Yesterday June 6 was the anniversary of D-Day. June 4 was the anniversary of Churchill’s most famous speech, his “Never Surrender” peroration to parliament after the British evacuation from Dunkirk. These dates offer bookends to the momentously shifting fortunes of a great nation upon which the tides of history rested.
After Dunkirk in 1940, Britain was alone, nearly all of continental Europe aligned with Nazi Germany. America was neutral, and the Soviet Union was in accord with the Third Reich. Four years later, with D-Day, once isolated and nearly defeated Britain thrust again back on the continent, with all the “sinews of British manhood,” as Churchill had promised a skeptical Stalin, now alligned with the world’s two great powers, putting Germany in a vice from which it could not emerge.
The tingle-inducing words from Churchill on June 4, 1940 must be recalled, but with care. Churchill in some quarters is quoted to excess, his greatest oratory applied to comparative banalities. In the early 90s Henry Allen in The Washington Post penned a column on the Young Fogey twentysomethings of Washington who, among the other eccentricities of old souls, liked to do Churchill imitations at the dinner table: “We will nevah surrendah.” (This crowd is now middle aged and hasn’t changed much.) In the mid 90s, during the new Republican Congress’ budget showdown with Clinton, one congressman on CSPAN famously shouted “Never Surrender!” Reportedly his mother admonished him for his theatrics.
Churchill’s pledge to never surrender came in the June 4 speech’s final paragraph:
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, 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, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.
In God’s good time. Churchill had faith, or worked hard to appear that he did, that his nation would rebound against overwhelming obstacles. The justice of Providence would not be forever or even long dormant, he surmised, to terrific vindication within a few years. In his old age he recalled the terrifying months after June 4, 1940 as the supreme and most exhilarating times of his long, crowded life, for which his previous 66 years had been only a preparation.
How many today, in far more comfortable times, have a similar faith in the justice of Providence and in God’s good time? Pessimism and anxiety characterize our own age, across political and religious spectrums, despite all our advantages and relative security. Few speak with much confidence about the future. Even many of the religiously devout avoid appeals to Providence regarding national and global events, at least feigning complacent resignation.
Churchill was not devout but he knew history, and Scripture, too well not to intuit a Guiding Hand over nations and human affairs great and small. Thanks to his faith and courage, shared by his nation, we today live in freedom and unimagined prosperity, not threatened by a totalitarian superpower that desires our destruction or direct subordination.
Surely the smaller challenges that face us today, which are admittedly perilous enough, should summon us to equal faith and to an exhilarating confidence that Providence has appointed us and our nation for this particular time.