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Forty-Eight Years After Churchill's Death, What Can We Learn From Him Today?


Churchill once said that politicians look at the next election, but statesmen to the next generation. Now that Obama faces no more elections, it would be right for him to put aside extremes of partisan rhetoric and assume the role of statesman.

Stalin, Roosevelt, Churchill

Shortly after his 90th birthday on November 30th, Sir Winston Churchill said to his son-in-law, Christopher Soames, that he would die on the anniversary of the day his father, Lord Randolph did.  So —like many other predictions—at 8 A.M. on the 24th of January his death was announced – seventy years to the day, hour and minute of his father’s passing.

Edward R. Murrow said of Churchill, “he was the only man in the annals of time whoever prophesied history, made history and recorded history.”  He predicted the coming of two world wars and the Cold War.  He not only predicted the role of the tank in modern warfare, he invented the tank in 1914; he not only prophesied the coming age of air power, he piloted his own plane, while a cabinet leader, in 1915 in World War I;  he not only envisioned the superbomb in 1924,  he would trigger, as Prime Minister, Britain’s H-bomb test in 1953 and its entry into the nuclear age.

The fact that twenty eight prophecies all came to pass is testament to Churchill’s singular wisdom unmatched by any leader in history.

As President Obama begins his second term, perhaps he should take heed of some of Churchill’s cardinal precepts in governance.  If he shipped back to the British the bust of Churchill he found in the Oval Office, he should not reject the venerable statesman’s advice on leadership which the marble representation personified. Churchill once said that politicians look at the next election, but statesmen to the next generation. Now that Obama faces no more elections, it would be right for him to put aside extremes of partisan rhetoric and assume the role of statesman.

Precept #1– The Deficit: The trillion dollar deficit is not some mathematical abstraction. It is a monstrous fact of life that jeopardizes the future of our grandchildren as well as our country. As Churchill warned, “You can’t take sides against arithmetic, you can’t take sides against the obvious facts of the situation.”  “There are two ways a gigantic debt may be spread over new decades,” expounded Churchill.  “There is the right and healthy way and there is the wrong and morbid way. The wrong way is to fail to make the utmost provision for amortization -  which prudence allows - to aggravate the burden of debt by fresh borrowing to live from hand to mouth, year to year and to exclaim with Louis XVI, ‘After me the deluge!’”

Cutting spending is the answer, not raising taxes. More taxes rob the investor and stagnant economic growth is the result. “No country,” stated Churchill, “can tax itself into prosperity, but undisciplined spending will ensure deficit collapse.”

Precept # 2 – Allies:  Churchill jokingly said during World War II, “There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies and that is fighting without them.”  Our allies do not have perfect governments, nor are their leaders infallible. The same could be said of us. We are in a war – the war against global terrorism. If the Cold War is said to be World War III, this fight against radical Jihadism is World War IV. Indeed, in a speech to the House of Commons in 1921, Churchill predicted this militant sect of Wahabis would wreak its terror against the West. If he did not exactly predict 9/11, he accurately described the bomb-carrying fanatics that would perpetrate the act.

We cannot let the bonds of our two staunchest allies - Britain and Israel – fray and snap. We also should keep in mind that the removal of autocratic allies like Mubarak in Egypt does not necessarily insure a more peaceful and stable world. Allies should be stood by in rough sailing, as well as smooth.

Precept #3 – Appeasement: Churchill defined an appeaser as “one who feeds the crocodile hoping it will eat him last.”  To appease is to advertise weakness and willingness to yield more. “There is nothing that our enemies respect more than strength and nothing for which they have less respect than weakness, particularly military weakness,” Churchill said in his Iron Curtain address.  “To appease terrorists is to whet their appetite for more terrorism.”

Precept # 4 -   The United Nations:  In 1957, Churchill uttered his last great prophecy to the American Bar Association meeting in London.  “The United Nations,” he warned, “because of a  congenital deformity – the Soviet veto – was becoming a feckless and impotent institution too often dominated by one-party dictatorships. Totalitarian governments will resist any collective action against another dictator or country – Heads of one-party governments will resist any precedent made that calls for a regime change. It could be used against their own dictator government. “

The United States cannot conveniently refer the handling of every world crisis to the United Nations when it knows that such urgent measures will not be taken. One only has to look at today’s telecasts of the massive murders and slaughter of civilians by Syrian President Assad to witness the impotence of the U.N. The fact that Assad’s country of Syria recently sat on the U.N. Human Rights Commission only illustrates the obscene enormity of the U.N.’s moral blindness to the principles on which it was founded.

Precept #5 – Opinion Polls:  “Nothing,” proclaimed Churchill, “is more dangerous than to live in the temperamental atmosphere of a Gallup Poll—always feeling one’s pulse and taking one’s temperature. Real leaders do not follow public opinion–they shape it. Leaders,” said Churchill, “who are not prepared to do unpopular things and defy the clamor of the multitude, are not fit to be ministers, in times of difficulty.” Of a predecessor, Stanley Baldwin, Churchill said, “He had his ear so close to the ground he has locusts in it.  Baldwin got himself re-elected by heeding the demand for no spending on defense, but he jeopardized his nation’s future when war eventually came.”

A statesman does not push the ugly facts under the rug. He deals with them in frank talks to his people. “If people are told of their dangers,” said Churchill, “they will consent to the necessary sacrifice.”

A Gallup Poll is only a snapshot of a country’s mood at a certain time.  A real leader cannot shape his government’s policy on such a chimerical basis. The very word, “lead” means “not to follow – to lead public opinion, not to follow it.” These precepts are not the platitudes of politicians – they are the stuff of statesmanship. Let Obama apply these rules to his policies and his second term will have a monumental consequence.  


James C. Humes, author of CHURCHILL: THE PROPHETIC STATESMAN, is a former Presidential speechwriter and Visiting Historian at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. 

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