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Avoiding World War III
Sir Winston Churchill

Recommended Reading

Never Give In: The Extraordinary Character of Winston Churchill

Churchill: A Study in Greatness

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Sir Winston Churchill: The Man Who Gave Britain Back its Roar
Sir Winston Churchill:  The Man Who Gave Britain Back its Roar
by Carl J. Ciovacco

“Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense! Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy. We stood alone a year ago, and to many countries it seemed that our account was closed, we were finished…Very different is the mood today.”
-Sir Winston Churchill
Address at Harrow School, October 29, 1941 [1]


Never before has there been a leader as determined as Sir Winston Churchill. His determination and perseverance helped to steer Britain through arguably its most difficult time in history. How could a sickly, pudgy, outcast child, transform into the “Savior of the Nation” by leading Britain against the epitome of evil? [2] The answer lies in Churchill’s unyielding determination to never accept defeat and his unquenchable desire to serve his country.

Churchill did more on May 28, 1940, to positively shape the outcome of WWII than any other war-time leader. [3] May 28, 1940, was the crucible of his war-time leadership. It was the day in which he decided to reject a negotiated settlement with Germany even though the odds were heavily stacked against him. He was saddled with relatively limited military resources, a divided citizenry and Parliament, an overwhelming German power, a lack of international allies, and a history of personal and political failure. These constraints were seemingly insurmountable. In fact, if any one of the three preceding British Prime Ministers had been in his shoes on May 28, 1940, they most likely would have sued for a negotiated settlement with Germany. [4]

Yet, Churchill made the leap of faith and demonstrated that an individual can in fact make a difference. He proved that external forces do not always determine a situation’s outcome. Churchill’s “finest hour” demonstrated that a leader’s impact in deciding his country’s fate can indeed trump a myriad of seemingly impossible set-up factors. [5]

This paper will examine the problem that Churchill faced on May 28, 1940, by using the “system-state-individual leader” model of analysis. [6] It will begin by looking at the shape of the international system and the relevant systemic factors. Next, it will analyze the intricacies of Britain at the start of WWII and how they impacted Churchill’s actions. Then it will delve into Churchill’s character and explore how he managed the settlement debate. The analysis of Churchill will focus on the difference that he as a leader made during this critical time in history. Finally, this paper will outline Churchill’s legacy as a man and as a war-time leader.

I. System

The international system in late May, 1940, was one of chaos and war between major powers. Nation-states were quickly stacking up on either side of the great divide between expansionary, totalitarian regimes on the one hand and nations intent on stemming aggression and preserving the current world order on the other. Suffice it to say, some nations eagerly advanced towards war to vindicate perceived injustices and expand their empires while others avoided war with great resolve. Two key systemic factors that provide context for Churchill’s decision on May 28, 1940, were the overwhelming power of Germany and the lack of pledged American involvement in the war. Both factors placed England in a precarious situation regarding its own survival.

Germany’s Growing Power

Germany gained control of Europe in such a calculated and deliberate manner that its conquest has been explained by the “Artichoke Theory” of war. [7] Germany built its empire piece by piece until it controlled most of Europe. It moved into the Rhineland in 1936, Austria and the Sudetenland in 1938, Czechoslovakia and Poland in 1939, and the Benelux countries and France in 1940. Each successive conquest provided Germany with much needed resources in order to supplement its already maxed out industrial capacity. Nearing the height of its expansion in 1940, Germany had a GDP equal to that of the Allies’ combined GDP. [8] Furthermore, the German military was far superior to the Allied equivalents because of its infusion of highly mobile mechanized units and extraordinarily trained junior officers. [9] The early success of its blitzkrieg warfare was a testament to Germany’s power. It was at the zenith of German conquest that Churchill assumed the Premiership.

American Hesitancy

President Franklin Roosevelt did not see the world as Churchill did in 1940. His country was not immediately at risk and his constituency was not yet galvanized into going to war. In fact, anti-English sentiment among Irish-Americans strongly favored not helping the British. [10] To Churchill’s despair, the US even hesitated in providing essential equipment to the British such as planes and destroyers. [11] Furthermore, once the US had agreed to send some equipment, there was never any assurance that materials would continue once Britain’s ability to pay ran out in 1940. [12] Hence, the US was not the ally that Britain had hoped it to be at the start of the war.

