Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965) was a British politician, army officer, writer, and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1940 to 1945, famous for his rousing speeches to strengthen England at the lowest point of World War Two. He was prime minister again for the Conservative Party from 1951 to 1955. Overall, he is the most dominant figure in twentieth century British politics.
Scroll down to find resources on his childhood, life, political career, and most important speeches.
Overview of Winston Churchill’s Life
The product of an alcoholic, syphilitic father and promiscuous American mother, Winston Churchill was one of the greatest figures of the twentieth century. Ironically, he would never have come to greatness but for his contemporary and bitter rival Adolf Hitler.
Descended from the Dukes of Marlborough, Churchill was primed for success despite his parental problems. He graduated from the Sandhurst military academy in 1895 and embarked upon a dizzying army career. He reported news from Cuba, served in India, and in 1898 he fought in the battle of Omdurman in Sudan, where he rode in one of the last great cavalry charges. The following year he was a newspaper correspondent in South Africa, covering the Boer War. Not yet twenty-five, he received a thousand dollars a month plus expenses—a staggering amount, but London’s Morning Post considered him worth it. He was audacious and innovative, and as a later biographer said, ‘‘Churchill used the English language as if he invented it.’’ He also provided drama: captured by the Boers, he completed a daring escape and returned to safety despite a bounty on his head.
Government posts came Churchill’s way almost automatically. Before the Great War he sat in Parliament as a Conservative, Tory, and Liberal. He became Undersecretary of the Colonies, president of the Board of Trade, and Home Secretary. He also found time to marry the Honorable Clementine Hozier in 1908. They had a son and two daughters.
In 1911 Churchill became First Sea Lord, bringing important changes to the Royal Navy. He recognized the potential of the submarine and airplane, learned to fly, and established the Royal Naval Air Service. However, in 1915, during World War I his ambitious strategy for the Dardenelles led to the debacle at Gallipoli. Forced from the cabinet, he cheerfully returned to the army and commanded a Scottish battalion on the western front. He also was a major factor behind development of the armored fighting vehicle—which he named, for all time, the tank.
Churchill was back in the cabinet by mid-1917 and finished the war as minister of munitions. He opposed postwar accommodations with Indian separatists such as Gandhi and was involved in other international affairs as colonial secretary, including establishment of the Iraqi nation in 1921. Over the next several years he was in and out of Parliament and government, earning an exceptional living from writing.
During the 1930s Churchill expressed growing concern over the resurgence of German nationalism. After Adolf Hitler assumed power in 1933, the former sea lord urged strengthening the Royal Navy, but few Britons heeded him. However, as the German Führer went from success to success, it became apparent that Nazi ambition could not be contained. Churchill had only contempt for appeasers like Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and U.S. ambassador Joseph Kennedy, but with declaration of war in September 1939 Churchill the warhorse felt justified in returning to harness. When he resumed his position as First Sea Lord after twenty-four years, the Admiralty signaled the fleet, ‘‘Winston is back.’’
With Chamberlain’s policies and moral authority irrefutably discredited, Churchill became prime minister on 10 May 1940. Immediately faced with the fall of France and the possible invasion of England, Churchill directed his immense energy and ability to defense of Shakespeare’s ‘‘scepter’d isle.’’ He shrugged off suggestions by some right-wing politicians and allegedly a few members of the royal family to reach an accommodation with Hitler. Through the summer and fall the Battle of Britain was fought and won in English skies, and the Nazi invasion fleet—such as it was—never sailed. Churchill’s masterful oratory gripped the world’s attention in concert with the epic events unfolding about him.
The following year was equally crucial, witnessing Germany’s attack on Russia and America’s entry into the war. Churchill had already established a warm relationship with President Franklin Roosevelt and put aside an instinctive dislike and distrust for Soviet premier Joseph Stalin. Churchill, a firm anticommunist, knew Stalin for what he was—unlike Roosevelt, who consistently made allowances for the Soviet dictator, fondly calling the genocidal despot ‘‘Uncle Joe.’’ Despite their personal and national differences with respect to communist Russia, Churchill and Roosevelt remained staunch allies throughout the war. They quickly decided on a ‘‘Germany first’’ strategy, but in early 1942 the main threat was from Japan, which was rolling up easy victories in the Philippines, Singapore, and Malaya.
In December 1943 the first Big Three meeting was held in Tehran, Iran, agreeing upon the Anglo-American landings in northern France sometime in the summer of 1944. Churchill and Roosevelt maintained almost daily contact by phone and mail, with some 1,700 messages between the two leaders; a frequent topic was Overlord and its myriad details.
Despite his enthusiasm and aggressiveness, Churchill retained doubts about Overlord. Perhaps he still stung from the Gallipoli failure twenty-nine years before, but in any case Churchill was atypically cautious. He favored a Mediterranean approach, up the boot of Italy via the ‘‘soft underbelly of Europe.’’ Even when the Italian campaign bogged down he told Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, ‘‘If [by winter] you have secured the port at Le Havre and freed beautiful Paris from the hands of the enemy, I will assert the victory to be the greatest of modern times.’’
Once the decision had been made, Churchill was Overlord’s fierce advocate. He reveled in the tactics and gadgets that characterized the greatest amphibious operation yet attempted—he was especially taken with the Mulberry portable harbors. He also informed Eisenhower of his intention to observe the landings from a British cruiser. The supreme commander replied that Churchill was far too valuable to risk and prohibited it. Churchill calmly replied that as a British citizen he would sign on aboard one of His Majesty’s ships, whereupon Eisenhower’s headquarters contacted Buckingham Palace. King George thereupon called Churchill, declaring that if the prime minister went to Normandy, the monarch could do no less. Churchill relented.
