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Churchill Fortnight at Ethical Culture Society

Dec. 1—December 15, 2002






Our Society has designated the period Dec. 1 through 15, 2002, as "Churchill Fortnight" in commemoration of the honorary American citizen Sir Winston Spencer Churchill, born Nov. 30, 1874.

During the period all four of the 50-minute segments of "The Complete Churchill" will be shown at the Society, starting at 1 p.m. on Dec. 1 with "Maverick Politician". This series was produced in 1991 by BBC and A&E to considerable critical acclaim.

The second segment, "To conquer or to die" will air Monday, December 2 at 7:30 p.m. Each screening will be followed by a short discussion period, with refreshments for the evening shows. Admission is gratis. All are welcome. Invite your friends and neighbors.

On Dec. 8 member Winthrop Drake Thies will deliver a Platform: "Churchill: from Defeat to Triumph—Thrice!" This will be followed at 1 p.m. with the third segment.

On Monday , Dec. 9, the fourth segment, "Never despair", will be shown at 7:30 p.m.

And on Sunday, Dec. 15 will be shown a 90-minute TV presentation of a professional actor as Churchill presenting some of his most glorious speeches and writings. This last was produced by General Dynamics Corp. as part of its "Winston Churchill/Ike" show.


Considered by many the iconic heroic figure of the 20th Century, Churchill was an indifferent student, who later noted: "I never let school get in the way of my education." (In fact, if a subject interested him he engaged with it totally.) He stubbornly opposed learning Greek, Latin and mathematics. Reduced to English, he "…learnt it well."

After Sandhurst he was posted as a young cavalry officer to India and engaged in several campaigns on the North-West Frontier. His dispatches to the Daily Telegraph formed the basis for his first published book. A polo star, he had time to devour the considerable library of classics and history he had brought with him. With the help of his mother, the beautiful American, Jenny Jerome, daughter of an industrial magnate, he secured a post with the British forces moving to punish the Muslim fanatics of the day, who had seized much of the Sudan. As such he participated in one of the last wholesale British cavalry charges. (There were in fact later such charges in World War I, particularly against the Turks in Palestine.)

More important, he wrote up the British (and his own) exploits for the popular press and in books. He and his mother were often scorned by the elite for their "shameless self-promotion". But the fact was that his family was not greatly moneyed. (His father, Lord Randolph, had died when Winston was but 20, leaving little beyond debts.) And he thus depended on his wit and his pen for his livelihood. Each of his early campaigns led to one or two volumes.

In the Boer War he was a reporter and captured by the Boers while covering a particularly inane British thrust by armored train. But he succeeded in escaping and making his way to Portuguese East Africa and home, as a national hero. Naturally, he wrote it all up to much acclaim. He ran for Parliament and after an initial defeat secured a seat.

He later left his father's party, the Conservatives, over a matter of conscience: their failure to support "home rule" for Ireland. "Crossing the aisle" in the UK is a considerable undertaking. As a Liberal he became First Lord of the Admiralty in World War I. (Reflecting his interest in military technology he helped develop the tank.) In that capacity he championed the Gallipoli Campaign, perhaps the one brilliant strategic concept of WWI (to knock Turkey out of the war and supply a faltering Russia), a depressingly dreary and uninspired war. But it turned into a disaster from British incompetence and delay combined with Turkish resolve. Holding the high ground the Turks poured merciless fire on the Anzacs below. Eventually, all remaining were evacuated. Churchill was made the scapegoat, held responsible and resigned, going into the Army on the Western front as a front-line officer. (But Churchill never gave up his "peripheralist" tendencies in war strategy, which led to the Allied Italian Campaign of World War II on the supposed "soft underbelly of Europe". It turned out to be terrain ideally favoring Field Marshall Albert Kesselring's solid defense. Most students of the war account the campaign an unnecessary and tragic mistake. Earlier, at the outbreak of World War II, he had championed the rather equivocal Norwegian campaign.)

From the end of WWI to the mid-1920s, Churchill was out of Parliament. He mostly wrote, including a multi-volume history of the Great War. He finally in effect "crossed the aisle" back to his father's Conservatives and gained a seat in 1924. He eventually took the post his father had once held: Lord of the Exchequer (like our Secretary of the Treasury). But he clung to gold support for the pound and pegged it too high, which hurt exports and increased unemployment. His career in such office was accounted a disaster, and he left in disgrace.

Now came some of Churchill's most difficult years: the years "in the wilderness" as he described them. Out of office (but with a seat) until the late-1930s, he turned to writing and got out a history of the English speaking peoples and of his illustrious forebear, Marlborough—and other books--to much acclaim. Despite a few kind things he ventured about Italian Fascism in the 1920s, in due course he recognized the danger posed by Fascism and particularly a resurgent Germany. Heading up a small group out of the government he repeatedly warned against its rearming and urged the United Kingdom to ramp up its defense, particularly the Royal Air Force. The group sponsored work on radar, which was probably decisive in the eventual air war over England. He was largely ignored.

He vehemently opposed the shame of Munich. As World War II loomed he was again appointed First Lord of the Admiralty. In the series of defeats the West suffered at the War's start, the Navy virtually alone distinguished itself. Thus when Chamberlain was sacked and in the context of Churchill's long and vocal opposition to Hitler, he was the natural choice as Prime Minister. After the disaster of France's defeat and Dunkirk, the coalition War Cabinet debated making a deal with Hitler. In effect, it was proposed that the UK give him a free hand on the Continent in return for peace and retention of most colonies. Churchill successfully opposed this and rallied the Cabinet and in turn the British people to fight on. He gave a succession of brilliant speeches which fortified the will of the nation and its fighting men and women.

In due course, with American resources, the war was won. But "Winny" was turned out of office by a seemingly ungrateful nation—which wanted to get back to "business as usual" and security "from the cradle to the grave" as promised by Labor. While out of power he wrote his 6-vol. first person history of WWII and in 1953 was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

He at all times had recognized the threat of Stalinism—as FDR did not. (Indeed, he was an early exponent of intervention after the Oct. 1917 Putsch, urging that "…the Bolshevik baby be strangled in its crib.") He had used British troops after WWII to aid the Greeks in defeating an attempted Communist take-over there. And in the various Conferences—Teheran, Yalta, Potsdam—he sought to limit Soviet encroachments on the West. He had a brilliant grasp of geopolitics. Thus his "Iron Curtain" speech in 1946 at Fulton, Mo. was a natural. And he was a staunch supporter of the Western alliance against the Soviets.

In due course, he again became Prime Minister and served for two terms with distinction. He was ethically brave: he took risks on behalf of his beliefs. He was a natural leader, a brilliant writer and orator: truly a Renaissance man for our time. He was remarkably resilient: with the ability to bounce back from seemingly crushing defeat. At a crucial time for democracy, when Hitlerism seemed on the verge of unstoppable success, he stepped in to defend democracy and lead it to victory. While he did not defeat Hitlerism (that was largely due to Soviet and American arms and materiel) he crucially did not lose WWII in May 1940, which might otherwise well have happened. A grateful Congress made him an honorary American citizen.

                                                                                        – Win Thies