Confounding the lack of US support was the fact that the USSR was overtly supplying resources to Germany in 1940. In reality, Stalin increased Soviet shipments of supplies to Germany in order to pacify Hitler. Soviet supplies “rose by leaps and bounds” and the Soviet Government even added an additional freight train for rubber for the Germans. [13] Thus, with the US stalling on its supplies to Britain, and with the Soviets outwardly supplying the Reich, Britain’s situation was at its nadir in 1940.

II. The State: Britain

Britain found itself at a crossroads in the interwar years. Cracks in its empire were beginning to show and Germany threatened its regional hegemony. Believing that its future rested in its overseas empire, British leaders in the 1930s placed greater emphasis on global objectives over continental defense considerations. This decision would ultimately push Britain to the brink of defeat in 1940 because of the lack of military capabilities. In order to understand Britain’s situation in late May, 1940, it is critical to analyze the military-economic tradeoff and competing political views of the preceding years.

Military-Economic Tradeoff

Britain had a quarter of globe in its empire in 1940, and it needed to sustain exports to both its empire and the world. The British Treasury warned that supplanting export production with increased armament production in the 1930s, similar to Germany, would lead Britain to national bankruptcy. [14] Consequently, economic considerations relegated Britain’s continental military commitment to last on its list of priorities. It believed that by keeping its rearmament spending relatively low – between four and five percent of its GDP – it could sustain its economy and fight a long war with Germany if necessary. [15]

This was a fine strategy if it could be implemented in a vacuum and without an aggressive neighbor set on fighting a short war. Britain gambled on not building up a sufficient land army because it was convinced that Germany had already achieved maximum industrial capacity and therefore could not prosecute an offensive war. [16] The primary flaw in this train of thought was that as Germany conquered more territory, its resources and industrial capacity increased exponentially. Indeed, after the Germans conquered Czechoslovakia in 1939, they enjoyed industrial boons like that of the Skoda factory. Thus, Britain had mortgaged its self-defense on the future payoff of its empire.

This decision was not without debate. Churchill led the British rearmament crusade in the early 1930s as he witnessed the increasing power of Germany. In what would be called his “wilderness years,” he campaigned for military action against Germany. It was not until February, 1939, however, that Britain revived its pursuit of a European expeditionary force. [17] Unfortunately, by this point in the lead-up to war, Britain was too far behind Germany to put up a significant fight. As demonstrated by the ignominious, though miraculous, retreat at Dunkirk, Britain could do little more than concede German control of the continent.

Political Debate

Politically, there was also a tradeoff between rearmament and appeasement. An entire generation had been destroyed in Britain by WWI and the British people did not want to see another war in their lifetime. [18] So strong was this sentiment that appeasement of Germany had become common in the 1930s as to ensure an avoidance of hostilities. In fact, Prime Ministers Ramsey McDonald, Stanley Baldwin, and Neville Chamberlain all permitted Adolf Hitler to violate the Treaty of Versailles and rearm in order to avoid war. [19] Churchill lambasted Chamberlain for sacrificing the future of England at the Munich Agreement in 1938. He immortalized the appeasement by saying to Chamberlain, “given the choice between war and dishonor… you chose dishonor and you have war.” [20]

However, it was not until the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, that Churchill’s message gained traction. While Churchill campaigned for the necessity to counter Germany for much of the 1930s, the invasion of Belgium caused his message to resonate enough with Parliament and the public for him to assume the Premiership. By May 1940, the economic and appeasement arguments against rearmament were turned on their head.