While largely unstated, one of Churchill’s major concerns was limiting Soviet territorial gains in Europe. Having an eye toward the postwar world, he did not want Stalin in control of formerly democratic nations. However, geopolitics required further cooperation with his unlikely ally, and Churchill met Roosevelt for the last time in Stalin’s domain—Yalta in the Crimea, in February 1945. Victory in Europe was visible by then, though with more hard fighting to come in the Pacific. Roosevelt’s premature death in April ended the original Big Three.
The English-speaking world was stunned when Churchill was turned out of office in July 1945. What appeared to be staggering ingratitude by the British voters probably was better explained by the approaching peace. Winston Churchill was a warrior by instinct and by preference; his countrymen recognized that fact and considered Labour’s candidate, Clement Atlee, better suited for peacetime challenges. With Japan’s surrender in September, those concerns became even more immediate. He regained the prime ministership in 1951.
Churchill finally retired in 1955 at the age of eighty-one. He continued writing, speaking, and painting for the next decade, gaining additional honors. His multivolume history The Second World War received the 1953 Nobel Prize for literature, but he wrote twenty other histories and biographies as well. That same year he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth. He was made an honorary American citizen in 1963.
Sir Winston Churchill died in his ninetieth year, on 24 January 1965. Two generations mourned him; kings, queens, and presidents paid him tribute, and historians acknowledged their debt.
Churchill’s place in history is assured; with Hitler he remains a towering political figure of the twentieth century. His courage, determination, and leadership during Britain’s greatest peril mark him for the ages. However unlikely the success of a German invasion of Britain in 1940 now seems—‘‘Overlord in reverse’’—it did not seem so at the time. When some of his fellow Britons and not a few Americans called for capitulation or accommodation, Winston Churchill chomped his cigar, flashed his V-for-victory sign, and uttered a defiant ‘‘No!’’ that echoes down the ages.
Key Dates in the Life of Winston Churchill
Born – 30th November 1874, Blenheim, Oxfordshire
Parents – Lord Randolph Spencer-Churchill, Jennie Jerome
Siblings – John
Married – Clementine Hozier
Children – Diana, Randolph, Sarah, Marigold, Mary
Died – 24th January 1965, London
Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill was born at Blenheim Palace on 30th November 1874, the eldest son of Lord Randolph Spencer-Churchill and Jennie Jerome.
The young Winston was not a good scholar and was often punished for his poor performance. In 1888 he was sent to Harrow school where he did well in History and English. In 1893 he was accepted at Sandhurst Military College. He saw action in India and the Sudan and supplemented his pay by writing reports and articles for the Daily Telegraph. In 1899 Churchill was in South Africa working as war correspondent for the Morning Post newspaper.
In 1900 he entered politics as Conservative Member of Parliament for Oldham. However, he disagreed with his party over the issue of free trade and social reform and in 1904 became a member of the Liberal party. In the 1906 General Election he was elected as Member of Parliament for Manchester North-West. In 1908 he joined the cabinet as President of the Board of Trade and set up Labour Exchanges to help the unemployed find work. He also introduced a minimum wage.
In 1911 Churchill was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty. However, he resigned from government after taking much of the blame for the disastrous Gallipoli campaign in 1915. In July 1917 he returned to the government as Minister for Munitions and in 1919 became War Minister.
Divisions in the Liberal Party led to Churchill’s defeat in the election of 1922. He rejoined the Conservative Party and returned to government as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1924. In 1929 the Conservatives were defeated at the election and Churchill was no longer a part of the government.
Churchill’s opposition to Indian independence, his support for Edward VIII’s abdication, his call for Britain to form an alliance with Russia and his continual warnings about the rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany led to his being seen as an extremist. However, when the Second World War broke out in 1939 Churchill returned to government as First Lord of the Admiralty. When Chamberlain resigned as Prime Minister in 1940 Churchill took his place at the head of a coalition government.
As War Prime Minister Churchill was tireless in his refusal to surrender Britain to Germany. His now famous speeches were an inspiration to British people to stand firm in the face of adversity. His strong relationship with Roosevelt led to an influx of American supplies to support the war effort. He also maintained an alliance with Stalin following Germany’s invasion of Russia in 1941.
After the war Churchill lost the 1945 election but remained as Head of the opposition Conservative government. He was re-elected Prime Minister in 1951 but resigned the position in 1955. He continued to be a Member of Parliament until 1964. He died in January 1965 and was given a state funeral.
Winston Churchill’s Family Tree
Winston Churchill cared deeply about the Churchill Family Tree, because he believed that the past held the keys of understanding the future.
His simple and frequently repeated advice can be boiled down to two words “Study history, study history.” He added, “In history lie all the secrets of statecraft.” It was a familiar lesson for those close to Churchill. He gave the same advice to his grandson, Winston S. Churchill II, when the boy was only eight years old. “Learn all you can about the past,” Churchill wrote to his grandson in 1948, when the younger Winston was away at boarding school, “for how else can anyone make a guess about what is going to happen in the future.”
