Winston Churchill — who is portrayed by Gary Oldman in the new film “Darkest Hour” — made 16 visits to America in his lifetime. He traveled here as a soldier, a tourist and a lecturer, but the late prime minister’s visit to America in 1941 as a wartime leader was his most important.
The speech he gave on Dec. 26, 1941, may have been his most important, too, though certainly not as well-known as his “Iron Curtain” speech from 1946 in Fulton, Missouri.
The story of that trip back in the winter of 1941 is worth telling. It revealed a lot about not just Churchill’s status as a great leader and statesman but as a salesman — and an indefatigable one.
The day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Churchill, who had just turned 67, packed his bags and headed straight for the United States. It would be the most important sales trip of his life — and perhaps the most important sale of the 20th century. The stakes for his home country and the world could not have been higher.
“With the fall of France, Britain stood alone, decisively inferior in military power to the Nazis,” explained Dr. Larry Arnn in a speech delivered at Hillsdale College in Michigan in early December. “The only thing that could save it was the English Channel — and ultimately, the entry into the war of the United States.”
No one understood that stark reality better than Churchill. It was why he was on a boat crossing the Atlantic so soon after one of America’s darkest hours. His plan: Strengthen relations with President Roosevelt, Congress, and the American public — and prepare them for the exigencies of an extended and difficult war.
It was a long trip of 10 days, through cold, storm-tossed seas. It was a dangerous one, too: U-boats filled the Atlantic. There were serious concerns about Churchill’s safety, but he was not deterred. The work ahead was too important. It was work that could not be done through a phone.
Churchill’s boat docked in Norfolk, Virginia, just two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He immediately flew 140 miles north to National Airport in Washington, D.C., where President Roosevelt himself greeted him. Churchill spent the next few days at the White House as a house guest — a self-invited house guest, no less — doing what he did best: talking, drinking, smoking, and keeping Roosevelt up until the wee hours of the morning.
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“It was astonishing to me that anyone could smoke so much and drink so much and keep perfectly well,” Eleanor Roosevelt said of Churchill.
Having successfully bonded with Roosevelt, and having mapped out some important wartime planning, Churchill moved on to an equally important objective: bonding with the U.S. Congress and the American public and selling them on the importance — and the inevitability — of a combined America and England to combat the Axis Powers.
For days on end, Churchill worked on his big speech, honing and crafting it in ways only he could. One thing Churchill knew for sure as he was preparing was this: Without the American people on his side, his home country was lost.
He began the greatest sale of his life to a joint session of Congress with these words:
The fact that my American forebears have for so many generations played their part in the life of the United States, and that here I am, an Englishman, welcomed in your midst, makes this experience one of the most moving and thrilling in my life, which is already long and has not been entirely uneventful. I wish indeed that my mother, whose memory I cherish, across the vale of years, could have been here to see.
Churchill then made clear our countries were connected by much more than a common language.
I may confess, however, that I do not feel quite like a fish out of water in a legislative assembly where English is spoken. I am a child of the House of Commons. I was brought up in my father’s house to believe in democracy. “Trust the people.” That was his message. I used to see him cheered at meetings and in the streets by crowds of workingmen way back in those aristocratic Victorian days when, as Disraeli said, “the world was for the few, and for the very few.” Therefore, I have been in full harmony all my life with the tides which have flowed on both sides of the Atlantic against privilege and monopoly, and I have steered confidently towards the Gettysburg ideal of government of the people, by the people, for the people.
He then addressed our very best angels, more certain about the true nature and character of America than many of our own leaders.
I should like to say first of all how much I have been impressed and encouraged by the breadth of view and sense of proportion which I have found in all quarters over here to which I have had access. Anyone who did not understand the size and solidarity of the foundations of the United States might easily have expected to find an excited, disturbed, self-cantered atmosphere, with all minds fixed upon the novel, startling, and painful episodes of sudden war as they hit America. After all, the United States have been attacked and set upon by three most powerfully armed dictator states, the greatest military power in Europe, the greatest military power in Asia-Japan, Germany, and Italy have all declared and are making war upon you, and the quarrel is opened which can only end in their overthrow or yours. But here in Washington in these memorable days I have found an Olympian fortitude which, far from being based upon complacency, is only the mask of an inflexible purpose and the proof of a sure, well-grounded confidence in the final outcome. We in Britain had the same feeling in our darkest days. We too were sure that in the end all would be well.
