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Sunday, November 25, 2012

Churchill was an Extremist

In praise of standing your ground for what you know is right

From the New York Post
By Kyle Smith

Winston Churchill has his fans on the left. President John F. Kennedy, who was fascinated by his writings, bestowed upon him honorary US citizenship. Churchill was the second person, after the Marquis de Lafayette, to be so honored. Delivering the keynote address honoring the 60th anniversary of Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech, admirer Chris Matthews said, “Where other politicians cling to office, he acted as if he were truly prepared to fling it away, to risk popular rejection, which came to him on so many cruel occasions . . . He didn’t worry what his critics thought.” 

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The liberal mind is right to revere Churchill for standing up against Hitler when so many in Britain were ready to cave. But as the third and final volume of William Manchester’s magnificent biography “The Last Lion” (completed by the author’s friend Paul Reid after the Manchester’s 2004 death) makes clear, it was anything but certain at the time that Churchill was making the right call. And at a moment when there is so much chatter about bipartisanship and working with the other side, it’s worth remembering this essential fact: Churchill was an extremist.

WWII was practically over shortly after Churchill took over as Prime Minister in May 1940. The British Army was nearly destroyed during the fall of France, and the remaining soldiers were forced to throw down their weapons and retreat home from Dunkirk with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

It was obvious to many patriots that it was time to strike some sort of deal with Hitler.

David Lloyd George, the prime minister who was credited with victory in WWI, was still a member of parliament and advised “that the government should take into consideration any proposal of peace which . . . review all the subjects that have been the cause of all the troubles of the last few years.” Troubles! George Bernard Shaw believed that had anyone else been prime minister in 1940, he would have negotiated peace with Hitler. 

Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” speech in the House of Commons is often cited as rousing and inspiring, but to today’s ears the remarks he gave around the same time to his cabinet sound . . . fanatical.

“If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground,” Churchill declared.

Fight to the death — of the last man, woman and child? Could he have meant it? Yes, and when the Japanese seized Singapore, Churchill ordered every British soldier to die rather than surrender: “There must at this stage be no thought of saving the troops or sparing the population . . . Commanders and senior officers should die with their troops,” he wrote in a telegram that was countermanded on the ground. He gave a similar die-for-your-country directive to Hong Kong. And in the event of a German invasion, Churchill approved “drenching” the beaches with mustard gas, without waiting for the enemy to use it first.

The great man himself frequently vowed never to be taken alive and carried cyanide in the cap of his fountain pen. He said 1940 was a year “equally good to live or die” and later looked back on it as “the most splendid, as it was the most deadly year in our long British and English story.”

Nor did he measure his words so as to avoid offending sensitive groups. He saw communism as an extreme version of the religion in which most of his compatriots believed: “Communism is Christianity with a tomahawk,” he said. He called Gandhi a “seditious . . . fakir.”

The habit of taking things out of proportion would cost him. Immediately after the war ended, he was bounced from office in a landslide by the voters who were eager to implement socialism. Churchill declared that socialism would necessitate “some form of Gestapo, no doubt very humanely directed in the first instance.”

Churchill’s wife, Clementine, begged him to take this passage out because she thought it “hideous,” writes Reid, and its reception was “disastrous” for the prime minister.

The legend of Churchill’s many charms overwhelms such errors in memory. Matthews marveled that “he was exactly who he seemed to be. In the middle of the night, after many rounds of whatever they were drinking, a visitor was warmed to discover that Churchill was an even more Winston Churchill than the public version. He was the genuine article right straight through.” 

Churchill wasn’t a mollifier, a sweet-talker, a deal-maker — a bipartisan. What is most resonant about him is that he turned out to be right, and many others wrong, on the defining issue of his time. Extremism turned out to be the only correct choice. If he had chosen a centrist path, today he would be forgotten or vilified. 

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