Eighty years ago, on May 19, 1940, Winston Churchill spoke to the British people “for the first time as Prime Minister in a solemn hour for the life of our country, of our empire, of our allies, and, above all, of the cause of Freedom.” He was sixty-five years old, eligible for an old-age pension. He would famously record that, on becoming prime minister, “I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.”
Churchill took office from Neville Chamberlain, whose policy of appeasement failed to preserve the peace and who proved incapable of offering decisive leadership in war. Joseph Kennedy, the American ambassador in Britain, in meeting with Chamberlain, recorded that the departing prime minister was “definitely a heartbroken and physically broken man. He looks ghastly.” (It was not then known that Chamberlain would soon be diagnosed with cancer and have but six more months to live.) Chamberlain confided to Kennedy that “since Winston thinks he understands war, perhaps it is better he should take on.” It thus fell to Churchill to take on the responsibility of leading Britain in war.
That Chamberlain used the word “perhaps” in his conversation with Kennedy shows that he harbored doubts about whether Churchill was the right man for the job. Neither Chamberlain nor the British establishment considered Churchill to be their first choice to serve as prime minister. Churchill’s public battles against the governments of the 1930s did not endear him with the political leaders who took Britain into the war. Only with the outbreak of war did Churchill receive an invitation to return to high executive office as First Lord of the Admiralty, the civilian head of the Royal Navy, the position that he held twenty-five years before when the First World War erupted. While Churchill loyally served under Chamberlain during the war’s opening months, many of the Conservative party’s leaders and rank-and-file still distrusted him as a political maverick. They remained devoted to Chamberlain and preferred that he stay on as prime minister.
Chamberlain, however, could not remain as prime minister. To unite the country at a time of peril, a new government needed to come into office that brought together Britain’s major political parties. Forming a new coalition government meant the Conservatives would have to share power with the opposition Labour and Liberal parties. In the behind-the-scenes political maneuvering to form a coalition government, the Labour Party flatly refused to serve under Chamberlain. Chamberlain was already derided as the “umbrella man,” a “guilty man” whose mistaken policies had failed to prevent war and in wartime presided over early defeats in battle. Churchill thus emerged as a leading candidate to serve as the head of the new government. What an incredible irony that Churchill, who had long opposed the “quackery” and “sham” of socialist policies in the political arena, came to power because of Labour’s insistence on a change of leadership.
In stepping down, Chamberlain urged his loyal lieutenant Lord Halifax, the British foreign secretary, to succeed him, to block Churchill becoming prime minister. The majority Conservative Party would have approved of this choice. Halifax, however, hesitated: he did not want the responsibility. He believed that Churchill was better qualified to lead the country in war. By turning down the chance to be prime minister, Halifax yielded to Churchill, who stood at the ready to direct the British war effort. On asking Churchill to form a government, King George VI recognized that Britain now had a leader “full of fire and determination to carry out the duties of Prime Minister.” Unlike the broken Chamberlain or the hesitant Halifax, a decisive Churchill did not hesitate to take command.
Churchill as prime minister upset many in the Conservative Party. One disappointed Tory politician lamented that Chamberlain and Halifax, by making way for Churchill to become prime minister, “had weakly surrendered to a half-breed American.” Churchill’s detractors judged him a reckless gambler, who surrounded himself with dodgy followers, his life and actions before becoming prime minister amounting to an abject study in failure. They believed that flaws in his character and judgment would sooner or later assert themselves, leading him to commit some huge strategic blunder, resulting in the decline and fall of Britain and its empire.
That harsh assessment was incredibly far from the mark: it neglected Churchill’s long experience and many achievements in war and peace. As a young man, Churchill served in combat and came close to losing his life on a number of occasions. A man of great personal courage, he had experienced first-hand the face of battle. Earlier in his political career, he held some of the highest offices of state and took an active part in the making of British policy and strategy during the era of the Great War. In addition, he studied closely and was a prolific author writing on politics, strategy, and war. Churchill’s writings are brilliant, marked by engaging rhetoric, dramatic narrative, and insightful analysis. Part of Churchill’s character was that he did not shy away from controversy. No other politician in Britain came so well equipped as Churchill to take on the mantle of leadership in wartime. David Lloyd George, Britain’s prime minister during the Great War, praised Churchill for his “fertile mind, his undoubted courage, his untiring industry and his thorough study of the art of war.” Lloyd George’s assessment was much truer to the mark.