It was in the position of Prime Minister that Churchill made the most important political decision of his life. After assuming the Premiership on May 10, 1940, he was forced only two weeks later to decide whether to sign a settlement with Germany or continue the fight. The Conservative Party led by former Prime Minister Chamberlain and Lord Halifax favored this settlement offered by Italy’s Benito Mussolini and supported by France’s Paul Reynaud. [21] While the specifics of the settlement have never been made public, the prevailing thought was that Britain would have to make concessions to Germany and Italy in order to sit in a “privileged place in [Hitler’s] projected new world order.” [22] With German tanks storming into France, the fate of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk uncertain, and his opposition Conservative Party holding the majority in the House of Commons, Churchill had only a slim chance for continuing the fight. [23]

Then on May 28, 1940, Churchill assembled 25 high ranking cabinet ministers representing differing points of view on the settlement, and summarily won them over with a stirring speech. It was this turn of events that provided him the support he needed to fight Germany. [24] Churchill then telegrammed France’s Reynaud that night to call off any negotiation with Mussolini and the Germans. This decision to fight Germany would ultimately rid the Island of a defeatist mentality, and set the conditions for both American enlistment into the war and the eventual defeat of Nazi Germany.

III. The Individual: Churchill

How did Churchill rally the government and eventually the British people into fighting Germany under the most foreboding of situations? The answer to his success on May 28, 1940, lies in his “British Bulldog” character. [25] He was not intimidated by overwhelming odds and seemingly insurmountable set-up conditions. Churchill envisioned the world in a way that conflicted with the norm of appeasement and he possessed the confidence to pursue his vision. As Henry Kissinger would later write, these two characteristics typify a truly revolutionary leader. [26] Churchill’s own words best explain his outlook on going to war with Germany and leading his country in the charge. He said, “I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been a preparation for this hour and for this trial… I was sure I should not fail. [27]

We will now turn to Churchill as a person to understand the inner workings of his political genius. We will evaluate him based on four areas: situational awareness, clear and actionable objectives, ability to translate objectives to success, and the means pursued to accomplish his objectives.

A. Situational Awareness

Churchill was well versed in understanding both the macro and micro levels of decision making. When faced with the decision to fight Germany or to accept a negotiated settlement, he knew that he must be cognizant of both the big picture as well as more parochial, internal considerations of his own countrymen. At the macro level, he understood that the US would not join the conflict if Britain did not at least attempt to fight Germany. Secondly, he knew that Germany’s terms of settlement would most certainly favor German expansion at the expense of British decline.

At the micro level, he recognized the importance of carefully managing the internal power play within Parliament along with always having a pulse on the public’s heartbeat. Also, Churchill knew the importance of garnering public support and reshaping prevailing domestic conditions of appeasement in order to implement a national policy of war. His understanding of the macro and micro levels of the settlement debate allowed him to maneuver adroitly through a minefield where one wrong step would mean the end of the empire.

Settlement Meant US Abstention

Churchill knew that American absence in WWII would only precipitate the decline of England and the rise of Germany. As the largest power, the US would determine the war’s outcome like it had done in WWI. With that said, the US was geographically distanced from the war’s epicenter and did not have the impetus that European nations had in joining as a combatant member. Moral convictions aside, the US could profit handily by providing both supplies and credit without ever fighting. Churchill knew that by the British signing on to a settlement with Germany, it would wrongly signal to the US that everything was fine across the Atlantic. It would almost give the US an easy way out in not providing help to Britain. In fact, Churchill said that only “a bold stand against Germany…would command [American] admiration and respect.” [28] Thus, Churchill correctly understood that fighting Germany was essential to bringing the US into the war.

Settlement Meant German Domination

Churchill believed that any type of settlement with Germany would put England “completely at [Hitler’s] mercy.” [29] Churchill thought that even after fighting for only a period of time, the situation would be better for Britain since it would have expended some of Germany’s resources. [30] Furthermore, a settlement would signal the decline of the British Empire due to the recognition of Italy’s claims in the Mediterranean. [31] Part of the settlement was that Italy would be rewarded for remaining neutral with respect to Germany. Thus, by signing onto a settlement, England would be essentially yielding to Italy’s international blackmail, catering to Hitler’s design of Europe, and leaving the negotiating table with little clout regarding its future empire.

