Winston Churchill: 1940

Churchill has just become Prime Minister in May 1940. Here is an analysis of the options that faced him. Photo: Associated Press

PARIS, April 25, 2011 — In recent months, we have had no shortage of breaking news, from Egypt and the Middle East to Japan. In these wild times, I thought a step into the past would be a refreshing diversion; and in that spirit, I have chosen as the subject of this article an event from years past - May 1940, when Churchill ascended to the leadership of Britain.

Let us review how matters stood in those fateful days. Hitler had just invaded France. He had already conquered Poland and, before that, Czechoslovakia. The Soviet Union was bound by treaty to Hitler, and the United States was out of the fight, thousands of miles away with an army smaller than Yugoslavia’s.

Winston Churchill meeting with Franklin Roosevelt

We all know the course that Churchill took. It was the course of unrelenting struggle, no compromise, no negotiations. But in 1940, he had two other options; he could have surrendered or he could have continued the fight with Hitler while simultaneously negotiating with him.

The first option of surrender seems impossible in retrospect, but had it come down to a choice between the complete destruction of the British nation and surrender, even the British would have had to choose the latter course. Churchill himself admitted this at one point and to none other than FDR, though he hedged by saying that a new government would have to do it; he himself would fight to the end.

The French would surrender a month after Churchill came to power. Though this decision seems unforgivable in retrospect, it must be understood in the context of its times. The French had no chance of winning in June, 1940. Churchill urged them to continue fighting even in the “rubble of Paris”; but, if they did this, who would they be fighting for? Not for France, for France was already lost. They would be fighting for Great Britain and ultimately the Soviet Union, risking extermination in the process.

Had the Germans invaded the British Isles as they did France and presented the British government, as they did the French government, with a choice between extermination and surrender, even the British would have had to surrender. And they would have been correct to do so; for by that time, they would not be fighting for their own country but for the United States and the Soviet Union. Fortunately for Churchill, he was never faced with this awful choice.

The real choice for Churchill was whether or not to negotiate with Hitler. The temptation to take this middle road between fighting and submitting must have been overwhelming, especially after the French surrender, and the minutes of cabinet meetings during those days indicate that the possibility of negotiating a settlement with Hitler was discussed more than once.

As a strategy, it seemed to possess considerable merit. It would buy time. It would preserve, or so it seemed at the time, both the option of settling with Hitler and the option of going with the Americans when finally they awoke from their slumbers.

It was a tempting strategy, but its attractiveness was deceptive; for by negotiating with Hitler, the British would drastically reduce the chance of America entering on their side. We must remember that this was still 1940, and the American ambassador to London, a certain Joseph P. Kennedy, was advising his superiors back home that Britain too would soon fall to Hitler. Roosevelt himself had serious doubts about Britain’s staying power. When Churchill asked for a loan of old American ships from World War I - “as a matter of life and death” - he was refused. The President was a ruthless personality, not given to wasting resources on a country that he thought was going under anyways; and like most Americans, he profoundly hated empires.

Had Churchill negotiated with Germany, it would have only reinforced Roosevelt’s conviction that Britain, now on the ropes, would soon be on the floor. In trying to preserve both the option of a favorable deal with Hitler and a joining of hands with America, Britain would in fact achieve neither. Better it was to choose between the two and stick to the choice. Churchill therefore decided to concentrate his every last shell toward the aim of bringing America into the conflict, as fast as possible. Those mighty speeches were not only made to raise the spirits of the British people; they were bombastic outbursts from a man on the ropes, trying to convince a far-off friend that helping him was a good bet.

Churchill would do anything to prove Britain’s will. He would go so far as to fire on the French, who only weeks ago were comrades, in order to prevent their navy from joining the Germans. On July 3, at Mers el Kebir, the British navy attacked the French navy when it refused to join them, killing 1300. Tradition has it that it was after hearing of this incident that Roosevelt finally convinced himself of the strength of British resolve.

And so on the 31st of July, Roosevelt finally accepted Churchill’s request for 40 American destroyers from World War I. Lend-lease would soon follow, and Roosevelt would slowly ease his isolationist country into a European war.

It was the Japanese, however, who would save the day for Churchill when they attacked Pearl Harbor on December, 1941. Hitler too would do his part by declaring war on America. He had already attacked the Soviet Union three months ago, thus accomplishing the astonishing feat of declaring war on the two countries who, within a few years, would dominate the world.

Churchill’s enemies helped him in ways he could not have imagined when he first took office in May, 1940. When he chose the heroic course - the course of “blood, sweat, and tears” - he was not aware of how much his enemies would give him - which should enhance our opinion of his courage. He was lucky; but more than that, he had put himself in a position to get lucky.

In retrospect, victors always seem destined to win, and losers appear to have lost the battle before it started. History always has an element of inevitability about it. But we must remember that what we consider the past was once the future of a previous generation, and it must have appeared as unpredictable to them as ours seems to us.


Benjamin Ra is a graduate student in International Affairs at Sciences Po Paris. American foreign policy is his main interest. Read more of Benjamin’s writing in A Word on the National Interest in the Communities at the Washington Times.



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Benjamin Ra

Benjamin Ra is a recent graduate of Sciences Po Paris. He writes mainly on foreign policy and is currently residing in South Korea. 

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