Churchill became prime minister at a desperate time. Germany had just unleashed a major air and ground offensive into Western Europe, invading the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. Although a German offensive had long been anticipated, Germany’s power drive achieved surprise, seized the strategic initiative, and made rapid progress. Even as Churchill spoke to the British people for the first time as prime minister, the Germans had already shattered the French army’s forward defensive line along the Meuse River. With this breakthrough, the German army surged forward, meeting little organized resistance, as it drove across northern France. The Allied armies in Belgium stood in imminent danger of encirclement and annihilation. Churchill took charge only to find a catastrophic military disaster looming large before him.
Germany’s victories during the opening stages of the Second World War upset the European balance of power. The collapse of the French Third Republic stunned the world. France’s defeat transformed the strategic contours of the war. In Berlin, hopes were high that France’s downfall would shock and awe the British government into negotiations to end the fighting. On June 23, 1940, Joseph Goebbels divulged in a secret briefing for German press outlets: “This week things will come to a head in England. Churchill cannot hold on, of course. A compromise government will be formed. We are very close to the end of the war.”
Goebbels also recorded in his diary that a “quite boisterously happy” Hitler looked forward to a negotiated peace, so long as Britain recognized Nazi domination of the European continent, returned the colonies that Germany possessed before the First World War, and paid reparations. “Negotiations are already under way on these issues, via Sweden,” Hitler told his devoted propaganda minister. What Hitler left unsaid was that a humbled British Empire would henceforth play the role of a subordinate partner to a Nazi German super-state.
Churchill, however, refused to negotiate. His speeches hurled defiance at the Nazi leader. In response, Hitler went before the Reichstag on July 19, 1940, to warn in a public address that, if the war continued, the British Empire would be destroyed. Hitler branded Churchill as a warmonger, driven to continue the fighting by a “big capitalist clique of war profiteers.” Hitler wanted to make clear to his German and international audiences that, in his speeches, “Mr. Churchill has repeated the declaration that he wants war.” While blasting Churchill, Hitler also appealed for an end to the fighting between Britain and Germany. “At this hour I feel compelled by conscience once more to appeal to reason in England,” he asserted. “I can see no reason why this war should go on.” Hitler maintained “that I never intended to destroy or even damage” the British Empire. A formula, or so Hitler insinuated, existed for a settlement, if only the British leadership would see reason and negotiate peace.
The collapse of French resistance brought to the fore the question of whether Britain should take up Hitler’s willingness to negotiate and seek a speedy conclusion to the conflict. Would “reason” prevail, and peace soon follow? Britain’s leaders debated amongst themselves their prospects for success if they continued offering resistance. This story has been told many times and dramatized on the big screen in Darkest Hour.
In these deliberations, Churchill had to defend his views in sharp debate with colleagues and political rivals. Churchill believed that Britain must fight on. To open negotiations in the wake of France’s defeat, he contended, would result in Britain bargaining from a position of weakness. Peace talks would put Britain on a slippery slope of making one concession after another. It also was unclear what would have to be conceded to Hitler to obtain a settlement. Better to stand up to Hitler and demonstrate Britain’s ability to protract the war.
One hallmark of rational decision making is the requirement to test the assumptions behind a policy stance. Offering the countering view was Lord Halifax, who held a more pessimistic assessment of Britain’s chances of continuing the war. As Churchill’s main rival to become prime minister, Halifax’s criticism took on a political edge. Halifax saw no plausible scenario that would end in British victory, meaning the overthrow of Hitler’s regime. He was willing to explore the prospect of negotiations. His goal was to end the war while preserving Britain’s independence as a great power. He argued: “We had to face the fact that it was not so much now a question of imposing a complete defeat upon Germany but of safeguarding the independence of our empire.” Halifax was opposed to limitations on Britain’s armed forces and ability to defend itself. He did not want to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire—he wanted to preserve it by ending the war.
