Why We Need Winston Churchill More Than Ever
“Knowledge of the past is the only foundation we have from which to peer and try to measure the future.”
On February 26, 1946, Winston Churchill raised his tiny 5'6" frame to the podium. He looked at the audience of 17,500 students seated in the brilliant light and remarked with that memorable lisp, “I have enjoyed my stay in your genial sunshine, and it has done me a lot of good.” He recently arrived in Florida refreshed and rested after a crushing defeat in Britain’s first postwar election. It didn’t affect his warm and cheerful disposition, yet his message was as foreboding as one he would deliver in Fulton, Missouri warning that an “Iron Curtain” was about to fall over Europe. It presaged the Cold War. Here on a bright sunny day in Florida, he had something equally momentous to tell them. It was about time.
Churchill had been invited by the University of Miami to receive an honorary doctorate. Still, he confessed to the crowd of 17,500 students that their speaker’s educational background should make the least secure among them feel confident, “In fact, you might say that no one ever passed so few examinations and received so many degrees.” However, he was enormously educated in his own way. His learning came from books and the pleasure of bright people whom he gathered around him. Then he submitted his opinion to their impartial and thoughtful introspection for a final verdict. These practices are what drove his success.
As he gazed upon his young crowd, he was bothered by a subject that concerned him since his own youth. It may have been responsible for the troubles he became embroiled in from time to time. Churchill was temperamentally inclined to poke at wasp nests, partially because he didn’t like things that stung you, partially because he liked to poke. When fellow MP (and the first woman to serve I Parliament) Nancy Astor rebuked him, “If I were married to you, I’d put poison in your coffee.” Churchill responded, “If I were married to you, I’d drink it.”
Or the time he was asked about wartime ally but now political enemy Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee describing him as “A modest man, who has much to be modest about.”
On this day, Churchill's mind was on something other than marriage or politics. He wanted to talk about shelf-life — more to the point, how little time we have to do all that we must accomplish: “That no one should be disheartened by lack of success in their youth but should diligently and faithfully continue to persevere and make up for lost time.” As an old Breton prayer says, “ the sea is so great and my boat is so small.”
It led Churchill to ask the students, “Why are we here? and what is the purpose of life? The answer was there is no final answer. Fortunately, he revealed to the assembled throng that the game came with directions. In terms of what the world needs from us and the energy required, we all die too early so we better be quick about it.
Churchill told his audience the world they were about to inherit, in the words of Victorian poet Mathew Arnold, a world that looked “so various, so beautiful, so new,” but as the poem continues, “hath neither joy, nor love, nor help for pain.” As the most brutal war in history had just ended and the Cold War about to begin this wasn’t pessimism. It was a warning. Where Churchill was going was to extol his young audience to lift themselves up from collective ignorance of the past, and through the study of history and context they might find “the only foundation we have from which to peer into and try to measure the future.”
When we make horrendous mistakes, as our politicians do more often than they attend photo ops, it means they focus too much on popularity polls. Which way the wind blows is not the way to build a society. It causes even the brightest among us to lose sight of reality the way some trade GameStop stock. As a result, we fight endless civil wars against ambiguous enemies like climate change and poverty only to suffer defeat after defeat due to a desire for personal fame. It results in a community of incompetence bounded by narrow self-interest.
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He continued, “Expert knowledge, however indispensable, is no substitute for a generous and comprehending outlook upon the human story with all its sadness and with all its unquenchable hope.” After nearly one million British soldiers and civilians died in World War I, followed by a half-million dead in World War II, Churchill understood great sadness. He was the war commander in the latter theater and played a decisive role in the former, and on each occasion, he asked why and what could we have done differently in those moments to prevent it?
That was the message he came to deliver. How should we use our time? Churchill reasoned that if we spend it on a hamster’s treadmill doing the same thing over and over as the wars proved, we could hardly hope for better results. He suggested the best way was to make progress in our lives was to exploit three inefficiencies: think long term, use imagination, and judge the risks as we ponder the future. Then, based on his own life “never, never, never, give up” in the face of powerful and deceptive adversaries.
He didn’t give up, that's for sure. To drive the point home, Churchill was re-elected Prime Minister in 1951.