Friday, June 18, 2010

Two Speeches

"Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, 'This was their finest hour.' "

Sir Winston Churchill

As Barack Obama looks for the right leadership style for guiding the nation through the simultaneous crises in the Gulf and the economy, there may be lessons to be learned from reflecting on two speeches that were delivered on this day in London 70 years ago.

On June 18, 1940, it has been said, Charles de Gaulle became the true leader of the French Resistance. France had fallen to Nazi Germany, and de Gaulle had fled to Great Britain a few days before.

But de Gaulle tried to rally his people from afar.

"[H]as the last word been said?" de Gaulle asked. "Must hope disappear? Is defeat final? No!"

I have heard de Gaulle's speech called one of the most important in French history. I'm not an authority on French history so I can't say whether that is so, but it almost certainly was the most important speech given by a French leader in the 20th century.

It is often credited with being the start of the French Resistance, but the truth is that few people heard the speech as broadcast by the BBC. De Gaulle had a much larger audience when he delivered a similar speech four days later — prompting some to conclude that June 22, 1940, actually was the day the Resistance was born.

Be that as it may, the sentiments expressed by de Gaulle on June 18 almost surely influenced what followed.

"Whatever happens," de Gaulle said, "the flame of the French resistance must not be extinguished and will not be extinguished."

For de Gaulle, the goal was to inspire his countrymen to stand up to their conquerors. The goal was similar — and yet different — for his British colleague. His task was to prevent the conquest of Britain — for, if he did not, the fate of the free world surely would be imperiled.

Britain's prime minister, Sir Winston Churchill, had been in office only a month, but he knew that, with the fall of France, Germany would feel free to focus its full attention on that island nation. Britain was the sole obstacle to the fulfillment of the Germans' goal of dominating Europe, and Churchill knew that the future depended upon how the British fared against the Nazis.

Despite his brief tenure, the prime minister had made two earlier attempts to prepare the British for what was to come. About a month earlier, he delivered his "blood, toil, tears and sweat" speech, in effect pledging everything Britain possessed to the goal of turning back the Nazis. About three weeks later, he gave his "we shall fight on the beaches" speech, encouraging the Britons to fight on — alone, if necessary, and it certainly appeared, at that time, that the British would have to fight the Germans by themselves.

Then, just before Churchill's "finest hour" speech before Parliament's House of Commons, France unsuccessfully sought an armistice with Germany.

In previous years, the British policy had been to seek to appease an increasingly aggressive Nazi regime. Long before June 1940, the British seemed to realize that Neville Chamberlain's attempts to avoid another world war had failed, and they turned to Churchill for leadership.

It is indeed fortunate for Western civilization that they did.

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