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His moment had finally come. It was Friday, May 10th, 1940, and things could hardly have been worse, Adolf Hitler's forces were on the move in Western Europe, threatening to sweep across the ancient nations to the English Channel. And then for all anyone knew to do what no one had done since William the Conqueror.
Nearly nine centuries before Storm and subjugate England itself.
In this bleak hour, Winston Churchill, now 65 years old, was summoned by King George, the sixth to become prime minister and marshal the defences of liberty against Nazi tyranny. He believed in himself. Even if the skeptics and the doubters were legion. He had long thought that his fate and that of his nation were intertwined. As he went to bed about three o'clock in the morning. Churchill recalled that he was conscious of a profound sense of relief. At last, I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene.
I felt as if I were walking with Destiny and that all my life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial. I'm Jon Meacham and this is Hope Through History, Episode two. Winston Churchill and the Second World War. There was a widespread belief that Churchill was the wrong man for the job, that Adolf Hitler unleashed blitzkrieg on Holland and Belgium and Luxembourg shortly afterwards before his first flight.
He says, I want to win a medal for gallantry. He intentionally stands up to get shot at and then pronounces that it's fun, was not going to be defined by his failures. For Prime Minister Winston Churchill, there was no fear, no uncertainty, he recalled. I thought I knew a good deal about it all and I was sure I should not fail. Churchill, alas, was about the only one who was sure he should not fail.
When President Franklin Roosevelt, then meeting with his cabinet in Washington, learned the news from an aide, scribbled note, he looked up and said that he suppose Churchill is the best man that England had.
Even if he was drunk half the time, the world would have felt like it was going to hell in a handbasket in Britain. There would have been tremendous political turmoil because there was a certain jet who became prime minister after a rebellion in the House of Commons. That chant, of course, being Winston Churchill.
This is best selling author Erik Larson, who most recently released The Splendid and the Vile, a saga of Churchill Family and Defiance during the Blitz.
During the run up to his appointment and even afterwards, for a period, there was a widespread belief that Churchill was the wrong man for the job. But he was too erratic, too, as one minister put too energetic in too many directions that King was deeply skeptical about whether he was the right man for the job search. Of course, Churchill, he was not at all skeptical about his own prowess in his own. The fact that he was, in fact the right man for the job.
This was the high point of his career and they just went charging ahead.
In those early days, Frances Perkins, FDR secretary of labor, recalled that Roosevelt was so uncertain about Churchill that he wondered what kind of a fellow the prime minister really was. Roosevelt and the rest of the world would find out before long. Given his war leadership, particularly in the existential crisis of 1940, Winston Churchill became what the philosopher Isaiah Berlin would call the largest human being of our time, implacable in the face of Hitler, determined to stand alone if necessary, and stare down the Nazi threat, Churchill won a permanent place in the pantheon of heroic leaders who have single handedly shifted the course of history.
This is neither hyperbolic nor sentimental. Before Churchill, England and the West writ large at risk of falling under what he once referred to as all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule. My friend. Only a few hours away by air that rose a nation of nearly 70 million of the most educated, industrious scientific discipline people in the world were being taught from childhood to think of war as a glorious exercise and death in battle at the noblest fate of a man that is a nation which has abandoned all its liberties in order to augment its collective strength.
That is a nation which, with all its strength and virtue, is in the grip of a group of ruthless men preaching a gospel of intolerance and racial pride, unrestrained by law, by parliament, or by public opinion. After him, liberty was saved and the great story of individual freedom and the rule of law rolled forward.
How did he do it? How did this man of whom so many thought so little in the beginning managed to survive and to prevail? There is, of course, no single answer. History doesn't work like that. But from this distance and mountains are usually better viewed from a distance, we're able to discern some of the key characteristics that enabled Churchill to lead through the great crisis in legend. The story of nineteen forty is uncomplicated. Churchill, as Edward R.
. Murrow observed, mobilize the English language and sent it into battle.
