Harold Laski profiles the British leader whose iron will galvanized Britain and saved Europe from Nazism.
London, November 30
No citizen of Great Britain with any love for his country is likely to underestimate the debt it owes to Mr. Churchill. He took over the command of its fortunes when they were at a lower ebb than at any other time since Austerlitz. Save for the support of the other members of the Commonwealth, for a year our people stood alone. After the collapse of France men stood waiting to see Britain surrender. On any showing–numbers, equipment, the power to take the initiative, skill in the art of war on land, preparation, organizing technique–the advantage was on the German side.
Labor welcomed Mr. Churchill as Premier, but for some time his accession to power aroused no enthusiasm among the cohorts of his own party; when he entered the House of Commons for a debate, the applause he received on the Tory benches was formal. Yet within a few months his energy and his courage had awakened among the people a spirit of resolution which no enemy could break. He brought a unity of heart to the nation, a determination to de rather than to surrender, which, as in the weeks of the Battle of Britain, made a Nazi victory unthinkable. To the outside world, the fate of Britain might seem to hang by a thread, to its own citizens, confidence in triumph was born in the hour when, beyond its shores, defeat seemed most inevitable.
That is Mr. Churchill’s triumph, and it is no other man’s. Admit, as he would be the first to admit, that our people, in the air and on the sea, in field and factory, achieved the impossible, it was still by reason of his consummate leadership that they achieved it. Disaster made no difference; and not since the grim days of Bonaparte had a Prime Minister so dread a tale of disasters to tell. Night after night our cities were relentlessly blitzed; day after day men and women, red-eyed with fatigue, staggered half dead to their work. There was in that year a spirit of courage and fellowship and unbreakable faith which may have been equaled in the historical record but has never been surpassed.
Mr. Churchill saw, little by little, the awakening of the world to what was at stake. He laid the foundations of that Anglo-American partnership which the treachery of Japan sealed at Pearl Harbor; he achieved on June 22, 1941, one of those supreme gestures which make man the master of his fate when, in his sonorous utterance, he wiped out at a stroke the long and miserable tale of Anglo-Soviet misunderstanding and atoned so amply for his errors of 1917-20. Persistence, faith, unremitting zeal–these he displayed in a measure that made us all forget his faults and remember only that, if we followed him, the doom of Hitler and Mussolini was not a dream for which we could ache but an event which we could fulfil.
I do not underestimate the debt we all owe to the Russian people and, not less, to the iron will of its inflexible leader. I measure with a humble gratitude the contribution, first in resources and then in men, of the United States, and the degree in which the foresight and magnanimity of their President made their mobilization both possible and effective. If anyone says that we have bought time with millions of Russian lives in one theater of war and with millions of Chinese lives in another, I respectfully assent. If I am asked to agree that without Stalin and Chiang Kai-shek, without Franklin Roosevelt, and, if I may so phrase it, without the spirit which has come to the common peoples from a tradition as old as Pericles–if I am asked to agree that without these Winston Churchill would have failed and Hitler and his gangsters would have bestridden a beaten London as they bestrode a beaten Paris, I assent at once. But I assent adding–and as an Englishman adding with pride–that he did not need to hear the call of their voices; rather, in a long and bitter campaign, it was Mr. Churchill who called upon them, in speeches that have become a part of the imperishable testament of British freedom, to take their stand by his side. It is his glory that he understood the challenge of the enemy, and did not shrink from the battle implied in that challenge, when others sought to pretend that they could discern in the savage nightmare of a gangster’s barbarism the principles of a creative compromise. When the last word is said against Mr. Churchill, this can always be said in his behalf, that from 1933 there was never a moment when he was willing to betray by pretense what we all knew was a cause entitled to demand all that we have and are.