Like his father, he delivered speeches he memorized from full texts. Like Disraeli, he spoke grandly and boldly. But unlike anyone else, Winston Churchill mobilized a nation and fortified it with courage at a time of surpassing peril. Or so the story goes.
But not the way you think, nor with the unanimity you have come to assume. Churchill was, to be sure, a commanding speaker with a lifetime of historical allusions and national illusions from which to draw. And yet the greatest part of the Churchill mythology — that his rhetoric mobilized Great Britain and perhaps even won World War II — doesn’t hold up to the scrutiny of Richard Toye, one of Britain’s leading historians and a man sympathetic to, but not subsumed by, the Churchill of lore and yore.
In “The Roar of the Lion,” a chronological study of the prime minister’s wartime addresses, Toye examines the making of a Churchill speech (a mixture of memorizing the material and pacing the floor), the delivery of a Churchill speech (sweat and toil, but also blusters and not a few blunders), and the public reception of Churchill speeches (not quite as effective as the legend, at home or abroad).
“A good speech by him might provide a few days’ spike in morale,” Toye writes, “but it could not in itself effect a long-run shift in people’s beliefs about how the war was going.”
More than four decades before becoming prime minister, Churchill wrote a paper outlining the architecture of a successful speech, advocating sentences that were “long, rolling and sonorous” and that presented “a rapid succession of waves of sound and vivid pictures.” This technique he employed to great effect, though the greatest effect was on the historians and popularizers who transformed him from man into a myth.
For in truth some of Churchill’s speeches didn’t so much inspire as frighten; he painted a dire picture of the course ahead as a way of offering determination. The dangers he set forth, and the depth of the challenge he set out, were real, but so was the anxiety he created. “If they sometimes caused people to feel depressed,” Toye says, “this was usually because of his accurate predictions that the war would last much longer than many expected.”
Toye argues that Neville Chamberlain, far from the wooden and inflexible villain of the appeasement run-up to World War II of folklore, was “much loved” and “a shrewd image-maker and manipulator of the media.” Churchill succeeded Chamberlain in 1940 and succeeded, as the Manchester Guardian wrote, in part because of his “virile, athletic English.”
And yet Churchill, whose speeches were collected and published during every year of the war, was not alone in offering a clarion call to courage and victory in the war years. Churchill was celebrated as what Toye describes as “the outstanding performer in a rhetorical chorus,” but remarkable, and motivational, speeches also were offered by Duff Cooper, Anthony Eden, and Ernest Bevin.
But phrases like “their finest hour” and “so much owed by so many to so few” resonated and remain among the most quoted, most admired, and most inspiring words ever strung together in struggle or in triumph. Toye reminds us that only some of Churchill’s speeches were aimed at the British people; some were intended for friends, some for foes, some for peoples under occupation, some for resistance movements, and one, according to US Senator Bennett Clark, simply for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
But not everyone was moved. Years after the war the novelist Evelyn Waugh denigrated Churchill as merely a “Radio Personality” and said that as a soldier, “How we despised his orations.” Indeed, Toye found “no concrete evidence” Churchill’s speeches were “the decisive factor” in keeping the British in the war, adding, “The speeches’ contribution to morale was undoubtedly genuine, but they were only one part of a rich and sophisticated propaganda diet, most elements of which have now been forgotten.”
In addressing other nations Churchill’s rhetoric descended to masterly degradation (“One man, and one man alone, ordered Italian soldiers to ravage their neighbour’s vineyard,” in reference to Benito Mussolini) as often as it soared to new heights (referring to the villages of besieged Russia “where the means of existence was wrung so hardly from the soil, but where there are still primordial human joys, where maidens laugh and children play”).
And some of his speeches unnecessarily outraged other nations (Ireland, after he suggested he might violate its neutrality) or other parties (Labor, which he suggested might implement some of the practices of the Gestapo).
Churchill was, to be sure, a great wartime prime minister, but by war’s end Britain longed for peace and had tired of him. As well suited as those speeches — and the politics they created and reflected — may have been for war, Britons demanded something else entirely in peace, and so they, and the man who delivered them, were sent into retirement. The speeches may live forever. The moment did not.
David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.