And once the fighting was over, light had triumphed over darkness.
The reality was very different. On the morning of May 10th, 1940, Neville Chamberlain was prime minister of Great Britain, but it was on that day that the nation took an unpredictable turn.
May the 10th, 1940, the troubled peace of Belgium and Holland was finally settled by John. The Nazi beast had violated almost all countries who only wanted peace. This has become the all too familiar scene in this world where dictator countries know nothing about the rule of law. Well, it would have looked very scary that day because, of course, on the morning of the 10th of May, Adolf Hitler unleashed blitzkrieg on Holland and Belgium and Luxembourg shortly afterwards, also to invade France.
This is Andrew Roberts, author of the critically acclaimed biography Churchill Walking with Destiny. And so the city was in lockdown as one way of putting it, I suppose, but also very nerve wracking about the next stages. They had been waiting for months for this big attack in the West. And finally on that day, it had taken place. The Chamberlain government clearly couldn't survive. And so the establishment looked to somebody who could become prime minister.
I sought an audience with the king, ended in my resignation, which is Majesty had been pleased to Majesty has now entrusted to my friend and colleague, Mr. Winston Churchill, the task of forming a new administration on a national basis.
Having received His Majesty's commission, I have formed an administration of men and women of every party and almost every point of view we have had and quarreled in the past. But now one bond unites us all to wage war until victory is one and never to surrender ourselves to the guilt and shame. Whatever the cost and the agony may be. They chose Winston Churchill against all the odds, and he went to the king who appointed him as prime minister, it was an extraordinary turn up for the books, considering that he'd made so many blunders and errors in his life that he learned from all of those mistakes.
He was consistently learning from his errors. And what that gave him was this tremendous sense that he was not going to be defined by his failures. He was going to continue and became so far constantly and and keep fighting in this sense of resilience, I think is worthwhile in peacetime and wartime and also, of course, in this particular time that we're facing at the moment. When Churchill ascended to the position of prime minister, he was widely regarded as unstable, melodramatic and overly fond of strong drink, but he understood Hitler in a way many others in power in Britain did not.
And he knew, too, that the survival of all that he loved required a nuanced exercise of political skill and a great measure of personal grace.
Locked in debate in the war cabinet with Lord Halifax, the foreign secretary who favored talks with the axis Churchill had to be careful to negotiate with the axis was not irrational. In fact, it was totally rational in the ordinary sense of power politics. However, Churchill believed that any talks with the enemy would fatally compromise the fate and the future of Europe and of the world. Hitler was no ordinary foe. He was an existential one, I would say to the house.
And I said to those who joined the government, I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and stress. And before it's an ordeal of the most grievous kind and therefore as many, many long months of struggle and suffering, you are ready to by the day, I will say it is to wage war by the land. And with all our might, with all the grace of God given to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never stop in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human and crime.
That is, by the time you are. What is our aim? I cannot say one word. Victory. Victory at all costs victory in spite of all terror victory, however long and hard the road may be.
But without victory, there is no survival yet to impress this view on the country. Now a commonplace view, but not so widely shared. In mid-May 1940, Churchill needed to build alliances, not bully his colleagues. And so he reached out to the former prime minister to Neville Chamberlain, whom he cultivated after years of ferocious disputes over the rise of the Third Reich. When Churchill flew to France on May 16th, he'd written Chamberlain Neville, please mind the shop.
Neville Chamberlain was a huge and very loyal supporter of Churchill once he became prime minister, once Churchill was actually in the job the Chamberlain had. And Chamberlain, of course, was the only person who knew quite how tough that job was. Chamberlain stuck by him. One of the reasons, in fact, that we didn't have a peace negotiation with Hitler in May 1940 was because Chamberlain stuck to Churchill's side and refused to allow one to happen. He was a very good man who Churchill put in charge of much of the domestic side of politics because he knew he could trust him because he was good at it and because Churchill himself wanted to concentrate on the war.
