What Would Winston Churchill Do?

The great Briton's lessons for the Ukraine crisis.

I have watched this famous island descending incontinently, fecklessly the stairway which leads to a dark gulf... If mortal catastrophe should overtake the British nation and the British Empire, historians a thousand years hence will still be baffled by the mystery of our affairs. They will never understand how it was that a victorious nation, with everything in hand, suffered themselves to be brought low and to cast away all that they had gained by measureless sacrifice and absolute victory—'gone with the wind.'

A quarter century after the end of the Cold War, similar words could certainly be used to describe America's present circumstances—but there is no Commons debating such matters and there is no Churchill thundering warnings of what lay ahead. Back in 1938, the pace of events quickened, and by the end of September the great powers were agreeing to strip Czechoslovakia's strategic industrial and banking regions from the country without its consent, awarding the so-called Sudetenland to the Third Reich in a further effort to slake Hitler's thirst for conquest and avoid a Europe-wide war.

While the majority of Britons supported Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler as an act of statesmanship in the pursuit of peace, Churchill, back in the Commons on October 5, laid out the truth of the matter: "[a]ll is over. Silent, mournful, abandoned, broken, Czechoslovakia recedes into the darkness. She has suffered in every respect by her association with the Western democracies and with the League of Nations, of which she has always been an obedient servant."

Churchill acknowledged the popularity of Chamberlain's appeasement but correctly labeled it a defeat:

I do not grudge our loyal, brave people, who were ready to do their duty no matter what the cost, who never flinched under the strain of last week—I do not grudge them the natural, spontaneous outburst of joy and relief when they learned that the hard ordeal would no longer be required of them at the moment; but they should know the truth. They should know that there has been gross neglect and deficiency in our defenses; they should know that we have sustained a defeat without a war, the consequences of which will travel far with us along our road...

Churchill then prophetically warned his countrymen and his audience across the Atlantic of the consequences of the appeasement policy: "Do not suppose that this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigor, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time."

After a decade of disarmament followed by appeasement, Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939—swiftly followed by Stalin, who sought to secure his share of the spoils. Fortunately, the United Kingdom and its allies were able to turn to the man who had foretold of the calamity and who possessed the courage and fortitude to hold the forces of darkness at bay during that perilous time while what remained of the Free World frantically rearmed to meet the challenge. Having given the warning for so many years, Churchill alone had the credibility to rally the British people and eventually the English-speaking peoples.

It is the sincere hope of all men and women of good will that the recent events in Europe and the Pacific are not, in fact, the first sip of another bitter cup, and that the authoritarian regimes will retreat from the use of force or even the threat thereof against their neighbors whether it be for territorial conquest or to exert influence over them. There are too many Western leaders willing to play Chamberlain's role today. Governor Mitt Romney's Churchilll-like warning of a resurgent Russia made during the last campaign was mocked by the President and elites, and was rejected by a narrow margin at the polls. Perhaps because of that example, very few elected officials have been willing to speak bluntly about this gathering storm. Romney from the sidelines continues to do so, and Senator Marco Rubio and Ambassador John Bolton have auditioned speeches with the unpopular message that vigor and hard choices are required of us if we are to arise and take our stand for freedom. The media elites refuse to face the realities of the world, however, and it will take sustained, disciplined rhetoric from credible voices to wake the West, the world, and even peaceful elements within the authoritarian regimes, especially commercially savvy and modern China, to the dangers of this old new era.

Robert C. O'Brien is the California Managing Partner of a national law firm. He served as a US Representative to the United Nations and was a Senior Advisor to Governor Mitt Romney. His writings on foreign policy and national security are available at www.robertcobrien.com. He can be followed on Twitter: @robertcobrien.