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Learning From Churchill

"Darkest Hour" is latest retelling of the heroic Churchill parable, routinely celebrated by American politicians and pundits.

On New Year’s Eve, I took my wife to see “Darkest Hour,” a new film about Winston Churchill’s first weeks as British prime minister in May 1940. As a dramatization of history, it’s a movie well worth the price of a ticket. But what does it signify for us today?

The story that “Darkest Hour” recounts, replete with generous doses of Churchillian wit, eloquence, and personal eccentricities, is, of course, quite familiar. It’s also nothing short of thrilling, even if you know in advance how it will turn out.  

As Churchill moves into 10 Downing Street, Nazi forces are overrunning France and Hitler seems on the verge of gaining mastery over all of Europe. The new prime minister brings to office a well-earned reputation for recklessness and unreliability. Although the situation appears desperate, he vows to continue the fight. In the eyes of cabinet colleagues, this alone demonstrates Churchill’s unsuitability for national leadership. Behind the scenes, they maneuver to oust him, intending to negotiate an end to the war. Churchill himself briefly wavers. Then, bucked up by his king and some feisty Londoners encountered during an improbable ride on the Tube, he recovers his balance. In a dramatic speech, he rallies the House of Commons, thereby turning the tables on the appeasers. Britain will fight on, alone if necessary.  

When the closing credits rolled, some of my fellow moviegoers burst into applause, less, one sensed, out of appreciation for the film as an artistic achievement than because Churchill’s political triumph meant that the world itself was going to be saved.  

“Darkest Hour” is the latest retelling of what has become the great secular parable of our time. Nowhere is that parable more deeply cherished than among Americans, despite the fact that the United States was a mere bystander to the events the parable recounts. (Franklin Roosevelt’s role in the film is limited to a single phone conversation with Churchill; in it, FDR lamely explains that he’d like to help out, but can’t—his hands are tied).  

The parable forms the basis for the heroic Churchill routinely celebrated by American politicians and pundits, the indomitable Churchill whose stubborn refusal to accept defeat paved the way for final victory and who even today offers an enduring model for leadership.  

Of course, as is the case with other heroes who have captured the American imagination—John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan come to mind—the parable works best when it excludes complicating details. In Churchill’s case those include, along with ample evidence of recklessness and unreliability, attitudes toward race and empire that today qualify as retrograde, to put it mildly. On military matters, Churchill was a font of ideas, but his judgment was dubious at best. No one knew this better than the senior officers who advised him and were obliged to carry out his directives. As for the victory Churchill helped engineer, it proved pyrrhic. While bringing about the destruction of the Nazi regime, it accelerated Britain’s decline as a great power. As if anticipating the further consequences that awaited, Britons voted him out of power as soon as the war in Europe ended.

Even so, the Churchill who inspired his countrymen to persist when all seemed lost is the Churchill enshrined in American memory—the one to whom U.S. presidents are all but obliged to pay homage. Even a president as historically uninformed as Donald Trump knows the drill: install a bust of Churchill in the Oval Office and you win big points. Remove the bust, as Obama did, and you’ll court trouble.

Yet the effects of Churchill worship have long since become pernicious, in my view. Churchill was a one of a kind figure and the spring of 1940 a one of a kind moment. The qualities of greatness demanded of that moment, the ones to which movies like “Darkest Hour” pay tribute, are not the qualities that the United States requires today. The present-day international order bears essentially no resemblance to the one that existed when Churchill became prime minister.

Hitler was the embodiment of pure evil. To his great credit, Churchill was among the first to recognize the danger he posed. Yet our endless fixation on the former and our boundless admiration for the latter testify to an impoverished historical imagination that ill-serves the United States today.

The comparison is imperfect, but our situation more closely compares to that which existed in Europe during the summer of 1914. Then a) a changing configuration of great powers made more worrisome by b) smaller states given to irresponsibility and c) further exacerbated by looming ideological ferment posed an immediate threat to global stability. Today a) is represented by a rising China, a resentful Russia, and an overextended United States; b) by North Korea, Pakistan, Israel, and (take your pick) Saudi Arabia or Iran; and c) by Islamist jihadism. Further compounding the danger are two factors that did not exist in 1914, namely nuclear weapons and climate change.

Instead of deflecting these dangers, Churchill, who in 1914 was the minister responsible for the Royal Navy, behaved in a thoroughly Churchillian manner. In doing so, he thereby hastened Europe’s march toward a catastrophic and unnecessary war. There lies another parable on which we might reflect and from which we have much to learn.

Americans should honor Churchill for what he did in 1940. Yet perhaps it’s time to expand our store of parables. We might begin by installing a bust of Gandhi or Mandela or Pope Francis in the Oval Office.

Andrew Bacevich is TAC’s writer-at-large.