Churchillian Realism 
George F. Will

March 5, 2021

George F. Will writes a twice-weekly column on politics and domestic and foreign affairs. He began his column with The Washington Post in 1974, and he received the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1977. He is also a regular contributor to MSNBC and NBC News. The Conservative Sensibility, his latest book, was released in June 2019. Will grew up in Champaign, Ill., attended Trinity College and Oxford University, and received a PhD from Princeton University. He delivered the 35th Enid and R. Crosby Kemper Lecture during the Museum's "Sinews of Peace" 75th Anniversary program. Will was introduced by R. Crosby Kemper III.



Thank you very much. 

I want to thank you first for allowing this son of the Midwest to come back to the Midwest, if virtually. I also want to thank you for giving me the occasion to wear my Churchillian bow tie. Deep navy blue with white polka dots. And I thank you for the privilege of speaking on the seventy-fifth anniversary of Winston Churchill's great speech, the speech that he himself considered his greatest speech, most momentous speech, which is saying something for a lifetime of wonderful rhetoric. 

His speech did two things. First, his speech validated an axiom from a great son of the state of Missouri—perhaps the greatest—Mark Twain. Twain said that God invented war to teach Americans geography. Winston Churchill is the reason why Americans know that Stettin is on the Baltic and Trieste is on the Adriatic. Second, Churchill's speech announced the onset of the Cold War, which would continue for forty-three years. As he did in the 1930's, in the 1940's Churchill saw things early and he said things clearly.  

I have an amiable long-distance disagreement with my friend Andrew Roberts—the most recent, and in my judgment, the best biographer of Churchill—as a child of central Illinois, I insist that Lincoln is the greatest figure in the history of world politics; Andrew insists that it is Churchill. This much is indisputable. The only remaining argument concerns which historical figure gets the bronze medal for third place.  

When Churchill spoke at Westminster College, he did something that great orators can do: he implanted in the vocabulary of his era a phrase that caught the ear's imagination, anxieties, puzzlements. A phrase that riveted attention, and distilled into two two-syllable words the high stakes of the era's politics. The phrase was of course, "Iron curtain." The word iron suggested the danger of permanence, as did, beginning in August 1961, the concrete of the Berlin Wall. But part of Churchill's realism, which is my subject today, is the knowledge that nothing necessarily lasts. Nothing. The only political things that last, are the things that we work tirelessly to make permanent, or to get rid of. The second word in Churchill's immortal phrase, "Iron curtain," the phrase which itself has lasted, is the word "curtain." Curtains are put up to prevent people from seeing things. Churchill knew that the evil architects of the iron curtain had something to hide. 

The first principle of Churchill's realism was the honest, candid, forthright use of the resources of the English language, and especially of its simple, blunt words. Words such as "iron" and "curtain." The second principle of Churchill's realism was to realize that people often do not wish to be realistic. Indeed, they wish to be spared from realism. Reality, you see, can be distressing, and demanding, and dangerous. So, at Fulton, Churchill did what real leaders do not flinch from doing: he said something that his audience, which actually was the entire American nation, did not want to hear. 

In 1946, Americans were weary. Weary from sixteen years of grinding depression and total global war. They were longing for a respite from challenges, and for a restoration of normality. To Americans yearning for a respite from heavy responsibilities, Churchill said, "Not yet." He said, "There will be no holiday from history." He said, if I may have him speak in the language of his nation's greatest writer, "Americans must stiffen their sinews and summon up their blood." The world needed Americans. 

In the 1946 world of shattered nations, there were things that only the United States could do. The recent American Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright referred to the United States as the "Indispensable nation;" true today, even more true in 1946. The first thing only the United States could do was to begin the repairing of the shattered nations. This began the next year with the announcement of the Marshall Plan. But two world wars, or perhaps we should say the Twentieth Century's Thirty-Years War, had raised a question about the future of nations themselves. Eleven months before Churchill spoke here, the United Nations had been as it were born in San Francisco. There was much talk about the possibility of the world moving beyond nation states. There had been similar talk after the First World War, when the League of Nations had begun its short, unhappy life. Churchill, however, had a romantic's attachment to the majesty of ancient nations, and not just his own. But, the man from western Missouri who brought Churchill to Westminster College seventy-five years ago had, earlier in his life, been fascinated by the possibility of a world made peaceful by a reduced role for nations. 

