Churchill, Canada and the Perspective of History (Part 1)

Churchill, Canada and the Perspective of History (Part 1)

Address to the Sir Win­ston Churchill Soci­ety of Ottawa, Ontario, Cana­da, on Churchill’s 144th birth­day, 30 Novem­ber 2018 (Part 1). We were kind­ly host­ed at Earn­scliffe by the British High Com­mis­sion­er, Susan le Jeune d’Allegeershecque.

Churchill and Canada, 144 Years On

Richard, Bar­bara and Ron Cohen in the Sen­ate Chamber.

I thank Ron Cohen. And return his com­pli­ments. I thank him for his scholarship—especially his great Bib­li­og­ra­phy of the Writ­ings of Sir Win­ston Churchill, which is one of the eight or ten stan­dard works on Win­ston Churchill. And for his prowess as bag man, help­ing me emp­ty the book­shops of Hay-on-Wye, which he has just described to you.

In 1954, Prime Min­is­ter Louis St. Lau­rent arrived in Lon­don, exhaust­ed from a world tour. A fre­quent trav­el­er, Sir Win­ston offered him advice: “Nev­er stand when you can sit. Nev­er sit when you can lie down. Nev­er miss an oppor­tu­ni­ty to vis­it a wash­room.” It falls on me to stand. But since I promised Ron not to take more than 3 1/2 hours, I’m sure I can make it.

Sir Win­ston lies at Bladon in Eng­lish earth, “which in his finest hour he held invi­o­late.” He would enjoy the con­tro­ver­sy he stirs today, on media he nev­er dreamed of. He would rev­el in the assaults of his detrac­tors, the ripostes of his defend­ers. The vision “of mid­dle-aged gen­tle­men who are my polit­i­cal oppo­nents being in a state of uproar and fury is real­ly quite exhil­a­rat­ing to me,” he said. Yes, and the not so mid­dle-aged, too.

I have five quick points to make. One of them is Churchill’s over­rid­ing message—I dif­fer in this from some of my col­leagues. Anoth­er is, Churchill’s encoun­ters with Cana­da. They are many, and they are impor­tant. I’ll then describe what Cana­da meant to him. And I’ll say what the world thinks of him right now. Final­ly we’ll look at where he stands in the per­spec­tive of his­to­ry: what is it about him that is most worth bring­ing to the atten­tion of thought­ful people.

What is Churchill’s overriding message?

At this hour on New Year’s Eve 1941, the day after he spoke here, describ­ing Britain as a chick­en with an unwringable neck, Churchill was on a train hurtling past Nia­gara Falls. He was head­ing back to Wash­ing­ton, to fin­ish telling the Amer­i­cans what the war was like. You prob­a­bly know what he said when a col­league urged him to approach the U.S. with cau­tion and def­er­ence. “Oh! That is the way we talked to her while we were woo­ing her. Now that she is in the harem, we talk to her quite differently!”

The war had gone glob­al, and Mr. Churchill was on top of his game. As the sweep sec­ond hand of “The Turnip,” his gold Breguet pock­et watch, count­ed down the final moments of 1941, he called staff and reporters to the din­ing car. There, rais­ing his glass, he made this toast: “Here’s to 1942. Here’s to a year of toil—a year of strug­gle and per­il, and a long step for­ward toward vic­to­ry. May we all come through safe and with hon­our.” That was a tough year. But came through we did.

I think this was his over­rid­ing mes­sage then. I think it is still his mes­sage today. No, there is no Third Reich, no Impe­r­i­al Japan. But there are state­less ene­mies who seek our ruin. There is eco­nom­ic uncer­tain­ty. There are strains between old friends. What a time for Churchill’s strength and opti­mism. And there he is to encour­age us: nev­er despair, we will all come through safe and with honor.

* * *

How often he knew exact­ly what to say! It’s true he insist­ed that the peo­ple had the “lion heart,” that he had mere­ly pro­vid­ed the roar; that he had always earned his liv­ing by his pen and his tongue. What did they expect? They came through that time in part because they were led by a pro­fes­sion­al writer. And today, 144 years since his birth, his words, states­man­ship, opti­mism and courage still beck­on to us. We are right to wor­ry over cur­rent events. And to remem­ber Churchill’s unswerv­ing faith that all will come right.

I like what a Churchill speak­er, the pub­lish­er William Rush­er, said to us at a con­fer­ence in Banff: “I know we have a ten­den­cy to be dis­cour­aged about how things are going,” Bill said, “although in our time, you know, they haven’t gone all that bad­ly. The Marx­ist idea lies in ruins. Free mar­ket eco­nom­ics, which I wouldn’t have giv­en you a plugged nick­el for at the end of World War II, is now so pop­u­lar that even Chi­na calls its pol­i­cy ‘Mar­ket Social­ism,’ what­ev­er that is. These are big vic­to­ries. There is still much that is wor­ri­some. But Churchill, if he were here, would encour­age us: Nev­er despair. Nev­er give in.” Good advice. And just look–despite all the ker­fuf­fle, we even have new North Amer­i­can trade deal!

Encounters with Canada

Our theme is the per­spec­tive of his­to­ry, and since we are where we are, let’s start with the per­spec­tive of Canada—for much has emerged about Churchill and what he called “the linch­pin of the Eng­lish-speak­ing world.”

