To celebrate the anniversary of the birth of the greatest man of the century immediately preceding this one, I repost the piece I wrote three years ago to make the occasion as I revised it two years ago.
Today marks the 138th anniversary of the birth of the greatest man of the century concluded just about a decade ago. On November 30, 1874, Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was born at Blenheim Palace. His father was Lord Randolph Churchill, his mother the former Jennie Jerome, the second daughter of the American financier Leonard Jerome. His very parentage thus embodied the special relationship between the United States and United Kingdom.
Indeed, it was Churchill himself who coined the term to describe the relations between the two powerful Anglophone democracies.
Like a red head born almost exactly 134 years after him, Churchill was two months premature. (The combination of those two characteristics must be a sign of greatness!) Like that young Californian, the great Briton had trouble sitting still, traveling to Cuba, India, Sudan and South Africa to fight for his country (and sometimes dubious causes) before his 30th birthday. He would write about his experiences; his books would earn him fame and fortune.
First elected to parliament in 1900 as a Tory, he broke with his party over tariffs, preferring free trade and the Liberals. He would rejoin the Conservative Party in 1925, staying with the Tories, through his two terms as Prime Minister and until the end of his life. Noting that Churchill “stood for Parliament under six labels,” one of his biographers, Paul Johnson wrote that “He was not a party man. . . . His loyalty belonged to the national interest, and his own.”
And Churchill saw the British national interest clearly linked to that of the United States and Western democracies.
While forever associated with the two great wars of the last century, the man himself may well have enjoyed the thrill of battle, but he was well aware of the horrors of war and did his utmost to prevent it. A warmonger he clearly was not, though he did understand that war was sometimes necessary to prevent even worse evils.
Even before World War II had begun, he “warned in speech and print that it would be a catastrophe for humanity.” Indeed, it may well have been a worse catastrophe than it was had he as First Lord of the Admiralty in the early 1910s not built a whole new class of warship, the largest ever built at that time, in order to maintain British naval superiority over the (even then-) rapidly rearming Germans.
When, a quarter century later, the Germans, under an even more diabolical leadership, started rearming once again, Churchill, no longer at Admiralty, but instead in the political wilderness, found his pleas to respond aggressively unheard, ignored or dismissed. In the 1930s, he was a lone voice warning against the Nazi threat. Had Europeans listened to him, the continent likely would have been spared a great catastrophe and tens of millions of people would have not seen their lives cut short.
Churchill well understood the maxim attributed to the Roman military writer Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus, “If you want peace, prepare for war.”
After standing virtually alone in the 1930s, he would rally a nation in the 1940s and lead it to victory:
In 1940, upon taking the helm of the British government, he rallied a nation, fearful for its future, its survival even, after the swift defeat of its European allies as the Nazis & their allies enslaved nearly all of continental Europe.
Through it all, he never faltered, always held firm, believing that as dark as things appeared, the West would triumph, victory was on the horizon. He stood up to the naysayers of his day and stood strong against tyranny, defending Western civilization and the long English tradition of freedom under the law. He was a friend of the Jews and other then-oppressed peoples.
A blog post does not allow enough space to fully appreciate the greatness of this man. I haven’t even touched on his great wit or included a sampling of his marvelous prose and his wise and often caustic quips. Even Johnson’s biography at 175 pages doesn’t do him justice. The official Churchill biography runs to 8 volumes, not counting the 3 volumes of war papers.
Let me conclude this post with a passage from my even shorter post on this anniversary three years ago:
On this his birthday, let us be inspired by Sir Winston, cognizant of the threats to our freedom and of the power of a great man to lead and inspire a nation with an understanding of his nation’s history (indeed of world history) and a commitment to its traditions, values and freedom, a recognition of the enduring legacy of Western Civilization.
UPDATE for 2010: Returning from Buckingham Palace after the King officially named him Prime Minister on May 10, 1940, W.H. Thompson, Churchill’s bodyguard, sat silently with the then-new head of British government. In Five Days in London: May 1940, historian John Lukacs reports how Thompson broke the silence:
“I only wish the position had come your way in better times for you have an enormous task.” Tears came into Churchill’s eyes. He said to Thompson: “God alone knows how great it is. I hope it is not too late. I am very much afraid it is. We can only do our best.”
Churchill the faced a challenge that few in history have faced. And he met it first with tears and then steely resolve. Advice to us all. This great man knew the magnitude of the task he faced. He was not joyful when he achieved the object for which he had long striven. He acknowledged his fears.