The new film Darkest Hour about Churchill’s tense first days as premier movingly portrays how the fortitude of the common British people reinforced his own resolution against any negotiation with Hitler. He successfully resisted the appeal by Foreign Minister Lord Halifax to consider negotiation.
Halifax is the film’s villain, having partnered with Neville Chamberlain in the disastrous appeasement of Hitler and who now was skeptical of military victory, or perhaps even national survival. A potential negotiated peace at least would preserve British independence while ceding Europe to Hitler.
Churchill of course successfully rebutted the appeal by Halifax, who is forever recalled as the weak nemesis to Churchill who counseled despair. But to his credit, Halifax yielded to the martial resolve of Churchill and of the British people and dutifully served his nation for the rest of the war as ambassador to America.
Before he left Britain, and only two months after events the film portrays, Halifax delivered his own July 22, 1940 radio speech imploring national resolve against the enemy. An Anglican high churchman sometimes called a mystic, he laced his appeal with Christian piety in ways Churchill did not.
Halifax freely admitted he was no orator, certainly not comparable to Churchill. But there are some notable sentiments in his speech:
What do we mean when we say that we are fighting for freedom? We want to be able to live our own lives as we like, and not have to look over our shoulders all the time to see if the Gestapo is listening. We want to worship God as we like, and this religious freedom based on conscience we will not let go. For conscience is not something that you can hand over to anybody else. But in Germany the people have given their consciences to Hitler so the people have become machines.
For Hitler, force has become the final rule of the destinies of men and nations….He would have no nonsense about equality before the law which is an outrage against reason and the all-powerful State. Bad faith, cruelty, crime become right by the fact that it is he, Hitler, who ordains them. That is the fundamental challenge of anti-Christ which it is our duty as Christians to fight with all our power.
The people of the United States did not build their new home in order to surrender it to this fanatic. They have judged his narrow and twisted vision. They see that his gospel is a gospel of hate, that his policy is the policy of brute force, his message to mankind the enthralment of the human spirit under ruthless tyranny. We may take heart from the certain knowledge that that great people pray for our victory over this wicked man and his ways as fervently as any of his present victims. The foundations of their country, as of ours, have been Christian teaching and belief in God.
Where will God lead us? Not, we may be sure, through easy or pleasant paths. That is not His way. He will not help us to avoid our difficulties. What He will do is to give to those, who humbly ask, the spirit that no dangers can disturb. The Christian message to the world brings peace in war; peace where we most need it; peace of soul.
It is that same Christian message which makes its giver, who is God, the best friend with whom a man can share life or death. Those of us who cannot serve in the armed forces must all do our best in other ways to help them. I’m sure we shall and there is one thing we can all do, soldiers, sailors, airmen and civilians, men, women and children, all together, which may be much more powerful than we know. And this is to pray.
But prayer is not only asking God for what we want, but rather the way to learn to. Trust Him, to ask that we may know His will and do it with all our strength. If we can really do our work, whatever it is, as well as we can in God’s sight, it will become His work, and we can safely leave the issue in His hands. This, then, is the spirit in which we must march together in this crusade for Christianity.
Like so many others, presumably Halifax’s faith was tested in the war, in which he lost one son at El Alamein, while another son lost both his legs to a German Stuka bomb. Halifax was on hand in Washington, DC as ambassador when Churchill arrived over one year later at Christmas time 1941 to plot war strategy with FDR after Pearl Harbor. On Christmas Day Churchill and presumably Halifax (who typically attended nearby St. Agnes Episcopal Church) joined Roosevelt (an Episcopalian who liked Methodist singing) plus the top U.S. military brass for ecumenical worship at Foundry Methodist Church, where the preacher was the dean of Washington (Episcopal) National Cathedral.
The evening before Churchill addressed the American and British people by radio from the White House as he and FDR lit the National Christmas Tree:
This is a strange Christmas Eve. Almost the whole world is locked in deadly struggle, and, with the most terrible weapons which science can devise, the nations advance upon each other. Ill would it be for us this Christmastide if we were not sure that no greed for the land or wealth of any other people, no vulgar ambition, no morbid lust for material gain at the expense of others, had led us to the field. Here, in the midst of war, raging and roaring over all the lands and seas, creeping nearer to our hearts and homes, here, amid all the tumult, we have tonight the peace of the spirit in each cottage home and in every generous heart. Therefore we may cast aside for this night at least the cares and dangers which beset us, and make for the children an evening of happiness in a world of storm. Here, then, for one night only, each home throughout the English-speaking world should be a brightly-lighted island of happiness and peace.
Let the children have their night of fun and laughter. Let the gifts of Father Christmas delight their play. Let us grown-ups share to the full in their unstinted pleasures before we turn again to the stern task and the formidable years that lie before us, resolved that, by our sacrifice and daring, these same children shall not be robbed of their inheritance or denied their right to live in a free and decent world.
And so, in God’s mercy, a happy Christmas to you all.