This was too much for Churchill to accept. While he was strongly against the loss of regional hegemony to Germany, the decline of the British Empire was personally repulsive to him. Churchill grew up during the heyday of British power and had a romantic view of the Empire’s past and future. In fact, he took part in the last British cavalry charge in history in the great British victory at Omdurman, Sudan. [32] There was something sentimental about the British Empire, and he would not give it away to Italy or Germany without a fight.

Domestic Support Necessary for Fighting Germany

Churchill understood the difference between merely having convictions on the need to fight Germany and the actual implementation of the national policy to fight. Kissinger explored this very challenge in the difference between a conclusion and a policy. When discussing his transition from academia to the political world, Kissinger said that, “it was no longer enough to be plausible in argument; one had to be convincing in action.” [33] During Churchill’s “wilderness years” in the 1930s, he only formulated his conclusion that Germany must be met in battle; however, he never had to implement such a policy during this time. As Kissinger noted, a statesman is a “prisoner of necessity… [because] he is confronted with an environment he did not create.” [34] Since the environment of appeasement and pessimism ran juxtaposed to Churchill’s conclusion that Britain would have to fight Germany, he would have to reshape the environment in order for his war policy to succeed.

Central to a successful policy is the need for domestic support. As a result of adverse domestic conditions, Churchill would have to concentrate on building strong public and Parliamentary support before trying to sell a war with Germany. He did not have the luxury of merely being correct and staying on the periphery of politics as he did during his “wilderness years.” The time was ripe for him to convince others of why he was correct and ensure that the policy was adopted. He had to rally support for his vision, acknowledge opposing views, and counter them with every ounce of energy that he possessed.

B. Clear and Actionable Objectives

In May, 1940, Churchill had two primary and mutually supporting objectives: inspire public and Parliamentarian support for war. In order to accomplish both of these objectives, he would have to conquer the defeatism that had crossed the English Channel from Europe and permeated Britain. In May, 1940, Churchill was only concerned with rallying domestic support to fight. His immediate victory would be England’s throwing of its proverbial hat into the ring against Germany. While massive rearmament and enlistment of American support would be crucial to ultimately winning the war, Churchill did not fully pursue these objectives until after he had convinced Britain to fight.

Inspire Public Support

While the British public feared going to war again in 1940, it feared fighting the German war machine even more. Churchill was instrumental in turning the tide of public fear and pessimism to that of patriotic confidence. His strong self-belief inspired the public’s confidence. In the early days of the conflict, Churchill stated that “the problem is not winning the war, but persuading the people to let you win it.” [35]

In order to persuade the public to let him win the war, he had to abolish the defeatist mentality. Examples of such defeatism were the suggestions from within Government to evacuate the Royal Family and Government to another part of the Overseas Empire, send priceless paintings from London’s National Gallery to Canada, and even evacuate British children to Canada and the US. [36] The US also facilitated this defeatist mentality by attaching a clause to its transfer of US destroyers that in the event of German victory, the British Fleet should be transferred to America. [37] The mere mention of this possibility elicited a response from Churchill to Roosevelt that said “such a discussion, perhaps on the eve of an invasion, would be injurious to public morale.” [38]

Build Parliamentary Support

In order to move forward with his plan to fight Germany, Churchill would need the support of Parliament. Churchill knew that his government was not entirely stable because of the nature of its three-party (Conservative, Labour, Liberal) coalition, and the fact that his party did not have the majority. Churchill won the Premiership because it was believed that he was best suited to combat Hitler even though he was not a member of the majority Conservative Party. [39] Notwithstanding their loss of the Premiership, Conservative Party leaders Chamberlain and Halifax remained very powerful. [40] In fact, a “chilly silence” greeted Churchill for the first two months on his Premiership. [41] His objective in May, 1940, was to unify Parliament and enlist its support in the fight against Germany.

C. Translate Objectives to Success

Churchill understood that without support of both the government to approve his decisions and the people to stand and fight, he would be alone in his quest to fight Germany. From the time that he became Prime Minister on May 10, until his final decision to reject the European settlement on May 28, he succeeded in vanquishing domestic defeatism and outmaneuvering the Conservative Party’s two most powerful politicians. He accomplished his short-term objective of staving off British defeat from within its own ranks by gaining public and Parliamentary support.