Halifax’s policy alternative tested Churchill’s leadership position within the government. In a gathering of the British cabinet, Churchill exerted his authority in an emotional exhortation, calling upon them: “If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.” The cabinet cheered Churchill and backed him in rejecting peace talks. After this demonstration of support for Churchill, Halifax recorded to his diary: “I thought Winston talked the most frightful rot. It drives me to despair when he works himself up into a position of emotion when he ought to make his brain think and reason.” Britain’s government, Parliament, and people showed their resolve to fight on, even if it meant (as Churchill warned) having to engage in combat against an invading German army on British soil. The Dominion premiers of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa also wrote Churchill, supporting his resolve to fight on. The British military chiefs were asked to weigh in as well with their strategic appraisal. In making the decision to continue fighting in 1940, Britain’s leaders did not suffer from groupthink. They undertook thorough discussion of alternatives and questioned Churchill’s strategic assumptions about rejecting peace talks.
To leave no doubt in the minds of Germany’s rulers that Britain would not negotiate, it fell to Halifax to respond to Hitler’s peace appeal. “We shall not stop fighting till freedom, for ourselves and others, is secure,” Halifax broadcast. “This, then, is the spirit in which we must march together in this crusade for Christianity. We and our great dominions overseas stand, and shall continue to stand, four square against the forces of evil.” By extolling Britain’s war as a crusade to defend Christian civilization against evil, Halifax had publicly committed himself to support Churchill in the coming fight.
Known Unknown: Fighting for Command of the Air
In assessing Britain’s chances for success in the war, Churchill faced a great uncertainty, what we might call a known unknown: would British defenses and people withstand a German air assault? When great-power competition returned with a vengeance during the 1930s, Churchill was outspoken in warning about Germany’s massive arms buildup and aggressive international ambitions. In particular, he advocated large-scale and urgent rearmament in air power: “We ought to have a large vote of credit to double our Air Force; we ought to have it now, and a larger vote of credit as soon as possible to redouble the Air Force.” Britain’s leaders were not blind to the deteriorating international strategic environment during the 1930s. Stanley Baldwin, the leading Conservative politician for most of the interwar period, famously stated that “the bomber will always get through.” What would happen when the bomber got through?
The British military chiefs, in their strategic appraisal about Britain’s ability to fight on after the defeat of France, could not answer the question. Instead, they posed the question: “Whether the morale of our people will withstand the strain of air bombardment.” Before long, the British civilian population would be put to the test. To break Britain’s will to fight, the German tyrant certainly had no inhibition about targeting civilians. Goebbels recorded: “The Führer is fed up and has now permitted London to be bombed at will.”
In London, Ambassador Kennedy took a gloomy view of Britain’s chances of holding out once the German bombing started. He wrote his son John, the future president: “The whole crux of the matter is . . . the strength of the German air force. . . . If they have the strength they pretend to have and they come over and knock off the British air force, it will not make the slightest difference what land precautions the British have made. No country can stand up unless it has air parity with another country.” Kennedy also told the Soviet Ambassador Ivan Maisky, “It is utterly inevitable that England will be almost completely destroyed by air raids.” For Churchill, the defeatist American ambassador clearly represented an obstacle that would have to be circumvented.
Whether the British people could withstand being bombed would depend in part on the ability of the Royal Air Force (RAF) to blunt Germany’s air offensive. Could the RAF limit the damage that German bombers would rain down on Britain? Churchill and the British people were fortunate in that they possessed an outstanding military commander in Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding to conduct the Battle of Britain. The aerial contest between Britain and Germany became a battle of attrition, fought out by a few thousand pilots over the British skies, rather than by hundreds of thousands of infantrymen in the mud of Flanders as had happened but a generation before. Both the British and German air forces suffered heavy casualties in their constant clashes. Germany came out the loser in this slugging match. Dowding’s cool leadership and superb handling of the forces under his command accomplished the mission of defeating the German attempt to break down Britain’s air defenses and pave the way for invasion. The “few” honored by Churchill held the line and grew stronger as the battle progressed.
