Churchill and Defeating Terrorism

Churchill waving the Victory sign to the crowd in Whitehall on the day he broadcast to the nation that the war with Germany had been won, 8 May 1945.
Public Domain

Churchill and Defeating Terrorism

Critical lessons from history are being ignored.

London has been gripped by a terror blitz. Within three months, there have been three major attacks in the United Kingdom, two of which were in London. On March 22, Khalid Masood drove his vehicle into a crowd of pedestrians on Westminster Bridge, killing four and wounding many more. Masood then murdered Pfc. Keith Palmer before being shot. Then on May 22, Manchester was bombed during an Ariana Grande concert, killing 22 and injuring 116. The latest attack was on June 3 on London Bridge, where two men stabbed multiple people, killing eight and wounding 48.

The response from Prime Minister Theresa May was uninspired and not well received, focusing more on fighting terrorism over the Internet than any concrete counterterrorism strategy. The recent results of the snap elections attest to this with the Conservatives losing their majority and terrorist-sympathizer Jeremy Corbyn nearly becoming prime minister.

The city of London and the British people have a long and proud history of overcoming disaster. There is a voluminous history to draw inspiration from when terror strikes. Among these are the fires of London, the Bubonic plague, centuries of battles, and the Irish Republican Army bombing campaign. However, the most famous of all is the 18 months Britain stood alone against Nazi Germany.

In the midst of this latest terror blitz, most Britons have expressed the sentiment that terrorism will not prevail in breaking the will of the British people; if the Luftwaffe could not break Britain in 1940, nothing can. It is a noble sentiment, but this pride is also blinding people to the real lessons from that famous moment in history. The “Keep calm and carry on” motto has become an empty platitude.

The British people should look back on the Blitz and the Battle of Britain for critical historical examples and lessons. What the people of Britain fail to realize is that they are repeating the same tragic cycle that left their nation vulnerable to bombardment and invasion in the first place. Those critical 18 months in 1940–1941 were the closest the Allies came to losing the war to the most evil and tyrannical dictator in world history. Defeat or capitulation would have certainly meant enslavement and bitter occupation.

On their own, the British people would have perished in the black nightmare of the Third Reich. However, the British Empire had a watchman and a hero in Sir Winston Churchill. If it were not for his inspirational leadership and intrepid determination, Adolf Hitler would have won. But the British people are not considering the way Churchill rallied the nation from the jaws of death to the wings of victory in their reaction to terrorism.

Historic Imagination

When looking back on the fateful days leading to the outbreak of the Second World War, one clear truth emerges: The Western world allowed Hitler to seize power and build up the Nazi military machine. By choosing the path of appeasement, our foreign policy merely empowered the fascist rising in Europe. This is painfully obvious in hindsight. But in the 1930s, the popular policy of appeasement was regarded as wise. The lone voice of protest and warning was Winston Churchill, a Conservative backbencher many considered to be unreliable, a turncoat, a reactionary, an archaic imperialist and warmonger.

To the eternal shame of the British government, public and media, Churchill’s warnings were ignored and his career nearly ruined. It was only when disaster completely surrounded them, when their backs were to the wall, that a shift in public sentiment came. But even then, it was with some reluctance. When Churchill delivered his first speech to the House of Commons on May 13, 1940, he said:

I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined the government: I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.

We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I will say: 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 and lamentable catalog of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: 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.

Today, this speech is regarded as one of the greatest pieces of wartime oratory. At the time, it was poorly received in the Commons, and many expected Churchill’s government to collapse in a matter of days, allowing the peace movement to assume power. But this all changed. Despite how much people distrusted Churchill, his words began to stiffen the vertebrae and harden the hearts of the entire government and nation. As disaster followed disaster, it was Churchill’s leadership that kept the vision of victory alive. What was the inspiration behind Churchill’s golden words?

