A Singular Force

Published: November 14, 2014

By Jim Lichtman
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With the possible exception of Lincoln, the politician whose speeches and quotes I return to the most is Churchill.

Why? When it comes to  wit, wisdom and statesmanship, Winston Churchill truly stands alone.

“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”

He could be inspiring: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

He could be rude: “I may be drunk, Miss, but in the morning I will be sober and you will still be ugly.”


Boris Johnson, the mayor of London recently completed a book entitled, “The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History.” After I finished reading an essay appearing in last Saturday’s (Nov. 8) Wall Street Journal, I went out and bought the book.

“When I was growing up,” Johnson begins, “there was no doubt about it: Winston Churchill was the greatest statesman Britain had ever produced. …

“I gathered that there was something holy and magical about him because my grandparents kept the front page of the Daily Express from the day he died in 1965, at the age of 90. I was pleased to have been born a year before his death: The more I read about him, the more proud I was to have been alive when he was too.

“Most Americans, when they think of Churchill at all, seem to retain that pride and reverence. So it seems all the more sad and strange that today—nearly 50 years after his death—he seems in some danger of being shoved aside in the memory of the nation he saved. British students who pay attention in class are under the impression that he was the guy who fought Hitler to rescue the Jews. But a June 2012 survey of about 1,000 British secondary school students aged 11 to 18 showed that while 92% of them could identify a picture of a dog named Churchill from a popular British insurance advertisement, “only 62% correctly identified a photo of Sir Winston Churchill.”

“That fading memory is a particular shame, since Churchill is so obviously a character who should appeal to young people today. He was eccentric, over-the-top, even camp, with his own trademark clothes and genius.”

Churchill on six values: “All the great things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom, justice, honor, duty, mercy, hope.”

“These days,” Johnson writes, “we dimly believe that World War II was won with Soviet blood and U.S. money; and though that it is in some ways true, it is also true that, without Churchill, Hitler would almost certainly have won, and Nazi gains in Europe might well have been irreversible.

“In March 1921, as Britain’s colonial secretary, he summoned all the key Middle East players to the Semiramis Hotel in Cairo to discuss the running of the region after the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in World War I. T.E. Lawrence (more famously known as Lawrence of Arabia) thought the summit an outstanding success, and 11 years later, he wrote to Churchill that the arrangements it produced had already delivered a decade of peace.

“That peace hasn’t lasted, of course. Nor has the empire Churchill loved. He would have been saddened but not entirely surprised by that. He believed that the future of the world lay in America’s hands, and he was right.”

On Americans: “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.”

“In our own time,” Johnson continues, “it has fallen to the Americans to try to hold the ring in Palestine, to reason with the Israelis, to try to cope with what Churchill called “the ungrateful volcano” of Iraq. As a British imperialist, trying to salvage an empire destined to fade, he was inevitably a failure. As an idealist, summoning humanity’s grander values and fending off its worst demons, he was lastingly a success.”

On achievement: “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.”

“He was crucial,” Johnson says, “to the beginning of the welfare state in the early 1900s. He helped give British workers job centers and tea breaks and unemployment insurance. He was the dominant force behind the invention of the Royal Air Force and the tank, and he was absolutely critical to the conduct of World War I. He was indispensable to the foundation of Israel (among other countries), not to mention the campaign for a united Europe.

“At several moments, he was the beaver who dammed the flow of events; and never did he affect the course of history more profoundly than in 1940, when he and his nation stood alone against Hitler. Without Churchill, Hitler would almost certainly have won, and Nazi gains in Europe might well have been irreversible. Churchill spoke to the depths of people’s souls when Britain was alone, when the country was fighting for survival, and he reached them and comforted them in a way no other speaker could have done. His language—stirring and old-fashioned—met the moment.”

“Never, never, never give up!”

“There was also the general historical context in which Churchill emerged. He was born not just when Britain was at her peak but also into a generation that understood that it would require superhuman efforts to sustain her empire. The sheer strain of that exertion helped make the Victorians somehow bigger than we are now, constructed on a grander scale.

“And then there was the natural egotism, shared to a greater or lesser extent by every human being, and the desire for prestige and esteem. I have always thought Churchill had a secret syllogism in his head: Britain is the greatest empire on Earth; Churchill is the greatest man in the British Empire; therefore Churchill is the greatest man on Earth.”

“The price of greatness is responsibility.”

“One evening during the war, a cleaner at the Ministry of Defence was heading for her bus to go home and spotted something in the gutter: a file covered with pink ribbon and notices saying ‘Top Secret.’ She picked it out of the puddle, tucked it under her raincoat and took it home. She showed it to her son, and he immediately realized it was terribly important.

“Without opening it, he hurried back to the Ministry of Defence. By the time he got there, it was late, and most everyone had gone home—and this young fellow was treated pretty insolently by the people at the door. They kept telling him just to leave the file there, and someone would deal with it in the morning. He said no and refused to go until he had seen someone of flag-officer rank.

“Finally someone senior came down and took the file—which turned out to contain the battle orders for Anzio, in which the Allies planned to try to establish a beachhead on Italy’s west coast.

“The war cabinet was called the following day to work out how serious the security breach was and whether the Anzio landings could proceed. They looked at the file carefully and decided that it had only been in the water for a few seconds and that the cleaning lady’s story was true—and so on balance, they decided to go ahead with the invasion of Italy.

“Churchill turned to Gen. Hastings Lionel ‘Pug’ Ismay, the chief of the Imperial General Staff, and asked, ‘Pug, how did this happen?’ Ismay told him about the woman and her son, and as he did, Churchill started to cry.

“ ‘She shall be a Dame Commander of the British Empire!’ he said. ‘Make it so!’

“That story, alas, has withstood all my efforts to verify it at the Churchill Archive or elsewhere. But it illustrates a fundamental truth. Winston Churchill had a greatness to his soul.”

In my first efforts speaking on ethics to associations and corporations, the best advice I read came from Sir Winston:

“If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time.”

And this favorite that I have used often:

“A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”


  1. Once again, a magnificent essay, this time a tribute to a man who probably saved democracy in Europe.

    It is not simply by chance that over 100 books are written each year about Winston Churchill. There are individuals out there who recognize his incredible greatness, contributions and yes, after WW II, he was tossed overboard by voters, only to be recalled to save England one last time a decade later.

    Everyone who believes his or her life is difficult and fraught with problems, should read the book our friend Jim Lichtman has alluded to and, should walk away inspired. “Never give up”….was his credo and it has worked for me in peace, war, marriage, death of loved ones and especially in the operating room. Thanks Winston, and thank you, Jim.

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