In 1934, when his government and nation—and indeed much of the world—were oblivious to the looming threat in Europe, he warned of the unchecked rise of Hitler and called on the West to act.
By 1940, the Nazi army had taken France and was perched at the English Channel.
In 1940, as his country stood alone against Hitler, he assured his countrymen that it would become their finest hour. By 1943, the battle turned for good, and Britain had preserved civilization.
In 1946, with Washington focused on postwar demobilization, he warned that an Iron Curtain was descending across Europe. By 1948, the Cold War had begun in earnest as Stalin consolidated Eastern Europe.
And in 1955, amid the most frigid days of the Cold War, he looked ahead to victory over Stalinism, to a world where “fair play, love for one’s fellowmen, respect for justice and freedom will enable tormented generations to march forth serene and triumphant from the hideous epoch in which we have to dwell.” By 1989, that day had arrived, at least for Europe’s eastern half.
Winston Churchill was not a prophet, but he had an unmatched ability to see what was coming, to defend civilization, to inspire. This month marks the 140th anniversary of his birth. With tyrants and terrorists surging in Russia, the Middle East and China, our troubled world could use a healthy dose of Churchillian courage, confidence and candor.
The son of a British father and American mother, Churchill had a deep affinity for America. He knew America was a force for good, destined to carry the burden of global leadership, uniquely equipped to serve as civilization’s last line of defense. He marveled at America and its leaders, and he had faith that America would do the right thing—even when it seemed America was intent on doing nothing.
After the disaster at Dunkirk, more than a 18 months before America entered the war, Churchill shared his desperate dream of a day when “the new world, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”
Early in that pivot-point year of 1941, he promised Parliament America’s actions would soon be dictated by “a gleaming flash of resolve.” He praised Americans “for turning a large part of their industry to making the munitions which we need.” In August 1941, he and FDR authored the Atlantic Charter, laying out the West’s vision for a postwar world founded on free trade, free government and a widening circle of free nations. And in December 1941, when America was finally drawn into the storm, Churchill—displaying equal parts humility, gratitude and political savvy—took responsibility: “If the United States have been found at a disadvantage at various points in the Pacific Ocean,” he told Congress just days after Pearl Harbor, “we know well that it is to no small extent because of the aid you have been giving us.”
“With her left hand,” he cheered in the months that followed, “America was leading the advance of the conquering Allied armies into the heart of Germany, and with her right, on the other side of the globe, she was irresistibly and swiftly breaking up the power of Japan.”
He gave a name to the deepening Anglo-American partnership. Postwar peace and stability would be impossible without “a special relationship” between Britain and the United States, Churchill explained. So, he called for “common study of potential dangers…similarity of weapons…interchange of officers…mutual security…joint use of all Naval and Air Force bases.”
That connective tissue would be essential to containing the Red Army and waging the Cold War. Not surprisingly, Churchill’s guidelines for dealing with Moscow are just as applicable today as they were when he unveiled them.
“There is nothing they admire so much as strength,” Churchill said of his Soviet counterparts, “and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for weakness.”
“I do not believe that Soviet Russia desires war,” he added. “What they desire is the fruits of war and the indefinite expansion of their power and doctrines.”
All of this holds true of Putin and his generals. Summits, “resets,” sanctions and diplomatic isolation have no impact on Putin. But power does. This is the language Putin speaks, which is why defense cuts and “nation building at home” send a very dangerous message to Moscow, as we are learning in Ukraine.
Early in the Cold War, Churchill warned against trying to keep the peace by employing 19th-century methods. “The old doctrine of a balance of power is unsound,” he counseled. “We cannot afford, if we can help it, to work on narrow margins, offering temptations to a trial of strength.” Again, Churchill’s admonition remains relevant.
While U.S. defense spending is ebbing to levels not seen since the interwar years, China is building a power-projecting military capable of challenging America’s once-unquestioned primacy in the Pacific. Yet Beijing seems reckless with, and ignorant about, the responsibility that comes with such a military. Witness the stream of near-misses and mishaps involving China and virtually every nation that has maritime assets moving through the South and East China Seas. Vice Adm. Scott Swift worries such incidents could be a “tactical trigger with strategic implications.”
Deterrence worked with the Soviet Union, and it can work with China. A 2008 Pentagon report noted that China has “deep respect for U.S. military power.” But with the United States in the midst of massive military retrenchment, one wonders how long that reservoir of respect will last. By definition, sea power is an essential element of America’s deterrent strength in the Pacific. But Washington is allowing U.S. sea power to atrophy. At the height of the Reagan buildup, for example, the Navy boasted 594 ships. Today’s fleet numbers just 285 ships. The “build time” of new aircraft carriers is growing from five to seven years. The Navy recently had to request a special waiver to deploy just 10 carriers (rather than the legally mandated 11). Vice Adm. Tom Copeman warns that ships in the surface fleet “don’t have enough people, don’t have enough training, don’t have enough parts and don’t have enough time to get ready to deploy.”
Does that sound like a credible deterrent? Only Xi Jinping and his generals can answer that. If they don’t believe they would pay a high price for upsetting the status quo, deterrence has failed. And we have opened the door to precisely what Churchill cautioned against: “temptations to a trial of strength.”
Churchill was an ardent believer in peace through strength—not only because he grasped the vast sweep of history, but also because of the history he lived.
As he grimly concluded in 1938, “We have been reduced…from a position of security so overwhelming and so unchallengeable that we never cared to think about it.” Likewise, in 1941, Churchill lamented that “If we had taken common measures for our safety, this renewal of the curse need never have fallen upon us.”