A careful review of Churchill’s own historical works, starting with his magisterial biography of his forebear John Churchill, the first duke of Marlborough, and continuing with his multi-volume works on the two world wars and his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, will show that it was not merely the repetition of past patterns of history that he could see. History for Churchill was a source of imagination about how the future would change, which is why he wrote, “The longer you look back, the farther you can look forward.”
Churchill Family Tree: An Overview
Below is an extract from an article on geni.com about the family tree of Winston Churchill.
Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill was born into the aristocratic family of the Dukes of Marlborough, a branch of the noble Spencer family on November 30, 1874 to Lord Randolph Churchill and Jennie Jerome. Jennie Jerome, was an American socialite who was the daughter of American millionaire Leonard Jerome. Leonard Jerome was known as ‘The King of Wall Street”, he held interests in several railroad companies and was often a partner in the deals of Cornelius Vanderbilt. He was a patron of the arts, and founded the Academy of Music, one of New York City’s earliest opera houses.
Lord Randolph Churchill was a charismatic politician who served as Chancellor of the Exchequer. His title was a courtesy title only, and therefore was not inherited by his eldest son, Winston Churchill. In 1885, he had formulated the policy of progressive Conservatism which was known as “Tory Democracy”. He declared that the Conservatives ought to adopt, rather than oppose, popular reforms, and to challenge the claims of the Liberals to pose as champions of the masses.
Winston Churchill was the grandson of John Spencer-Churchill, 7th Duke of Marlborough. He was Member of Parliament for Woodstock from 1844 to 1845 and again from 1847 to 1857, when he succeeded his father in the dukedom and entered the House of Lords.
Randolph Frederick Edward Spencer-Churchill was the son of Sir Winston Churchill and his wife Clementine. He was a Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) for Preston from 1940-1945. Randolph’s wife from 1939-1946 was Pamela Harriman who later became United States Ambassador to France and they were the parents of Winston Churchill III. Winston was a British Conservative Party politician.
Sarah Churchill, daughter of Winston and Clementine, was a British actress and dancer. She was named after Winston’s ancestor, Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough. During World War II, she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Churchill is known for her role in the film Royal Wedding (1951) as Anne Ashmond, starring opposite Fred Astaire.
Winston Churchill’s Childhood
Many of Churchill’s views of politics, warfare, and even international affairs can be traced back to formative views that developed in Winston Churchill’s childhood. He even predicted events that came true decades later.
When contemplating the whole of Churchill’s great career, it is important to look past the most spectacular chapter— his “finest hour” leading Britain in World War II—and recognize that the central issue of Churchill’s entire career was the problem of scale in war and peace. As his letter to Bourke Cockran— written on his twenty-fifth birthday, a few weeks before he escaped from a Boer POW camp—attests, Churchill saw how changes in technology, wealth, and politics not only would create the conditions for “total war” but also would transform war into an ideological contest over the status of the individual.
Churchill was writing to Cockran, a Democratic congressman from New York City, about the economic problem of the “trusts,” which was then front and center in American politics. As we shall see, Churchill had strong views about how governments would need to respond to social changes in the twentieth century—indeed, that question was the focus of his early ministerial career—but from his earliest days, even before he entered politics, he saw that the new scale of things in the modern world would be felt most powerfully in the area of warfare. His observations about the “terrible machinery of scientific war” in The River War led him to ask what would happen when two modern nations—not Britain and the Sudanese Dervishes—confronted each other with the modern weapons of war. It was a question no one else was asking.
Nearly every politician and military commander associated with the 1898 Sudan campaign regarded it as just another in a series of minor military skirmishes or border clashes necessary to maintaining the British Empire in the late nineteenth century. The era of epic continental warfare—of megalomaniacal ambition like that of Napoleon or Louis XIV—was thought to be over. “It seemed inconceivable,” Churchill wrote later in The World Crisis, “that the same series of tremendous events, through which since the days of Queen Elizabeth we had three times made our way successfully, should be repeated a fourth time and on an immeasurably larger scale.”
This was no mere flourish of retrospection. In fact, Churchill himself had first conceived the possibility of intense conflict among the continental powers—occurring in 1914 no less—when he was a schoolboy. It was the first of several astonishing predictions of World War I.
One of the persistent misconceptions of Churchill is that he was a poor student. It is more accurate to say he was, by his own admission, a rebellious student, often bored with the curriculum and chafing under the standard teaching methods of the time. It was obvious from his earliest days in school that he was extremely bright and facile with the English language, a prodigy at learning history and extending its lessons. Still, he was often “on report,” or ranked near the bottom of his class at the end of the term.
One of Churchill’s instructors at Harrow, Robert Somervell, recognized the boy’s abilities. In fact, Somervell thought Churchill ought to attend one of Britain’s prestigious universities rather than the military academy at Sandhurst, where he eventually enrolled. When Churchill was fourteen, Somervell challenged him to write an essay on a topic of his own choosing. He wanted to give his pupil free range to see what his imagination and comprehensive knowledge of history might produce. Churchill’s father, Lord Randolph, had been chancellor of the exchequer, and some speculate that Somervell, expecting an equally illustrious political career for the son, wanted to have a record for the school of Churchill’s early prowess.
Churchill framed his essay as a report of a junior officer from a battlefield on which the British army was fighting Czarist Russia. The date he chose: 1914.
The Engagement of
July 7th, 1914.
By an Aide de Camp of Gen. C. Officer Commanding H.M. Troops in R.