One of the most striking things to me was how he treated Neville Chamberlain. I think this is symbolic of how he was able to do all this. It's a very practical thing. But he just resolved early on that he was not going to kick Neville Chamberlain out of 10 Downing Street immediately. Churchill was going to occupy offices at Admiralty House and give Chamberlain time for a dignified departure, which is not at all something that a certain current president in the United States would ever have conceived of.
But that in itself is just a very good metaphor for how he dealt with the political situation. Churchill was gracious, not least because he needed and appreciated Grace in his own topsy turvy political life, elected to parliament just before the death of Queen Victoria. He would change parties over his long career, not once, but twice. Anyone can read, he would say, but it took real character to Rewrapped. When he fell from power after the disastrous landings at Gallipoli in the Great War, Churchill rejoined his own regiment and went to fight at the front.
A remarkable thing for a man in mid-life back in London in the interwar years, Churchill was seen as brilliant but erratic. Distrusted by the Tories with whom he had again enlisted, he was a passionate enthusiast, fighting lost causes from the status of India. Churchill couldn't abide the thought of surrendering such a vast part of the empire to the messy love life of Edward the Eighth. Churchill was an unapologetic supporter of the ill fated king when he began to focus his formidable attention on the rise of dictators in Europe.
He was dismissed in many quarters as a warmonger premised on Britain.
Most of America on the people said we ought not to allow ourselves to be drawn into a theoretical antagonism between Nazism and democracy. But the antagonism is here. Now you see the dictators on that pedestal surrounded by the bandits that would go and the trenches of that folly. They're afraid of words and saw the light of civilized progress with its tolerances and cooperation with its dignity is enjoyed, has often been blotted out. But I hold the belief that we have now at last got far enough ahead of barbarism to control it and to avert, if only we realised wanted to foot.
The world was tired of conflict.
The staggering bloodshed of the Great War had created a climate of pacifism that led many in England's ruling classes to see war as unthinkable. In the 1930s, diplomacy with Germany was alive undertaking. Chamberlain tried it, as did Lord Halifax.
Friendship with Germany is the message that Lord Halifax takes with him on his visit to Berlin and when he meets Hitler at the latter's hideout among the Bavarian mountains. And then Lord Halifax sends us a newsreel message, enormously impressed with all I've seen of the exhibition, and I look forward to the opportunity of seeing more of it. When the hour of decision came on May 28th, 1940, it was Chamberlain's willingness to bet on Churchill's unflinching approach rather than on Halifax's attempt at negotiation that made the difference.
According to Chamberlain, Churchill argued that the only safe way forward was to convince Hitler that he couldn't beat us. And the only safe way to do that, Churchill believed, was to fight on by graciously reaching out to Chamberlain and foregoing score settling. Churchill carried the day and ultimately the age itself. As Churchill said, it was idle to think that if we tried to make peace now, we should get better terms from Germany than if we went on and fought it out.
We shall go on and we shall fight it out here or elsewhere. And if it lasts, the long stories to end it were better. It should end not through surrender, but only when we are rolling senseless on the ground. In his magnificent hour upon the stage, Churchill drew on three principles principles that define his leadership and which still have much to teach us. First, courage, you can't help but smile when you read about Churchill's early years, he wants to fight his courage.
This is not a metaphorical or kind of an idea. This is a fact of life for Churchill.
This is best selling author and historian Evan Thomas. Britain is an empire. And so he goes out into the empire. He goes to India, he goes to the Sudan. He goes to South Africa looking for a fight. And before his first fight, he says, I want to win a medal for gallantry. He intentionally stands up to get shot at and then pronounces that it's fun. This is not something he kind of gets forced into. He goes looking for it because he knows that to have a great name and a great political future, it really helps if you've been shot at that or if you haven't been killed.
