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.
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?”
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
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.