In his essay, which filled seventeen lined pages, Churchill manifested his knack for map-making and his knowledge of geography. He appended five pages of maps on a scale of two inches to a mile depicting the placement and movement of batteries, trenches, artillery, convoys, tents, and regiments of cavalry and infantry, as well as topography.
Churchill’s essay is a personal, first-hand account of two days of combat, interspersed with personal asides. The aide-de-camp is exhausted after two days: “I am so tired that I can’t write anymore now. I must add that the cavalry reconnaissance party found that there is no enemy to be seen. Now I wish for a good night, as I don’t know when I get another sleep. Man may work. But man must sleep.”
He describes a meeting of the junior officer with senior officers: “Aide-de-camp,” said General C., “order these men to extend and advance on the double.” On another occasion, the general is smashed in the head with a fragment of an artillery shell. Churchill wrote, “General C. observing his fate with a look of indifference turns to me and says ‘Go yourself—aide-de-camp.’”
At times, Churchill’s descriptions of battlefield carnage are suggestive of the American novelist Stephen Crane, who published his classic The Red Badge of Courage a few years later. The astonishing number of men killed in a single encounter foreshadowed the numbers in World War I, a quarter of a century later.
The fields which this morning were green are now tinged with the blood of 17,000 men. . . . Through the veil of smoke—through the stream of wounded—over the corpses, I ride back to our lines in safety.
And a crackle of musketry mixes with the cannonade. Smoke clouds drift and gather on the plain or hang over the marsh. . . . Bang! A puff of smoke has darted from one of their batteries and the report floats down to us on the wind; the battle has begun.
The aide-de-camp reports of his near escape from injury or death when he was dismounted in a clash with Cossack cavalry.
I jumped on a stray horse and rode for my life. Thud! Thud! Thud! And the hoofs of a Cossack’s come nearer and nearer behind me. I glance back—the point of a Cossack’s lance—ahead smoke. The Cossack gains on me. A heavy blow on my back—a crash behind. The thrust strikes my pouch—does not penetrate me. The Cossack has fallen over a corpse.
As might be expected, the English army eventually routs its Russian adversaries. Despite the Czarists’ initial success in a skirmish, the British infantry pushes back their counterparts on the second day of battle.
The enemy retreated slowly and deliberately at first but at the river Volga, they became broken and our cavalry, light and heavy, executed a most brilliant charge which completed the confusion. And thus, the 63,000 Russians fled across the Volga in disorder pursued by 6,000 cavalry and 40,000 infantry.
Churchill concludes with an observation of “the superiority of the English lion over the Russian bear.”
Churchill’s Harrow essay is exhibited today in the underground War Rooms in London, where Churchill managed World War II during the Blitz.
Winston Churchill and the Agadir Crisis: Forerunner of World War One
Early in Winston Churchill’s political career he became known for his opposition, during peacetime, to building armaments for armaments’ sake. He thought such expenditures diverted too much taxpayer money from more pressing domestic social needs. Over the course of Churchill’s entire political career, he supported lower defense spending most of the time. He was one of the authors of the “ten-year rule,” according to which British defense planning should look ten years ahead for potential conflicts, and plan accordingly. If no conflict could reasonably be foreseen, Churchill usually urged restraint in defense spending. But when the potential for serious conflict began to appear on the horizon, as it did before each world war, Churchill bowed to reality and urged preparedness.
Such a moment came in 1911, when Churchill was serving as Home Secretary in the cabinet of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. Appointed at age thirty-five, he was the second-youngest Home Secretary in history. This post kept Churchill preoccupied with domestic affairs with the never-ending troubles in Ireland. When the navy in 1909 pressed for six new battleships in response to the German buildup, Churchill joined the cabinet opponents in trying to hold the number to four. With typical wit, Churchill described the outcome: “In the end a curious and characteristic solution was reached.
The Admiralty had demanded six ships: the economists offered four: and we finally compromised on eight.” Churchill believed that Germany was badly overextending itself, having doubled its national debt over the previous ten years. Germany was rapidly approaching its limits, he thought, though he allowed for the possibility that it might pursue foreign adventurism as an answer for its economic problems. In a memorandum to the cabinet in 1909, Churchill mused, “ . . . a period of internal strain approaches in Germany. Will the tension be relieved by moderation or snapped by calculated violence? . . . . [O]ne of the two courses must be taken soon.” This was, Churchill wrote later in The World Crisis, “the first sinister impression that I was ever led to record.”
But then came the Agadir crisis of 1911, which proved to be a watershed for Churchill. In July, Germany shocked Europe with the announcement that it had sent a gunboat to the Moroccan port city of Agadir, ostensibly to “protect German interests.” Germany had long complained of ill treatment by Britain, France, and Spain in its African colonial claims, but Germany took everyone by surprise with its gunboat. “All the alarm bells throughout Europe began immediately to quiver,” Churchill wrote. Was this the beginning of the “calculated violence” Churchill had pondered two years before? Churchill’s great Liberal Party friend, David Lloyd George, known as a pacifist, gave a rousing speech that threatened war against Germany.
Lloyd George’s speech had the desired sobering effect on Germany. Old-fashioned quiet diplomacy—perhaps the last of the nineteenth-century style—resolved the crisis, but the war drums had sounded, and Britain’s military planners had begun contemplating how a war against Germany might be conducted. A few days before a key meeting of the Committee of Imperial Defense, Churchill set down in a long memorandum how a war on the continent would begin. “It was,” Churchill wrote later, “only an attempt to pierce the veil of the future; to conjure up in the mind a vast imaginary situation; to balance the incalculable; to weigh the imponderable.”