I mean, talk about crazy. I was reading the account of he was in the last great British cavalry charge and he's surrounded men with swords are hacking and slashing at him. He shoots four of them. And, you know, this is out of the movies. He gets recognised and decorated. He's cool under fire. And it gives him enormous confidence. He's been there. He's done it. He doesn't have to guess at what it's like to be brave.
He's been brave. My dad, who was in World War Two, used to draw a distinction between men who've heard a shot fired in anger and those who have not. That was a pretty big moral divide for him. I fell on the wrong side of that, of course. But, you know, that gives you a lot of confidence. But he's a very well educated guy who's read the classics and he's thought about and he knows the importance of courage.
He like to quote Aristotle at Taj's the greatest virtue, because without it, you can't have any of the others.
He was indomitable in the face of near certain defeat, insisting that Great Britain and in the fullness of time the United States had the moral reserves to stave off the where mocked come what may. Addressing parliament in the nation in the wake of the British evacuation at Dunkirk in June 1940, he spoke with a transporting poetic vision which will go on to the end of fight in France to fight on the seas and oceans.
We shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the face of defend our island. Whatever the case may be, we still fight on the beaches. They still fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields and in the streets. We to fight in the hills. But you'll never surrender. And if we do, I do not for a moment believe this island or a large part of it, but subjugated and starving and our empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British.
We would carry on the struggle until, in God's good time, the new world, with all its power, might step up to the rescue and the liberation of the old.
It was paraxylene and it worked. The British were willing to fight if they were certain their leaders were with them. The speech had its desired effect on another audience to the one across the Atlantic, headquartered in Washington. We understood the kind of courage and tenacity that Winston Churchill was beginning to put into words.
Eleanor Roosevelt recalled words that express the spirit of the British people in the months following Dunkirk.
Mr. Chacho speech in parliament was heard by special representatives of President Roosevelt in London, and they heard that it is Britain's intention to maintain a strict blockade of all countries in the part of Germany. But equally, our Navy will ensure that all those things necessary for Britain's war effort will be ferried across the seas from the empire and our friends in the new world.
FDR was beginning to think that Churchill might well be a man worth counting on, and that conviction grew out of the courage Churchill displayed as the weeks of 1940 fell away.
We have joined with many other nations and peoples in a very great cause. Millions of them have been engaged in the task of defending God with their life blood.
For months and for years, he and his people have pointed the way and courage and sacrifice. My old and good friend Winston Churchill, prime minister of Great Britain.
In a letter to the president, Churchill promised that in no conceivable circumstances will we consent to surrender. But he warned the worst might yet come to pass if members of the present administration were finished and others came in to parlay amid the ruins, no one would have the right to blame those then responsible if they made the best terms they could for the surviving inhabitants. Excuse me, Mr. President, for putting this nightmare bluntly. Evidently, I could not answer for my successors, who, in utter despair and helplessness, might well have to accommodate themselves to the German will.
The most compelling element here is Churchill's pledge that he would die in the streets rather than be the one who struck a deal to surrender England to the Third Reich. This assertion, which no one who heard his voice could doubt, was essential to his success in this terrible period at dinner one evening in June 1940 with his daughter in law, Pamela, who was then six months pregnant. The prime minister looked her in the eye and said, If the Hun comes, I am counting on each of you to take one with you before you go.
But Papa, Pamela replied, I don't have a gun. And even if I did, I wouldn't know how to use it. But my dear Churchill said, you may go to the kitchen at this. The Prime Minister raised his fist high in the air with a menacing gesture and grab a carving knife. First courage, then candor, Churchill believed in leveling with his followers. He also believed that the rest of the world tended to see the world as he did in his cosmos.
There was joy in the journey. Without darkness, there could be no light. There was a fundamental democratic instinct at work to Churchill held out the possibility of heroism for all, not just for great men. That was one reason he so often spoke of the long story of the nation. In that story, there was room for greatness from the most ordinary of souls trusts. The people had been his father's political motto, and Churchill shared it. And the people deserve the truth, no matter how unpalatable.
