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Dunkirk, Churchill and Trump

July 27, 2017

The British situation on June 4, 1940, was as bleak as it has ever been, before or since.

The year before, Germany and the Soviet Union had signed a non-aggression treaty, then invaded and divided up Poland. Soviet troops had occupied the Baltic republics. The Soviets had invaded Finland and forced territorial concessions amounting to more than 10 percent of Finnish land. Germany had invaded Denmark, which capitulated within hours, and Norway, which held out for two months, but which by June 4 was nearly overrun.

British discontent with the Norwegian campaign resulted in the replacement of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain by Winston Churchill on May 10, 1940. On that very day, German troops invaded Belgium, France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Luxembourg fell in a single day, and the Netherlands in four; Belgium surrendered on May 28.

Because the Allies believed France was protected by the dense Ardennes forest and east of that by the Maginot Line, they expected the main German attack to come through the Netherlands and Belgium. But in fact, the German invasion of the Low Countries was a feint; the Allies’ disastrous response was to send their best troops into Belgium, where they were isolated and cut off from supplies and reinforcements by the main German invasion, which actually came through the Ardennes, then northwest along the Somme River, reaching the English Channel on May 17.

By June 4, almost all British troops had been driven from France. The German army stood ready to turn south from the Somme, and the British government seriously doubted the French will and ability to continue the fight. Churchill correctly anticipated that the next battle after France would be for Britain itself.

Even in this dire situation, there was something to celebrate. On May 20, even before the Belgian surrender, the British began planning Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of the isolated British Expeditionary Force, from northwestern France. Although the BEF numbered hundreds of thousands of troops, planners hoped to evacuate maybe 45,000 of them for deployment to the defense of England. In fact, by the end of the evacuation, some 800 British naval and civilian ships – from destroyers to luxury yachts to humble fishing boats – had pulled 338,000 men to England from the shores of Dunkirk: 215,000 British, 100,000 French, and the remainder Belgian.

The movie Dunkirk, which I saw this week, reviews this history reasonably accurately. Toward the end of the film when the main characters are back in Britain, the film refers a little obliquely to Prime Minister Churchill’s “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech, which he gave in Parliament on the last day of the evacuation, June 4, 1940, less than one month into his tenure as prime minister.

Churchill began the speech with a review of the military course that led to the evacuation, including the Allied errors that allowed the Germans to separate off so many Allied troops from the bulk of the French forces south of the Somme. Churchill then devoted two uncharacteristically bitter paragraphs to Belgian King Leopold III’s surrender to the Germans: “without prior consultation, with the least possible notice, without the advice of his Ministers and upon his own personal act, he sent a plenipotentiary to the German Command, surrendered his Army, and exposed our whole flank and means of retreat.”

Churchill then recounted the fighting around Dunkirk, and the evacuation – which, he said, he had expected to rescue 20,000 or 30,000 men. Instead, he described “a miracle of deliverance, achieved by valour, by perseverance, by perfect discipline, by faultless service, by resource, by skill, by unconquerable fidelity.” Still, Churchill cautioned his listeners “not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory,” because “wars are not won by evacuations.” But he took the moment to dwell on the heroism of the Royal Air Force, which won against the German Air Force “a victory inside this deliverance.”

The British air victory served as Churchill’s rhetorical pivot from the military disaster that led to the miracle at Dunkirk to the battle that lay ahead, and he heaped praise on British pilots as perhaps only Churchill ever could have done:

When we consider how much greater would be our advantage in defending the air above this Island against an overseas attack, I must say that I find in these facts a sure basis upon which practical and reassuring thoughts may rest. I will pay my tribute to these young airmen…. May it not also be that the cause of civilisation itself will be defended by the skill and devotion of a few thousand airmen? There never has been, I suppose, in all the world, in all the history of war, such an opportunity for youth. The Knights of the Round Table, the Crusaders, all fall back into the past – not only distant but prosaic; these young men, going forth every morn to guard their native land and all that we stand for, holding in their hands these instruments of colossal and shattering power, of whom it may be said that “Every morn brought forth a noble chance and every chance brought forth a noble knight” [the quotation is from Tennyson’s poem “Morte D’Arthur”], deserve our gratitude, as do all the brave men who, in so many ways and on so many occasions, are ready, and continue ready to give life and all for their native land.

Churchill thus found in the Dunkirk evacuation not only a victory inside a military disaster, but also a source of hope for the coming Battle of Britain, a source of inspiration that the war would be ultimately and somehow be won, and a call of British youth to service in the long, glorious and deeply, deeply British tradition of the King Arthur’s knights.

Churchill reviewed preparations for the coming battle, and he warned the Germans with words supposedly used to dissuade Napoleon from his plan to invade England: “There are bitter weeds in England,” adding that there were “certainly a great many more of them since the British Expeditionary Force returned.” Churchill underscored this warning, and Napoleon’s heed of it, by conjuring the “many Continental tyrants” who had imagined that they could conquer England. Churchill saw the harm to come, as British cities, especially London, would shortly learn: “there has never been a period in all these long centuries of which we boast when an absolute guarantee against invasion, still less against serious raids, could have been given to our people.”

In the face of these risks, Churchill asserted his certainty that “we shall not flag or fail,” and he concluded the speech with its best remembered passage:

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.

The Churchill bar is a high one. I can’t think of any modern leader who has led a nation more capably than Winston Churchill led Britain during World War II. And Churchill’s rhetorical abilities were truly exceptional. Still, desperate times have inspired leaders of very much more modest capacities than Churchill’s to moments of exceptional leadership: Rudy Giuliani after 9/11, for instance, or Lyndon Johnson after the Kennedy assassination.

At the moment that the Dunkirk movie referred to Churchill’s speech, the thought came instantly to my mind: how would our leader speak on such a desperate day? How would Donald Trump find hope in horror? How would he lead and unify us at a terrible time? How would our president inspire us to rise from the lowest point in our national history?

The question is largely academic, but not entirely. It is not inconceivable, for instance, that North Korea will land a nuclear missile on Los Angeles before Trump leaves the White House. It is not inconceivable that a cyberattack from Russia, or ISIS, or somewhere else, will take down our electrical grid while Trump remains in office.

Try to imagine the speech that Donald Trump would deliver the evening after such an event. Try to imagine Donald Trump leading a dazed nation rocked by disaster and unconfident in its future. Try to imagine Donald Trump inspiring us to unity and service.


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