The British media are full of reports on the 50th anniversary of the death and state funeral of Sir Winston Churchill, who died on January 24th, 1965, and was interred in a state funeral service at St Paul’s Cathedral on January 30th, the largest state funeral in modern history to that point. Churchill’s memory lives on practically untarnished in the UK, and I’m happy to be able to remind everyone just how much of his achievement was tied up with his command of the written and the spoken word.
Winston Churchill’s receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953 was widely seen as more a politically motivated thank-you than a genuine badge of quality, but his career as a writer does reflect the huge importance of oratory, rhetoric, and sheer command of the English language in his role as leader and statesman. As a writer and orator, he published 38 titles during his lifetime, including his four-volume A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, and his speeches and written works were steeped in the best traditions of English literature and historical writing – notably Edward Gibbon. In any other country except England, where the term is practically an insult, that kind of record would earn him the title of an intellectual. John F. Kennedy’s tribute in his honorary citizenship address in 1963 that Churchill “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle” is the plain and simple truth. Martin Gilbert, his official biographer, summed it up in a one-volume work recently published in conjunction with a Morgan Library exhibition under the same title: Churchill: The Power of Words.
It may be hard to quantify just how much political power lies in words in the 20th century, or 21st, but Churchill probably had as much as any modern leader could. You can single out his phrases and speeches that not only served as rallying points and morale-boosters, but also crystallised and focused an entire strategic vision or mindset. His “Iron Curtain” speech of March 1946 is one of the most outstanding examples: No matter how historians might identify earlier uses of the phrase in less resonant contexts, that speech, at that time, helped articulate, and even launch, the Cold War standoff against Stalinism. Churchill not only held Britain together through the Battle of Britain, he also captured it in two words, “The Few,” that are now among the most evocative six letters in the English language. And as that command of eloquence suggested, he was also one of the few leaders of his stature who kept at least some moral grasp of the significance of his actions amid the brutal calculations of realpolitik, and enough human sympathy to inspire others.
Churchill attributed some at least of his gift for oratory to the Irish American politician William Bourke Cockran, and eager speculation surrounds the possibility that he owed much of his later ear for language to his American-born mother, Jennie Jerome. In any case, it’s clear that he worked hard to overcome his speech impediment, though whether this was a stutter or a lisp is still a matter for debate. Lord Balfour’s characterisation of his oratory, that he “carried heavy but not very mobile guns,” might have something to do with this, since as the Churchill War Rooms attest, “all secretaries that took dictation, but one, agree that any hesitation was a ‘searching’ for the right words.”
Winston Churchill used words to unite a people and lead a struggle to save the world from genocidal tyranny. In the process, he became the greatest hero that modern Britain has produced. Now does anyone still want to ask what use are eloquence and writing?