Alistair Cooke: Why didn’t They Listen to Churchill?

Alistair Cooke: Why didn’t They Listen to Churchill?

Alis­tair Cooke addressed this ques­tion over thir­ty years ago. I’ve quot­ed his words repeat­ed­ly over the years. A recent com­ment (reprised below), encour­aged this revi­sion from 2011. Mr. Cooke’s full speech is avail­able by email. RML

Back in the 1930s, who all denounced and crit­i­cized Churchill for his beliefs in the rad­i­cal Nazi Ger­many? Who specif­i­cal­ly mocked him? Obvi­ous­ly Churchill was right about Hitler and his plans but who in the polit­i­cal, intel­lec­tu­al, or enter­tain­ment are­nas vil­i­fied him? —A.H.

The answer to your ques­tion, I think, is “just about every­body,” from the Roy­al Fam­i­ly to ordi­nary cit­i­zens, most of the media, his own par­ty, the Labour and Lib­er­al par­ties, and cer­tain­ly most intel­lec­tu­als and enter­tain­ment personalities.

The chief rea­son was World War I, which had mas­sa­cred a gen­er­a­tion. It was still so near in mem­o­ry that no one wished to con­tem­plate anoth­er war. Inter­est­ing­ly, most of Churchill’s few sup­port­ers had seen war up close. Two mem­bers of the Cham­ber­lain cab­i­net—Antho­ny Eden and Alfred Duff Coop­er—were among them.

Alis­tair Cooke, 1908-2004. (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

Alistair Cooke

A mem­o­rable Churchill Con­fer­ence occurred at Bret­ton Woods, New Hamp­shire in 1988. Our guest of hon­or, Mr. Cooke deliv­ered his first­hand obser­va­tions of Churchill between the two World Wars. His expla­na­tion of how Churchill was regard­ed in his “Wilder­ness Years” were the most sen­si­tive and under­stand­ing I have heard:

Those years, espe­cial­ly, have been over-dra­ma­tized. Our knowl­edge of the tremen­dous dra­ma to come makes us see Churchill as a reject­ed giant, a lone­ly, stub­born hero, who in the end was right. Most of us would like to think that had we been in Britain then, we should have been on Churchill’s side. We’d have said, “Yes, it’s true about the Ger­man air force.” In fact I don’t think most of us would have backed him. To many he was a rant­i­ng nui­sance. Out of pow­er, he had two obses­sions: India and Hitler.

“Against War and Fascism”

When he got up to speak, he would rant about India as the “Jew­el in the Crown.” Or about the immi­nent per­il of Hitler. We must remem­ber that even by the 1930s the coun­try was exhaust­ed still from the enor­mous slaugh­ter of the First World War. There were two slo­gans going around: “Peace at any Price” and “Against War and Fas­cism.” Sure­ly these were two of the sil­li­est slo­gans. One might as well be “Against Hos­pi­tals and Dis­eases.” But these con­tra­dic­to­ry slo­gans were accept­ed. Because at that time most peo­ple in Britain felt they would do any­thing to get rid of Hitler—except fight him. And that was what they per­ceived Churchill want­ed to do.

I remem­ber it so well. Alis­tair Cooke then looked out at an audi­ence of 400 com­mit­ted Churchillians and fixed them with a steely eye. “And ladies and gen­tle­men: If you had been alive and sen­tient and British then, not one in ten of you would have been with him.”

2 thoughts on “Alistair Cooke: Why didn’t They Listen to Churchill?

  1. I am Alis­tair Cooke’s lit­er­ary execu­tor and also edi­tor of the pub­lished vol­ume Let­ter from Amer­i­ca in 2004 (recent­ly reis­sued as a Pen­guin Mod­ern Clas­sic). I’ve much enjoyed brows­ing your web­site and par­tic­u­lar­ly the rem­i­nis­cences of AC. As you have invit­ed requests, would it be pos­si­ble to receive a copy of his full speech giv­en at the 1988 con­fer­ence? Many thanks, Col­in Webb

    Col­in, sent with every delight. -Richard

  2. From Robert J. Mack, whose 2020 com­ment prompt­ed me to update and repost this article:

    Great post. The First World War casu­al­ties def­i­nite­ly infused the British peo­ple with appease­ment at all costs. And Churchill was a nudge about Hitler and the buildup of the Nazi air force. Thank God he per­sist­ed and that he had his con­tacts pro­vid­ing just how dead­ly the Nazi regime was.

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