- - Thursday, May 7, 2015


Seventy years ago on Friday, Winston Churchill, stood on a balcony of London’s Whitehall, gazed down at the surging, cheering crowd celebrating the surrender of Nazi Germany.

“This is your victory,” he declared.

“No,” the crowd shouted. “It’s yours.”

They were both right, of course. The British people, worn down and exhausted, had fought for six long years, enduring deprivation, massive German bombing attacks, fearsome loss of life, and hundreds of thousands of wounded. Britain, bleeding and battered, held out for two years before the British-American-Russian alliance was put in place.

The success of that alliance depended on one man — Winston Churchill. Had he not persuaded the divided British Cabinet that resistance to Nazism was the only honorable course, all would have been lost. Following Britain’s declaration of war on Germany, a series of disastrous military defeats ensued, bringing about a close vote of confidence in the House of Commons on May 8, 1939, leading Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to conclude he must resign. The two leading candidates to succeed Chamberlain were Viscount Halifax and Churchill. Faced with Halifax’s demurral because of his membership in the House of Lords, King George VI asked Churchill to form a coalition government.

Following continued British-French reversals and the impending collapse of France, the Cabinet met nine times over the period of May 26-29 to debate the idea of negotiations with Hitler — a position favored by Halifax. Arguing that a negotiated settlement with Hitler would bring about British subjugation, Churchill made an impassioned statement and concluded by saying, “If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it only end when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”

Churchill prevailed and the history of the Second World War played out as we know it. But what if the Halifax side had won out? Churchill argued that Hitler would have demanded the demobilization of the British navy and the right to use British naval bases, and he would have installed a pro-German government at Westminster.

Worldwide the balance of power would have shifted decisively toward the Axis powers. With Europe prostrate, Hitler could have turned the full might of the Third Reich on the Soviet Union. The Soviets would not have survived the onslaught.

At sea, the German U-boat fleet, which nearly brought Britain to its knees in 1941, would have expanded exponentially and would have utterly dominated the world’s shipping lanes. With Germany in control of the vast natural resources of the Soviet Union and then the oil riches of the Middle East, the Reich would have been the economic and military juggernaut of the planet.

And what of the United States, supposedly impregnable behind its ocean wall? With the Axis in control of the sea lanes, Germans occupying British colonies and bases from the Caribbean to Newfoundland and Canada itself possibly occupied, with a Luftwaffe armed with advanced jet aircraft (already being deployed by 1945) and rockets capable of delivering atomic warheads (estimated to be in the Nazi arsenal by 1948), the United States would have had no choice but to succumb to German hegemony.

In short, it would have been the nightmare that Churchill himself warned against: “The abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister and perhaps more protracted by the lights of perverted science.”

Americans who think at all of World War II tend to think of Allied victory as a foregone conclusion. That’s a mistake. As the late Gen. Andrew Goodpaster used to remark, “World War II was a very closerun thing.”

Not one in a hundred Americans has any knowledge of America’s close brush with catastrophe, and very few know anything about the man who saved us from it — Winston Churchill — or the enormous debt we owe to him.

That this is true on our college campuses is particularly lamentable, because the “victory of the cause of freedom,” as Churchill called it, subsumes academic freedom. And academic freedom is under attack on American college campuses. The fruits of academic freedom — open mindedness, tolerance, freedom of inquiry, are all ostensibly prized qualities on the campus. The reality, however, is more likely to be speech codes, ideologically tainted courses, political correctness, and a willful ignorance of history — all vices that Churchill would have been despised.

I propose a modest, yet salubrious reform: that every college and university establish a “Churchill Day” in which our collective debt to Churchill is acknowledged and a survey of his long and eventful life is provided.

Ohio’s Miami University pioneered this concept last fall by introducing “Churchill Week at Miami.”

Celia Sandys, a granddaughter of Churchill, spent three days on campus lecturing on many facets of her grandfather’s life — war leader, orator, writer, painter, adventurer, political, historian, farmer — the list of interests of this protean figure is almost inexhaustible. The response on the part of students was extremely positive.

A “Churchill Day” would provide a crash course in the liberal arts for those too busy or lost in the smorgasbord of the typical college curriculum to discover them.

Moreover, once students are exposed to the mind and life of the greatest man of the 20th century, they inevitably want to learn more.

Who knows? If the idea of a “Churchill Day” caught on across the nation, the man who once saved “the cause of freedom” might help rescue academic freedom as well.

James C. Roberts is president of the American Veterans Center.

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