In the September 1949 issue of the Atlantic, Isaiah Berlin wrote an essay titled “Mr. Churchill.” In the essay, Mr. Berlin identified the source of Churchill’s wartime leadership:

Mr. Churchill’s dominant category, the single, central, organizing principle of his moral and intellectual universe, is an historical imagination so strong, so comprehensive, as to encase the whole of the present and the whole of the future in a framework of a rich and multicolored past. Such an approach is dominated by a desire—and a capacity—to find fixed moral and intellectual bearings to give shape and character, color and direction and coherence, to the stream of events.

The great force behind the words and deeds of Winston Churchill was historical imagination: the ability to take the lessons from history and apply them to the present, and have a moral compass grounded in the trial and error of human experience. It was his ability to see current events and place them in a historical context that gave a vision to the British people of what they once were, and could be again. The morale that Churchill infused into the island, the “sublime white glow” as he put it, came from his historic imagination and transformed the British people. Mr. Berlin continued:

After he had spoken to them in the summer of 1940 as no one has ever before or since, they conceived a new idea of themselves which their own prowess and the admiration of the world has since established as a heroic image in the history of mankind, like Thermopylae or the defeat of the Spanish Armada. They went forward into battle transformed by his words. The spirit which they found within them he had created within himself from his inner resources, and poured it into his nation, and took their vivid reaction for an original impulse on their part, which he merely had the honor to clothe in suitable words. He created a heroic mood and turned the fortunes of the Battle of Britain not by catching the mood of his surroundings (which was not indeed at any time one of craven panic or bewilderment or apathy, but was somewhat confused; stouthearted but unorganized) but by being impervious to it as he has been to so many of the passing shades and tones of which the life around him has been composed.

This transformation changed public sentiment from accepting appeasement to fighting to the death. As Mr. Berlin wrote, the British people had a stout heart, but they had forgotten the heroic role they had played in history. They were war weary from the bloody losses 30 years before, with over 700,000 men killed in World War i. The emotional trauma of the losses empowered the pacifists, as Mr. Berlin wrote of the post-World War i generation: “The victims and casualties of the disaster thought they had earned the right to be rid of the trappings of an age which had so heartlessly betrayed them.”

Churchill represented a way of thinking many Britons thought was archaic. The reason Churchill was impervious to the pacifism and progressivism of the post-World War i generation was his powerful historical imagination, which was firmly planted in a different age when the greatest moments of British history were being made. However, Churchill just didn’t imagine history, he lived it as a soldier and statesman of the British Empire.

There are many dangerous parallels between the pacifist, prewar Britain of 1939 and modern-day Britain. The nation is in need of another transformation from the same historical imagination Churchill exemplified.

A Hero of Empire

Winston Churchill had a rough childhood. His father was a harsh, self-consumed, talented politician who died young. Churchill’s mother was an infamous socialite who put her dinner parties and extramarital affairs before her children. He had few friends, did poorly in school, and, although an aristocrat, had a painful start to life. It is a miracle that he emerged from the chaos of his youth to be a man of character. The main reason was Churchill’s desire to prove to his father he could become something, and thus he looked to history as a source of inspiration.

By the time Churchill was 26 years old, he had fought in five different conflicts on three different continents as either a soldier or a war correspondent, and had authored three books. From the jungles of Cuba to the rugged cliffs of Afghanistan to the desolate desert of the Sudan, Churchill had seen his friends die and had killed men with his own hands. He had traveled to the four corners of the British Empire and had seen the good and evil the Empire was capable of. But his constant companions were the great historical figures who had built the empire in politics and war; and it was in their mold that he sought to fashion himself.

Churchill’s world vision and personal philosophy were formed during the time of Victorian and Edwardian imperialism. His views changed little throughout his life. However, Churchill was able to place his role in the British Empire in historical perspective—he saw his life as a continuation of the heroic traditions of his forefathers. This was the essence of his leadership during the Second World War, as John Keegan wrote in his biography Winston Churchill: “The idea of history—as he knew and perceived it—had by 1940 come to suffuse Churchill’s being. It now supplies the key to any understanding of his behavior, mature character and even personality.”

