04/10/2014 12:44 EDT | Updated 06/10/2014 05:59 EDT

'The Truth Sometimes Requires a Bodyguard of Lies'

ray roper via Getty Images

It was an honour to give the address at the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Sir Winston Churchill Society in Edmonton last week, and it gave me the occasion in preparing my remarks to reassess what it is about Winston Churchill that makes him such a permanent inspiration and rallying point. Some of the answer is almost too obvious to mention: his early recognition of the dangers of Nazism to democracy and of the impossibility of appeasing certain types of evil that can only be identified as mortally hostile and must be deterred or destroyed. Mr. Churchill will always symbolize and personify the assistance of the weak who are being threatened and oppressed by the strong; of the courageous underdog fighting for principle even at heavy odds; of courage in combat as of magnanimity in victory. And of course his almost infallible eloquence in the darkest hours of modern civilization were masterpieces of Demosthenean exhortation.

As France quit the war under the force of the Nazi onslaught, Churchill, a francophile all his life, addressed the French in his heavily accented but comprehensible version of the language: "Good night then. Sleep to gather strength for the morning, for the morning will come. Brightly will it shine on the brave and the true; kindly upon all who suffer for the cause; gloriously upon the tombs of the heroes. Thus will shine the dawn. Vive la France." When he returned to Paris on Armistice Day 1944, he said in an unforgettable exchange of compliments with General de Gaulle, that he had never wavered in his advocacy of the closest cooperation between France and Great Britain in 45 years and was never prouder of that policy than on his return that day to, as he put it, "this incomparable city that has so often illuminated the whole world."

But I concluded that what most distinguished Winston Churchill, and keeps him a timeless inspiration of what is best in public life and policy, is that he adopted the principles of public life that were the core of Western political civilization and steadily adapted them to changing conditions: the principles did not change, but the circumstances in which they were applied, did. His love of France did not prevent him from taking the painful decision to attack the French navy to prevent it getting into the hands of the Germans.

His dislike of Germany in two world wars did not blind him to the necessity to encourage a democratic Germany to join the West and the Western Alliance after World War II. And his description of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer as the greatest German statesman since Bismarck undoubtedly assisted Adenauer in carrying German opinion as he declined Stalin's offer of reunification in exchange for neutrality, probably the greatest single act of statesmanship of the entire post-war period.

Churchill despised Gandhi and Nehru, and was outraged at their suggestion that Japan be given free passage through India toward the Middle East, and even more at Gandhi's recommendation that the Jews merely go meekly and uncomplainingly to their deaths at the hands of the Nazi genocidists. Yet when Churchill met Nehru at the Commonwealth prime ministers' conference in 1951, Churchill called Nehru "the light of Asia." He was not referring to his policy of economic stagnation and toleration of corruption, and even less to his neutralist foreign policy, which he regarded as rank hypocrisy, but to the fact that Nehru was presiding over a democracy in his immense country, and in this most important respect, Churchill was correct.

When Canadian prime minister Louis St. Laurent saw him for the last time at a Commonwealth meeting in 1955, Mr. Churchill, who had been appalled by the first nuclear test in 1945 and called it "the second coming in wrath," had concluded that the deterrence of the hydrogen bomb would succeed and with his usual articulation stated: "Safety may be the child of terror and life the twin of annihilation."

Always he was the leader of the forces of civilization and of hope. He proclaimed freedom's darkest hour to be its finest hour, and it became so. When Roosevelt sent him the verse from Longfellow saying "Sail on O ship of State, Sail on O union strong and great," he knew to respond with Clough's verses ending "Westward look, the land is bright!" These two leaders largely personified the civilization whose defence they were leading. And Winston Churchill provided what he called "the star of hope in the long night of Nazi barbarism, made more sinister and more protracted by the lights of perverted science." And he led the forces of European reconciliation that welcomed Germany into a new Europe, based altogether on the complete destruction of everything Nazi Germany had, until a few years before, been trying to impose in a Thousand-year Reich.

His political principles never changed, but his ability to apply them steadily, first to a vast colonial empire and the European balance of power, then to fluctuating alliance systems and finally to a post-colonial world in which Great Britain was a linch-pin between a semi-federal Europe and North America, never failed him or left him for long, behind changing political times. And all the while, even the most unfavourable and mundane facts were cloaked and engrossed in the grandeur of his prose.

At their very first meeting, in the grimmest days of 1940, Churchill called de Gaulle "the man of destiny," and de Gaulle said "Mr. Churchill seemed equal to the rudest tasks, provided they also had grandeur; I did not doubt that, led by such a fighter, Britain would never flinch." Only the greatest, most convinced and brilliant men, can bring civilization through its greatest travails, even if, as Winston Churchill famously said in a different context at the Tehran Conference: "The truth sometimes requires a bodyguard of lies." The truth, in these epochal terms, must have what it requires. That is why Winston Churchill will always be of interest.


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