The 125th Anniversary of Winston Churchill’s Birth

Patrick J. Garrity

November 30, 1999

Winston Churchill had many fine hours. Americans will remember the famous words of this British statesman. For instance: “We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. 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.” As President John F. Kennedy later said, Churchill mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.

But perhaps Churchill’s finest hour—and his greatest use of rhetoric—occurred in private meetings of the British government in late May 1940. Here Churchill narrowly averted Britain’s effective capitulation to Adolph Hitler.

Let us review the dismal scene. Britain’s military situation with Germany was deteriorating rapidly, verging on catastrophe. France was about to be knocked out of the war by a massive armored thrust from the German army. The British Expeditionary Force, which had been sent to fight alongside the French, was desperately trying to avoid being cut off. Most military experts did not think that evacuation of the BEF at Dunkirk was possible—it seemed that the cream of the British army was about to be destroyed. Hitler could then turn his Air Force, and possibly an invasion fleet, against the British Isles.

To make matters worse, Churchill’s political position as Prime Minister was insecure. He had only been named to that office a few weeks previously. The loyalty of much of the dominant Conservative Party still rested with the former Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, and the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax. Prior to the war, Chamberlain and Halifax had pursued a policy of appeasement towards Nazi Germany. They had argued that Hitler had reasonable and limited ambitions, and that Britain should accommodate Hitler in order to preserve the strength of the British Empire outside of Europe. Churchill, of course, had mightily resisted the Chamberlain-Halifax appeasement policy during the 1930s. He had been named Prime Minister on May 10, 1940, only narrowly, as many Conservative Party members (and the King) preferred Halifax.
Halifax and Chamberlain still remained in the government, where they were key members of the War Cabinet, the small group of ministers with direct responsibility for running the war.

Churchill, to put it simply, had to watch his back at home as well as abroad. The smallest political misstep could destroy his government, and bring Halifax (or an even worse choice) into power. Everything came to a head during a series of meetings of the War Cabinet from May 24-28. Halifax, in effect, proposed to seek (directly or indirectly) peace talks with Hitler. Halifax argued that Britain could gain nothing by remaining in the war after France was defeated. London should be prepared to make reasonable concessions to Germany and Italy, so long as Hitler guaranteed “the liberty and independence” of the British Empire.

Churchill sought to avoid a direct confrontation with Halifax. An open disagreement with the Foreign Secretary risked a split in the Conservative Party, a split that Churchill might not survive politically. But in the end, Churchill had no choice. On May 28, he argued in the War Cabinet strongly against Halifax’s position. Hitler’s guarantees would mean nothing, Churchill said. Even discussing a possible peace settlement would lead to “a slippery slope” where Britain would ultimately have to accept whatever terms Hitler offered. Halifax restated his position: Britain should see what kind of settlement it could get with Germany and Italy. This critical War Cabinet meeting adjourned without a decision. Which view would prevail?

Churchill then met separately with the members of the entire Cabinet. He explained forcefully what was at stake, without any reference to the argument he had just had with Halifax. Britain should not negotiate with “That Man” (Hitler). If Britain tried to make peace now, the Germans would demand the British fleet, its naval bases, and much else. Britain would become a slave state, and a new government would be established by a puppet of Hitler. Instead, Churchill concluded: “I am convinced that every man of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender. 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.”

Churchill spoke these words as if they represented the considered view of the War Cabinet—which, of course, was not the case. He ran a great political risk in going around Halifax. But the members of the full Cabinet instantly reacted to Churchill’s appeal, exactly as the entire British nation would do in the weeks and months to come. There were loud cries of approval around the table. After the meeting, the ministers stood up, shouted, and patted Churchill on the back. Halifax (who was not present) could hardly challenge this mood of defiance against Hitler. His resistance to Churchill’s policies in the War Cabinet quickly faded. Britain would indeed fight on.

In recent years, some revisionist historians have argued that Churchill’s policy was a mistake, that Halifax was right in trying to get Britain out of the war. By doing so, the argument goes, Britain could have saved her empire.

No one could have predicted the future with such certainty on May 28, 1940. The best thing to do was also the right thing, even at the risk of choking on one’s own blood resisting a German invasion. To give in to Hitler in 1940 without a fight would have destroyed the moral foundation of the British people. Even if the physical territory of Britain and the democratic world could have been preserved—a doubtful proposition, given Hitler’s (and later Stalin’s) immense ambitions—the soul of Western Civilization would have been in gravest danger. The determination to save that soul, then and now, is Churchill’s gift to us, on the 125th anniversary of his birth.

Patrick J. Garrity is a Senior Policy Analyst with the Los Alamos National Laboratory, based in Washington, DC and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.