Geoffrey Wheatcroft: A man of war who was an even greater man of peace

Winston Churchill is continually quoted and misquoted, used and abused

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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.

"Outside, the storms of war may blow and the lands may be lashed with the fury of its gales, but in our own hearts this Sunday morning there is peace. Our hands may be active, but our consciences are at rest."

Rather more than a year later, Churchill returned to this theme in a greater speech, perhaps the most moving he ever made. After the "phony war" had ended abruptly with the German attack on Scandinavia and then the Low Countries and France, Chamberlain resigned and was was succeeded by Churchill, who called upon the nation to "brace ourselves to our duty", as invasion threatened and the Battle of Britain was fought.

Having loyally remained in Churchill's government (and leader of the Conservative party), Chamberlain was diagnosed with incurable cancer in the autumn, and died on 9 November 1940. In the Commons three days later, Churchill delivered a eulogy, a most delicate task given the former differences between them. He did this superbly, saying firstly that no one was obliged "to alter the opinions which he has formed or expressed upon issues which have become a part of history in order to pay such tribute." Then he went on: "It is not given to human beings, happily for them, for otherwise life would be intolerable, to foresee or to predict to any large extent the unfolding course of events. In one phase men seem to have been right, in another they seem to have been wrong. Then again, a few years later, when the perspective of time has lengthened, all stands in a different setting. There is a new proportion. There is another scale of values. History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days."

After those general – though brilliant and profound – introductory phrases, Churchill presented Chamberlain as a tragic but honourable figure. It had been his misfortune "in one of the supreme crises of the world to be contradicted by events, to be disappointed in his hopes, and to be deceived and cheated by a wicked man.

"But what were these hopes in which he was disappointed? What were these wishes in which he was frustrated? What was that faith that was abused? They were surely among the most noble and benevolent instincts of the human heart – the love of peace, the toil for peace, the strife for peace, the pursuit of peace".

And then Churchill echoed what he had said on 3 September 1939. We had waited until the last possible moment before going to war – "even at a great cost to ourselves in technical preparation" – until Hitler provided us with no choice at all. But it was just because we had done so that we now knew we were "guiltless of the bloodshed, terror and misery which have engulfed so many lands and peoples". Anything Hitler said about having wanted peace was contemptibly absurd. "What do these ravings and outpourings count before the silence of Neville Chamberlain's tomb? Long and hard, hazardous years lie before us, but at least we entered upon them united and with clean hearts."

Both speeches, and above all those last italicised words, were a complete repudiation of any doctrine of pre-emptive war. Churchill was distinguishing between a war of choice, which he did not want, and a war of necessity, which had been forced upon us. And he recognised the crucial fact that only an absolutely necessary war can be waged with proper strength of purpose and readiness for sacrifice.

While many things have been argued about the Iraq war, for and against, no one who supported it can any longer claim as Bush once did that it was a "war of necessity". And could he or Blair now possibly say that we, the British and the Americans, entered upon it "united and with clean hearts"? Might not that be the key to all the woes that have befallen us?

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

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