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.
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.”
As Churchill described the attack against Britain’s former ally, the House listened quietly, stunned and enthralled. Churchill was overcome with emotion. So were members of Parliament: They burst into cheers, relieved not only that French warships would not be used against Great Britain, but that they had a prime minister who would not allow their island nation to perish without a fight. The country overwhelmingly supported the decision.
Churchill’s daring action sent shock waves throughout the American foreign policy establishment, particularly among the appeasers in the White House and State Department. Liberal delusions about the limited nature of the Nazi threat, the wisdom of isolationism, and the impotence of British democracy were beginning to unravel. Two months later, Roosevelt sent Churchill the warships.
“The action we have already taken should be, in itself, sufficient to dispose once and for all of the lies and rumours which have been so industriously spread by German propaganda and through Fifth Column activities that we have the slightest intention of entering into negotiations in any form and through any channel with the German and Italian governments,” Churchill told the House. “We shall, on the contrary, prosecute the war with the utmost vigour by all the means that are open to us until the righteous purposes for which we entered upon it have been fulfilled.”
Thanks in part to Churchill’s Independence Day speech, America would join Britain’s “righteous purposes” in defending freedom against the immoral monstrosity of fascism. There are, of course, new monstrosities and barbarisms in our own day, new threats to human dignity and decency. Alas, there is also a new fraternity of defeatists eager to accommodate them. Churchill’s speech is a bracing challenge to both English-speaking nations to resist the siren song of appeasement and renew their commitment to democratic freedom—and to one another.
Joseph Loconte is a lecturer in politics at the King’s College in New York City and a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD. His most recent book is The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler’s Gathering Storm.