"When victory has been won the future...should be planned in harmony and combined with other like-minded peoples in accordance with the principles of the Atlantic Charter".
For six years, Churchill’s had been a voice in the wilderness, crying out againt the mortal danger posed by Hitler’s Nazi Germany. However, Great Britain was lost in a pipe-dream of peace, and Churchill was ignored and even scorned. Then the first wave of German military might overwhelmed Poland in September 1939,...
For six years, Churchill’s had been a voice in the wilderness, crying out againt the mortal danger posed by Hitler’s Nazi Germany. However, Great Britain was lost in a pipe-dream of peace, and Churchill was ignored and even scorned. Then the first wave of German military might overwhelmed Poland in September 1939, and Churchill was revealed as a prophet rather than a Cassandra.
After a quiet winter, in April 1940 the Nazi juggernaut smashed into Denmark and Norway, followed shortly by invasions of France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. In early May, as Norway tottered and the prospects for Britain became worse than bleak, elements in both the country’s major parties revolted against Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s management of the war. Members of Chamberlain’s own Conservative Party were insistent on a change of leadership, with Leopold Amery, on the floor of the House of Commons, quoting from Cromwell and saying: “Depart I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!” Chamberlain was naturally shaken by this and reluctantly agreed to resign. Some Conservatives initially promoted Lord Halifax as his successor, as in fact did King George VI. However, as the only leader not tainted by the disastrous appeasement policies of the 1930’s, it was obvious that Churchill alone could unite the nation.
Moreover, the Labour Party, for all its old distrust of Churchill’s anti-Socialism, recognized the depth of his commitment to the defeat of Hitler and insisted on him. A coalition government was formed that included all elements save the far left and right and the nationalist parties. It was headed by a War Cabinet of five, which included at first both Chamberlain and Halifax – a wise but also magnanimous recognition of the numerical strength of Chamberlainite conservatism – and two Labour leaders, Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood.
The Cabinet became an agency of swift decision, and the government that it controlled remained representative of all major groups and parties. Churchill himself took, in addition to the leadership of the House of Commons, the Ministry of Defense, thus emphasizing his concentration on the conduct of the war. In fact, at this point, the Prime Minister’s life and career became one with Britain’s story and its survival. Churchill’s task was to inspire resistance at all costs, to organize the defense of the island, and to make it the bastion for an eventual return to the continent of Europe.
To do this, he needed to breathe a new spirit into the government and a new resolve into the people. His magnificent oratory, his immense confidence, and his stubborn refusal to accept anything but total victory, did just that, and rallied the nation, particularly during the dark days between 1940 and the turn of the tide in 1943. The speeches he made in accomplishing this are classics and among the most moving and important ever made in the English language.
From his first blunt talk to the House of Commons on May 13, 1940, in which he warned "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat"; to his pledge to resist – "We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields, and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender!"; to his memorable plea for strength and courage – “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, ÔThis was their finest hour’”; through his remarks on the futility of the U.S. trying to avoid involvement in European problems – “There was no use in saying ÔWe don’t want it; we won’t have it; our forebears left Europe to avoid these quarrels; we have founded a new world which has no contact with the old.’ There was no use in that;” his words effectively inspired the people and led ultimately to victory in the war. Churchill himself denied that he deserved the credit for Britain’s epochal performance in standing alone against the Nazis, saying “I was not the lion, but it fell to me to give the lion’s roar.” Yet that is only a half truth, as historian Isaiah Berlin points out in his article, “Churchill in 1940.” Writing of the type of emotion Churchill felt for the people of Great Britain, Berlin said, “He idealized them with such intensity that in the end they approached his ideal and began to see themselves as he saw them…So hypnotic was the force of his words, so strong his faith, that by the sheer intensity of his eloquence he bound his spell upon them until it seemed to them that he was indeed speaking what was in their hearts and minds. If it was there, it was largely dormant until he had awoken it within them.”
Wartime letters of Churchill making inspiring statements similar to the words in his great speeches simply do not appear on the market, nor do those making any mention of his arch-foe, Hitler, or his malignant philosophy, Hitlerism. In fact, a search of auction records for the past three decades fails to disclose even one. That is why the appearance of the following letter so compelled our attention. A special election for a seat in Parliament for a district in South Wales was being held, and the seat was being contested. Wanting the coalition candidate to be returned in the grim days of early 1942, he intervened to influence the race.
Typed Letter Signed on his Prime Minister’s letterhead, London, May 27, 1942, to Cyril Lakin, his coalition’s candidate for Parliament. “The tragic death of that esteemed Member and fine sportsman, Patrick Munro, while taking part in a Home Guard exercise at the House of Commons, came as a shock to his many friends in the House and in the Llandaff and Barry Division. His place in Parliament must now be filled and I hope that all his friends and supporters in the Division will rally to your support in the forthcoming bye-election. Let there be no doubt in the minds of the electors that you are the candidate who stands for the completion and execution of the plans for victory that have been developed by the National Government which it has been my duty to lead during the past two perilous years. You come before the constituency, of which you are a native, as a National Government candidate, and the principles for which you stand are plain to all. You believe with me that the Government and the nation should concentrate their life-energies on cleansing the world from Hitlerism and that when victory has been won the future of this country should be planned in harmony and combined with other like-minded peoples in accordance with the principles of the Atlantic Charter. If your opponent is opposed to this policy, he should say so. I urge every elector, man and woman, to grasp the opportunity open to them to use their votes to further the prosecution of the war. To abstain from voting at such a time as this is to neglect the prime duty and to sacrifice the time-honored privilege of a Briton.”
This is undoubtedly the most important letter of Churchill offered for sale in memory. It really reads like one of his grand, portentious speeches, with its insistance that the nation’s entire “life-energies” be devoted to “cleansing the world from Hitlerism,” pledge of fidelity to the “principles of the Atlantic Charter,” and its recognition that the war’s course had been “perilous.” In speaking of his leadership of the government as a “duty,” he seems to confirm his perspective that he was not the lion, but just gave its roar. And as he had followed his duty to lead the country, so each individual Briton has his own responsibility – “to further the prosecution of the war.” Churchill did not employ a speech-writer and dictated letters himself, so we can be sure that these words are his. It is interesting to note that Lakin won, thus affirming the confidence of the people in that district in Churchill’s leadership.
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