Yes, the bomber did get through, as Stanley Baldwin had predicted. The British civilian population in the bomb-wracked cities suffered grievous loss of life. By the end of 1940, German bombing raids killed about 25,000 British civilians. To give some perspective, these losses amount to seven or eight times the fatalities suffered by the United States on September 11, 2001. The bombing of London convinced some German leaders that Britain would soon want to open negotiations. Goebbels believed: “A city with 8 million people [like London] can’t cope with that for long.” The few of the RAF could not prevent the many from suffering.
Despite the onslaught, British morale did not collapse. While we remember Churchill’s tribute to the fighter pilots, he also honored the “courage, the unconquerable grit and stamina of our people. . . . Without that all would have failed. Upon that rock, all stood unshakable.” Civil defenses, emergency services, underground shelters, precautionary evacuations, and antiaircraft gunfire played their part in protecting the British people and industry enabling the war to continue. The courage of the British people provided an answer to the question posed by the British military chiefs as to whether they could withstand the strain of air bombardment. Not only could the British people take horrific punishment, but they also worked to bring about a renewal of Britain’s power that would eventually take the fight to the enemy.
Known Unknown: The American Enigma
Staving off Germany’s air offensive in 1940 hardly guaranteed victory in the war. Churchill’s goal of bringing about regime change in Germany would demand far more power than what the British Empire could muster. To defeat Germany required that Britain find powerful and determined allies. Thus, another known unknown was whether Britain could acquire allies to join in a coalition against Germany.
Of special importance was whether the United States would come into the war and project its strength across the Atlantic to the fighting fronts in Europe. In their assessment, the British military chiefs emphasized that Britain “could continue to fight single-handed” against Germany only if the “United States of America is willing to give us full economic and financial support, without which we do not think we could continue the war with any chance of success.” In assessing the American enigma, Halifax doubted obtaining meaningful support from the United States. In response to a question posed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt about what would happen to the British fleet if Germany invaded Britain, Halifax asserted: “President Roosevelt seemed to be taking the view that it would be very nice of him to pick up the bits of the British Empire if this country was overrun.”
Churchill held a more optimistic view that Germany’s bid for world power would eventually bring the United States into the war. In time, the United States would take action with Britain against the common danger posed by Hitler. For this coalition to form, however, Britain needed to play for time, to demonstrate its ability to carry on the fight, and show up the limits of German power. By protracting the war, Britain also would provide time for the United States to rearm, to mobilize its economy, and convince the American people of the necessity to fight.
How would the United States use the time afforded by Britain’s stand? Faced by threats from Germany in Europe and Japan in Asia, the United States had several strategic options open to it during the second half of 1940. These options were examined by the U.S. Navy’s Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Harold (“Betty”) Stark in a strategic assessment dated November 12, 1940. One strategic option identified by Admiral Stark was for the United States to build up and husband its military might to fight in defense of the Western Hemisphere. Hemispheric defense was an option that, given the dangerous international setting, would command wholehearted support across the American political spectrum. The United States would take the lead in defending the New World against the Old. If Joseph P. Kennedy or Charles Lindbergh had been president instead of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the United States would have chosen this strategic alternative.
Another strategic option was to prepare the country for war against Japan, to roll back Japanese aggression in China. Admiral Stark examined an American offensive across the Pacific if war erupted with Japan. Under this Pacific-first option, defeating Japan, either alone or in coalition with the British Empire, would represent the main American military effort. Admiral Stark did not pull his punches: he projected that a war against Japan would require a huge and protracted effort by the United States. This Pacific-first strategy would provide little to help Britain in the fight against Germany.