Thus, after the war, after all the unthinkable horrors that could have been prevented by preparedness, Churchill called on the West to pursue “defense through deterrents” and warned well-intentioned advocates of disarmament that “sentiment must not cloud our vision.” That’s helpful advice as America hacks away at its conventional and strategic deterrent.
“Our difficulties and dangers will not be removed by closing our eyes to them,” Churchill said, in words that could just as well to apply to the threat posed by a nuclear Iran. “They will not be removed by mere waiting to see what happens; nor will they be removed by a policy of appeasement.”
He was talking about the Soviet Union of 1946, but he was remembering the Germany of 1936—and the many missed opportunities to deal with Hitler before he was armed and on the march.
“There never was a war in history easier to prevent by timely action than the one which has just desolated such great areas of the globe,” he explained to an American audience in 1946. “It could have been prevented, in my belief, without the firing of a single shot…but no one would listen and one by one we were all sucked into the awful whirlpool.”
Early on, all that the United States, Britain and their allies needed to do was “to have insisted on the fulfilment of the disarmament clauses of the treaties which Germany signed after the Great War,” he sighed. But the West fumbled those chances away. Even later, when Hitler had yet to seize the military and strategic advantage, Churchill tried to prod Britain into action. “Germany is arming fast, and no one is going to stop her,” he warned as a backbencher in Parliament, decrying how, “No one proposes preventive war to stop Germany from breaking the Treaty of Versailles.”
The window of opportunity to prevent Iran from going nuclear is closing. It seems no one is going to stop her. Instead, the West limps along, “decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift,” as Churchill said during an earlier time of troubles.
As Iran methodically marches toward the nuclear goal line, America and its closest allies are building a last line of defense. From the Middle East to Europe to North America, missile defenses are sprouting up in preparation for the day when Tehran’s terrorist tyranny breaks into the nuclear club.
Again, Churchill envisioned the need for such defenses. “The deterrent does not cover the case of lunatics,” he noted. To foil the plans of rabid regimes and death-wish dictators, Churchill called on allied nations to develop and maintain a “defensive shield.”
Churchill wasn’t talking specifically about missile defense, but there can be no doubt that he would have been an ardent supporter of it. After all, he ordered the RAF to, quite literally, intercept incoming V-1s, and he saw firsthand the devastation caused by those rockets that got through.
Churchill also offered advice for dealing with ISIS, al Qaeda and their jihadist brethren—advice U.S. policymakers are not heeding in the war on terror.
“One of the ways to bring this war to a speedy conclusion is to convince the enemy, not by words, but by deeds, that we have both the will and the means, not only to go on indefinitely, but to strike heavy and unexpected blows,” he intoned in 1940.
America is doing the very opposite. The ill-thought withdrawals, the empty promises that the “tide of war is receding,” the massive defense cuts, the strait-jacket rules of engagement, provide every indication that Washington is not serious about winning the war on terror. Just consider how Operation Inherent Resolve is being conducted in Syria and Iraq: As DefenseNews reports, the U.S.-led coalition is averaging 25 strike sorties per day. By way of comparison, a similar air-only campaign over Serbia and Kosovo in 1999 averaged 138 strike sorties a day. During Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the coalition conducted 1,600 strike/attack sorties per day. At the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, the coalition carried out 1,700 air sorties/missile launches on a single day. And last month, the mighty Syrian air force conducted 210 airstrikes in the span of 36 hours.
“The Middle East is one of the hardest-hearted areas in the world,” Churchill observed. “Your friends must be supported with every vigor and if necessary they must be avenged. Force, or perhaps force and bribery, are the only things that will be respected…At present our friendship is not valued, and our enmity is not feared.”
It’s easy to imagine a U.S. general saying something similar—out of earshot of the politicians.
There’s one more observation Churchill made that applies to our precarious position, a chilling parallel between yesterday’s fascists and today’s: “For the best part of 20 years the youth of Britain and America have been taught that war was evil, which is true, and that it would never come again, which has been proved false,” Churchill said in 1941. “For the best part of 20 years, the youth of Germany, of Japan and Italy, have been taught that aggressive war is the noblest duty of the citizen and that it should be begun as soon as the necessary weapons and organization have been made. We have performed the duties and tasks of peace. They have plotted and planned for war. This naturally has placed us, in Britain, and now places you in the United States at a disadvantage which only time, courage and untiring exertion can correct.”
Churchill and Reagan
“The West is full of Chamberlains,” former Pentagon official Dov Zakheim recently observed. To extend the historical parallel, the world thirsts for a Churchill, someone to rally the demoralized democracies.
President Obama has the platform and the rhetorical skills to play that part. But he seems unwilling to do so. And so the world waits for someone to lead, someone to speak up and push back, someone to “mobilize the English language,” as historian David Cannadine wrote of Churchill.
At a desperate hour for freedom, Reagan stepped up and stepped into Churchill’s shoes. Indeed, Reagan often invoked Churchill to defend the West, to rally the civilized world, to shame latter-day Chamberlains who sought peace at any cost. In his book “Greatness” Steven Hayward notes that “Reagan quoted or mentioned the example of Churchill more than 150 times during his presidency.”
In fact, Reagan fittingly quoted Churchill in his 1964 “Time for Choosing” speech, which served as the beginning of Reagan’s political life. Then, at the beginning of his presidency, Reagan quoted Churchill again, in his 1981 inaugural address: “To paraphrase Winston Churchill, I did not take the oath I’ve just taken with the intention of presiding over the dissolution of the world’s strongest economy.”
From there, Reagan’s presidency—his defense of liberty, struggle against totalitarianism, victory over an evil empire—would parallel Churchill’s years at Number 10. Churchill and Reagan, Hayward concludes, possessed “political genius and political greatness at the highest level.”
The world misses them.