Saturday marks 50 years since the passing of Sir Winston Churchill, Great Britain’s indomitable prime minister during World War Two and one of history’s most revered statesmen. As the world reels from violence and unrest — terrorist attacks in Paris, slaughter in Nigeria, fighting and religious persecution throughout the Middle East — it is fitting to reflect on the character of a man who stared down tyranny in the 20th century and denied the grip of evil on humanity.
Many remember Churchill for his searing rhetoric, political acumen, and biting wit. Yet it is his gifted leadership that often sets him apart — leadership recognized for its moral clarity, decisiveness, resolve, and the ability to inspire others.
Churchill possessed the moral clarity to recognize the evil of his day and the courage to name that evil despite popular opinion to the contrary. Even as others turned a blind eye to the threat posed by Nazi ideology, Churchill understood that nations cannot simply wish bad things away. Upon Neville Chamberlain’s return from Munich promising “peace in our time,” Churchill offered an unpopular counterpoint, describing Hitler’s regime as “that Power which spurns Christian ethics, which cheers its onward course by a barbarous paganism, which vaunts the spirit of aggression and conquest, which derives strength and perverted pleasure from persecution, and uses, as we have seen, with pitiless brutality the threat of murderous force.”
Churchill recognized that a proper diagnosis — however uncomfortable — is necessary before an appropriate and effective course of treatment can be prescribed.
Armed with moral clarity, it was Churchill’s decisiveness that rallied the nation. He replaced Chamberlain as prime minister on the very day that Hitler began his thrust into Western Europe. For months prior, Churchill had warned of the inevitability of war: “There is no merit in putting off a war for a year if, when it comes, it is a far worse war or one much harder to win.”
As prime minister, Churchill set about increasing national defense funding. He streamlined war-planning operations, courted strategic alliances, secured material support from the U.S., and ensured the evacuation of 500,000 children during the blitz. In short, Churchill took charge. From his underground bunker, he addressed urgent domestic concerns while also masterminding the counteroffensive that ultimately destroyed the Third Reich.
Decisiveness was anchored in unflinching resolve. Churchill held a singular purpose throughout the war: defeat Hitler to protect Britain. “You ask, what is our aim? I answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.” Churchill did not give in to panic or despair. He worked long hours, maintained a rigorous travel schedule, and demanded much from the nation. His resolve was evident in stirring radio broadcasts, visits to bomb-ravaged neighborhoods, battlefront tours, and conferences with world leaders.
Churchill’s rhetoric and deeds did more than merely morale. He inspired others to bravery and greatness, uniting the U.K. and the free world in a common and noble purpose. As the soldiers were rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk, Churchill inspired his country to move forward, not in defeat, but in confidence: “We shall go on to the end … we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
How might we harness the admirable attributes of Churchill’s leadership today? To start, Western leaders could find the moral clarity to courageously name the evil in our midst — radical Islamic terrorism. Properly defined, we might accurately prescribe the remedy to this scourge that has resulted in the slaughter of tens of thousands of innocents and threatens our core values.
In the spirit of Churchill, leaders could act decisively to eliminate those who champion brutal and barbaric measures — rape, beheadings, crucifixions, suicide bombings, and mass executions — to advance their own radical ideologies. They could send more than the occasional drone or airstrike, hold known terrorists at Guantanamo, deny Western jihadists re-entry to their homelands, and give national security operatives the tools needed to stop terrorists.
Resolve in 2015 requires shedding the “war-weary” label — the enemy is not weary. Resolve means red lines actually carry the weight of force, and wars end when our enemy is defeated, not when we’ve reached a date on the calendar. Resolve demands funding our military, not cutting defense budgets to pre-WWII levels. Resolve insists this posture be maintained not only when it is popular or parade-worthy, but “however long and hard the road may be.”
As for inspiration? People will follow if leaders will lead. As a generation of Britons demonstrated during the dark days of WWII, when you expect great things from people, people will not disappoint.
Erin Rodewald is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She holds an MPP with a focus on international relations and American politics from Pepperdine University. Follow her on Twitter at @EDRodewald.