January 24, 2000. It was exactly thirty-five years ago on this day that Winston Churchill died. This massive fact enters my mind now because for months I have been bombarded with a lot of nonsense about who should be named Person of the Century.
Time magazine said that the first criteria (among three) they used was this: “The grand struggle between totalitarianism and democracy.” And they chose Albert Einstein. Fifty years ago, Time chose Churchill as “Man of the Half Century.” A change of editors, I guess.
It is a self-evident fact to me that Churchill is the man of the century. He is the one who foresaw the Communist and then the Nazi menace and was able to see the nature of their loathsome ideologies. He is the one who so vigorously articulated the necessity of preparation, and the one who—almost alone—in May of 1940 stood up to those British leaders who had become persuaded that Germany would win and thereby were willing to cut a deal with Hitler. He is the one who then sent not only his battalions, but also the English language into battle (as John F. Kennedy put it). He is the one who told his countrymen that they would have “victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road might be.” If there is any one man responsible for saving the best in our civilization in the twentieth-century, it is Winston Churchill.
But perhaps the contemporary world’s inability to understand human excellence and human greatness shouldn’t be that surprising. I am reminded of an incident a few years back. A freshman student, a large well-proportioned athlete, came storming into my office a few weeks after classes had started. He was waving a copy of Churchill’s The Gathering Storm (the first volume of his six on World War II) which was assigned reading in a freshman level politics class. He seemed very angry. I will paraphrase what he said to me (leaving out his imprecations):
“Who is this guy Churchill. Until this week I have never heard of him. I went through high school never even having heard the name mentioned. I heard the name Hitler and Stalin, but I never heard the name Churchill. I am reading his book. This is tremendous. This is a great book. I can’t put it down. I love this guy! And I hear that he wrote other books. I should have heard about this guy in high school. This guy did some interesting things, and he was a good man. How come I never heard of him? I love this guy.”
There are some things that are clear about Churchill’s youth. He was an active, ambitious young man. He sought out a life of action. He was not a very good student in school. Most subjects bored him. He certainly couldn’t learn Greek or Latin, and he didn’t see why he should. He was irritated that examinations were backwards. He said: “I should have liked to be asked what I knew. They always tried to ask what I did not know.” But he didn’t ignore the English language. He studied it, and used it. “I got into my bones the essential structure of the normal British sentence—which is a noble thing.”
By his own account he didn’t start taking his own education seriously until he got to India in 1896. He was twenty-two years old. He began to appreciate what he had missed. He had a lot of time on his hands and, aside from playing polo, he started reading books: Plato, Aristotle, Macaulay, Gibbon, and others.
So in Bangalore, India, he gave himself an education. He said: “It was a curious education. First because I approached it with an empty, hungry mind and with fairly strong jaws; and what I got I bit.” And we should be glad he did, because he learned what was worth fighting for, and why.
He went to South Africa as a reporter to cover the Anglo-Boer War. The troop train he was on was attacked and he heroically contributed to the escape of the men, but was himself captured. He was put in prison. Writing from the Boer prison, on November 30, 1899, his twenty-fifth birthday, he wrote to a friend: “I am twenty five today. It is terrible to think how little time remains.” Soon after writing this he escaped to Mozambique, and then arranged to be placed in a fighting unit.
By 1900, as he reached his twenty-sixth birthday, he had already published five books, including his only novel Savrola, and was also elected to Parliament. In a letter to a friend he warned that this new century “will witness the great war for the existence of the individual.”
Along the way to that war he became Home Secretary, First Lord of the Admiralty, Secretary of State for the Colonies, First Lord again, then Prime Minister and Minister of Defence. After the war he came here to give “The Iron Curtain Speech,” and a few years later became Prime Minister again. In 1953 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. This man of action, this great friend of the idea of the individual, also wrote another twenty books, during his free time.
Time magazine was right. This was not the Person of the Century. Churchill was the Man of the Century, a great and good man. We have short memories.