The Agadir Crisis: Forerunner of World War One
In his paper, Churchill envisioned an opening battle in which the alliance of Britain, France, and Russia would confront an attack by the Central Powers of Germany and Austria. In such a situation, Churchill concluded, the decisive military operations would be between France and Germany. “The German army,” he said, “mobilizes 2,200,000 against 1,700,000 for the French.” Germany would attack through neutral Belgium, over the Meuse River, into northern France. “The balance of probability,” predicted Churchill, “is that by the twentieth day the French armies will have been driven from the line of the Meuse and would be falling back on Paris and the south.” He reasoned that the thrust of the German advance would then be weakened because of diminishing supplies and increasing casualties as it pressed southward.
As the war progressed, losses to the French army would require the deployment of French troops from other regions to reinforce the defenses south of Paris. By the thirtieth day, the arrival of the British army, together with growing pressure from Russia, would slow the German advance.
The result, said Churchill, would be that “by the fortieth day, Germany should be extended at full strain . . . on her warfront,” stress that would become “more severe and ultimately overwhelming,” unless, improbably, the Germans had achieved a quick victory. It was then that “opportunities for the decisive trial of strength may occur.”
Churchill recommended that Britain send 107,000 men to France at the outbreak of the war; 100,000 troops should depart from India on the first day in order to reach Marseilles by the fortieth day. Churchill circulated the memorandum “with the hope that if the unfavorable prediction about the twentieth day had been borne out, so also would be the favorable prediction about the fortieth day.”
The Prophetic Agadir Crisis Memorandum
Upon receiving the memorandum, General Henry Wilson told the Imperial Defense Committee that Churchill’s prediction was “ridiculous and fantastic—a silly memorandum.” Unexpressed was the general’s contempt for an idea from someone who had never risen above the rank of lieutenant.
Despite the scorn of the army staff, in three years, it would all happen just as Churchill predicted. He gave the twentieth day of the German offensive as the day on which the French armies would be driven from the Meuse and forecasted that the German army’s advance would be stopped on the fortieth. This is exactly what happened, and on the forty-first day, Germany lost the Battle of the Marne, setting the stage for the awful stalemate of trench warfare for the next four years.
“This was one of the most prescient strategic documents that Churchill ever wrote,” his son Randolph recorded decades later in the official biography. When Arthur Balfour, sometimes a critic of Churchill, re-read this memo shortly after the outbreak of the war in September 1914, he wrote to Churchill’s private secretary, “It is a triumph of prophecy!” More importantly, the Agadir crisis had reawakened in Churchill his previously expressed worries about the prospect of total war between modern nations. It caused him to change his mind about his earlier opposition to a naval buildup. He wrote in retrospect that “although the Chancellor of the Exchequer and I were right in the narrow sense [about the number of battleships], we were absolutely wrong in relation to the deep tides of destiny.”1 Churchill’s political focus would now change from domestic to foreign affairs, where it would remain for most of the rest of his life.
This memorandum and other actions of Churchill around the time of the Agadir made the prime minister, H. H. Asquith, realize that Churchill needed a more prominent government post from which to influence the nation’s strategic destiny. Within a few weeks of the resolution of the Agadir crisis, Asquith had elevated Churchill to First Lord of the Admiralty, in which office Churchill introduced a number of forward-looking reforms and innovations that echo down to the present day.
Winston Churchill’s Wilderness Years
In the early 1930s, Churchill no longer had a government position. He seemed out of touch by opposing such positions as giving greater independence to India. He continued to write books and newspaper articles from his house in Kent, but many thought his political career was over. He only came back to notice through his opposition to Hitler’s new Nazi dictatorship in Germany and calls for British rearmament.
During the 1930s Churchill would regularly reel off from the back bench the increasing numbers of German weaponry and planes to an un-listening government. He sought to buttress his argument for increasing British preparedness, but his warnings went unheeded. Churchill would later call that period “his years in the wilderness,” yet his exile from power and the clarity of his warnings provided him with the moral authority to lead the nation decisively when he finally became prime minister in May 1940. As he explained in the first volume of his memoirs of the Second World War, “My warnings over the last six years had been so numerous, so detailed, and were now so terribly vindicated, that no one could gainsay me.”
The Churchill wilderness years have been likened to the Biblical prophet Jeremiah, who pleaded in the desert for the people of Israel to change their ways. Others compare him to Cassandra, the prophetess of Troy whom Apollo cursed with always being unheeded. The best comparison is that of the Athenian orator Demosthenes, who wielded his rhetorical gifts to warn of the military threat from Philip II of Macedon. The Athenians ignored Demosthenes’ “philippics” until war was upon them.
Churchill’s warnings about Hitler, however, were not simply about the numbers of tanks and planes. Armaments alone, he understood, were not the cause of war; it was the character and designs of a nation’s leaders that determined war or peace. Churchill grasped early on that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the enthusiasm for disarmament after World War I would increase the likelihood of another European war, even without a Hitler.
In the rush to disarmament, “conditions were swiftly created by the victorious Allies which, in the name of peace, cleared the way for the renewal of war . . . . The crimes of the vanquished find their background and their explanation, though not, of course, their pardon, in the follies of the victors. Without these follies crime would have found neither temptation nor opportunity.”
