In 1938, Neville Chamberlain, then Prime Minister of Great Britain, betrayed the Czechs to Hitler at Munich, and thereby passed up the best opportunity of stopping the Nazi war machine without a war. When the news reached England, an aging and washed up politician named Winston Churchill talked about getting a group of friends together and throwing a brick through the Prime Minister’s window.
Churchill has been much on my mind since the House of Representatives passed the Health Insurance Takeover last night, and not just because I have an urge to chuck construction materials at certain D.C. residences.
There’s no point in sugar coating. Last night was a disaster. It was the worst defeat for freedom in three decades. But we can draw inspiration from the example of Mr. Churchill when facing a disaster and a threat to freedom that was far worse.
As a result of Chamberlain’s appeasement at Munich, most of Europe lost its freedom during the next two years. On May 10, 1940, the German armies poured into the Netherlands, the collapse of France was imminent, and the Nazis were weeks away from driving British forces off the continent. In Churchill’s words, “The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us.” Under those horrific circumstances, compared to which Obamacare is, like a dripping faucet, merely a minor annoyance, Neville Chamberlain resigned and King George asked Winston Churchill to become his new Prime Minister.
And then Churchill rallied his country. In the next several weeks, he gave two of the most famous speeches in the English language.
On June 4 he told the House of Commons, “I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once more able to defend our Island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone.
"Even though large parts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, 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.”
And then, on June 18, “Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.
“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, 'This was their finest hour.’”
Churchill’s oratory was remarkably effective. In the following months, under sometimes nightly bombings, there are stories of the British singing “Roll out the Barrel” and “White Cliffs of Dover” in their air raid shelters. Hitler did not break them in their island, and he lost the war.
Without losing sight of the gravity of the situation and the cost in lives, Churchill not only led his people during dark times, but he had fun doing it. If you go to London today, you can visit Churchill’s own air raid shelter, the underground war rooms built to protect the Cabinet during the Blitz. But it turns out he was rarely there. More likely he was up on the roof, watching the bombs fall. On a visit to America, he recited poetry to Franklin Roosevelt and told jokes to a joint session of Congress ("If my father had been American and my mother British, instead of the other way 'round, I might have got here on my own.")
So yes, last night was disaster. But if we harness the power of oratory and if we never surrender, we will have our finest hour. And let’s have fun doing it. Because you know, those angry people, who never mix humor and politics, tend to be on the other side.