It has become common to refer to the cohort of American men and women who helped bring down Fascism as the “Greatest Generation.” While I don’t necessary agree that that generation was THE greatest—the generations who fought the American Revolution and the American Civil War certainly endured far more privation, loss of property and absolute misery—they certainly make our own generation seem rather meager and pitiful by comparison.
I question whether our generation, if presented with the same stark choices that were presented to our grandparents and great-grandparents, would choose comfort and accommodation rather than misery and freedom. Would the generation of “snowflakes,” who quiver with fright and outrage when “confronted” by opinions with which they disagree, and to characterize such opinions as fascism, have been able to stand up against the real thing?
But before America was confronted with that grim choice, the solid, stolid, dependable, stoical, yeomen of the British empire, the “nation of shopkeepers” as Napoleon referred to them a few years before they planted him on his exile on St. Helena, were faced with an even more stark choice: make a deal with Adolph Hitler that would allow them to survive, possibly as his lackeys—or defiance, and the very real possibility of going down fighting for a great cause, in fact, the greatest cause: liberty.
I just saw a wonderful film, “Darkest Hour,” about the greatest man of the 20th Century, Winston Churchill, and the first few days of his first term as prime minister, when the fate of the Western World quite literally hung in the balance. If Britain had gone over the edge in of May of 1940, barbarism for Europe for a century would have been the most optimistic prediction. America, for all its great strength and industrial might, would never have been able to have mounted an invasion of Europe to liberate the Old World without the ability to use Britain as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier.”
For more than a year, from June 1940 until June 1941, when Hitler made his most foolish mistake by invading the Soviet Union, and then completely sealed his own doom on December 10 by declaring war against the U.S., Britain, led by its indomitable prime minister, roared its defiance while the Nazi war machine tried without success to strangle it by the neck. “Some neck!” chuckled the defiant Churchill to parliament.
It is arguable that Churchill, the most prominent man who had for a decade “in the wilderness” warned his fellow citizens that accommodation with Hitler would only lead to the German dictator to demand more and more and more, was the ONLY man capable of leading Britain at this “darkest hour.”
In the movie, as in real life, described by John Lukacs’s splendid book “Five Days in London May 1940” on which the movie is loosely based, Churchill was installed as prime minister because the public would tolerate no one else after the appeasers had made such an obvious muddle of the situation and war had broken out. But Churchill’s war cabinet included several of the most prominent appeasers, most of who despised Churchill one might suppose almost as much as Hitler. At least they could DEAL with Hitler, or so they thought.
They considered Churchill unreasonable because he flat out refused to deal with Hitler. In other words, he thought Hitler was pure evil and incapable of honoring any agreements. They installed Churchill as prime minister because they believed they could stage manage his downfall by showing him to be unreasonable. And then, having shown him to be unreasonable, to jettison him for someone who could then plausibly sit down to the peace table.
Frankly, I know few American politicians who would have passed that particular test. In our time, we sometimes encounter pure evil, and just as often our own politicians say that we must never stop negotiating, and that, when evil rears its ugly head, that WE are the real bad guys.
That is what many of Churchill’s contemporaries said about him. That his attitude about refusing to negotiate with Hitler was counterproductive, and would destroy Britain’s chances for peace.
However, Churchill, as portrayed magnificently by the actor Gary Oldman in an Oscar worthy performance, is able to persuade his people that it was far better to defy Hitler—and fight on to ultimate victory than to sit down to supper with him—no matter how long the spoon.
As Churchill put it so eloquently: “You ask what is our policy. It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy?”
Can you imagine any modern American politician uttering such words? Obama? Don’t make me laugh. Hillary Clinton? Only if she was talking about Republicans would she paint such a black and white canvass. Bernie Sanders? Elizabeth Warren? And I can’t think of very many Republicans who would joyfully go into battle under such a banner. Possibly John McCain. The rest are arch acommondationists who would sell their future for a few years of peace.
Do see “Darkest Hour,” and admire its great performance by Oldman, and consider whether America, if placed in such a position today, against such an evil, would vow to “fight on the beaches”?