May 8, 1945. London. Winston Churchill stands alongside King George VI and other members of the Royal Family on a Buckingham Palace balcony, waving to a crowd of thousands who've gathered to celebrate with him the fall of Germany, and victory in Europe.
For Churchill, this was the defining moment of his career, a career that had once seemed, even to him, to be quickly fading away, as he shouted his clarion call about the Nazi menace from the fringe of the Conservative Party in the mid to late 1930s. Having put himself there with his lamentable, pro-Empire denial of India's independence and his monarchist knee-jerk reaction of supporting Edward VIII during the abdication crisis, (not to mention his relentless criticism of Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain's appeasement), Churchill must have thought many times that he would never rise to the position he had once felt fated for: Prime Minister, in England's darkest hour.
And yet, when the shadow fell as the Wermacht marched unchecked and unchallenged across Europe, it fell to Churchill to rally his ill-prepared nation, to woo FDR for weapons (until Pearl Harbor propelled the United States into the war) and to stare down Hitler as the future of Europe and, arguably, global democracy hung by the finest of threads.
Almost five years to the day after he assumed the highest office in the land (May 10, 1940), Churchill now savoured the victory over his mortal foe. He had promised "Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat" in his first speech as Prime Minister and had contributed all he had in the course of a seemingly endless string of long days and nights, through inspiring ups (such as winning the air war in the Battle of Britain and cracking the German U-boat code) and spirit-sapping downs (the fall of Singapore, the capitulation of France).
After his palace appointment and addressing the nation from the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street, Churchill spoke to a rapturous crowd from a balcony outside the Ministry of Health. Afterwards, they showed their appreciated with a rendition of For He's a Jolly Good Fellow.
With such an endorsement ringing in his ears, it's easy to see why Churchill thought he would handily defeat Labour leader Clement Attlee in the General Election that soon followed. And yet, on July 26, the day of the results, he knew something was very wrong: "...just before dawn I woke suddenly with a sharp stab of almost physical pain. A hitherto subconscious conviction that we were beaten broke forth and dominated my mind." And so it proved. And not just beaten, but routed: Labour won 393 seats, giving them a majority of 183 in the Commons.
There were many reasons for this result, which seems as shocking to us in retrospect as it must have been to the crestfallen Churchill. These included Labour's forward-looking campaign platform (which focused on Britain's postwar needs while the Conservatives relied on Churchill's reputation), the country's need to psychologically move on from the war with a different leader, and Churchill's own missteps during the campaign - not least his calamitous claim in a radio broadcast that Attlee would set up a "Gestapo" style of government if elected.
For several weeks after the election disaster, Churchill thought he was finished as a politician. It's easy to see why. He was now in his early 70s, and his energy was sapped by the strains of wartime leadership. Many would have contented themselves with a post-war victory lap a retirement well funded by the lucrative advance and royalties for war memoirs.
But for Churchill, this was unthinkable. Though he did receive many honours and set to work on his wartime recollections (as brilliantly described by David Reynolds in his book In Command of History), he soon turned his attention to something more vital: alerting the world to the growing dominance of Soviet Russia and the need for continued unity among the English-speaking peoples.
Though he aired his fears about expansionist Communism to President Harry Truman in a memo and, later, to the Commons, it was not until late 1945 that Churchill found a platform from which to get through to the understandably war weary British and American people, who still thought of Joseph Stalin as their ally - good 'ol 'Uncle Joe'. Or rather, the platform found Churchill, by way of a letter from Franc "Bullet" McCluer, the president of tiny Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. McCluer invited Churchill to speak in America's heartland and had some help in convincing the former Prime Minister to come - a postscript from Harry Truman offering to introduce Churchill if he accepted.
And so, in March 1946, Churchill and Truman travelled by rail and road from Washington D.C. to the small Missouri town where Churchill delivered 'The Sinews of Peace' address, now better known as the 'Iron Curtain speech.' This did not start the Cold War, but did define its challenges and the need for solidarity across the Anglosphere (encapsulated in Churchill's call for a 'special relationship; between Britain and the US). Though derided at the time as an 'imperialist', a 'warmonger' and 'an old Tory' (interesting, the same slights he had endured when warning about Hitler in the 1930s), Churchill knew the significance of what he said, calling it "the most important speech of my career."
The lessons here? Triumph may be sweet, but it can be short lived. Defeat may be painful, but its sting is temporary. And true leadership, though sometimes defined by victories in arms, is often best expressed by words spoken boldly, in defiance of unpopularity, and from noble intent. The politicos of today would do well to heed Churchill's example - that of a man who often tilted at windmills, but who, when it came to the great dangers of his time - knew the truth, and was willing to risk all in telling it.Suggest a correction