Winston Churchill: Not Much to Say Today?

Winston Churchill: Not Much to Say Today?

Today and yesterday

“If a man is com­ing across the sea to kill you, you do every­thing in your pow­er to make sure he dies before fin­ish­ing his jour­ney. That may be dif­fi­cult, it may be painful, but at least it is sim­ple. We are [today] enter­ing a world of impon­der­ables, and at every stage occa­sions for self-ques­tion­ing arise. Only one link in the chain of des­tiny can be han­dled at a time.”  —Win­ston S. Churchill, 18 Feb­ru­ary 1945

It was recent­ly assert­ed that Churchill doesn’t have much to say to us today, and that the only peo­ple who use Churchill as a guide nowa­days are “over-testos­teroned Amer­i­can neo­cons.” Let me say this about that.

I don’t par­tic­u­lar­ly care what “Amer­i­can neo­cons” think. Giv­en the mon­ey raised and spent, the suc­cess­es attained, and the enthu­si­as­tic recep­tion of Churchill sem­i­nars, sym­posia and teacher insti­tutes over the last forty years on what we can learn from Churchill—by Hills­dale Col­lege, the Churchill Cen­tre, Ash­land Uni­ver­si­ty, the Col­lege of William and Mary, George Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty and the Churchill Muse­ums in Lon­don and Ful­ton, to name a few—such a dec­la­ra­tion seems incomprehensible.

The Soames Commandment

Churchill’s daughter’s famous com­mand­ment, “Thou shalt not say what my papa would do today,” is broad­ly mis­un­der­stood. She was refer­ring to doc­tri­naire pro­nounce­ments about spe­cif­ic poli­cies: because Churchill did W about X in 1935, he would do Y about Z today. Such a pro­nounce­ment is alike futile and foolish.

In a broad­er sense, how­ev­er, Lady Soames agreed that his pre­cepts, his prin­ci­ples, can be applied today. For exam­ple, her father talked about the pri­ma­cy of con­science in his eulo­gy of Neville Cham­ber­lain. He would fol­low that pri­ma­cy if he were alive now.

Learning is so essential

Every turn of events has its unique fea­tures. Under­stand­ing them, and apply­ing prin­ci­ples to them today, is still the chal­lenge. The study of his­to­ry depends upon find­ing truths that per­sist and are under­stand­able across time.

The chal­lenge for lead­ers today is to judge whether dis­cre­tion should take pri­or­i­ty over bold­ness, whether diplo­ma­cy is a fea­si­ble option, and when and where to deploy a bluff. In these areas, Churchill’s expe­ri­ence is an invalu­able guide, because human nature is unchanging.

Was Churchill right that the Sec­ond World War was pre­ventable? The answer, I think, is yes—at one junc­ture in particular—but with great difficulty.

Was he right that it is fool­ish to put off unpleas­ant real­i­ty “until self-preser­va­tion strikes its jar­ring gong”? Undoubt­ed­ly. There is noth­ing that dates that advice.

The sad sto­ry of Churchill’s failed attempt to pre­vent the great­est of wars reminds us once again of a max­im by some­one oth­er than he: The price of lib­er­ty is eter­nal vigilance.


Excerpt­ed from the pref­ace to my book, Churchill and the Avoid­able War, an exam­i­na­tion of his stance on the issues in the run-up to the Sec­ond World War from 1930 to 1939.

Further reading

“Conant, Churchill, and the Har­vard of 1943,” 2023.


2 thoughts on “Winston Churchill: Not Much to Say Today?

  1. When­ev­er I need a respite from the yam­mer­ing of today’s politi­cians — on both sides of the aisle — it is reju­ve­nat­ing to reread Churchill’s com­ments on the prob­lems of his day. His clar­i­ty of thought and the remark­able way in which he uses the Eng­lish lan­guage, rather than man­gling it, is a con­tin­u­ing delight.
    — Car­ol Fer­gu­son, Her­ald-Ban­ner, Greenville, Texas

  2. Won­der­ful quote; any­one who thinks Churchill is passé (or unin­ter­est­ing) is a fool or a big­ot or both. Churchill is wise; Churchill is wit­ty and Churchill is a great lit­er­ary voice, one of the great­est. He stands with the great­est authors in the Eng­lish language—even with Shaw, per­haps high­er since he was wis­er. To me along with Dick­ens, Shake­speare and the Bible he is an indis­pens­able Eng­lish lan­gauge author and ora­tor. And don’t just trust me -trust John F. Kennedy and so many oth­ers who believed as I do. I look for­ward to your next book. 

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