Like the British military chiefs, Admiral Stark took a pessimistic view of Britain’s chances of continuing the war against Germany without considerable assistance from the United States. “The present situation of the British Empire is not encouraging,” he wrote. “I believe it easily possible, lacking active American military assistance, for that empire to lose this war and eventually be disrupted.” The CNO warned: “Should Britain lose the war, the military consequences to the United States would be serious.” He warned that Britain did not possess the resources to deploy a large land army to undertake a ground offensive onto the European continent to achieve the aim of overthrowing the Nazi regime. The liberation of occupied Europe and the destruction of the Nazi tyranny would require that the United States “send large air and land forces to Europe or Africa, or both, and to participate strongly in this land offensive.” Admiral Stark’s memo made clear that America had a choice. He recommended that the United States prepare for a Europe-first offensive strategy to support Britain in defeating Germany.
Depending upon America’s choice, Churchill’s finest hour would look either courageous and wise or a foolhardy mistake. Churchill was fortunate that Roosevelt occupied the White House. Roosevelt possessed a brilliant strategic mind. He agreed with Admiral Stark that the United States should give strategic priority to defeating Germany. He also stood out as one of the most hawkish of American leaders in seeing the immense danger posed by Hitler’s Germany. The president wanted to move as quickly as American public opinion and rearmament would allow the United States to get involved in the struggle against Germany. Both, however, came at much too slow a pace for Roosevelt’s liking. As commander-in-chief, he wanted America on a war footing for a fight to the finish against Hitler’s Germany that he viewed as inevitable.
Calculating the Odds
We know how history unfolded: Hitler would invade the Soviet Union and then declare war on the United States after Japan attacked American forces in the Pacific. Churchill’s wager that Britain would find allies paid off because of German and Japanese aggression. These known unknowns thus turned in Churchill’s favor.
Knowing the history, however, begs the question of whether Churchill’s determination to keep fighting in 1940 was a prudent strategic choice. Alan Clark, the maverick Tory politician, sometime military historian, and high-living rake, penned a scathing indictment of Churchill’s motivations, judgment, and actions in rejecting Hitler’s offers of peace. Clark contended: “There were several occasions when a rational leader could have got first reasonable then excellent terms from Germany.” By making peace, Clark believed, Britain would have preserved the Empire and avoided British abasement before the United States.
To judge Churchill’s refusal to negotiate with Hitler as not rational is decidedly odd and hard to fathom. To be sure, Churchill ran calculated risks when confronted by war’s uncertainties. There are few certainties in war. In addition, there can be no denying that emotions ran high during the crisis of year of 1940. How could it have been otherwise? Churchill, too, publicly admitted to holding the view that it was better to “die than submit to tyranny—and such a tyranny.” Still, in confronting the uncertainties inherent in war’s nature, Churchill soberly analyzed the prospect for success in the fight with Germany. He received hardheaded strategic assessments from the military chiefs, canvassed political and public opinion, and listened to opposing points of view in reaching a decision. Churchill showed judgment borne of experience as well as passionate attachment to the cause of destroying a dangerous evil.
Churchill’s long experience in holding high office provided him with a sure appreciation of Britain’s requirement to beat Germany. As Britain’s Minister of Munitions during the First World War, Churchill maintained: “There are only two ways left now of winning the war, and they both begin with A. One is aeroplanes and the other is America.” Churchill would carry over from the First World War to the Second Armageddon this conviction that Britain’s search for security would be found in both air power and the special trans-Atlantic partnership with the United States.
In wagering that Britain could withstand the German air onslaught, the odds favored Churchill. While Britain’s leaders had been slow to rearm during the 1930s, they nonetheless did invest enough to defend the air and maritime commons over and around the British homeland. On the other side of the Channel, Germany had not prepared for the scenario of an invasion of Britain. The German air force found it difficult to gain air superiority over southern England. Getting across the Channel against the Royal Navy’s opposition would have entailed a formidable risk, even if Germany had achieved greater success in the air battle. Furthermore, the aura of Hitler’s invincibility would have been broken if Germany suffered a dramatic failure in an invasion attempt. If defeated, Germany also would have suffered the loss of valuable air and ground assets, weakening its overall strategic position.