How did Churchill galvanize the public?

Churchill shaped the war into a battle between good and evil. He made the conflict larger than any one person fighting in it. He told the people that, “we are fighting to save the whole world from the pestilence of Nazi tyranny and in the defense of all that is most sacred to man.” [42] In nearly all of his public addresses, he emphasized the moral nature of the conflict. [43] Britain was not only fighting for its own freedom, but for the freedom of the entire world. He empathized with the people regarding the horrors of war, but elevated their purpose to a higher level by intimating that, “war is terrible…but slavery is worse.” [44] He told the public that Britain had to stand up to Germany even if defeat was possible. Any appeasement would be an indication not only of military weakness but also of “moral weakness.” [45]

Churchill also extinguished the defeatist mentality from the public. He ceased all talk of Britain’s impending defeat by Germany and even halted all contingency planning such as relocating the fleet, royalty, government, and art to North America. (British children, however, were sent due to a conflict in jurisdictional authority.) [46] Churchill also sent an official memorandum to all senior civil servants and officials that said they should report and remove anyone who was “exercising a disturbing or depressing influence.” [47]

By snuffing out defeatism and merging determination with romantic patriotism, he enlisted complete public support that would endure throughout the horrors of the impending Battle of Britain. Churchill unlocked British national pride in only a way that he could have mustered. He would later say that Britain possessed a “lion heart” and that he “had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.” [48] By inspiring the public, he transformed a nation of lambs in the 1930s to a nation of lions in the 1940s.

How did Churchill build Parliamentary support?

Churchill proactively managed Parliament in such a way as to ensure support for the war. He constructed three levels of debate. The first was the House of Commons, the second the War Cabinet, and the third, his own ministers. Because of the fact that the National (or Grand) Coalition that he had formed brought members of all political parties into the highest positions, he ensured a high level of disparate views in his forums of debate. [49]

At the broadest level of debate, he told the House of Commons that merely entering into negotiations with Germany via Italy would detract from Britain’s ability to fight at a later date if Britain ultimately decided not to sign an agreement. He stated that the “forces of resolution which were now at our disposal [will] have vanished” if they decided to fight after entertaining settlement negotiations with Germany. [50] This psychological perceptiveness paid huge dividends in isolating the Conservative Party and its support for negotiations. Furthermore, Churchill stated that even the government’s mere debate over the topic of a settlement with Germany could encourage defeatism by signaling that even the country’s leadership doubts the likelihood of British victory. [51]

He then set out to neutralize Chamberlain and Halifax who were members of the War Cabinet and his chief political adversaries in regards to the settlement. He accomplished this by drawing in Labour Leaders Clement Atlee and Arthur Greenburg, who were against the settlement, into his War Cabinet. In addition, he included Archibald Sinclair, leader of the Liberal Party, in the War Cabinet in order to guarantee an additional ally. Sinclair had been Churchill’s adjutant during WWI and thus was likely to support a rejection of the settlement. [52]

Lastly, Churchill assembled a small and politically crosscutting group of 25 hand-selected ministers. It was in this meeting that he persuaded them of the need to fight Germany. This group of ministers was so convinced by his argument that they jumped up from their table and ran to Churchill, exuberantly “shouting and patting [him] on his back.” [53] He had convinced high ranking politicians of differing political orientations that war was the only answer. Never before had he “heard a gathering of persons occupying high places in public life express themselves so emphatically.” [54] After achieving this success, he returned to the War Cabinet with the news and effectively pulled the last bit of support out from under Chamberlain and Halifax. Britain would reject the settlement and choose to fight Germany. With the domestic front in order, Churchill could now concentrate his attention on the Germans.

D. Means to Accomplish Objectives

Churchill’s personality, qualities, and life-experiences allowed him to pull off this incredible feat on May 28, 1940. During the heated debate in late May, it is widely believed that “only one [man] could have evoked those responses” and closed ranks for going to war. [55] His legendary oratory skills and public visibility contributed greatly to his success. Furthermore, his experiences in childhood and his extensive, and often bumpy, career in Parliament provided him with lessons on how to view failure. It is the confluence of these characteristics that enabled him to accomplish his objectives in May, 1940.

