Churchill 101: Three Reasons to Learn about Sir Winston

Churchill 101: Three Reasons to Learn about Sir Winston

Orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten for and pub­lished by the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. This is one of sev­er­al forth­com­ing arti­cles intend­ed to encour­age younger read­ers to learn about Churchill. Read­er com­ment, sug­ges­tions of fur­ther points to make, and oth­er arti­cles on the same theme, would be appreciated.


Learn …

Who was Win­ston Churchill? Why, half a cen­tu­ry since his death, is he the most quot­ed his­tor­i­cal fig­ure? Schol­ars know the answers. Do you? Why does it matter?

It mat­ters because Churchill con­tin­ues to offer guid­ance and exam­ple today. His indomitable courage, his abil­i­ty to com­mu­ni­cate, his knowl­edge of his­to­ry, his polit­i­cal pre­cepts, are as valu­able now as they were in his time.

Courage and resolution

Churchill him­self said “noth­ing sur­pass­es 1940.” We must look there for to learn of his great­est accom­plish­ment. With­out him the world today would be unrec­og­niz­able: dark, impov­er­ished, tor­tured. Churchill didn’t win the Sec­ond World War. That took more than he alone could offer. His tri­umphant achieve­ment was not los­ing it.

Churchill did that in two ways: pur­su­ing the para­mount goal to the exclu­sion of all oth­ers; and com­mu­ni­cat­ing that goal to a baf­fled and fright­ened world.

The great move­ments that under­lie his­to­ry are the devel­op­ment of sci­ence, indus­try, cul­ture, social and polit­i­cal struc­tures, wrote Charles Krautham­mer:

These are unde­ni­ably pow­er­ful, almost deter­mi­nant.  Yet every once in a while, a sin­gle per­son aris­es with­out whom every­thing would be dif­fer­ent…. The orig­i­nal­i­ty of the 20th cen­tu­ry sure­ly lay in its pol­i­tics. It invent­ed the police state and the com­mand econ­o­my, mass mobi­liza­tion and mass pro­pa­gan­da, mech­a­nized mur­der and rou­tinized terror—a breath­tak­ing cat­a­log of polit­i­cal cre­ativ­i­ty. And the 20th is a sin­gle sto­ry because his­to­ry saw fit to lodge the entire episode in a sin­gle cen­tu­ry. Total­i­tar­i­an­ism turned out to be a cul-de-sac. It came and went. It has a begin­ning and an end, 1917 and 1991, a run of sev­en­ty-five years neat­ly nes­tled into the last cen­tu­ry. That is our story.

And who is the hero of that sto­ry? Who slew the drag­on? Yes, it was the ordi­nary man and woman, the tax­pay­er, the grunt who fought and won the wars. True, it was Amer­i­ca and its allies. Indeed, it was the great lead­ers: Roo­sevelt, de Gaulle, Ade­nauer, Tru­man, John Paul II, Mar­garet Thatch­er, Ronald Rea­gan. But above all, vic­to­ry required one man with­out whom the fight would have been lost at the begin­ning. It required Win­ston Churchill.

Learn more: Win­ston Churchill’s War Lead­er­ship, by Mar­tin Gilbert; Churchill and War, by Geof­frey Best.

Right and freedom

Almost all his life, Churchill’s quar­rel was with tyran­ny. But sin­gu­lar­ly among politi­cians of his time, he saw the future—and its impli­ca­tions for good or ill. Churchill pre­dict­ed today’s age of instant com­mu­ni­ca­tions. He fore­saw the nuclear age, the mobile phone, social media, genet­ic engi­neer­ing. He feared the chal­lenge to free gov­ern­ment through what he called “Mass Effects on Mod­ern Life.” It is use­ful to learn how he expressed these warn­ings, which still apply.

As ear­ly as 1908, Churchill’s ideas, speech­es and leg­isla­tive accom­plish­ments pro­duced pio­neer­ing reforms in the social struc­ture. His aim was to reform what was bad and to pre­serve what was good, with­out dis­rupt­ing the enter­prise that pro­duces the where­with­al to make life worth liv­ing. That is still a wor­thy goal.

* * *

At the same time, Churchill fore­saw the all-pow­er­ful admin­is­tra­tive state. Many an advance in sci­ence, tech­nol­o­gy and com­mu­ni­ca­tion, Churchill argued, “sup­press­es the indi­vid­ual achieve­ment.” He deplored the rise of the col­lec­tive at the expense of the indi­vid­ual: “Is not mankind already escap­ing from the con­trol of indi­vid­u­als? Are not our affairs increas­ing­ly being set­tled by mass process­es? Are not mod­ern conditions—at any rate through­out the Eng­lish-speak­ing communities—hostile to the devel­op­ment of out­stand­ing per­son­al­i­ties and to their influ­ence upon events; and last­ly if this be true, will it be for our greater good and glo­ry?” Today such ques­tions mer­it exam­i­na­tion by thought­ful people.