What about American intervention in support of Britain, the other great known unknown? This question posed a difficult problem for assessment. The American public wanted to avoid having to send an expeditionary force across the Atlantic to fight on European battlefields, as had occurred a generation before during the First World War. Even funneling arms and supplies to Britain polarized the American public and produced dissent within the government. In Roosevelt, Churchill had a strategic partner who saw as clearly as he did the danger posed by Nazi Germany. Roosevelt understood that strategic necessity would cause the United States to come out eventually from the Western Hemisphere and deploy American power to Europe. He wanted to sustain Britain in the war until America was fully mobilized and public opinion came around to the view that the United States must fight to destroy the Nazi regime.
The reelection of Roosevelt in November 1940 practically guaranteed American participation in the war. Even before his reelection, Roosevelt openly acted to aid Britain’s defense. After Roosevelt’s reelection, he moved forward with Lend Lease and American naval support for Britain. Before America’s entry into the war, Roosevelt also pushed for close collaboration between Britain and the United States to develop nuclear weapons. The Second World War witnessed the first nuclear arms race. Churchill and Roosevelt were determined to cross the nuclear finish line before Hitler. The odds, then, favored Churchill in this strategic wager only because Roosevelt was president. If Roosevelt had made a different choice, opting for Hemispheric Defense over a trans-Atlantic partnership, Churchill and Britain would have lost.
In weighing the odds, Churchill never sought to dismiss the danger or difficulty involved in fighting for the destruction of Hitler’s tyranny. He understood full well that, in putting a great-power adversary’s regime on death ground, victory would entail a hideously high price in lives lost, treasure expended, and bombed cities. The abject failure of appeasement, however, forced Britain into war against a well-armed enemy, driven by a ferocious leader and regime. In weighing the strategic choices before Britain, Churchill recognized that an enduring peace required nothing less than the final destruction of a great evil. Churchill warned that either the world would move forward into broad, sunlit uplands or would sink into a new sinister and perverted dark age. By staying in the fight in 1940, Britain under Churchill’s leadership championed the cause of freedom and bought time for American democracy to rescue the Old World from a monstrous tyranny.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.
 Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War, vol. 1: The Gathering Storm (Boston: Houghton Mifflin paperback edition, 1985), p. 601.
 Kennedy diary entry, May 16, 1940, in Amanda Smith, ed., Hostage to Fortune: The Letters of Joseph P. Kennedy (New York: Viking, 2001), pp. 427-428.
 “Cato,” Guilty Men (London: Penguin paperback edition, 1998). The original printing of this famous polemic appeared in July 1940. “Cato” was the pseudonym for the three journalists and political activists Michael Foot, Frank Owen, and Peter Howard.
 Winston Churchill, “Socialism and Sham,” and “Socialist Quackery,” in Michael Wolff, ed., The Collected Essays of Sir Winston Churchill (London: Library of Imperial History, 1976), vol. 2. In 1945, after the defeat of Nazi Germany, the Labour Party would resign from the coalition government and demand a general election. Churchill wanted to keep the coalition government in power until after the defeat of Japan. Labour’s refusal led in July 1945 to a general election, in which they achieved a landslide victory, ousting Churchill and the Conservatives from office. Thus, Labour paved the way for Churchill to come into power in 1940 and pushed him out five years later.
 Andrew Roberts, Churchill: Walking with Destiny (New York: Viking, 2018), p. 512.
 CAB 63/13, W.M. 142 (40), May 27, 1940, National Archives, Kew Gardens.
 For an even-handed account of Lord Halifax’s views and actions during the spring of 1940, see Andrew Roberts, ‘The Holy Fox’: The Life of Lord Halifax (London: Phoenix Giant paperback edition, 1997), pp. 210-237.
 Dalton diary entry, May 28, 1940, in Ben Pimlott, ed., The Second World War Diary of Hugh Dalton, 1940-1945 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1986), p. 28.