say that those so-called great men and women are just epiphenomena, meretricious bubbles on the vast tides of social history. The real story, on this view, is about deep economic forces, technological advances, changes in the price of sorghum, the overwhelming weight of an infinite number of mundane human actions.

The story of Winston Churchill is a pretty withering retort to all that malarkey. He, and he alone, made the difference. There has been no one remotely like him before or since.