Oratory Prowess

Churchill eloquently relayed messages to the public by way of speeches and broadcasts. His communication strategy with the public was based on “the twin pillars of his oratory…realism and vision.” [56] Each morning Churchill read the ten most popular British newspapers because he wanted to absorb the news about the war in the same way that the public did. [57] By understanding how the public saw the war, he could tailor his message to meet their needs. In his first public broadcast on May 19, 1940, Churchill told the British people exactly what they expected to hear: times were bad and the future dismal. But what they had not expected was his bright vision of the future. [58] The people latched onto this approach because as much as they did not want someone to view their present state through rose-colored glasses, they also did not want a pessimist at the helm. His careful choice of words demonstrated the stark contrast in new leadership at 10 Downing Street. Pessimism and appeasement as characterized by past Prime Ministers were gone, bold, patriotic, and optimistic leadership was now present.

Public Visibility

Churchill was incredibly visible when he assumed the Premiership. He understood that people needed to see him and be personally reassured by his confidence. As such, he constantly showed off his improvised two-finger “V for Victory” sign. [59] He frequently traveled and spoke with citizens. There was a type of endearment and informality that the public had for Churchill as his fans would yell out to him, “Good luck, Winnie. God bless you.” [60] The benefits of mingling with the public were two-fold, for as he inspired the public, the public repaid the favor by supplying him with courage to continue to lead.

Part of the secret to his success in being able to visit with the public was in his ingenious and quite unorthodox work schedule. He effectively created a two-day working day by ending his normal work-day with a long nap. Then around six o’clock in the afternoon he would wake up refreshed and begin his second day scheduled full of meetings. [61] Thus, by changing the reality of the work day, he was able to maximize time with the public and inspire the courage to fight on.

Experience with Personal Failure

One could conclude that Churchill’s many personal failings as a youth impressed upon him a determination to never give up as an adult. A close examination of Churchill’s personal relationship with his father helps to shed light on how his sense of determination developed. His father, Lord Randolph, was a wealthy aristocrat who had ascended to the second-highest position in the British Government. He always harassed his son about his grades being too low, his inferior athletic ability, and his failure in only achieving a cavalry, instead of an infantry, commission from Sandhurst. [62]

On one occasion, Churchill wrote his father from boarding school with the joyous news that he had been accepted into Sandhurst. His father then replied by highlighting his son’s failure to attain an infantry slot by saying that he will “become a mere social wastrel, one of the hundreds of public school failures, and [he] will degenerate into a shabby unhappy and futile existence.” [63] Churchill’s father died just as he was commissioned a lieutenant and precisely as his son’s career took off. While all of Churchill’s hopes for “comradeship” with his father ended with Lord Randolph’s premature death, he would spend the rest of his life desperately trying to gain his father’s approval from the grave. [64]

Experience with Political Failure

While he had many successes in government, he also had many failures. He was so confident in his ideas that he often failed to compromise on his views. This mentality led to a hot-cold career that was highlighted by his swapping of political parties numerous times. He entered Parliament in 1900 as a Conservative and then switched to the Liberal Party in 1908. He resigned from the Liberal Party in 1915 after orchestrating the British defeat at Gallipoli. He then lost two consecutive elections before being elected as a Conservative once again. [65] Before the end of the 1920s, he would make, in his words, the “biggest blunder of his life” by returning Britain to the gold standard and wrecking the economy. [66] He would then spend much of the 1930s in his “wilderness years” beseeching the world about the growing German threat. His career appeared in despair until both the public and government acknowledged that he was right about Germany. He finally returned to lead Britain in its most trying time of WWII.