In 1910 on the other side of the state, Harry Truman was 25, and he was working on his family farm behind a horse-drawn plow. He very likely is the last American President never to have gone to college, and the last to have worked behind a horse-drawn plow. Truman had put in his pocket that year, in 1910, a copy of Tennyson's poem, "Locksley Hall," which includes these lines about a world without wars, a world subdued by international law, a world made safe and tranquil: "Till the war-drum throbbed no longer and the battle-flags were furled, in the parliament of man, the federation of the world. There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe, and the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law." 

Nice words, not Churchillian. Churchill knew better. Truman carried this poem when he went to France as an artillery captain in the First World War. He carried the pom in his pocket on April 12, 1945, when he was suddenly summoned from the US Capitol building to the White House to be told that he would become President. Truman became President the United States of the United Nations was born in San Francisco. By then, however, dreams of a world made tranquil by universal law had melted in the cauldron of war. Today we know what Churchill never doubted: nations are here to stay. Nations, not super-national entities, are the prime movers of history; and the United States—which Churchill loved as much as he loved his American mother—is more indispensable than ever. To give just one example, which Churchill, former First Lord of the Admiralty, would certainly appreciate and applaud: the two-thirds of the planet that is covered with water—the oceans, the great global common—will be policed and kept orderly by the United States Navy, or it will not be orderly.  

We're seventy-five years on from when, at Churchill's urging here, the United States unfurled a flag of world leadership. Seventy-five years later, our nation is wiser than it once was about the sinews and the limits of its strength. The United States has experienced some hard learning on the road from Fulton, and Churchill's appearance there, to here. The hard learning began four years after Churchill spoke here, when President Truman from Independence, Missouri, took the nation into war in Korea. The hard learning continued in Vietnam. It continued in Iraq in the first decade of this century, and it continues today in Afghanistan, where the United States seems to be in the painfully slow process of disengaging from what clearly is an impossible task: the task of nation-building in a country that is not really a nation. 

More than a decade ago, when our involvement in Afghanistan was already a decade old, I had a conversation with then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in his Pentagon office. I asked him, "Secretary, when was the last time that Afghanistan had a government whose writ ran throughout the country?" Secretary Gates answered briskly with one word. "Never," he said. So, once again we have received a redundant lesson in the impossibility of nation-building, a phrase that would have appalled Churchill, because it would have offended his insistence on realism. 

In 1965, the year Churchill died, President Lyndon Johnson's Vice President, former Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey, said that he thought the Vietnam undertaking was exhilarating. He said, and I quote, "We ought to be excited about this challenge, because here's where we can put to work some of the ideas about nation-building." The phrase "nation-building" is a semi-oxymoron. It is a contradiction in terms akin to the phrase, "orchid-building." As Churchill knew, nations like orchids are organic growths: they are not things to be assembled and disassembled and reassembled like tinker toys. And as Churchill also knew, coming as he did from a Europe strewn with ruins, leaders who are not steeped in history, not marinated in history, are apt to blunder, and by blundering they will make bad history, and more ruins. 

200 years ago this year, on our nation's forty-sixth Independence Day, July 4, 1821, then-Secretary of State John Quincy Adams delivered a lucid and measured statement of what he considered America's proper stance toward the world. I want to read you a portion of one paragraph from it because it is an anticipation, I think, of a version of Churchillian realism. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams said, "Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will America's heart, her benedictions, and her prayers be, but she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all; she is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She well-knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition. The fundamental maxims of her policy would then insensibly change from liberty to force.  

Now, when Secretary Adams recommended this, the world was very different, and what he recommended has proven to be easier said than done. In the two centuries during which the United States has filled a continent and risen to responsibilities around the world, it simply is not possible for the United States to be merely what Adams called the well-wisher of those who long for freedom. It is not possible because our national premise is that the principles by which we live, and that we espouse are explicitly universal. We are as our greatest president said, our sixteenth, Mr. Lincoln from central Illinois, he said, "We are a nation dedicated to a proposition, and the most important word in that proposition is 'all,' as in, all men are created equal." 