David Dilks’s 2005 book The Great Domin­ion is a sig­nal lega­cy. Churchill loved Cana­da, David wrote. “He nev­er returned to India after 1899, or to South Africa after the Boer War. He nev­er vis­it­ed Aus­tralia, New Zealand, British South­east Asia, the British Pacif­ic. Half-Amer­i­can though he was, he nev­er con­sid­ered the Great Domin­ion an appen­dix to the Unit­ed States, nor regard­ed Cana­di­ans as decaf­feinat­ed Americans.”

In ear­ly 1901 he was lec­tur­ing in Man­i­to­ba, which aston­ished him. “At the back of the town,” he wrote his moth­er, “there is a wheat field 980 miles long and 230 broad…a vis­it here is most exhil­a­rat­ing.” It was there that he heard Queen Vic­to­ria had died. He was struck by the shared sense of loss: “The news reached us at Win­nipeg,” he wrote, “and this city far away among the snows, 1400 miles from any town of impor­tance, began to hang its head and hoist half-mast­ed flags.”

* * *

On his next vis­it in 1929 he con­tem­plat­ed mov­ing here. “Dar­ling, I am great­ly attract­ed to this coun­try,” he wrote his wife. “Immense devel­op­ments are going forward….I have made up my mind that if Neville Cham­ber­lain is made leader of the Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty or any­one else of that kind, I clear out of pol­i­tics and see if I can­not make you and the kit­tens a lit­tle more com­fort­able before I die. Only one goal still attracts me, and if that were barred I should quit the drea­ry field for pas­tures new….But the time for deci­sion is not yet.”

Who knows what would have hap­pened? Would he have become a Van­cou­ver tim­ber mogul, an Edmon­ton oil baron, or got into Par­lia­ment? Prob­a­bly the lat­ter. After all, as he once told the U.S. Con­gress, if things had been dif­fer­ent he might have got there on his own. It’s prob­a­bly just as well, I think we all agree, that he didn’t emigrate—Neville or no Neville.

What did Canada mean to Churchill?

He vis­it­ed Cana­da again on his 1932 lec­ture tour, four times dur­ing the war, twice in the Fifties—nine times in all. Fifty-four years after his first vis­it he arrived for his last. “I love com­ing,” he told reporters. “Cana­da is the mas­ter link in Anglo-Amer­i­can uni­ty, apart from all her oth­er glo­ries.” And he added, in French—“I think of Cana­da as being almost my own country.”

He respect­ed Canada’s con­tri­bu­tions to lib­er­ty. “We have not jour­neyed all this way across the cen­turies, across the oceans, across the moun­tains, across the prairies,” he told Cana­di­ans in 1941, “because we are made of sug­ar can­dy.” They didn’t have to be told. Today we see in Cana­da tol­er­ance, equal­i­ty, the gold­en rule. Eighty years ago there was a some­what lim­it­ed tol­er­ance for cer­tain per­sons, and it led to play­ing a huge part in the wars that made us what we are today.

When World War I end­ed 100 years ago last month, Cana­da had suf­fered 263,000 casu­al­ties, eight times the num­ber per capi­ta of the USA. When World War II began, Cana­da had 10,000 sol­diers and ten Bren guns. By the end of the war there were a mil­lion men in uni­form, and 25,000 enlist­ed women. 107,000 were killed or wound­ed, again more per capi­ta than the Unit­ed States.

* * *

At din­ner here at Lau­ri­er House after his 1941 speech to Par­lia­ment, Prime Min­is­ter Macken­zie King said, “Cana­da plans to make an imme­di­ate gift to you of one bil­lion dol­lars.” Churchill, accus­tomed to speak­ing in Eng­lish terms of “a thou­sand mil­lion,” wasn’t sure he’d heard right. He asked King to repeat him­self. “A bil­lion dol­lars,” Mr. King said. Then he added two bil­lion in cash and inter­est-free loans. That is $57 bil­lion in today’s money—twice the size of your cur­rent defense bud­get. Churchill was floored.

From the start of the war, Cana­di­an food sup­plies and con­voys kept Britain from starv­ing. Toward the end, Cana­di­an min­ers sup­plied ingre­di­ents for “Tube Alloys,” the atom­ic bomb. Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Clement Attlee scarce­ly knew about it. “Macken­zie King knew every­thing about it, through Min­is­ter of Muni­tions C.D. Howe, who held a seat on the project’s board.

Nor was World War II the end of Canada’s con­tri­bu­tions. Cana­di­ans fought and died in Korea, Viet­nam, Afghanistan. A Cana­di­an gen­er­al direct­ed the NATO effort in Libya. No peace­keep­ing force in the past fifty years was with­out Canadians.

David Dilks brought all this out mas­ter­ful­ly in his book. “That is what Cana­da has done,” he said—“in NATO, the UN, the Com­mon­wealth and in peace-keep­ing oper­a­tions. My audi­ence con­tains many dis­tin­guished Cana­di­ans. I hope they will allow me to say what is felt by count­less peo­ple in Britain and Amer­i­ca, but too sel­dom expressed: Thank you a thou­sand times.”

Con­tin­ued in Part 2…

One thought on “Churchill, Canada and the Perspective of History (Part 1)

  1. Bra­vo for your speech in Cana­da. Sor­ry I couldn’t be there in per­son. Instead I spoke to your friends of the New Eng­land Churchillians in Boston on Nov. 3oth. A good meet­ing with extra time to enrich Brat­tle Book­shop and have more than one bowl of chow­dah. All the best to you and Barbara. 

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