President Obama’s explanation for removing a bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office—he wanted to make room for a bust of Martin Luther King, Jr.—probably won’t satisfy his conservative critics. For years they’ve interpreted Churchill’s disappearance as a snub rooted in the president’s anti-colonial sentiments. “I love Winston Churchill,” Obama insisted during his recent UK trip. “I love the guy.”
The fact is that nearly every American president since Franklin Roosevelt, Democrat and Republican, has cited Churchill as their ideological ally—no matter how implausible the comparison. Like no other world leader, Churchill’s legacy as the great defender of Western Civilization at its darkest hour is enlisted to validate American foreign policy.
In his 1982 speech in Westminster, when Ronald Reagan consigned Soviet communism to the “ash heap of history,” he warned Great Britain against the error of “allowing the dictators to underestimate us.” With Cold War tensions at a new high (thanks in part to Reagan’s unsparing criticism of Moscow), Western unity was essential in the common struggle against communism. As President Reagan saw it, he was echoing Churchill’s challenge to the United States, just days after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor made them allies in the war against Nazism.
“What kind of people do they think we are?” he asked, quoting the prime minister’s 1941 speech to the U.S. Congress. “Free people, worthy of freedom and determined not only to remain so but to help others gain their freedom as well.” Reagan’s determination to go beyond containment—to actually defeat the Soviet Union—was indeed reminiscent of Churchill’s resolve to defeat Nazism. Like Churchill during his years in the political wilderness, however, the American president encountered a European audience deeply skeptical of his hawkish agenda.
Now consider Bill Clinton, the first American president born after the Second World War. On the eve of his decision to bomb Serbia for its ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, Clinton found in Churchill the martial voice he needed. Worried that public opinion would not support U.S. involvement in the conflict, President Clinton raised the specter of appeasement in the 1930s.
“What if someone had listened to Winston Churchill and stood up to Adolf Hitler earlier? Just imagine if leaders back then had acted wisely and early enough, how many lives could have been saved, how many Americans would not have had to die?” Serbia as Nazi Germany? The message seemed especially dubious coming from Clinton, who had pulled American troops out of Somalia in disgrace and refused to intervene to stop the genocide in Rwanda.
How about George W. Bush? Explaining why he had the Churchill bust brought into the Oval Office, Bush emphasized Churchill’s tenacity in the teeth of opposition—a British version of his Texas swagger. “He stood on principle. He was a man of great courage,” Bush explained. “He knew what he believed, and he really kind of went after it in a way that seemed like a Texan to me.”
Bush supporters see this quality in the president’s 2007 decision to authorize the “surge” of U.S. troops into Iraq to stabilize the country in the midst of a sectarian civil war. It was a deeply unpopular—and risky—decision. Military experts credit the surge with preventing Iraq from disintegrating into utter chaos. Yet others point to the initial decision to invade Iraq—without a workable exit strategy—as an example of not heeding Churchill’s counsel about war: “Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy…The Statesman who yields to war must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.”
And what of Barack Obama? In a 2011 address at Whitehall, Obama looked to Churchill as he urged the United States and Great Britain to continue to work together to confront global crises. Concluding his speech with a Churchill quote from the end of the Second World War, he said the world would “look back to what we’ve done, and they will say ‘do not despair, do not yield…march straightforward.’”
But what foreign policy choices by President Obama recall the political courage of Britain’s greatest prime minister? The nuclear agreement with Iran, the inability to defeat the Islamic State, the failure to halt Russian aggression in Ukraine, the decision to break his “red line” pledge to punish Syria’s Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons against his own people—all of this looks more like Neville Chamberlain than Winston Churchill. Throughout his presidency, in fact, Obama has appeared profoundly uncomfortable with the qualities most often associated with Churchill: martial resolve, moral clarity, and supreme confidence in the transcendent ideals of Western Civilization.
Nevertheless, everyone wants the prime minister on his side. Conservative talk show host Michael Savage has even praised Donald Trump—arguably the least qualified individual to run for president in the modern era—as “the Winston Churchill for our time.” Trump as Churchill? A petulant, self-absorbed casino capitalist is compared favorably to one of the greatest democratic leaders of the twentieth century. It is a claim even less convincing than Obama’s “I love the guy.”
Here is the mournful cry of a political society in crisis: We can still recognize greatness; we cannot fully disown the achievements of leadership that have helped to preserve liberal democracy in the West. But we have forgotten how to produce great men. One is tempted to quote Churchill on this score: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”
Joseph Loconte is an associate professor of history at the King’s College in New York City and a senior editor at Providence. He is the author of A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918.
Photo Credit: Statue of Winston Churchill and FDR on New Bond Street in London. By Kathleen Conklin via Flickr.