The Corner

9/11 Commission, Churchill, and Finger-Pointing

Sir Martin Gilbert’s Winston Churchill’s War Leadership–an excellent little book – discusses how Churchill refused to engage in recriminations when he assumed the Prime Minister’s position at Britain’s darkest hour.

When he formed his government on 10 May 1940, Churchill was confronted by near outrage among some of his closest friends and allies for giving high position to former adversaries, including those who had kept him out of office and had belittled his policies on the eve of war. Churchill was emphatic in his reply. “As for me,” he wrote to one pre-war adversary who had apologized for his role in trying to remove Churchill from Parliament, “the past is dead.” Two days before he became Prime Minister, during the debate in the House of Commons when Chamberlain’s leadership and Churchill’s conduct of the Norwegian Campaign were both under attack, Churchill appealed to his fellow parliamentarians in these words: “I say, let pre-war feuds die; let personal quarrels be forgotten, and let us keep our hatreds for the common enemy. Let Party interests be ignored, let all our energies be harnessed, let the whole ability and forces of the nation be hurled into the struggle, and let the strong horses be pulling on the collar.

Three months later, as Prime Minister, he was to reiterate this theme with even greater force. After describing the recriminations between France and Britain on the eve of the fall of France as well as the neglect by the pre-war British government to provide an adequate army for fighting on the continent, he told the House of Commons:

I am not reciting these facts for the purpose of recrimination. That, I judge, to be utterly futile and even harmful. We cannot afford it. I recite them in order to explain why it was that we did not have, as we could have had, between twelve and fourteen British divisions fighting in the line in this great battle instead of only three. Now I put all this aside. I put it on the shelf, from which the historians, if they have time, will select their documents and tell their stories. We have to think of the future and not of the past. This applies in a small way to our own affairs at home. There are too many who would hold an inquest in the House of Commons on the conduct of the Governments – and of Parliaments, for they are in it too – during the years which led up to this catastrophe. They seek to indict those who were responsible for the guidance of our affairs. This would also be a foolish and pernicious process. There are too many in it. Let each man search his conscience and search his speeches. I frequently search mine.

Churchill further warned that “if we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future.” His position won out, and the unity he forged (and forced) played no small role in Britain’s eventual victory. And now for the obvious: All of such is merits our reflection in the light of the 9/11 Commission’s grandstanding and partisan blame-gaming.

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