THE WORLD YESTERDAY
"WARS AND RUMORS of wars" are all around us. Lately, we have been thinking about the greatest of all wars, WWII. If we study that conflict and the actions of its most-profound statesman, we can find some lessons to guide us today.
We think of World War II, in part, because a fine film ("Darkest Hour") has come out about the beginning of that conflict. We know and admire its lead actor, Gary Oldman, and its producer, Doug Urbanski. We also think of that war because we have just sent to the printer Volume 20 of The Churchill Documents, the series of documentary volumes that soon will complete the official biography of Winston Churchill, of which Hillsdale College Press is the publisher. Volume 20, entitled Normandy and Beyond, ends on Dec. 31, 1944.
The first lesson of the war concerns what Churchill called the "profound significance of human choice, and the sublime responsibility of men."
We see in "Darkest Hour" that the war begins in disaster: the advent of Germany's Adolf Hitler in 1933 and his increasing domination of Central Europe. In 1940, the disaster extended across Western Europe to the Atlantic: beginning the very day Churchill became prime minister of Great Britain, Hitler launched his armies west across Belgium and France to begin an utter rout. No one, including Churchill, believed that a great nation like France could be overcome in a matter of weeks, but that is what happened. The British army escaped from Dunkirk back to England by the skin of its teeth.
This military crisis gave rise to the political crisis that is portrayed in "Darkest Hour." With the fall of France, Britain stood alone, decisively inferior in military power to the Nazis. The only thing that could save it was the English Channel--and ultimately, as Churchill believed, the entry into the war of the U.S. As France fell, the greatest air battle in history commenced over the Channel. The Royal Air Force, like the army that escaped Dunkirk, survived by the skin of its teeth. Had it failed, the German army could have crossed the Channel and London itself likely would have fallen.
In the movie, we see in dramatic detail the British cabinet battle over whether to continue the war. Benito Mussolini of Italy, Hitler's ally but not yet a combatant, offered to organize a peace conference. Some in the British cabinet wished to take Mussolini up on the offer. Churchill thought that, if a peace conference were to open, the British war effort would collapse. He resisted this skillfully, sometimes quietly, finally eloquently, in a series of steps that make the culmination of the film--and here is the first lesson.
It is not trends, but choices, that matter most at the key moments of history. These days we tend to think of history as a story of great sweeping trends and evolutions. We imagine that forces gather and play themselves out over time, and that we humans merely are the pawns with which they play.
This is one reason so many often are quick to believe that the U.S., is in an eclipse, that new emerging powers--younger, more numerous, and located on the Eurasian center of world population--will overcome us.
The day on which Churchill put an end to the idea of a peace conference was May 28, 1940. He walked into the cabinet room and made a stirring speech, which, in the diary of Minister of Economic Warfare Hugh Dalton, ended with these words: "If this long island...