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War and Words: Winston Churchill

July 5, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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WINSTON CHURCHILL: Our air power will continue to teach the German homeland that war is not all loot and triumph.

JEFFREY BROWN: Winston Churchill, it was said, “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.” An exhibition at the Library of Congress tells the story of this man of action and his relationship with the United States. And it is his words that most stand out. He wrote throughout his long life– letters, news dispatches, volumes of history and memoir. He’s perhaps best remembered for his powerful wartime speeches, rousing his country to resist Hitler, calling on the U.S. to join the fight.

WINSTON CHURCHILL: We shall not fail or falter. We shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down. Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.

JEFFREY BROWN: On the page, you can see Churchill’s squiggles and cross-outs, even the way he constructed a speech. Daun Van Ee is the exhibition’s curator. This is actually how he wrote out his speeches?

DAUN VAN EE: Yes, all of them were set out as he read them in what he called “psalm” form, like a psalm from the bible, almost poetry. In this way he could get the right emphasis and he could pause at the places where he wanted to pause. He could have exactly the kind of rhythm and the cadence that he wanted.

WINSTON CHURCHILL: We shall aid and stir the people of every conquered country to resistance and revolt. We shall break up and derange every effort which Hitler makes to systematize and consolidate his subjugation. He will find no peace, no rest, no halting place, no parlay. And if driven to desperate hazards, he attempts an invasion of the British Isles, as well he may, we shall not flinch from the supreme trial.

JEFFREY BROWN: “This was their finest hour”: It’s got to be one of the most famous lines in the history of oratory.

DAUN VAN EE: June 18, 1940, right after the Nazis had conquered France, Churchill made this speech bracing the British people to their duties, as he put it, “let us therefore…”

WINSTON CHURCHILL: …Therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British empire and its commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “this was their finest hour.”

DAUN VAN EE: It was very inspirational. It was also directed in part at an American audience because, you know, he says that, you know, the United States also has a stake in this. If Britain goes under, the United States will go under.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, Churchill’s pairing of war and words went back to his youth. As an ambitious young man in India and Africa, he won fame both as a soldier and dashing war correspondent. For much of his life, his writing and lectures helped support his lavish lifestyle. In 1900, for example, he talked his way through part of the United States, recording his earnings as he went. As a wartime leader, he called upon his lifelong experience with language, says his granddaughter, Celia Sandys.

CEILA SANDYS: He thought out every sentence very carefully and rehearsed them and practiced them and wanted to make sure that he left them with the message that he intended.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sandys runs a consulting business called Churchill Leadership. She gave a lecture at the Library of Congress during our visit and talked to us about her grandfather’s way with words.

CELIA SANDYS: These speeches were not rustled up. They weren’t written for him. He had many, many people researching and bringing him all the facts that he wanted, but the speeches were always his. I’ve spoken to many of his secretaries, who used to sit there night after night taking dictation either with a pencil or a pad or with a typewriter where the keys were muffled so they didn’t make a sound to distract him.

JEFFREY BROWN: And then he would practice the speeches over and over?

CELIA SANDYS: Absolutely, yes, and he would even practice mistakes that he would make. For instance, when he went to Harvard to receive an honorary degree, he said the “infernal combustion engine” and he quickly corrected it to the “internal combustion engine.” But his secretary told me that she’d heard him practicing the mistake on the train coming up from Washington.

JEFFREY BROWN: ( Laughs ) He knew a good mistake when he heard it.

CELIA SANDYS: Absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: On Dec. 26, 1941, Churchill addressed the U.S. Congress, at a low point for his country and ours.

WINSTON CHURCHILL: It is not given to us to peer into the mysteries of the future. Still I avow my hope and faith, sure and inviolate, that in the days to come, the British and American people will for their own safety and for the good of all walk together in majesty, in justice, and in peace. ( Applause )

JEFFREY BROWN: Peace was years away, but it came. In his later years, Churchill would write a six-volume history of the war and many other works. In recognition of his writing and oratory, Winston Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1953. He died in 1965 at age 90.