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 now 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.”
Well, as Richard Nixon allegedly remarked, 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 thirty years on what we can learn from Churchill—by Hillsdale College, the Churchill Centre, the Churchill Archives 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 would seem to be incomprehensible.
Churchill’s daughter’s famous commandment, “Thou shalt not say what my father would do today,” is broadly misunderstood. She was referring to doctrinaire pronouncements about specific policies: because Churchill did X about Y in 1935, he would do X about Z in 2015. 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.
Every turn of events has its unique features. Understanding them, and applying principles to them, 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 World War II 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 Lost Years reminds us once again, if we have to be reminded, of a maxim by someone other than he, that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.
Excerpted from the preface to my next book, Churchill’s Lost Years, an examination of his stance on the issues in the run-up to World War II, from 1930 to 1939, to be published at the end of the year.