The Churchill wilderness years ended when war finally broke out in September 1939. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain made him First Lord of the Admiralty, the same position that he had held at the outbreak of the First World War.
Winston Churchill’s Death: January 24, 1964
Although his political and scientific predictions can be attributed to his historical imagination, some of Winston Churchill’s predictions defy easy explanation. Perhaps the most remarkable of these was his accurate prediction of the date of his own death.
While shaving one morning in 1953, Churchill remarked to John Colville, “Today is the 24th of January. It’s the day my father died. It’s the day I shall die, too.” He repeated this prediction to his son-in-law Christopher Soames shortly after his ninetieth birthday, in 1964. A few weeks later, on January 10, 1965, Churchill lapsed into a coma. Earlier that evening, during the nightly ritual of brandy and cigars, he had said to Soames, “It has been a grand journey, well worth making.” He paused and added, “once.”
After he was stricken, the Times commented, “Life is clearly ebbing away, but how long it will be until the crossing of the bar it is impossible to say.” Not for the first time the Times was wrong about Churchill. It was possible to say how long it would be—Churchill had already said it. Colville told the queen’s private secretary, “He won’t die until the 24th.” Though Churchill seldom regained consciousness in the two weeks that followed, he survived to the predicted date. Churchill had survived his father by precisely three score and ten years—the full biblical lifetime—and had fulfilled many of his father’s ambitions as well as his own.
The Finest Hour Speech
For Churchill to maintain optimism of British victory in the darkest days of World War II required a sense of hope that appeared to civilians and advisors to border on lunacy. In September 1940, German bombers began to appear over London. Hitler changed tactics in his attempt to subdue Great Britain. In the previous two months, the Luftwaffe targeted RAF airfields and radar stations in order to weaken the nation to the point that he could launch a German invasion. When he realized such an offensive launch was impossible, because it would deplete too much manpower from the Eastern front, he switched to a campaign of fear and intimidation. Bombing London to ruin would demoralize the population to the point of hopelessness and surrender.
For the next year Britain held its resolve. It was battered but did not crumble. In fact, the war energized Churchill, who was sixty-five years old when he became Prime Minister. Churchill maintained his private strength by taking each day at a time. Churchill resolved that the only way to move past The Darkest Hour was to keep moving. He commented that “success consists of going from failure to failure without a loss of enthusiasm.” Alternatively, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
On June 18, 1940, Churchill attempted to lift up England following the fall of France and the successful evacuation of most of England’s supporting forces from the continent. At the moment of great apparent danger to British national survival, he spoke not only of endurance but of noble causes of which Britain was fighting (freedom, Christian civilization, the rights of small nations): “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’” The speech lasted thirty-six minutes. The final passage of his typescript was laid out in blank verse format, which historians believe shows the influence of the Old Testament psalms on Churchill’s oratorical style.
Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain Speech
Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech at Fulton, Missouri, on March 5, 1946, ranks as one of the most famous and consequential speeches ever made by someone out of high office, comparable in its force to Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech of 1858 and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech of 1963. It is remembered as the announcement to the world of the beginning of the Cold War, although as Churchill knew the seeds had been germinating for some time. It crystallized the new situation facing the United States and Western democracies and also forecast how the new and unusual “cold” war should be conducted so as to avoid World War III and achieve a peaceful future.
Churchill had difficulty getting the U.S. government to look ahead to the potential political difficulties with the Soviet Union after the war. He remarked to Franklin Roosevelt shortly before the Yalta summit in February 1945, “At the present time I think the end of this war may well prove to be more disappointing than was the last.” Churchill’s great fear as he traveled to the United States in early 1946 was that the Western democracies would repeat the same mistakes that had so nearly cost them their lives a decade before. As he wrote in The Gathering Storm, the Western democracies “need only to repeat the same well-meaning, short-sighted behavior towards the new problems which in singular resemblance confront us today to bring about a third convulsion from which none may live to tell the tale.”
Although President Harry Truman quickly took the measure of the Soviet Union, it was not yet clear whether the United States would embrace a role as the leader of the free world or would link arms with Britain and other Western European nations in a defensive alliance against the Soviet Union. The status and intentions of Soviet forces in Iran and Eastern Europe were uncertain. There was the prospect of Communist takeovers of the governments of France, Italy, and Spain. America was rapidly demobilizing after the victory over Japan barely six months before, and Americans were looking forward to the material blessings of peace. Churchill knew his warning would cast a pall over the mood of the nation.
Truman might have understood the dark intentions of the Soviet Union, but many leading American liberals, such as FDR’s former vice president, Henry Wallace, and his widow, Eleanor Roosevelt, still affectionately referred to the Communist dictator Stalin as “good old Uncle Joe.” It was difficult for Americans, in the space of a few months, to go from regarding the Soviet Union as our ally in war to a potentially lethal enemy. Much of the liberal press was trying to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Britain, while rightwing isolationists opposed any long-term American alliance with European nations.
In the midst of these powerful political crosscurrents, Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech prepared the way for the NATO alliance and a Western plan for defense against Soviet encroachment.
The term “Iron Curtain” defined the Soviet tyranny that extended its grasp over Eastern Europe. Although the public came to know the phrase from Churchill’s Fulton speech, he had first used it in a telegram to Truman the preceding May, days after the German surrender but before the two leaders met for the first time at the Potsdam conference. “I am profoundly concerned about the European situation,” Churchill wrote. “An iron curtain is being drawn down upon their front,” he wrote of the Soviet forces settling down in Eastern European nations. “We do not know what is going on behind . . . . Meanwhile the attention of our peoples will be occupied in inflicting severities on Germany, which is ruined and prostrate, and it would be open to the Russians in a very short time to advance if they chose to the waters of the North Sea and the Atlantic.”
