Geoffrey Wheatcroft: Churchill was not against appeasement





[Geoffrey Wheatcroft's books include 'The Strange Death of Tory England' and 'Yo, Blair!' He is writing a book on Churchill's reputation and legacy.]

Seventy years ago today Neville Chamberlain gave his famous broadcast telling the nation that we were at war, before Parliament met in emergency session that Sunday morning. Among those who spoke was the newly-appointed First Lord of the Admiralty, in one of the shortest and finest speeches of his life, one of the least known – and most relevant today.

For 10 years Winston Churchill had been out of office – through his own choice – well before he became the most prominent critic of appeasement and of the Munich agreement in September 1938. Within months of Munich, that policy was seen to have failed, as the rump of Czechoslovakia fell apart and Hitler arrived insolently in Prague. There was much clamour in the press for Churchill to be brought back into government, but Chamberlain waited until his return to the Treasury Bench became as inevitable as the war itself.

He is continually quoted and misquoted nowadays, used and abused. "I think Winston Churchill said it correctly," Joe Sestak, a former American admiral who is now a Democratic congressman, told the BBC on Monday, by way of criticising the Afghan war. Far more often Churchill has been invoked in favour of that war, and of the Iraq war, which he seemed in some eyes to preside over.

After Tony Blair lent President George Bush the Younger a bust of Churchill, which he installed in the White House, Bush could never stop spouting the great man. Donald Rumsfeld even found some, albeit garbled, words from Churchill to console himself the day he was sacked. Over and again, Churchill has been invoked in the name of waging war. Saddam Hussein must not be appeased as Hitler had been, he must be attacked, pre-emptively if need be. What else would Churchill have done?

Of course Churchill's great speeches from the summer of 1940 are part of our consciousness, with their splendid language of defiance: "Victory at all costs... we shall fight on the beaches... their finest hour." But on that first day of war, his theme was quite different: "In this solemn hour, it is a consolation to recall and to dwell upon our repeated efforts for peace."

Even a year earlier when he condemned Munich he had said that it was an unnecessary capitulation, but he didn't say that Chamberlain should have gone to war. To the contrary, he failed to see that there was any real danger of war with Germany at that juncture, as so many had claimed, if the British and French "were ready all along to sacrifice Czechoslovakia". And he added sourly but justly that the Czechs, "left to themselves and told they were going to get no help from the Western Powers, would have been able to make better terms than they have got – they could hardly have worse".

Now on that Sunday, in a speech of no more than five minutes, Churchill said that, although all the efforts of the government which he had just joined to preserve peace and avoid war had failed, "all have been faithful and sincere. This is of the highest moral value – and not only moral value, but practical value – at the present time". Only the sure and certain knowledge that we ourselves had never wanted war could provide the sustaining "strength and energy" that the British people were going to need in the "doubtful and dark days" that lay ahead...


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