- The Washington Times - Friday, December 31, 1999

At a recent press conference, President Clinton revealed his choice for person of the century Franklin D. Roosevelt. Mr. Clinton's choice, characteristically, was partly political, made "as an American." However, because FDR led us out of the Depression and World War II, launched the welfare state, and helped found the United Nations and other international organizations, Mr. Clinton finds his claims strong, even if Justice Holmes was right and Roosevelt's mind was not really first-class. For, Mr. Clinton tells us, "reality is more than the facts before you; it's also how you feel about them, how you react to them, what your attitude is." And, as Holmes also saw, FDR had a "first-class temperament."

Thus, the indomitable spirit with which Roosevelt tackled the Depression changed its reality for Americans, made it less menacing and more solvable, or, at least, tolerable. However, if fundamentally shaping public perceptions is the true test of statesmanship, Winston Churchill seems a stronger contender for person of the century. For he shaped even helped launch the struggle against the century's greatest evil, totalitarianism, in both of its most dangerous manifestations. And he kept the struggle alive at the moment of greatest peril when Britain and the dominions stood alone.

Churchill's appeals to confront Hitler when his party overwhelmingly favored appeasement required unusual fortitude and self-confidence. Early in his career he confided to Violet Asquith, whose father would soon be prime minister, that "We are all worms. But I do believe that I am a glow worm." He showed by example the proper stance and rallied many to a cause whose nobility his words enhanced. By naming things well, he helped give them their true character in the public mind.

It was just this transforming rhetoric and action, along with his many-sidedness, that led Isaiah Berlin to find Churchill the "largest human being" of our time. Great as FDR was, few would speak of him in those terms.

In his own, rather than in purchased or borrowed, phrases, Churchill defined forever the reality of appeasement, of the RAF's valor, of British resolution, of Stalin's East European empire, and of many other moments in the struggle against totalitarianism. Thus, the Munich agreement was "a total and unmitigated defeat." The most Chamberlain had obtained "by all his immense exertions" was "that the German dictator, instead of snatching his victuals from the table, has been content to have them served to him course by course." In the Battle of Britain, such was the heroism of RAF fighter pilots that "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few." The British resolve he embodied as wartime prime minister required that "… we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end; we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be; we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…"

And Churchill's 1946 Fulton, Missouri speech, with a brilliant metaphor, exposed what Stalin was doing in Eastern Europe and laid the foundation for containment and NATO: "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe… . Police governments are prevailing in nearly every case."

Nor was Churchill's transforming activity evident only in his speeches. Those who worked closely with him were inspired and astonished by his genius. He gave life and energy to each of the several departments he headed in a career spanning half a century. Even activities outside his main duties often bore remarkable fruit. Thus, Churchill, more than anyone else, deserves to be remembered as the "father" of the tank. Though head of the British navy in World War I, he saw the utter folly of the generals' strategy of pitting the chests of hundreds of thousands of allied soldiers against the German machine guns. He searched for alternatives and established a committee on "land ships" in the Admiralty to develop what became the tank.

No other leading statesman of our century can compare with Churchill in literary achievements. Churchill wrote several large historical works, one of which, on "The Second World War," was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Multi-volume works on "The World Crisis of World War I," on Marlborough, on his father, and on the "History of the English-Speaking Peoples," were remarkable successes. Together with his superb newspaper commentary, these writings would have been an impressive output for anyone without all his political responsibilities.

Considering that he had these duties, and also painted impressive canvases, erected buildings with his own hands, conducted speaking tours, engaged in an extensive correspondence, and hosted a brilliant continuing conversation with his many guests, his achievements are simply astonishing. His genius shines through even in the beautiful love letters he wrote his wife.

The more we examine Churchill's varied life, the more we find to admire. Behind it all there is his first-class mind and the glow of genius. Thus, it would be good for us as well as just to him to give him the attention befitting the "person of the century."

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide