Remembering A Great Speech, And A Great Man

Today is the anniversary of one of Winston Churchill’s greatest speeches.  That’s saying something, because the indomitable Churchill — for all his faults and eccentricities and excesses — had a special, unique ability to turn a phrase and galvanize a people.

8ec76852803822411c294f54f33ec32d-1000x1000x1On June 4, 1940, Churchill rose to address the British House of Commons and the British nation.  His speech came in the immediate aftermath of the evacuation of British and some French forces from Dunkirk, in the face of overwhelming odds and the armed might of the German Werhmacht.  He reported to the House on the miracle at Dunkirk — for a miracle it truly was — but also recognized the need to address the terrible predicament created by the Nazi blitzkrieg.  Great Britain’s principal ally, France, had seen its forces routed and its supposedly impregnable Maginot Line bypassed and was on the brink of surrender.  The United States, with Pearl Harbor still more than a year away, was neutral, and the Soviet Union had made a devil’s bargain with Hitler and was, for the moment at least, Germany’s ally.

Great Britain stood alone against the Nazi juggernaut, and Churchill recognized that bombing of the British Isles, and an eventual invasion, were a virtual certainty.  How would the British people, having just absorbed one of the most devastating beatings in the history of the British Empire, react to that prospect?  Churchill knew that he had to rally them somehow, and he used his June 4 remarks to achieve that goal.  The conclusion of his remarks, where he addresses the prospect of continued struggle, is one of the greatest, most inspiring feats of oratory in the history of the English language:

“I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our Island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone. At any rate, that is what we are going to try to do. That is the resolve of His Majesty’s Government-every man of them. That is the will of Parliament and the nation. The British Empire and the French Republic, linked together in their cause and in their need, will defend to the death their native soil, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of their strength. Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. 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.”

Note the reference to the United States in the last sentence.  Fifty-eight years ago today, Churchill knew that he would ultimately need our help — and eventually he got it.

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Five Pfennig Found

Some people who buy old houses find treasure — caches of money, bearer bonds, or jewelry squirreled away beneath floorboards, behind a loose block in the basement, or in a secret compartment in the attic.  Unfortunately, we haven’t found anything remotely like that in our new house — which actually is an old house, built in the early 1900s.

IMG_4802We have, however, found a 5 pfennig coin.  It was issued in 1950 by the Bundesrepublik Deutschland, or the Federal Republic of Germany — that is, the Cold War era, pre-unification West Germany.  We do live in German Village now, after all, so finding an old German coin is apt.  It makes me wonder if perhaps one of the former owners of this house took a trip back to the Fatherland in the years after World War II, got this coin on his trip, and simply paid no attention to it when he found it in his pocket upon his return.

The pfennig was the equivalent of the penny in the years before Germany switched to Euro, and the pfennig and the penny are linguistically related.  It’s also interesting, and a bit galling, that the value of German coins plummeted as of 1950, the year of our coin.  During the years immediately after the end of World War II, before the Federal Republic became the national government in 1949, some German states got together and minted Deutches Lander coins that are of interest to collectors.  Once the Federal Republic took over, however, its coins became commonplace, so our 5 pfennig coin has no real value — except as blog fodder and a good luck charm.

If only our prior owner had returned to the homeland a few years earlier!

Things Have Changed, And Not For The Better

Peggy Noonan has a nice — and thought-provoking — piece in today’s on-line Wall Street Journal about Harry Truman after his presidency ended entitled “Politics in the Modest Age.”  I urge you to read it, but the basic thrust is this:  Truman didn’t cash in.

He had been president for almost eight years, had brought World War II to a close, and had presided over the Marshall Plan; he had issued executive orders, launched into the Korean War, and guided the federal government during the first crises of the Cold War.  He was an ordinary man who had been a fine President, and after his term ended he tried to go back to an ordinary life.  He returned to Missouri and lived with his beloved wife, Bess, highly conscious of not being perceived as trading on his office or his service to the nation.

Contrast Truman’s humble approach 60 years ago to the prevailing approach today, where ex-President and ex-Senators and ex-Cabinet members make millions by giving hour-long speeches, serving on boards, and writing biographies that receive huge advances.  The culture of cash goes deep: just yesterday Politico reported that Jay Carney, President Obama’s former press secretary, received a “signing bonus” to join a speakers bureau where he could earn up to $100,000 per speech; he’s entertaining job offers and has hired a Washington, D.C. “super lawyer” to negotiate any deals.  What does it tell you when even the President’s flack can leave office and be showered with money?

We could use more Harry Trumans and less money-grubbers in Washington, D.C.

R.I.P. Louis Zamperini

We all hope to live lives that are full and interesting.  Louis Zamperini, who died last week at the ripe age of 97, sets a standard to which the rest of us can only aspire.  If you’ve read the best-selling book Unbroken:  A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, about Zamperini’s life, you know what I mean.

Zamperini was a juvenile delinquent, then a champion runner at USC, then a member of the fabled 1936 U.S. Olympic team that competed in Nazi Germany and saw Jesse Owens achieve immortality.  Then Zamperini fought nobly in World War II, was shot down over the Pacific, somehow survived weeks on a raft that floated hundreds of miles before reaching land on a Japanese-occupied island, and then lived through brutal treatment in a prison camp.  His story reads like the over-the-top plot of a movie, but it’s true — and the movie will be released later this year.

Leonard Pitts has written one of many appreciations of this fine man, who exemplified so many of the traits of the Americans known as The Greatest Generation.  A slightly different take on Zamperini’s life, and the role religion played in the “redemption” part of his story, can be found at National Review Online.  You can’t help but be inspired by the story of an average American who did extraordinary things — and you can’t help but wonder how many average Americans, put in the same circumstances, could have done the same.

President Reagan’s D-Day Speeches

Ronald Reagan died 10 years ago today.  Some thought he was a great President, others had the opposite view.  But almost everyone agrees — whatever you thought of his politics, the man could deliver a great speech.

Two of Reagan’s finest speeches were given on the same day:  June 6, 1984, as the President, many surviving soldiers, and a host of others commemorated the 40th anniversary of D-Day.  Many people remember the terrific speech about the boys of Pointe du Hoc, the Rangers who scaled the sheer cliffs of Normandy to begin the process of liberating the European continent.  Fewer are aware of the equally moving speech Reagan gave later that day, about one daughter’s promise to a father who survived D-Day but was unable to return to the battlefields to place flowers at the graves of his fallen comrades.

The Wall Street Journal has republished both speeches here, to mark the anniversary of Reagan’s death.  At a time when we seem in search of heroes, they are worth a read.

Cabinet War Rooms

036In the late 1930s, when war with Nazi Germany became increasingly certain, an employee of the British government was tasked with developing a safe underground complex from which the British government could conduct the impending conflict. The result of his work was the Cabinet War Rooms — or, because they became known by the name of the man who led Great Britain during the conflict, the Churchill War Rooms.

The rooms were locked after victory was achieved in 1945 and left undisturbed for years. Knowledge of the rooms was still restricted, but tours of the rooms were given to some VIPs, who were fascinated and urged that the rooms be made available to the public. As a result, the Cabinet War Rooms were opened to the public. Yesterday Richard and I paid a visit to the rooms, and it was like walking back in time.

031The War Rooms are located in the basement of a government building a block or so away from 10 Downing Street. The museum itself allows you to walk through the complex, looking at the tiny bedrooms and dining rooms and offices of the people who worked there, the map rooms with different colored yarn to denote Allied and Axis positions, and the offices where different colored phones linked the Prime Minister and head of British armed forces to the various branches of the British military. The entire facility very much has the feel (and faint smell) of a place that was locked when it was no longer needed and left undisturbed for years. It’s wonderful stuff for a history buff.

025One of the nicer aspects of the Cabinet War Rooms was a display at the beginning that showed pictures, correspondence, and in some instances video interview footage of the average British people who worked at this top-secret facility as secretaries, messengers, or code readers. These people kept the precise location and nature of their work a secret for years, risked injury and death by being at the center of London during the Blitz, and then went back to their regular lives after the war ended. It’s heartening to see that their important contributions to the Allied cause were recognized.

The Cabinet War Rooms also include a Winston Churchill museum that provides information about the brilliant and inspirational speaker who led Great Britain for most of the war, before being voted out of office shortly before Japan surrendered. Churchill’s speeches, uniforms, odd work habits, and relations with other world leaders are all addressed in the museum, which would be worth visiting on its own merits.

The Manhattan Project, The Apollo Space Program, and Healthcare.gov

Today the Obama Administration announced that 106,185 people have “selected” health insurance since the Affordable Care Act took effect on October 1, about 20 percent of the Administration’s stated goal for October.  The much-maligned Healthcare.gov website performed even worse than expected — fewer than 27,000 people used it to sign up for coverage.

In an odd way, the Affordable Care Act seems to be knocking down some of the political barriers between Americans.  Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, tea partiers and progressives alike are scratching their heads about where things went wrong.  I don’t diminish the technological challenges of developing a website for the Affordable Care Act — I couldn’t do it — but commercial entities manage to develop websites that are nimble, easy to use, and capable of handling far more volume than has been handled by Healthcare.gov.  Why couldn’t the government do so?

Some people are suggesting that maybe the Affordable Care Act is showing that government simply is not well suited to managing massive and sprawling projects.  That notion, I think, is completely belied by history.

During the 1940s, the United States somehow managed to successfully fight a two-front overseas war, raise and equip the largest army in the nation’s history, and turn a depressed economy into an awesome engine that produced staggering amounts of planes, tanks, jeeps, battleships, and other implements of war.  It topped off the World War II years by single-handedly, and in great secrecy, unlocking the destructive force of atomic power and figuring out how to use that power in weapons capable of leveling entire cities.

Two decades later, in response to a challenge from a new President, the United States built a space program from the ground up, conquered countless engineering problems involved in protecting humans unscathed from the unforgiving environment of space, and devised the rocket systems, docking systems, computers, space capsules, and space suits necessary to send men to the Moon, allow them to romp on the lunar surface, and return them safely to planet Earth.

The Manhattan Project and the Apollo space program were far more complicated and challenging than building a functioning website that would allow people to shop for health insurance coverage and sign up when they have found a plan they like.  Are people who wonder whether our government is capable of handling large-scale tasks really saying that intrinsic limitations in the capabilities of our government mean we couldn’t successfully complete the Manhattan Project or the Apollo program these days?

I just don’t buy it.  The history of America shows that government can perform admirably on big jobs, and I don’t think Americans or their capabilities have changed for the worse since the 1940s or the 1960s.  The problem isn’t the government or its structure, the problem is who was running the show and managing the effort.  Could the President’s falling approval ratings be a reflection of the fact that more and more people are coming to that conclusion?