It is impossible to understand Churchill without understanding his love of the British Empire and his saturation in history. However, many historians and modern writers attempt to dismiss the connection between Churchill’s greatness and the British Empire. In our modern world, the word empire implies tyranny and racism. While history is replete with examples of both, the words and deeds of Churchill represent the best an empire can offer. The popular view is that Churchill was a failure until his one golden moment in World War ii. This ignores how the history and experience of Empire shaped Churchill’s determination, toughness and sense of gravity.

The government and society of modern Britain have strayed light-years from the virtues of the British Empire. While change and reform are needed, the British people have rejected their heritage and history in favor of socialism and a “progressive” agenda. This was the same societal trend before World War ii. Unless there is a change, the same pattern of tragedy will take hold.

Defeating Defeatism

Nowadays the standard response to a terrorist attack, or a similar act of war, is to pummel the enemy with carefully worded statements, rarely offering any real action to strike back. While Churchill’s words rallied the British people, they were combined with a relentless offensive spirit. The people of Britain did not just endure the Blitz in blind courage. Churchill offered them a vision of victory in which they would attack and stamp out Nazi tyranny. It is this will to take the offensive that is woefully lacking in the United Kingdom’s leadership today.

Churchill’s first task when he became prime minister on May 10, 1940, was to overcome defeatism in the government. There was a strong movement in the government, mainly from Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Halifax, to make peace with Hitler. As John Lukacs points out in his book Five Days in London, this was the closest Hitler came to winning World War ii. The critical day was May 28: At a cabinet meeting Churchill declared: “If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.” With this declaration of defiance, all talk of surrender ceased. Churchill’s bulldog determination was instrumental in overcoming defeatism, as Martin Gilbert wrote:

“There is no defeat in his heart”: with these words the Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies summed up in his diary a central feature—if not the dominant and crucial feature—of Churchill’s leadership. Defeatism, fear, uncertainty, and the attractions of a negotiated or a compromise peace all bedeviled the first six months of the war, and even later months as the recurring crises of the war looked grim for Britain. Even when he could see no way forward, however, Churchill combated all defeatist tendencies with total determination.

When the miracle of Dunkirk saved the British Expeditionary Force, the prospect of a German invasion loomed on the horizon. If the Nazis were able to break through the protective screen of the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, there was only an ill-trained, ill-equipped army to face the barbarians. Despite the odds, Churchill’s public broadcasts made the islanders believe in the impossible, as Carlo D’Este writes in his book Warlord:

When Churchill became prime minister their morale was boosted by his words, particularly his “we will fight on the beaches” speech. “I can tell you every man there rose in spirits,” said their commanding officer, Lord Willis. “You could almost measure it. We would have have gone down to the beach at the Germans and beat them with broom handles. Such was the magic effect of Churchill. It was thrilling. It was absolutely thrilling.”

A spirit of fear did not exist on the island, but rather a spirit that reveled in a dramatic moment of history, when a small island defied the most powerful man in the world. It was an atmosphere impossible under any other leader, and would have been inconceivable only months earlier. D’Este continues:

In the view of the author C. P. Snow, despite the destruction and the death of friends, neighbors, and strangers, the British citizenry experienced a sort of “collective euphoria,” a sense of pride in being the underdog and standing up to a bully—surviving. “How strange it all is!” wrote Harold Nicholson on July 20. “We know that we are faced with a terrific invasion. We half-know that the odds are heavily against us. Yet there is a sort of exhilaration in the air. If Hitler were to postpone the invasion and fiddle about in Africa and the Mediterranean, our morale might weaken. But we are really proud to be the people who will not give way.” “Chips” Channon likened the summer of 1940 to “living as people did during the French Revolution—every day is a document, every hour history.” Under Chamberlain or Halifax, such a feeling could simply never have existed. Ian Jacob thought: “Winston was the only man who could hold the country united.”

Soon the bombs of the Luftwaffe would test the resolve of the nation. The years of unpreparedness and appeasement led to fire and steel raining down on the cities of Britain.