While Churchill is often credited with having originated the phrase “iron curtain,” he may, ironically enough, have gotten the term from Count Schwerin von Krosigk, the foreign minister of Germany in the last days of the war, who, the Times reported, had warned in a radio broadcast a few days before VE Day, “In the East the iron curtain behind which, unseen by the eyes of the world, the work of destruction goes on, is moving steadily forward.”
Regardless of the origin of the phrase in his Iron Curtain speech, Churchill had been looking ahead to this problem since early in the war. In 1970, the retired prime minister Harold Macmillan related to the thirty-year-old Winston Churchill II a conversation he had had with the young man’s grandfather in early 1942. “It was after a dinner hosted by General Eisenhower for the joint Anglo-American command in Algiers, and your grandfather asked me to come back to his room for a drink. ‘What type of man do you think Cromwell is?’ was his odd question to me.
I uttered, ‘Very aggressive, wasn’t he?’ Your grandfather looked at me gravely and said, ‘Cromwell was obsessed with Spain but never saw the danger of France.’”
“At that time,” continued Macmillan to the younger Churchill, “we were losing the war, but with America now in, Churchill had concluded totalitarian Nazism would be defeated and totalitarian Communism would take its place as the threat to Europe and the world.”
Churchill had declined a steady stream of high-profile speaking invitations in the first months after the war, including those from the kings and queens of Norway, Denmark, and Holland, as well as from Canada and Australia. “I refuse,” said Churchill, “to be exhibited like a prize bull whose chief attraction is his past prowess.” But Churchill could hardly turn down an invitation than came from the White House in September 1945. Churchill opened it and saw that it was an invitation to speak at Westminster College in a town he had never heard of. Scoffing, he threw it down and said, “I supposed colleges in America are too named ‘Parliament.’” But his daughter Sarah read it and saw that there was a postscript at the bottom of the invitation. “This is a wonderful school in my home state. Hope you can do it. I’ll introduce you. s/g Harry Truman.”
An introduction by the president of the United States would afford Churchill a world stage—whatever the venue. Though the date of the address, March 5, 1946, was half a year away, the opportunity fueled his imagination. He may have been out of office, but he was still the world’s foremost political figure, a man whose words could still command attention in the world’s leading nation. The thought buoyed his spirit, as he resumed his role of Leader of the Opposition.
In February, Churchill, accompanied by Sarah, sailed on the Queen Elizabeth to New York and then took a train to Miami, where a Montreal friend had lent him his home for some sun and sand before meeting President Truman in Washington.
During the five-day cruise, Churchill had worked on his Westminster College address, using notes he had made in London. His grandson has told me that Churchill would spend an hour for every minute in an address. On this address, Churchill would triple that time.
In Miami, Churchill completed his first draft, writing mostly on the sunny terrace outside the living room. During his stay, he spoke on the need for Anglo-American unity at the University of Miami, where, after receiving his honorary doctorate, he made this comment: “Perhaps no one has ever passed so few examinations and received so many degrees.”
On the last day of February, Churchill took a sleeper to Washington, D.C., where he holed up in the British embassy, editing his address, which he decided to title “The Sinews of Peace,” a play on Cicero’s adage “Nervos belli, pecuniam infinitam” (“The sinews of war are endless money”).
Churchill was striking his familiar theme that only preparedness could ensure peace. The Soviet political and military encroachments could be stopped only by a united West under the resolute leadership of the United States. He wanted to shake America out of the game of intellectual make-believe that engendered its cozy confidence in the United Nations. The mask of democratic pretension had to be ripped from the Kremlin’s face and its imperialism revealed. Churchill saw it as his duty to dispel Washington’s illusion (shared by London) that it was at peace with its former Soviet ally.
By coincidence, a few days before Churchill arrived in Washington, George Kennan dispatched his famous “long telegram” from Moscow. Clarifying the nature and strategy of the Soviet Union and closely tracking Churchill’s views, Kennan’s report became the cornerstone of the “containment” doctrine. The Soviet threat, he wrote, “will really depend on the degree of cohesion, firmness and vigor which [the] Western World can muster. And this is [the] factor which it is within our power to influence.” Kennan’s message attracted considerable attention within the highest reaches of the U.S. government. Churchill, unaware of the secret telegram, could hardly have asked for a better prologue for his Fulton message.
As a political courtesy, Churchill called the White House and inquired if the president wanted to look over a draft of his Fulton speech. The White House replied that Under Secretary of State Dean Acheson would instead call at the British embassy. Lester Pearson, the Canadian ambassador, had already told Churchill that Acheson not only had a sound diplomatic head but also had a keen ear for the elegant phrase.
The tall, elegant, and mustached Acheson must have reminded Churchill of his own foreign minister Anthony Eden. Churchill greeted the under secretary in his green dragon dressing gown. Acheson had two suggestions for the speech. First, eliminate the reference to World War II as “the unnecessary war,” which he thought rightwing Republicans would seize upon to justify their opposition to Roosevelt and their continuing isolationism. Second, include some praise for the United Nations as a peacekeeping instrument. When Acheson left, Churchill acceded to the advice. He also showed the speech to Secretary of State James Byrnes, who, Churchill reported, “was excited about it and did not suggest any alterations.”