When John Quincy Adams made his pronouncement in 1821, the United States had negligible military capabilities, as befitted the nation protected by the existence of two weak and placid neighbors, and two broad oceans, traversed only by wind-powered ships. Two centuries later, the world is knitted together by economic globalization, and the globe has been shrunk by technologies of travel, communication, and the projection of military power. The United States foreign policy should therefore adopt the prudence that Secretary Adams recommended. It must, however, have a Churchillian sense of the great responsibilities that come with America's great power and America's great principles, both of which were subjects of the speech made seventy-five yeas ago in Fulton, Missouri. 

Regarding the foreign policy, the American mind is bifurcated. On the one hand, we are a nation of immigrants. We are all descended from people who came here to get away from there, wherever "there" was. From places too entangled with wars and revolutions. America's instinctive isolationism sleeps lightly when it sleeps at all. On the other hand, we are creedal nation, whose creed impels us to lean into the world in a way that Churchill encouraged. In a way that saved Churchill's nation as he well knew, on the night of Pearl Harbor, when we were at last blasted into the world conflict. 

Today there is much American soul-searching about the nature of our nation. There are those who advocate a kind of tribal nationalism. An ethno-nationalism. A nationalism suited for what these advocates call a Caucasian-Christian nation. But a few Europeans have understood America better than some of today's Americans do. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the most Churchillian Briton since Churchill himself, correctly said this: "European nations were made by history. The United States was made by philosophy." That philosophy, the heart of which is the doctrine of universal natural rights, is always and directly pertinent to US foreign policy.  

Henry Kissinger has argued that Americans' belief that our principles are universally true implies that governments based on other principles are less than legitimate. They are, as it were, on permanent probation. Our founding document, the Declaration of Independence, does not mince words. It says that governments derive their just powers, their just powers, from the consent of the governed. Therefore, many of the world's governments do not have just powers. Kissinger has also said acutely that on the one hand, Americans frequently seem to regard foreign policy as an optional activity. On the other hand, the belief that American principles should be universal, the belief that justice would be served if all nations emulated our nation. This belief sometimes begets another belief: that US foreign policy should have the missionary purpose of spreading our universal truths.  

Winston Churchill knew better—and remember, this is a man who loved our country. Winston Churchill understood the viscosity of history; the vast inertia of nations and national cultures. He was averse to unrealistic national ambitions abroad. The United States has paid a steep price for not sharing his realism about this. In March 2003, three weeks before the US invasion of Iraq, President George W. Bush said, and I quote, "Human cultures can be vastly different, yet, the human heart desires the same good things everywhere on Earth." That is, I suggest, and I think Churchill would have said, wishful thinking—exactly the sort of thinking Churchill deplored. It is refuted by virtually every blood-soaked chapter of human history, which is a story still being written, of strife, strife occasioned by passionate political differences. The human heart just is not the same everywhere and at all times. Churchill knew this, and he knew the tragic dimension of history, which is that intense human desires will always exist and will always conflict. 

Four months after the US invasion of Iraq in July 2003, a British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, told a joint session of the US Congress that it is a myth that quote, "Our attachment to freedom is a product of our culture." Blair added, "Ours are not Western values, they are the universal values of the human spirit; and anywhere, anytime, that ordinary people are given a chance to choose, the choice the same: freedom not tyranny, democracy not dictatorship." 

Well, Churchill, himself a historian of distinction, and a keen student of history, knew better. He knew that not everyone everywhere shares our attachment to freedom, or even our definition of freedom. Some people prefer piety, or they prefer social solidarity, or they prefer order. There are lots of competing values; freedom is but one. Churchill knew that our attachment to freedom and to the institutions indispensable for making it flourish is the product of a complex and protracted centuries-long acculturation, primarily in the West, especially among those Churchill hymned in his great work, the English-speaking people. Blair seemed to say Baghdad or Boston, New York or New Delhi, Mongolia or Missouri, what difference does it make? Liberal democracy, he seemed to say, can take root in any social soil, however stony and untilled.  

