Mr. Churchill

Isaiah Berlin defends Churchill against the charge that his writings are windy and self-aggrandizing

Mr. Roosevelt played the game of politics with virtuosity, and both his successes and his failures were carried off in splendid style; his performance seemed to flow with effortless skill. Mr. Churchill is acquainted with darkness as well as light. Like all inhabitants and even transient visitors of inner worlds, he gives evidence of seasons of agonized brooding and slow recovery. Mr. Roosevelt might have spoken of sweat and blood, but when Mr. Churchill offered his people tears, he spoke a word which might have been uttered by Lincoln or Mazzini or Cromwell but not Mr. Roosevelt, greathearted, generous, and perceptive as he was.


Not the herald of the bright and cloudless civilization of the future, Mr. Churchill is preoccupied by his own vivid world, and it is doubtful how far he has ever been aware of what actually goes on in the heads and hearts of others. He does not react, he acts; he does not mirror, he affects others and alters them to his own powerful measure. Writing of Dunkirk he says: "Had I at this juncture faltered at all in the leading of the nation, I should have been hurled out of office. I was sure that every Minister was ready to be killed quite soon, and have all his family and possessions destroyed, rather than give in. In this the represented the House of Commons and almost all the people. It fell to me in these coming days and months to express their sentiments on suitable occasions. This I was able to do because they were mine also. There was a white glow, overpowering, sublime, which ran through our island from end to end." And on the twenty-eighth of June of that year he told Lord Lothian, then ambassador in Washington, "Your mood should be bland and phlegmatic. No one is downhearted here."

These splendid sentences hardly do justice to his own part in creating the feeling which he describes. For Mr. Churchill is not a sensitive lens which absorbs and concentrates and reflects and amplifies the sentiments of others; unlike the European dictators, he does not play on public opinion like an instrument. In 1940 he assumed an indomitable stoutness, an unsurrendering quality on the part of his people, and carried on. If he did not represent the quintessence and epitome of what his fellow citizens feared and hoped in their hour of danger, this was because he idealized them with such intensity that in the end they approached his ideal and began to see themselves as he saw them: "the buoyant and imperturbable temper of Britain which I had the honour to express"—it was indeed, but he had a lion's share in creating it. So hypnotic was the force of his words, so strong his faith, that by the sheer intensity of his eloquence he bound his spell upon them until it seemed to them that he was indeed speaking what was in their hearts and minds. If it was there, it was largely dormant until he had awoken it within them.

After he had spoken to them in the summer of 1940 as no one has ever before or since, they conceived a new idea of themselves which their own prowess and the admiration of the world has since established as a heroic image in the history of mankind, like Thermopylae or the defeat of the Spanish Armada. They went forward into battle transformed by his words. The spirit which they found within them he had created within himself from his inner resources, and poured it into his nation, and took their vivid reaction for an original impulse on their part, which he merely had the honor to clothe in suitable words. He created a heroic mood and turned the fortunes of the Battle of Britain not by catching the mood of his surroundings (which was not indeed at any time one of craven panic or bewilderment or apathy, but was somewhat confused; stouthearted but unorganized) but by being impervious to it as he has been to so many of the passing shades and tones of which the life around him has been composed.

The peculiar quality of heroic pride and sense of the sublimity of the occasion arises in him not, as in Mr. Roosevelt, from delight in being alive and in control at a critical moment of history, in the very change and instability of things, in the infinite possibilities of the future whose very unpredictability offers endless possibilities of spontaneous moment-to-moment improvisation and large imaginative moves in harmony with the restless spirit of the time. On the contrary, it springs from a capacity for sustained introspective brooding, great depth and constancy of feeling—in particular, feeling for and fidelity to the great tradition for which he assumes a personal responsibility, a tradition which he bears upon his shoulders and must deliver, not only sound and undamaged but strengthened and embellished, to successors worthy of accepting the sacred burden.

Bismarck once said something to the effect that there was no such thing as political intuition: political genius coinsisted in the ability to hear the distant hoofbeat of the horse of History—and then by superhuman effort to leap and catch the horseman by the coattails. No man has ever listened for this fateful sound more eagerly than Winston Churchill, and in 1940 he made the heroic leap. "It is impossible," he writes of this time, "to quell the inward excitement which comes from a prolonged balancing of terrible things," and when the crisis finally bursts he is ready because after a lifetime of effort he has reached his goal.

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