The Last Lion in the Blitz

On the night of Sept. 7, 1940, over 200 German bombers flew over London and delivered the first raid of the Blitz. More than 300 Londoners died, and 1,337 were injured. The next day Churchill visited the worst-hit area in London’s East End. When he stepped out of his car, over a thousand people gathered around him cheering: “It was good of you to come Winnie. We thought you’d come. We can take it. Give it ‘em back.” Churchill broke down in tears. Nearby many Londoners had placed small Union Jacks on top of the rubble heaps that used to be their homes. D’Este recounts another eyewitness account from that day:

The first big raid of the Blitz was so intense and the night sky so illuminated with fire that it was possible to read a newspaper. The following morning Churchill toured the devastated area, as one eyewitness recorded, “occasionally dabbing his eyes from time to time with a large white handkerchief clutched in one hand.” An elderly woman shouted, “When are we going to bomb Berlin, Winnie?” Instantly Churchill swung around and, waving his walking stick in her direction, growled: “You leave that to me!” Morale rose immediately; everyone was satisfied and reassured. … The incident typifies the uniquely unpredictable magic that was Churchill. Transformation of the despondent misery of disaster into a grimly certain stepping-stone to ultimate victory.

The scenes of Churchill walking amidst the ruins of London were inspirational to the people facing the bombs of the Luftwaffe. As a warrior, Churchill felt compelled to share the dangers of battle with those he led, even as a 66-year-old man. He also understood the need to kindle the offensive spirit. Nothing breaks morale faster than a sense of powerlessness. Churchill incensed his generals by demanding plans for an invasion of Europe in 1940 even when the British Army barely existed. Churchill’s combination of intrepid courage and desire to attack emboldened an entire nation.

Another habit Churchill had during the Blitz was to venture out during the bombing raids and watch the explosions and fires engulf London, despite the objections of his wife and colleagues. D’Este recounts one such night:

Ignoring the usual protests that he should not expose himself to unnecessary danger, the party trooped outside and was greeted by the grim scenes of bombs exploding, ack-ack guns firing loudly into the night sky, and “the red and white glow of the fire silhouetting the tall black trunks of the great trees” in St. James’s Park. “It was a moment in history to remember,” wrote [Captain] Winterbotham, “and above the noise came the angry voice of Winston Churchill: ‘By God we’ll get the [bastards] for this.’”

There is a distinct lack of any offensive spirit in modern-day Britain. With constant defense cuts the British Armed Forces are incapable of acting independent of any major ally. The British people are also war weary. The acidic reaction and the sense of loss felt over the Iraq War lingers to this day, and no politician could survive long if there was any suggestion of an offensive operation in the Middle East against the Islamic State. This reality is deeply disturbing, since the proud history of the Second World War suggests that evil can only be quenched by force of arms. The British people would rather have bombs and murders on their own streets than wage a war to end the threat.

Key to Defeating Terrorism

The British people are facing yet another crisis of terror in their cities. However, the people of Britain today are not what their parents and grandparents were in 1940–41. The “greatest generation” barely escaped defeat in World War ii. Churchill’s historic imagination, reinvigorating the British people with virtues and purpose which they had rejected, helped save the nation. The intrepid leadership and offensive spirit transformed a generation that had been steeped in defeatism and pacifism. Modern Britain is in dire need of a historic imagination that can once again remind Britain of their history and reclaim the future.

However, the historic imagination needed to save Britain from disaster this time around far exceeds anything Churchill inspired in the summer of 1940. The history the British people need to remember extends back much further than the days of the British Empire; in fact, it extends back into the pages of the Bible. There was a time when the ancestors of the British people relied on the divine power and guidance of God for victory.

Terrorism is a curse, and unless the British people will humble themselves and have a historical imagination rooted in the teaching and events of the Bible, the cities of the UK will once again become ashes and rubble. The virtues of the British Empire that Churchill exuded were only a small taste of what is possible with God’s blessings. Any pride in the past achievements of Britain is futile without a sincere individual change of direction. The key to defeating terrorism is to have a Churchillian historical imagination that claims the promises and heritage of God so that our nations can once again be empowered to conquer our enemies.

To learn more about the long history between God and the British people, order Herbert W. Armstrong’s free book The United States and Britain in Prophecy.