Churchill, however, a great student of nations and national differences and nationalisms knew that differences are enormous and important. He knew that even the merely twenty-mile width of the English Channel separates political cultures that differ in significant ways. They do because they have been incubated by very different histories. It has been well-said that what Americans want in the way of foreign policy is as little of it as possible. But something else has also been well-said. For two centuries now, the only thing more common than predictions about the end of war has been war itself. The Vietnam War was America's most severe trauma since Churchill spoke in Fulton. I think Churchill—who was pugnacious, even occasionally bellicose, but was selectively so—would have approved of the words of Karl Marlantes has spoken about Vietnam. Marlantes was a decorated combat marine in Vietnam before he wrote one of the great novels of that war, Matterhorn. Marlantes regrets, he says, quote, "That the prudence we learned from our involvement in Indochina has bee widely derided as "Vietnam Syndrome." Marlantes goes on to say, "If by "Vietnam Syndrome" we mean the belief that the US should never again engage in, A: military interventions in foreign civil wars without clear objectives and clear exit strategy, and B: nation-building in countries about whose history and culture we are ignorant, and C: sacrificing our children when our lives, way of life, or government of, by, and for the people, are not directly threatened, then we should never get over the Vietnam Syndrome. It is not an illness; it's a vaccination." Close quote. That vaccination wore off, and so we went off to Iraq, thereby validating the axiom that the only thing we learn from history is that we do not learn from history. 

Today, however, we commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of one of the great contributions to Western Civilization's tradition of political rhetoric. Now as I close, let me ask your indulgence for a brief autobiographical coda to my remarks. When Churchill spoke in Fulton, I was not quite five years old. In two months, I will be eighty. I have never, not once, wanted to be a day younger than I was at any given moment, and Churchill is one reason why I actually relish growing older. I have, I think, come to understand what made Churchill tick, and what made him distinctive and indispensable. It was his genius born of living a long and active life, from understanding the texture of life, its complexities which tend to defeat the grand intentions of people who have no realistic sense of limits.  

But Churchill's understanding that there are limits to what nations can achieve did not immobilize this man of action. He came to Fulton to deliver to our nation a call to action. He came in the spirit of James Russell Lowell, the Nineteenth Century American poet. In 1845, our nation was torn by disputes about slavery and about the impending war with Mexico, both of which Lowell ardently opposed. In that year, Lowell penned a poem with these famous lines: "Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide in the strife of truth with falsehood for the good or evil side." In the 1930's, Churchill was, for a while, nearly alone in seeing and saying that such a moment had arrived for Britain, and for us. In 1946, he came to Fulton to urge our nation to measure up to another such moment. And our nation did. The United States turned to the business of creating the architecture of collective security for the world, and a liberal regime of trade that has lifted billions of people out of subsistence poverty. The United States, or as Churchill liked to call us, the "Great Republic," was weary, but rose to the challenge that he issued at Westminster College three quarters of a century ago. The Cold War was declared, the Cold War was on, the Cold War would be won.  

Today, Americans again are weary, of responsibilities abroad and discord at home. They have been plied and belabored and enticed with the siren song of isolationism, with the temptation of withdrawing from the troublesome world. Were Churchill to return to Fulton today, he would, I am confident, say something like this: "There is a democracy recession underway around the world. There are two authoritarian regimes, those of Poland and of Hungary, currently blemishes on old Europe. In Asia, in the world's most populous nation, the regime is using sinister applications of science and technology to impose a totalitarianism even more suffocating than those that flourished in the Twentieth Century. There are millions in concentration camps, and policies the United States has designated as genocide." 

Were Churchill to look around the world today, and look upon the United States today, he would, I think, draw our attention to a sentence in his Fulton speech that has not received the attention it deserves. This is the sentence: "There never was a war in all history easier to prevent by timely action than the one that has just decimated great areas of the globe." What prevents timely action is unrealism: the human tendency to flinch from unpleasant facts.  

So, Churchill who looks facts in the face in the 1930's, and again in 1946, would, I think, tell Americans in 2021, the truth that was the subtext of his great speech at Fulton. He would say to Americans, "You are weary. You would like to rest. But not yet." What this bulldog of a man meant in 1946 and would mean today is, for a great nation, for the Great Republic: "Not ever." 

Thank you very much. 

“Leave the past to history especially as I propose to write that history myself.”

Winston S. Churchill