While his political career was full of peaks and troughs, he always held on to his convictions. It was only by learning that the time horizon of failure was only in the eyes of the beholder, that he was able to continue serving when others would have given up. He learned that past failures were not truly failures because he had not given up in his quest to serve. Whereas he could have easily reclined to a life of luxury in his Blenheim Mansion, he viewed past failings as mere set-backs which he would vindicate in the future. This lesson served him well in May, 1940, when he realized that a settlement with Germany would be an eternal failure with no chance of recovery. On the other hand, while going to war would most likely lead to initial losses against Germany, the war would ultimately end in victory precisely because he would never give up.

IV. Legacy

Churchill will be remembered as the man that saved Britain in its most desperate hour. His relevance as a leader is still studied today. In fact, Churchill’s official biographer Martin Gilbert was invited by President George W. Bush in 2002, to the White House in the hope that aspects of Churchill’s war leadership could be useful in the present war against terrorism. [67] The usefulness of lessons from Churchill’s legacy, however, is not only limited to Heads of State. As a man, he taught us that if you get knocked down, you must get back up. As a leader, he showed us that one person can in fact make a difference. While it is always difficult to distill a legacy out of a lifetime of so many accomplishments, these two lessons would most likely make Churchill proud to be remembered by.

Never Give Up

Churchill had contempt for defeat. He would probably say that a person only failed if he did not get back up and continue trying. In his eyes, as soon as someone stopped trying, then and only then had they truly failed. This is an important life-lesson for it allowed him to triumph over both personal and political set-backs. Optimism in the face of adversity allowed him to reemerge time and again after he had been discounted. During his “wilderness years,” his political rival Lady Nancy Astor replied to Stalin’s inquiry about Churchill by saying, “Oh, he’s finished.” [68] Precisely because Churchill never believed that he was ever finished, less than five years later, he was dealing with Stalin as a co-equal.

One of the most improbable political come-backs ever was Churchill’s return as Lord of the Admiralty in 1939. After serving in the same capacity from 1911-1915, and designing a horrible defeat for the British in the Battle of Gallipoli where so many Australians were killed, his return a quarter century later was met with sheer enthusiasm. [69] After leading the Navy astray in the naval operation in the Dardanelles in WWI, the Navy surprisingly cheered his return in WWII. So dramatic was this about face that all of the Royal Navy’s ships and stations worldwide flashed the signal, “WINSTON IS BACK!” [70] Churchill proved that failure can only be temporary, depending on how one views the situation at hand.

Making the Difference

Churchill showed us in May, 1940, that a leader can exert influence over systemic factors and proactively steer the course of history. Leaders are not merely cogs on the wheel of life, but they have the power to determine the outcome of global events. Even when the latitude that a leader has regarding resource and systemic parameters is constrained, how that leader utilizes his resources and multiplies his effectiveness makes all the difference.

Churchill’s situation in May, 1940, was incredibly tenuous and more insuperable constraints have rarely presented themselves. He inspired the British public to resist even when the military capacity was not yet present to combat German bombardment. He multiplied the effectiveness of his forces by instilling in the public a sense of undeniable victory. He changed the set-up factors and because of that, he provided the conditions for success.

Final Thoughts

For the simple fact that war surrounds us today, Churchill’s legacy remains relevant. As an inspiring war-time leader, much of the twentieth century unfolded the way it did because of his decisions. A twenty-first century leader could profit immensely from studying his war leadership. Churchill’s power of persuasion applied through exceptional oratory skills, coupled with his legendary determination and faithfulness to convictions, are still applicable. In a time when the schism between divergent political views appears to be widening, and when the steadfast adherence to values seems to be eroding, understanding Churchill’s legacy would do much to improve the world today.

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Show Footnotes and Bibliography
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Copyright © 2008 Carl J. Ciovacco

Written by Carl J. Ciovacco. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Carl J. Ciovacco at:

About the author:
Mr. Ciovacco just completed his Masters in International Security and Political Economy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and has a BS from West Point (2000). His focus at Harvard was counterterrorism and al Qaeda. He worked with the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point for his thesis on al Qaeda's media strategy. His article entitled "The Erosion of Noncombatant Immunity within Al Qaeda" was just published in Small Wars Journal.

Published online: 10/12/2008.
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