Churchill’s Last Hurrah

“The Last Lion,” as Winston Churchill’s best biographer, William Manchester, called him, gave his last roar as British prime minister this week (March 1) in 1955 with his final speech to the House of Commons.  His health was failing and he had agreed to step down in April.

But he had one more message to deliver, and it dealt with the central question of the age. In a world increasingly divided between a democratic America and a communist Soviet Union — each of which distrusted the other, and each of which possessed nuclear weapons of staggering destructive power — how would the human race survive?

Churchill had given the question much thought, especially once he learned how powerful nuclear weapons were, which caused a sea change in his strategic thinking.  A born warrior, Churchill had assumed that nuclear weapons were just another step in the inevitable march toward wars being won by bigger and better weapons.  But nuclear weapons, he concluded, were so powerful and destructive that no war that included them could ever be won.  All sides in such a war would be losers, suffering unimaginable destruction, and therefore no nation must ever start such a war.

Yet in that nightmare scenario, Churchill saw hope.  Or as he put it in his speech before a packed House, whose members sensed they were witnessing the great man’s final hurrah, “It may well be said that we shall, by a process of sublime irony, have reached a stage in this story where safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihilation.”

What Churchill was getting at, although few realized it at the time, was the strategy of mutual nuclear deterrence, whereby both the American-led Western powers and the Soviet-bloc Eastern countries would ensure their own safety through nuclear stalemate.  Large nuclear arsenals on both sides meant neither side would dare start a nuclear war because it would mean its own destruction.

It was not, Churchill knew, an optimistic view — “The imagination stands appalled,” he admitted — but given each side’s refusal to stop building increasingly destructive weapons, he thought it was realistic, and perhaps the world’s best hope.

It was also, not incidentally, the strategy that both sides pursued for the next 35 years, until new weapons-detection and verification technologies, and a new breed of leadership, helped forge new diplomatic relationships that, in turn, made possible significant reductions in the nuclear arsenals of both sides.

Something that Churchill nicely, and with typical optimism, anticipated in his speech’s conclusion:  “The day may dawn when … generations (can) march forth, serene and triumphant, from the hideous epoch in which we have to dwell.  Meanwhile, never flinch, never weary, never despair.”