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The Power of Oratory: Why Churchill is Still Relevant

On May 10, 1940 Winston Churchill became prime minister of Britain on what one Member of Parliament aptly described as “perhaps the darkest day in English history.” That morning Hitler’s armies invaded Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland and France. Few leaders have ever inherited a more hopeless challenge than Churchill. Three days later, in what many believe was his finest speech, broadcast over the BBC and heard round the world, Churchill delivered the grim news that he had very little to offer except “blood, sweat, and tears.”

In the days and months that followed his prediction became reality. First came the humiliation of the British Expeditionary Force that became trapped in a pocket in northwestern France. Although the BEF was saved by the valor of the RAF and Royal Navy, the British army was a shambles, with most of its precious equipment left behind in France. Although characterized as the “miracle of Dunkirk” by the Whitehall propaganda machine (and later by some historians), it was the greatest disaster in British military history. Nevertheless the evacuation of the surviving expeditionary force became the nucleus of Britain’s salvation.

By the summer of 1940 the British Army was virtually helpless to repel an expected German invasion (Operation Sealion). The lack of weaponry was so dire that some units were obliged to train with broomsticks. An artillery unit guarding one of the expected areas of invasion along the English Channel possessed only six rounds of ammunition for its guns.

An isolationist America had no interest in becoming entangled in another European war and except for mostly covert arms aid orchestrated by FDR, after the fall of France in June 1940, Britain was alone – her odds of survival greatly diminished.

As if Dunkirk and the loss of France were not bad enough, the Luftwaffe began bombing London and other British cities, and on September 7 began an intensive aerial campaign dubbed the Blitz that was intended to bring Britain to her knees and enable the execution of Sealion. The fate of a nation rested in the hands of the intrepid pilots of Fighter Command, some of them exile Poles, Canadians, and even a few expatriate Americans. Contrary to popular belief the RAF did not win the Battle of Britain but they did fight the Luftwaffe to a draw, which was sufficient to dissuade Hitler from carrying out Sealion and turn his attention to planning the invasion of Russia in 1941.

From the time he became prime minister, until December 1941, when Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the war, Churchill’s strongest weapon was oratory. As a young army officer stationed in India in 1897 he wrote that: “Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory.”

His speeches of 1940 become legendary, not only for their magnetism but more importantly for their effect on public morale. To counter both the disastrous news in France and to put to rest any notion that Britain might capitulate, Churchill delivered one of his many patriotic speeches to Parliament on June 18 that was also broadcast by the BBC. He made no effort to sugarcoat the extent of the dire situation Britain faced. The struggle that lay ahead from the air and likely from invasion would be met with every means and would be rebuffed. Of Hitler and the nations now under the Nazi jackboot, he said, “If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free . . . But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States . . . will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age … Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”

Churchill was determined to demonstrate defiance, reason and confidence. He had, in effect, “staked his own survival as Prime Minister upon a strategy of ‘no surrender.’” Much of the speech was sheer bluff and intended to reassure both his colleagues and the nation. Anything less, even the slightest hint of failure, would have sent a defeatist message. He would have died rather than ever surrender. To his foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, Churchill said: “I shall take a rifle (I’m not a bad shot with a rifle) and put myself in a pillbox at the bottom of Downing Street and shoot till I’ve no more ammunition, and then they can damned well shoot me.”

He exuded optimism where there was none. Anything less was unthinkable. His final verdict was one of a promise of triumph over adversity.

To inspire in troubled times is an attribute possessed by very few. Churchill succeeded in rallying a nation largely by equal measures of iron determination and splendid oratory. He was an authentic and charismatic model of modern leadership who convinced his people to believe in him.

He made people feel good about themselves when there was very little to feel good about. After the first large-scale bombardments of the London docks in September 1940, Churchill made a point of hastening there to view fires burning amid the devastation. At an air-raid shelter where some forty people had been killed by a direct hit, he found a large crowd of mostly poor people. “One might have expected them to be resentful against the authorities responsible,” recalled his military secretary, Gen. Hastings Ismay, “but as Churchill got out of his car, they literally mobbed him. ‘Good old Winnie,’ they cried. ‘We thought you’d come and see us. We can take it. Give it ‘em back.” Tears flowed down Churchill’s cheeks at the sight before him. Ismay heard an elderly woman exclaim: “You see, he really cares; he’s crying.” This was leadership of the first order. Its genesis was oratory.

Just as Churchill faced overwhelming odds against success, President-elect Barack Obama is confronted with a similar challenge to overcome a dilemma unprecedented since the Great Depression. Moreover, ours is far more than merely a shattered economy, but also two wars that have lasted longer than World War II and cost billions, an increasingly desperate situation in Gaza, education and health systems on life support, not to mention a nation deeply divided by ideology. And finally, Obama must rally a government characterized by inaction in both the executive and legislative branches, and a dangerously unstable post-9/11 world in which the prestige of the United States has sunk to an all time low.

Against these odds what Obama has in his favor are oratorical skills comparable to Churchill. What America needs is a solid dose of inspiration to help guide us through the difficult and uncertain months ahead. After 9/11 Pres. George W. Bush insisted that Americans should carry on with business as usual instead of challenging us to our own version of “blood, sweat, and tears.”

Churchill would never have made the same mistake and there is already clear evidence that Pres. Obama won’t either. On ABC’s This Week, on January 11, 2009, Obama demonstrated that he fully understands the power of oratory when he remarked that one of his roles as president will be to “capture the moment” as a means of inspiring confidence.

In the end, inspired leadership will count for nearly as much, if not more, than deft political and economic decisions. The example set by Churchill is that there is absolutely no substitute for thoughtful and forceful oratory in a crisis or for vision and the power of reflection. “Hope,” former Army chief of staff, Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan once wrote, “is not a method.” Perhaps not, but the promise that adversity can be overcome is a vital first step. Churchill offered hope for survival when there was nothing else, which makes the example he set as relevant today as it was sixty-eight years ago.