Winston Churchill is the most important figure in 20th century British history and will always be present on a top ten list of influential figures of the 20th century. In an age when the world wished to appease the actions and madness of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, Churchill acted alone as he warned of the grave dangers that would face the world if these two men and their ideologies would be allowed to spread across the world and be allowed to infect mankind. During World War II and in the years leading up to the conflict, Churchill saw things that others either did not see or wished to avoid. “Peace in our time,” Churchill knew, was bound to failure as it is impossible to rationalize the actions of an irrational man and that force and resolve are the only ways in which such a madman like Hitler can be defeated. The actions of Winston Churchill during World War II, the greatest and deadliest conflict in human history, solidified the man to a level of iconic hero; as the future of England may have been one in which Nazism would dictate their daily lives. Winston Churchill gave England and the rest of the world, wherever men and women wished to live free, the resolve and courage to fight until victory was found.
After World War I, both Britain and America took hold of an isolationist mentality. This was to be expected. Britain had suffered over 2.5 million casualties out of a total fighting force of over six million.[i] This constituted over 40% casualties of their entire force. It was understandable that Britain would do anything that they could in order to avoid a further war in which advances in technology made it possible that such casualty figures would pale in comparison to what might come in the next war. This was the ideology of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain who was hailed as the savior of Britain when in the fall of 1938, Chamberlain, in his return from Germany said: “My good friends, for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time.”[ii] Chamberlain would be horribly mistaken and when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, Britain knew that they would have to declare war on Germany and did on September 3rd, once they received the support of France. It was now Churchill that would be entrusted with the future of England. The stakes could not have been any higher.
No longer would Britain take a submissive role in the world when it came to their response of Hitler and his aggression. Hitler, due to her large and aggressive build up of arms, rolled over Europe in the early months of the war. Austria was annexed and France and Poland were overrun in weeks. What stood as an unbreakable form of resistance against Hitler was a small island out in the Atlantic Ocean called England. Churchill knew this and addressed the British people in what would become his most famous speech. “I would say to the House as I have said to those who have joined this government: ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat… You ask what is out policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength God can give us… You ask what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory. Victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.” [iii] Churchill gave no hint of respite to the British people and knew that England and her tiny island would have to use every bit of her strength in order to prolong the war in the hopes that America would eventually come to their aid. Churchill told the House of Commons in June 1940: “Death and sorrow will be the companions of our journey. Hardship our garment, constancy and valour our only shield”[iv] Despite the fact that Germany had superior numbers in all important categories, the appearance that Churchill made as a symbol to the English people is as important as the numbers of tanks and guns a country can produce. The British people were united in their resolve to fight the Axis powers and their unchecked aggression. “And now, in the spring of 1940, with the reign of power at last firm in his grasp, he resolved to lead Britain and her fading empire in one last great struggle worthy of all they had been meant, to arm the nation, not only with the weapons but also with the mace of honor, creating in every English breast a soul beneath the ribs of death.”[v] These actions would help to create in Winston Churchill, the symbol of British resolve in the face of insurmountable odds.
During World War II, Churchill traveled more than 100,000 miles. In these trips, Churchill tirelessly sought to increase British resolve and munitions in her fight against Hitler. The recipient of many of these visits was America’s president Franklin Roosevelt as Britain desperately needed America’s intervention into the war. This was a lofty goal in the years of 1939-1941 as America was firmly behind the idea of isolationism which had become increasingly popular in the immediate years after World War I. It would be the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor that would finally force America to acknowledge the actions in the rest of the world but before December 7, 1941, America made it known whose side she was on. This is not wholly the result of Churchill’s actions as America had been an ally of Britain in World War I but through the constant actions and positive rapport between Churchill and Roosevelt, the Lend Lease Act helped supply Britain with much needed ships and supplies in order to continue their fight against Hitler and the Axis power. These ships were leased to England but there was little expectation that England would be able to repay America with any possibility of profit. The ships were leased to Britain for 10% of its original value and given fifty years to repay America at a 2% interest.[vi] This agreement was highly unpopular in the states as the average American citizen, despite having positive feelings about England, desperately wanted to stay out of the war and felt that the Lend Lease Act violated America’s neutrality. In a Chicago Tribune poll, dated June 10, 1941, over 78% of the more than 1500 people polled, wanted to stay out of the war and believed that the Lend Lease Act was a step in the wrong direction.”[vii] The friendship that Churchill and Roosevelt had, helped to convince America that giving aid to England would be in the best interest of America as well as England. England can thank Churchill for that. While Churchill was successful in the years before American intervention into the war, it became painfully clear that Britain would emerge from the war, victorious but at a costly price. While at the meeting of the “Big Three” in Yalta or in Tehran in which America, Russia and Britain would decide on the future of Europe, it had become painfully clear that Britain would become much less relevant in the world as they had been in the years before. Churchill, a fierce proponent of Britain’s empire, knew that he was fighting a losing battle, not only with the hearts and minds of the British people but also with England’s pocket book as the war had nearly bankrupt the country. Also, despite his best efforts and warnings against the formation of an ally between the Soviet Union and America, Roosevelt aligned himself closely with Stalin and his influence in post war Europe. Churchill was relegated to a position of non importance and it would be the folly of the world that his warnings about the atrocious effects concerning future Soviet influence in Europe after the war, was wholly ignored as Roosevelt erroneously felt that Stalin’s power could always be kept in check. In 1946, Churchill made his famous “Iron Curtain” speech in which he correctly forewarned about the negative power that the Soviet Union and communism would have on the world. “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an Iron Curtain has descended across the continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere.” [viii] Churchill was correctly forecasting the political and social make up of the Soviet Union and all of its horrendous effects upon the world in what would last for another forty five years. His warnings were not heeded and the world was worse off because of their ignorance. Churchill recognized that aggression and evil in the world, as was seen in Nazi Germany, cannot be appeased. His actions in World War II, even in England where a sense of appeasement towards the current problem of terrorism prevails, the English, as well as the rest of the world, still recognize the fact that Churchill was the right man at the right time in history. His beliefs, although a source of alienation during his tenure under Prime Minister George during World War I and after as well as other times in his career in which he was at odds with the majority, proved to be the right fit and highly advantageous to not only Britain but the entire Allied forces as he became the symbol of resistance against Hitler and his pursuit of the world. It is accurate and correct that Winston Churchill be regarded as one of the most important figures in not only British history of 20th century history but world history.
[i] Goodman, Jules. Winston Churchill Boston: PBS Productions 2005
[ii] Goodman, Jules. Winston Churchill Boston: PBS Productions 2005
[iii] Manchester, William. The Last Lion: Alone 1932-1940. New York: Dell Publishing. 1987 pg. 678
[iv] Ibid. pg. 679
[v] Ibid. pg. 671
[vi] Goodman, Jules. Winston Churchill Boston: PBS Productions 2005
[vii] Americans Prefer Isolationism. In the Wake of the News. Chicago Daily Tribune. June 10, 1941
[viii] Churchill, Winston. A History of the English Speaking Peoples: abridged. LIFE Magazine. June 18, 1956
Churchill, Winston. A History of the English Speaking Peoples: abridged. LIFE Magazine. June 18, 1956
Goodman, Jules. Winston Churchill Boston: PBS Productions 2005
Manchester, William. The Last Lion: Alone 1932-1940. New York: Dell Publishing. 1987
Americans Prefer Isolationism. In the Wake of the News. Chicago Daily Tribune. June 10, 1941