On May 13, 1940, Winston Churchill addressed the House of Commons in his first speech as prime minister. “I would say to the House,” he declaimed, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” He predicted “an ordeal of the most grievous kind,” then set forth the policy that would govern Britain’s response: “It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime.”
As for Britain’s aim: “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.” Churchill underscored the point: “Let that be realised; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for.”
The speech became perhaps the most famous of Churchill’s career, one of the great clarion calls to arms in the history of the English language. Shorn of its eloquence and viewed simply as a mission statement, however, it can be seen—and has been seen—as something of a disaster. Because in the five years that followed, the victory Britain achieved really did come “at all costs.” It cost Britain its status as a great power and, despite Churchill’s implication that victory would mean the survival of the British Empire, it cost Britain its empire.
Over the decades, a number of historians have called attention to this, arguing that Churchill’s resolution was reckless and that a colder, more calculating policy —a policy matched more realistically to England’s actual resources—would have yielded far better results. Still, these historians have always been deluged with expressions of darkest contempt from Churchill’s many admirers.
Among the most recent authors to receive such treatment is political commentator Patrick Buchanan. In Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War (2008), he argues that Britain made an enormous mistake when it pledged its full support to Poland if any action threatened Polish independence—a guarantee intended to deter Germany from an attack on Poland. This “guarantee” scarcely guaranteed Poland’s survival, for Britain’s ability to defend Poland was nil. But it did encourage Poland to cease negotiations with Germany over Danzig, a city in the Polish Corridor whose population was 95 percent German.
It would have been better, Buchanan says, for Britain to have instead encouraged those negotiations, for Germany and Poland had previously enjoyed good relations and both shared a common enemy: the Soviet Union. And if Germany had ultimately attacked Poland, it would have been a German-Polish war. What Britain’s guarantee to Poland did, in fact, was guarantee a major war in western Europe. But for it, Hitler probably would have turned full attention to the destruction of the Bolshevik regime.
Yes, the Nazis were evil, Buchanan concedes. However, the world is full of evil regimes, and in the 1940s Joseph Stalin and his minions were every bit as malevolent as Hitler and his. Britain’s war with Germany did not save the Jews from the Holocaust, but it did assure that the Soviet Union would control eastern Europe—including Poland, the very nation whose independence Britain had guaranteed—for more than 40 years. It also assured that the United States would assume Britain’s role as the foremost power among the great democracies, and that despite Churchill’s hope of preserving the British Empire, waging war with “all our might and with all the strength that God can give us” won Britain no help from the anticolonial Americans in realizing that hope.
A reader might object that it was Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, not Churchill, who actually made the guarantee to Poland. But it was the hostility of Churchill—a prominent member of the Conservative party—to the Munich pact that convinced Chamberlain to draw a line in the sand when Hitler violated the terms of that accord in March 1939. Churchill was one of the few within the party to applaud the decision—and it foreshadowed his own headlong approach to the conflict when he became prime minister.
A better approach to Hitler, Buchanan believes, was for Britain (and France) to re-arm while Germany and Russia bashed out each other’s brains, and to adopt something akin to the Cold War strategy taken toward the Soviet Union: a careful strategy of many incremental steps, aimed first at containing and ultimately rolling back what President Ronald Reagan would call the Evil Empire. It would have meant a British policy of placing maximum burden on the Soviet Union and the United States, two powers with an equivalent stake in defeating Hitler, and in effect fighting to the last Russian and the last American.
It’s easy to disagree with Buchanan’s analysis of what Churchill ought to have done. Churchill arguably enjoyed much less freedom of action, and therefore had fewer options, than Buchanan avers. But that is not the “what if?” Buchanan cares most about. His main point has to do with the impact Churchill’s image has had on the postwar world.
Admiration for Churchill’s bulldog determination, he argues, sidesteps the fact that Churchill failed to preserve Britain as a great power, failed to preserve its empire, and failed to prevent Communist domination of eastern Europe—all key objectives of Churchill’s wartime policy. Instead, the misplaced focus on Churchill’s sublime resolution has created among America’s elite a “Churchill cult” that romanticizes the prime minister and turns resolve into a fetish.
To the cult’s acolytes, Buchanan writes, “defiance anywhere of U.S. hegemony, resistance anywhere to U.S. power becomes another 1938. Every adversary is ‘a new Hitler,’ every proposal to avert war ‘another Munich.’” It was no accident, Buchanan adds, that “after 9/11 the Churchill cult helped to persuade an untutored president [George W. Bush] that the liberation of Iraq from Saddam would be like the liberation of Europe from Hitler.” If not exposed, Buchanan argues, the Churchill cult will produce more misadventures like the costly war in Iraq “and, one day, a war of the magnitude of Churchill’s wars that brought Britain and his beloved empire to ruin.” Whether correct or not, the prediction is a testament to the enduring power of the Churchill image—and a caution against regarding even the most admired historical figure with uncritical eyes.