If the leaders of the United States could have heard Sir Martin Gilbert’s talk about Britain’s lessons regarding Winston Churchill’s forewarnings of danger, perhaps they would have been more inclined to take all threats to U.S. safety seriously.
Hypotheticals aside, what were Britain’s mistakes before World War II and how has the United States made similar mistakes in recent years?
On Sept. 28, historian and biographer Gilbert, who has written 75 books, including 12 biographies on Churchill, spoke on the years of Churchill’s life when he was unable to convince the leaders of Britain about the dangers of the Nazi regime.
Including firsthand accounts of Churchill’s life, Gilbert gave a much more detailed narrative than most historical text books. However, his speech did not stretch to connect the historical events to patterns of current affairs. His talk was simply a history lecture.
Nevertheless Gilbert mentioned difficult questions that Britain had to face during the late 1930s which are pertinent to many governments today. ‘How does one identify evil intentions in a government?’ said Gilbert. ‘Does one seek an accommodation with an evil regime?’
Overall, Gilbert said that Churchill was a political outsider when Britain was in denial though they needed him as an insider. Despite Churchill’s informative speeches about the dangers lurking ahead, many political leaders at the time did not want to listen.
Would some leaders rather live in denial than have to protect themselves from every forewarned threat?
During the mid-1930s many leaders in Britain were slow to realize the threat of Hitler’s regime to their nation.
While Hitler’s power increased, so did Churchill’s disagreement with the British parliament. After the appeasement of Germany with Czechoslovakia, Churchill became upset and derided parliament leaders when he said, ‘Apparently you always have a disaster before anything sensible can be done to prevent it.’
British Parliament was on holiday when Hitler’s regime was growing in power.
Only 10 members of parliament supported Churchill in his view that Britain should not go on vacation and instead prepare for war with Germany.
Gilbert said that at this period Churchill turned to the front bench of Parliament and mocked them, saying, ‘Can I really believe that these honorable gentlemen, so full of experience, so wise and knowledgeable are saying, ‘Be gone. Run off and play. Take your gas masks with you. Don’t worry about public affairs. Leave them to us. We are gifted and experienced ministers and … after all, we are the ones who landed us where we were left last September and at this point in time had not created any alliances against aggression’?’
According to Gilbert, ‘Churchill was preparing all his life for every eventuality.’
Gilbert said little about current events in his speech. However, during the question-and-answer session, he mentioned how the British Parliament debate over whether Britain should join the United States in Iraq had ‘a very Churchillean atmosphere.’ The House of Commons was overflowing and tensions were high. Just like Churchill, many of the speakers at the debate had to speak about the hard truths they were facing.
Gilbert was introduced to the audience by history professor Douglas Haynes. Commenting on Gilbert’s speech Haynes said, ‘He provided a lucid chronology and provided insight into some of the political costs of a specific leader who’s out of power and yet recognizes the dangers looming.’
Humanities alumni Barry and Janet Shreiar sponsored the lecture. Referring to Gilbert’s speech, Barry said, ‘It makes one realize that leadership makes the hard decisions.’
Gilbert reminded the audience about what to expect from a national leader. He said that during World War II, Churchill was belittled for not knowing what he was talking about in regard to being an expert on the army. In response to his critics, Churchill said, ‘Of course I don’t pose as an expert on these matters, but one that judges the opinions of experts.’