On March 4, Churchill joined the presidential party aboard the Ferdinand Magellan (the train specially built in 1939 to accommodate presidential security and Roosevelt’s wheelchair) at Washington’s Union Station. When Truman noticed Churchill studying the presidential seal on the train, he proudly pointed out a change he had made to the seal—the eagle now turned to face the olive branch instead of the arrows. Churchill knew that his speech the next day might dissipate some of the rosy glow of the immediate postwar peace and he could not quite give the new seal his full approval. He asked the president, “Why not put the eagle’s neck on a swivel so that it could turn to the right or left as the occasion presented itself?”
On the train, Churchill finally shared a draft of his Fulton speech with Truman, who expressed his approval. “He told me he thought it was admirable,” Churchill later wrote, after Truman had distanced himself from the speech, “and would do nothing but good, though it would make a stir.” That it certainly did.
During the journey, Churchill continued to make more changes and corrections to his draft, even though an embargoed text had already been forwarded to press offices and chanceries around the world. In his “Scaffolding of Rhetoric”—notes on the art of speaking that he had written almost half a century earlier—Churchill had emphasized the necessity of a metaphor or image to give a picture to an abstraction. In his draft, Churchill had mentioned “tyranny,” “imperialism,” and “totalitarian systems,” but those words lacked imagery that would stick in his audience’s mind.
Late that night in his stateroom, Churchill surveyed a map of Europe, drawing a black line from the Baltic states to Trieste. By one report, it was then that Churchill added the phrase for which his speech would be known. When the train made its only stop for refueling, Churchill lifted his curtain and saw that they were in Springfield, Illinois, “the home of Lincoln.” Sentimentalists like to believe that the ghost of that other champion of freedom and master of the English language inspired him.
The train stopped at the St. Louis station in the early morning of March 5. Churchill took a leisurely breakfast in his stateroom before he and the presidential party switched to a local train for Jefferson City. There, Churchill and Truman entered their open-car limousines for the motorcade into Fulton. Churchill found, to his dismay, that he was lacking the requisite prop—a cigar. So he stopped at a local tobacconist for the purchase.
After lunch at the home of Westminster’s president, Churchill was taken to the college gymnasium for his speech. In his introduction, President Truman was characteristically plainspoken: “Mr. Churchill and I believe in freedom of speech. I understand Mr. Churchill might have something useful and constructive to say.”
Typically, Churchill opened on a light but warm note that immediately won the affection of his audience. With his hands clasping his honorary academic robes, he peered over his black spectacles and harrumphed in his habitual stuttering style:
I am glad to come to Westminster College . . . the name Westminster is somehow familiar to me. I seem to have heard of it before. Indeed, it was at Westminster that I received a very large part of my education.
Then with his palms upturned, as if he was stripped of power, Churchill offered a disclaimer that anticipated the cool reception his speech would receive in official Washington and London: “Let me . . . make it clear that I have no official mission of any kind and that I speak only for myself.”
He continued by stating that the paramount mission facing the world was the prevention of another global war. Raising his forefinger twice in emphasis, he pointed to two institutions with major roles in the maintenance of peace: the United Nations and the continuing “special relationship” between Britain and America. “The United Nations,” he said, “must be a reality and not a sham, and not some cockpit in a Tower of Babel.”
Then, with Miltonic foreboding, Churchill began his celebrated description of postwar Europe: “A shadow has fallen upon the scenes so lately lighted by the Allied victory.” Then with clenched fist, he sketched the cause of that darkness in the paragraph he had added on the train, beginning with this internal rhyme:
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, Belgrade, Bucharest, and Sofia. All of these famous cities and the populations lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere . . . .
At this point the public address system malfunctioned, but a former army radio technician in uniform sitting under the head table pushed his way through his fellow veterans to find the wire, which he then held to restore the amplification. (Churchill later recorded the speech in its entirety.) The Washington Post reporter, Ed Folliard, who followed only the advance text of the speech, failed to mention the “iron curtain” paragraph in the next day’s paper describing the Iron Curtain speech.
Churchill then offered insight into the mind of the Kremlin that would not be matched until the days of Ronald Reagan: “I do not believe that Soviet Russia desires war. What they desire is the fruits of war and the indefinite expansion of powers and doctrines.” For such Soviet imperialism, he offered this prescription:
From what I have seen of our Russian friends and Allies during the war, I am convinced that there is nothing they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for weakness, especially military weakness.
Then he reinforced his postwar call for action with a reminder of his unheeded warnings before the war:
Last time I saw it all coming and cried aloud to my fellow countrymen and the world, but no one paid attention. Up to the year 1933 or even 1935, Germany might have been saved from the awful fate which had overtaken her, and we might have been spared the miseries Hitler let loose upon mankind. There was never a war in all history easier to prevent by timely action than the one which has just desolated such great areas of the globe. It could have been prevented, in my belief, without the firing of a single shot, and Germany might be powerful, prosperous, and honored today; but no one would listen, and one by one we were all sucked into the awful whirlpool.
Churchill’s reception reflected his audience’s recognition that a great leader had honored their town and college with his visit rather than their appreciation of the stern message. In Washington and around the world, the speech precipitated a storm of denunciation. Both Truman and Attlee took shelter by disowning Churchill’s message; Truman denied that he had any foreknowledge of what Churchill was going to say.