The Blog

Winston Churchill’s July 4 Message to America

Allies in War, in Peace Friends.

12:30 AM, Jul 4, 2010 • By JOSEPH LOCONTE
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The celebration of American Independence has a way of illuminating the Anglo-American relationship, especially during times of war. Although July 4, 1776 marked the date when the American people dissolved "the political bands which have connected them" with Great Britain, July 4, 1940 signified just the opposite: the moment when the two great democracies solidified their “special relationship.” Seventy years ago, British prime minister Winston Churchill delivered a speech before the House of Commons that masterfully rebuked the United States for sitting on the sidelines while Britain stood alone to defend freedom against totalitarianism. Churchill’s insights are worth recalling during our own season of war, when the historic ties between the two nations seem frayed and in doubt.

Winston Churchill’s July 4 Message to America

The speech was occasioned by the dramatic events of the previous day, July 3, when Churchill ordered the Royal Navy to destroy the French fleet in North Africa. Breaking a solemn agreement with Britain, France had just signed an armistice with Nazi Germany. It represented a colossal and dangerous betrayal: After the Royal Navy, the French possessed the most powerful fleet in European waters; they held the balance of power in the early stages of the Second World War. Churchill calculated, quite correctly, that if the French vessels were seized by the enemy, Britain would lose the war.


The prime minister pleaded with Franklin Roosevelt for 50 American warships, warning that the Nazi threat to the United States was growing rapidly. But the president, on the advice of his ambassador in London, Joseph P. Kennedy, was persuaded that sending the warships would be a waste of American resources. Kennedy—a liberal defeatist and an appeaser of Hitler—had filed dispatches claiming that Britain would surely surrender to the Germans and was not worth supporting. To make matters worse, it was an election year. Ever the political animal, FDR promised to keep the country out of another European war: “The United States of America shall and must remain un-entangled and free.” Roosevelt even suggested that Churchill send the Royal Navy to Canada to prevent it from falling into Nazi hands—a proposal interpreted as a cynical effort to save the United States at the expense of Britain. America’s message to the British people was clear: expect no help from the United States in the war against fascist evil.

Churchill revealed his frustration in a telegram to his ambassador in Washington: “I don’t think words count for much now. Only force of events can govern them.” The force of events was pushing the British leader toward a horrific decision. There was no time for lengthy deliberations. Churchill offered the French commanders a choice: join the British and continue the fight for freedom, sail to a British port and be repatriated—or prepare to be sunk. The French were given just six hours to make up their minds. Vice-Admiral Sir James Somerville, who had helped rescue over 100,000 Frenchmen during the evacuation at Dunkirk, led the assault. With a “severe measure of force” and a heavy loss of French lives, the fleet was destroyed.

The prime minister later called the order “a hateful decision” and contrary to all his instincts—except the desire to preserve Britain’s survival against a totalitarian nightmare.

Churchill’s martial resolve, reinforced in his July 4 speech to Parliament, demolished American doubts about Britain’s mettle. In the process, he challenged the nation’s democratic friends to join the struggle against international terrorism and tyranny. “I call upon all subjects of His Majesty, and upon our Allies, and well-wishers—and they are not a few—all over the world, on both sides of the Atlantic, to give us the utmost aid,” he said. “In the fullest harmony with our Dominons, we are moving through a period of extreme danger and of splendid hope, when every virtue of our race will be tested, and all that we have and are will be freely staked.”

Here was Churchill’s moral realism on display. Most everyone expected a German invasion of Britain at any moment, a trial whose outcome was uncertain, but which certainly would cause unspeakable suffering and destruction. Nevertheless, with a keen sense of the transcendent meaning of the moment, Churchill summoned his nation to find the courage required for survival. “This is no time for doubt or weakness,” he said. “It is the supreme hour to which we have been called.”

Recent Blog Posts