Churchill on July 4, 1918
By Joseph Loconte and Tim Montgomery at The Weekly Standard, 3 July 2006
ON JULY 4, 1918, Winston Churchill chaired a meeting of the Anglo-Saxon Fellowship, an annual gathering to mark the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. That year, though, they had a more pressing reason to celebrate: the arrival of a million American soldiers in Europe to revive the Allied cause against Germany.
Churchill, then serving as Secretary of State for War, sought from the Declaration “inspiration and comfort to cheer our hearts and fortify and purify our resolution and our comradeship.” He found what he needed, and then some. The British soldier-statesman identified the timeless moral insights of the American Declaration and applied them powerfully to the chaos of conflict–and in a way that again speaks to a nation at war.
Always the historian as well as the politician, Churchill observed that the Declaration was not just an American document. It followed the Magna Carta and the English Bill of Rights as “the third great title-deed” of Western democracy. It grew out of a long struggle to define and defend the rights of individuals against the state. The Declaration’s affirmation of personal liberty, the rule of law, and love of country anchors all political constitutions that hope to avoid “the shame of despotism” as well as “the miseries of anarchy,” he said.
In this sense, Churchill argued, the Allied cause to stop German aggression was consistent with the Anglo-American project in ordered freedom. Others would become utterly cynical about the purposes of the war, but not Churchill. (Having fought in the trenches at Flanders, he knew what the enemy was capable of.) “A great harmony exists,” he said, “between the spirit and language of the Declaration of Independence and all we are fighting for now.”
Throughout Churchill’s address is a deep sense of the moral and spiritual consequences of the war. Nothing less than the survival of the universal principles of the Declaration, he implied, was at stake. Yet he viewed the danger not only in terms of a German victory–but also in how the Allies prevailed and secured the peace.
There’s a remarkable restraint in Churchill’s message, even in the midst of such a brutal and costly conflict. As a result of trench warfare, a large portion of British manhood had perished violently or suffered the most grievous wounds imaginable. Their French allies were utterly demoralized, the Italians were in disarray, and the Russian army had collapsed. A few months earlier Churchill warned that the entire Allied cause was in peril. Now, buoyed by the support of “the great Republic of the West,” he might have been tempted to demand the enemy’s complete annihilation.
Churchill insisted that Germany must be beaten decisively. But he assured the German people that there would be no bloodlust, no lawless vengeance, none of the atrocities that had been meted out by the Kaiser against the Allies.
The reason, he suggested, was that the possession of natural rights carried the obligation to uphold and defend those rights in all circumstances–even for an enemy who ignored them. “We cannot treat them . . . as they would treat us all if they had the power,” Churchill said. “We are bound by the principles for which we are fighting. Whatever the extent of our victory, the German people will be protected by these principles. The Declaration of Independence, and all that it implies, must cover them.”
It is true that some people talk as if, in the pursuit of American objectives in Iraq, the principles of the Declaration need not apply. Others see nothing noble whatsoever in the effort because they can think only of Abu Ghraib. Yet to despise these democratic ideals because they are not fully met on the battlefield is the path to cynicism. As Churchill so well understood, this is not the spirit that gave America, and the world, a new birth of freedom.
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