The news­pa­pers do a lot of think­ing for us, Churchill wrote. Sub­sti­tute “media” for “news­pa­pers” and he could be speak­ing today. He par­tic­u­lar­ly wor­ried about the super­fi­cial­i­ty of media. True, it pro­vides “a tremen­dous edu­cat­ing process. But it is an edu­ca­tion which pass­es in at one ear and out at the oth­er. It is an edu­ca­tion at once uni­ver­sal and super­fi­cial.” Such a process, tak­en to its ulti­mate ends, would pro­duce “stan­dard­ized cit­i­zens, all equipped with reg­u­la­tion opin­ions, prej­u­dices and sen­ti­ments, accord­ing to their class or party.”

These con­sid­er­a­tions alone, writes Lar­ry Arnn,

offer ample prac­ti­cal rea­sons to know Churchill’s sto­ry; but there are oth­er rea­sons beyond the man­i­fest­ly prac­ti­cal. Jus­tice and the duty to pur­sue it are cen­tral to true states­man­ship. It is cer­tain­ly worth our time to con­sid­er how Churchill, who held to that idea as strong­ly as any, under­stood his and his country’s pur­pos­es and nav­i­gat­ed toward them.

Learn more: Churchill’s Polit­i­cal Phi­los­o­phyby Mar­tin Gilbert; Churchill’s Tri­al: Win­ston Churchill and the Chal­lenge to Free Gov­ern­ment, by Lar­ry P. Arnn.

Magnanimity and generosity

Anoth­er qual­i­ty wor­thy to learn was Churchill’s mag­na­nim­i­ty. He was not a hater. “I have always urged fight­ing wars and oth­er con­tentions with might and main till over­whelm­ing vic­to­ry,” he said, “and then offer­ing the hand of friend­ship to the van­quished.” He proved this repeatedly.

As a young states­man Churchill fos­tered a gen­er­ous peace with the Boers after their defeat in the Boer War. In 1918, he urged (vain­ly) that shiploads of food be sent to block­ad­ed Ger­many. He fought the 1926 Gen­er­al Strike, then argued for redress of strik­ers’ griev­ances. His hate for the Ger­mans in World War II “died with their surrender.”

* * *

He held the same atti­tude toward individuals—something we can only wish for among today’s politi­cians. Admi­ral Fish­er near­ly destroyed his career in 1915; a year lat­er Churchill advo­cat­ed Fisher’s return to the Admi­ral­ty. In 1945 the social­ist Clement Attlee inflict­ed his great­est polit­i­cal defeat. Yet when con­front­ed with jokes at Attlee’s expense, Churchill refused to be drawn into lam­poon­ing a man he described as a “gal­lant ser­vant of his coun­try.” In the 1930s he fought a bill grant­i­ng India greater inde­pen­dence, and then urged the Indi­an leader Gand­hi to “make the most of it,” and promised to see that India would get “much more.”

His eulo­gies to Neville Cham­ber­lain and Lloyd George were mas­ter­ful in their gen­eros­i­ty, Andrew Roberts wrote: “He did not believe in vengeance against domes­tic polit­i­cal oppo­nents, but rather in what he called, ‘A judi­cious and thrifty dis­pos­al of bile.’”

This was a rare qual­i­ty, even then. It remains an exam­ple worth imi­tat­ing. To those who had wronged him in the past Churchill would say, “time ends all things,” or “the past is dead.” In 1940, hav­ing final­ly risen to the pin­na­cle, he warned crit­ics of his pre­de­ces­sors: “If we open a quar­rel between the past and the present we shall find that we have lost the future.”

Learn more: Churchill as Peace­mak­er, James W. Muller, ed.; Great Con­tem­po­raries: Churchill Reflects on FDR, Hitler, Kipling, Chap­lin, Bal­four, and Oth­er Giants of His Age, by Win­ston S. Churchill.

“A man of quality”

We do tend to be dis­cour­aged about how things are going—although in our time, they haven’t gone all that bad­ly. The fall of the Sovi­et Union, the preva­lence of free mar­ket eco­nom­ics, were not things peo­ple would bet on forty years ago. Churchill saw them com­ing twen­ty years ear­li­er than that. He was always the opti­mist. Human­i­ty, he believed, was not going to destroy itself.

“In every sphere of human endeav­our, Churchill fore­saw the dan­gers and poten­tial for evil,” wrote Mar­tin Gilbert:

Many of those dan­gers are our dan­gers today. He also point­ed the way for­ward to our solutions—for tomor­row. That is why it is use­ful to learn about his life. Some writ­ers por­tray him as a fig­ure of the past, an anachro­nism, a grotesque. In doing so, it is they who are the losers, for he was a man of qual­i­ty: a good guide for our trou­bled decade and for the gen­er­a­tions now reach­ing adulthood.

2 thoughts on “Churchill 101: Three Reasons to Learn about Sir Winston

  1. Richard: This is, in two words, SIMPLY GREAT! I will be shar­ing the full arti­cle with my extend­ed fam­i­ly as com­pelling ratio­nale for my Churchill addic­tion. Who knows, maybe they will catch the bug themselves.

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