Eighty years ago today, in her darkest hour, Great Britain turned to Winston Churchill as her leader. Hitler's invasion of Poland eight months earlier had revealed the tragic futility of Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement. The stunning success of the Wehrmacht's lightning-fast invasion of the Low Countries had trapped nearly 400,000 British and allied troops at Dunkirk, precipitating Chamberlain's resignation.
The man replacing him had no illusions about the threat to his people, or the sacrifice it would take to fight off the wolf at their door. To Gen. Hastings Ismay, Churchill confided the stark truth: "Poor people, poor people. They trust me, and I can give them nothing but disaster for quite a long time."
In public, Churchill put on a brave front. Addressing Parliament for the first time as prime minister on May 13, 1940, he said: "I would say to the House as I said to those who have joined this government: ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.'"
I almost always write about American history in this space -- although I make an exception for Churchill -- and I've written about this particular speech previously.
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What Winston Churchill could offer his countrymen, in addition to "blood, toil, tears, and sweat," was an uncommon eloquence that helped channel the bravery and resilience of the English people and the rest of the British Commonwealth.
"We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering," Churchill said in that memorable House of Commons speech 80 years ago today. "You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy."
"You ask, what is our aim?" he continued. "I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival. Let that be realized; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal."
Prime Minister Churchill didn't know it in 1940, but the conflagration then engulfing the globe would signal the end of the very idea of "empire" as well as other customs that had outlived their time. In the West, and in much of the rest of the world, colonialism would give way to a nobler idea -- a goal, really -- of an "international community" that resolved conflicts between peoples peacefully.
The creation of the United Nations and associated organizations such as the World Health Organization hasn't meant the cessation of nationalism, or war, or other destructive forms of competition between countries and ideologies. Paradoxically, perhaps, the viral scourge sweeping the world in 2019 and 2020 reveals the perils of both globalism and hyper-nationalism. What is needed now is a new level of cooperation. Here, we can repurpose Winston Churchill's words to our current needs.
"I take up my task with buoyancy and hope," he added on May 13, 1940. "At this time, I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, ‘Come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.'"
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.