The difference that a single man made to history
In the just-published Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat: The Dire Warning"John Lukacs provides a streamlined, elegant account of Churchill’s speeches and statesmanship during the crucial summer of 1940, when Britain stood on the brink of disaster" -
Churchill delivered the speech before a parliament still dominated by supporters of Neville Chamberlain and by Conservative mandarins suspicious of Churchill’s alleged bellicosity, "unreliability" "unscrupulousness," and sundry other character defects. As Lukacs makes clear, Churchill’s enemies at that time were primarily members of his own party; only a year or two earlier, they had been wholehearted defenders of a policy of appeasing Nazi Germany. After the deceptive inactivity of the "phony war"—in which the Western democracies stood back waiting to be attacked—and the devastating British defeat in Norway, a critical mass of the Conservative party came to realize that Neville Chamberlain did not have the personal qualities necessary for wartime leadership. But many still distrusted Churchill, including some eminent lights who in time would become unabashed Churchillians.
. . .Delivered three days after King George VI asked Churchill to form a government, the speech, one of Churchill’s shortest, was neither recorded nor broadcast to the nation at large. It became famous only after the fact. The BBC laconically summed it up in its regular news that evening by citing its key sentence: “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.” In the speech itself, those words were followed by Churchill’s declaration of his government's "policy" to "wage war, by sea, land, and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us."
For Lukacs, Churchill’s maiden speech as prime minister is striking for the moral realism that informed his judgment of the international situation and his message to the British people. He did not in any way obscure what Lukacs calls the "prospect of plight and suffering" that lay ahead. Lukacs convincingly argues that Churchill was a liberty-loving aristocrat who appreciated the British people's capacity to absorb bad news and to respond accordingly. He could appeal to the gritty determination of a free people to stand up against a "monstrous tyranny" and respond, when necessary, to a call to sacrifice on behalf of a way of life worth defending. As Lukacs points out, judging events by their eventual consequences is easy; it is now a commonplace to say that "the British pulled through," that "England held." But there was nothing inevitable about the survival of either Britain or of "Western civilization." A student of Tocqueville, Lukacs resists the illusion of retrospective fatalism, of historical determinism, to which so many historians succumb in a democratic age and about which the French thinker warned so powerfully. Lukacs is wonderfully attentive to the human element, to the difference that a single man made in shaping history.
Not forgetting the people who made it possible . . .with all the strength that God can give us.