At the height of Britain’s defense in WWII against a horrific plague of German bombs and rockets, facing enormous odds, population fearful, deaths mounting, Prime Minister Winston Churchill did an amazing thing – he declared that moment Britain’s “finest hour.” He was positive, prescient and right. His words have resonance for Americans – for us – today.
Historical analogies are risky, riskier when applied across cultures, borders and wide stretches of time. But they can also be accurate. In June 1940, after Nazi Germany had overrun Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Luxembourg, Romania and finally France, the inimitable Winston Churchill took history in hand, as only he could do.
The Battle of Britain ranged before his little country, casualties already projected to be large, even without the benefit of computer models. He knew the scourge had taken out allies, leaving many dead and his own country filled with dread. He also knew that victory is as much a matter of attitude, spirit and unified action as projected numbers of dead.
Accordingly, with a kind of confidence and calm, collected projection of facts, and grip on both leadership and crisis-shaping, Churchill gave a speech. He took to the House of Commons on June 18, 1940. With absolute conviction, he said the following:
“Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty and so bear ourselves that if the British Commonwealth and Empire lasts for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘this was their finest hour’.”
The speech was filled with hope, but also with unshakable resolve. It was about facts and the world as it was, but also about how he expected a nation united by the will to win – could and would do so.
What followed was not easy. Many projected the nation would fold, splinter, divide by class or geography, miss the point, or get the point and allow fear to control individual and collective psychology. None of those things happened.
Instead, as if Churchill had willed courage and fiber to his nation, as if he knew the British national character better than many knew themselves, as if he were – by force of faith, will and courage – able to shape historic events, the nation became unified and unstoppable.
The facts did weigh on the nation, and on individuals. They lost thousands in weeks, with others left maimed. They had to wrestle their fears, isolation and loss – as any population under attack does. But they did not succumb to fear. They did not allow international or domestic pressures to erode confidence in themselves, each other, their future or their ability to confront and defeat their foe.
This is the moment in which we live, facing a different kind of foe, in a different time, ripped by different fears, but united in the unrivaled and historically victorious spirit of the British in 1940 – a people who refused to be knocked sideways, refused to give way to circumstance or malice, who resolved not to be divided, but to come to each other’s aid and to prevail.
This is also America’s spirit, from earliest days to now. What divides us, what seeks to weaken, shake and subdue us – has never been allowed to do so, not for long. We rise and confront our adversaries, external forces unfairly imposed and domestic demons over which we must – as one people – triumph.
So that is it, the seminal historic analogy, or one of them. We have within annals of our history a thousand examples of this spirit, on countless physical battlefields and in the conflict of ideas, at family and platoon level, at division, army and the national level.
The burden on us now, at this exact time, is to put down the sabre of differences that do not matter, to consciously displace fear and carping with resolve and determination – to do what we know is right, listen to national and state-level leaders, put aside pride and politics for compassion, facts and action.
This is our moment, such that if the American experiment should last a thousand years, men and women will look back and say, “this was their finest moment.” Let us make it so. We can, we should, we must.
Robert Charles is a former assistant secretary of state for President George W. Bush, former naval intelligence officer and litigator. He served in the Reagan and Bush 41 White Houses, as congressional counsel for five years, and wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003) and “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), the latter on WWII vets in a Maine town.