There is no worst mistake in public leadership than to hold out false hope soon to be swept away, he said. The British people can face peril or misfortune with fortitude and buoyancy, but they bitterly resent being deceived or finding that those responsible for their affairs are themselves dwelling in a fool's paradise.
People respected Candar, Churchill believed so long as they believed their leaders had a plan for moving forward.
His speeches were, of course, very, very important. It isn't even so much the terrific lines that he would craft to me. It was the structure of his speeches in that period. First of all, he would begin his speeches with a very sober appraisal of what the actual situation was. He did not sugarcoat. He did not want happy talk. He wanted to convey the actual situation. And then he would follow with actual grounds for optimism, real grounds for optimism.
Roosevelt, learn something from this Churchillian understanding of leadership. The news is going to get worse and worse before it gets better and better. FDR told Americans in the winter of 1942, the American people must be prepared for it and they must get it straight from the shoulder. It was, in a way, the covenant of democracy. Give it to us straight and we will do what it takes. Such a voice to sustain Churchill through all the years of war in defeat and in victory.
I am very careful not to say anything, I'm an overconfident or unduly sanguine nature, I am sure we have very rough weather ahead. But I have this seat which I must impart. The Germany, which insults us all today, is a far less strongly built and solidly founded organism than that which the allies and the United States are forced to beg for armistice 21 years ago. I have the sensation and also the conviction that that evil man over there and it's just Confederate's, I'm not sure of themselves and we are sure of ourselves.
And finally, cooperation, Churchill always knew he couldn't defeat Hitler alone. He needed America and America was personified in FDR.
No lover, Churchill once remarked, ever studied the whims of his mistress, as I did those of Franklin Roosevelt. Alliances were crucial, without them, things would fall apart. I thought you would like me to tell you something about the values which I made across the ocean to meet our great friends, the president of the United States. This meeting was bound to be important because of the enormous forces which are at the disposal of these two major groupings of the human family, the British Empire and the United States.
Fortunately for the presence of Mangi happens to speak the same language and very large think the same thought.
At Harvard in 1943, Churchill accepted an honorary degree and laid out a vision of Anglo American cooperation for the war.
And whatever lay beyond the price of greatness is responsibility, Churchill told his American audience.
If the people of the United States had continued in a mediocre station struggling with the wilderness, absorbed in their own affairs and a factor of no consequence in the movement of the world, they might have remained forgotten and undisturbed beyond their protecting oceans.
But one cannot rise to be, in many ways, the leading community in the civilized world without being involved in its problems, without being convulsed by its agonies and inspired by its causes. He would stand with the United States. There is, he said, no halting place at this point.
We have now reached a point in the journey where there can be no pause. We must go on. It must be road and again, our world order. Throughout all this ordeal and struggle, which is characteristic of our age, you will find in the British Commonwealth and Empire good comrades home, you are united by other ties besides those of state policy and public need. To a large extent, there are the ties of blood and history that naturally I am a child of both well and conscious of the.
The ties of blood and history, such was the marrow of Churchill's leadership. He led greatly because he, too, was great. A man of wide and far reaching vision, of unquenchable courage, of unbreakable will.
His words have the power to shape us. Even now, in his final major address to the House of Commons in 1955, in the depths of the Cold War standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Churchill said the day may dawn when fair play love for one's fellow men, respect for justice and freedom will enable tormented generations to March 4th, serene and triumphant from the hideous epic in which we have to dwell. Meanwhile, never flinch, never weary, never despair.
Wise words then and now. In the next episode of Hope Through History, a look at the war against polio. Thank you for listening to hope through history.
A production of Cadenced 13 in association with history executive produced by me, Jon Meacham and Chris Corcoran, directed by Chris Corcoran, John McDermott and Lloyd Lockridge, and edited, produced, engineered and mastered by Chris Bazil, Bill Schulz, Rich Berner and Sean Cherry.
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