Perhaps more than any other leader of the 20th Century, Winston Churchill rallied a nation to believe in what it could do. Churchill’s speeches during World War II not only expressed resolution but a profound peace of mind and a feeling of “rightness.”
The Last Lion, as Winston Churchill’s biographer William Mancheston called him, gave his last roar as British Prime Minister in March 1955 with his final speech to the House of Commons. His health was failing and he had decided to step down in April. But he had one more message to deliver. In a world increasingly divided between a democratic United States of America and a Communist Soviet Union – each of which distrusted the other and each of which possessed nuclear weapons of staggering destructive power – how would the human race survive?
According to many historians and commentators, this became the central question of the age. Winston Churchill had given the question much thought, especially once he learned how powerful nuclear weapons were, which caused a sea of change in his strategic thinking. A born warrior, also known as “ the bulldog,” Churchill had assumed that nuclear weapons were just another step in the inevitable march toward wars being won by bigger and better weapons. But nuclear weapons, he concluded, were so powerful and destructive that no war that included them could ever be won. All sides in such a war would be losers, suffering unimaginable destruction, and therefore no nation must ever start such a war.
Yet in that nightmare scenario, Churchill saw hope. Or as he put it in his speech before a packed House, whose members sensed they were perhaps witnessing the great man’s final hurrah, “It may well be said that we shall, by a process of sublime irony, have reached a stage in this story where safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihilation.” What an introduction!
Historian and author Bruce G. Kauffmann provides the following assessment of Churchill’s prophetic speech: “What Churchill was getting at, although few realized it at the time, was the strategy of mutual nuclear difference, whereby both the American- led Western powers and the Soviet-bloc Eastern Countries would ensure their own safety through nuclear stalemate.”
Churchill was well ahead of his time on this; those of my generation may recall the term “Mutually Assured Destruction” or “MAD” as it became known in later years during the Cold-War Era. Large nuclear arsenals on both sides meant neither side would dare start a nuclear war because it would mean its own destruction. It was not, Churchill knew, an optimistic view. “The imagination stands appalled,” he admitted. But given each side’s refusal to stop building increasingly destructive weapons, he thought it was realistic, and perhaps the world’s best hope.
History proved him to be right, because it was also, not incidentally, the strategy that both sides pursued for the next three and a half decades. It was not until new weapons detection and verification technologies emerged, along with a new breed of leadership that helped forge new diplomatic relationship, that significant reductions in the nuclear arsenals of both sides became possible. Churchill, with his typical optimism, anticipated such in his speech: “The day may dawn when generations can march forth, serene and triumphant, from the hideous epoch in which we have to dwell. Meanwhile, never flinch, never weary, never despair.”
What an incredible conclusion to an incredible prophetic speech!