This was not merely a call to arms: It was a spiritual affirmation of all that was good in America and in his home country.
The speech then took a tough turn as Churchill walked Congress — and the American people — through the difficulty of the task ahead. He understood intuitively his audience could handle what he was about to tell them and that they’d rise to the challenge.
You do not, I am certain, underrate the severity of the ordeal to which you and we have still to be subjected. The forces ranged against us are enormous. They are bitter, they are ruthless. The wicked men and their factions, who have launched their peoples on the path of war and conquest, know that they will be called to terrible account if they cannot beat down by force of arms the peoples they have assailed. They will stop at nothing. They have a vast accumulation of war weapons of all kinds. They have highly trained and disciplined armies, navies, and air services. They have plans and designs which have long been contrived and matured. They will stop at nothing that violence or treachery can suggest. It is quite true that on our side our resources in manpower and materials are far greater than theirs. But only a portion of your resources are as yet mobilized and developed, and we both of us have much to learn in the cruel art of war. We have therefore, without doubt, a time of tribulation before us. In this same time, some ground will be lost which it will be hard and costly to regain. Many disappointments and unpleasant surprises await us. Many of them will afflict us before the full marshaling of our latent and total power can be accomplished.
Churchill wasn’t finished talking about the rough path forward, and he invoked Scripture to close out this critical part of the speech. No one knew better than Churchill that there was indeed a great spiritual battle ahead — and he wasn’t afraid to define it in those terms.
Some people may be startled or momentarily depressed when, like your president, I speak of a long and a hard war. Our peoples would rather know the truth, somber though it be. And after all, when we are doing the noblest work in the world, not only defending our hearths and homes, but the cause of freedom in every land, the question of whether deliverance comes in 1942 or 1943 or 1944, falls into its proper place in the grand proportions of human history. Sure I am that this day, now, we are the masters of our fate. That the task which has been set us is not above our strength. That its pangs and toils are not beyond our endurance. As long as we have faith in our cause, and an unconquerable willpower, salvation will not be denied us. In the words of the Psalmist: “He shall not be afraid of evil tidings. His heart is fixed, trusting in the Lord.”
Churchill closed out his speech to the American people by invoking the spiritual dimension of the battle one last time, and the common belief in such things the two great allies — England and America — shared:
If you will allow me to use other language, I will say that he must indeed have a blind soul who cannot see that some great purpose and design is being worked out here below of which we have the honor to be the faithful servants. It is not given to us to peer into the mysteries of the future. Still, I avow my hope and faith, sure and inviolate, that in the days to come the British and American peoples will, for their own safety and for the good of all, walk together in majesty, in justice and in peace.
With those final words, the members of Congress roared with approval. Churchill responded by flashing the V-for-victory sign that would become his signature gesture.
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On New Year’s Day, Roosevelt and Churchill visited nearby Mount Vernon to lay a wreath on the tomb of our nation’s first president and one of our greatest warriors: George Washington. Soon thereafter, they met with diplomats from several Allied countries to sign a joint declaration to fight the Axis powers. None, they agreed, would negotiate a separate peace.
On Jan. 14, 1942, after nearly a month away from home, Churchill left for war-torn London with one of his greatest victories. “His visit to the United States has marked a turning point of the war,” a Times of London editorial opined upon Churchill’s return. “No praise can be too high for the farsightedness and promptness of the decision to make it.”
Lee Habeeb is VP of content for Salem Radio Network and host of “Our American Stories.” He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and his daughter, Reagan.
(photo credit, homepage image: Sir Winston Churchill, CC BY 2.0, by Yousuf Karsh, Library and Archives Canada; photo credit, article image: Winston Churchill As Prime Minister 1940-1945, CC 0, by Cecil Beaton)