by Carl J. Ciovacco
Because of his vision and courage in taking unpopular positions when necessary, Churchill was able to lead his nation and the West in navigating successfully through the perils of the first half of the twentieth century, this essay argues. Will a similarly visionary and courageous leader emerge to help guide our course today? – Ed.
There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.
− Alexander Ledru-Rollin, French politician
There are only a handful of leaders throughout history who have possessed both sound vision and internal fortitude in the face of international calamity and public pressure. Without their pivotal guidance, the modern era would have emerged much differently.
Winston Churchill is one such extraordinary leader. His steadfast pronouncements of his beliefs despite unpopularity at times are now regarded as insightful, discerning, and genius. While listening to and embracing public sentiment has its merit – and often its rewards – in a political election, basing statecraft on this sentiment is dangerous, since it is often reactionary and lacks the foresight that visionary leaders must provide. Churchill’s strategic intelligence bypassed the human tendencies of groupthink, and provided him the wherewithal to guide Britain’s future based on a long-term vision.
The representative form of leadership is fundamental to democracy; however, the trustee type of leadership is essential for heads of state or government, who are charged with both protecting the interests of their people and providing a vision for their shared future. In times of crisis, the need for visionary leadership is magnified because groupthink and the popular tendency to live in the moment can often muddle the decision-making process.
Churchill is one of Britain’s greatest leaders because he embraced the trustee form of leadership and voiced an unpopular position even when the public lambasted him for it. His resoluteness in not surrendering to Germany in 1940, when other leaders such as Chamberlain and Halifax most likely would have, demonstrates strict adherence to his vision in extreme circumstances. While this is perhaps his most celebrated feat, three less-publicized decisions also demonstrate this vision in the face of adversity:
- His disagreement with the Treaty of Versailles’ harsh reparations against Germany,
- His opposition to the appeasement of Germany in 1938, and
- His desire to keep Germany as a viable actor at the end of WWII to counter the Soviets.
Churchill was an adept politician who held office as both a Liberal and Conservative Party member. He was well grounded in his views of the world and always found a political party that agreed with his outlook on life. He began in the early 1900s as a Conservative, and then transferred to the Liberal Party for nearly 20 years before finally returning to the Conservatives. Rising above party politics, he believed in the power of ideas instead of constraining his vision to that of the party platform.
Following WWI, Churchill did not toe his Liberal party’s line and spoke out against the prevailing public and political views regarding crushing Germany. In 1919, the British people wanted Germany to pay incredibly harsh reparations for its role in the war. As the Minister of Munitions in Lloyd George’s War Cabinet, Churchill bucked his party by furthering the idea that untenable demands on Germany would be deleterious to Britain’s future by instilling in the Germans an intense desire for revenge and weakening Germany’s deterrence against Soviet aggression. Churchill understood both basic human nature and the more complex Bismarckian power balancing act of Europe. To this end, he strongly opposed the British desire to avenge their own losses and embarrass the German people. He wanted to “get Germany on her legs again.” Perhaps if Churchill’s views were adopted and the Treaty of Versailles had been a more benign document, the ascension of radical elements in Germany, leading to WWII, would not have been a foregone conclusion.
When Chamberlain appeased Hitler in Munich in 1938, Churchill again challenged the sentiment of the British people and politicians. Whereas directly following WWI, when the national attitude was to kick Germany when it was down, by the late 1930s the thought of going to war a second time in 20 years transfixed the British into treating Germany with kid gloves. Again running contrary to public and political sentiment, Churchill cautioned Parliament against its willing subjugation to Germany’s “goodwill or pleasure.” Much can be said to support Churchill’s hard-line stance against Germany in the late 1930s vis-à-vis human rights and self-determination, but also more strategically, the appeasement that he opposed was a devastating blow to the Allies’ ability to reign in Hitler. Not only did appeasement lead to Germany seizing resource-rich Czechoslovakia and Poland, but it also provided two additional years for the Nazi war machine to grow and prosper.
The third occasion of Churchill’s insightful deviation from public opinion was near the end of WWII after Germany’s defeat was imminent. Popular sentiment again was to destroy Germany once and for all. Churchill, however, was strongly opposed to this Carthage-like demolition. He shelved personal views and put emotionally-driven revenge aside and understood the larger picture of balancing world powers. Churchill needed Germany to help offset the tide of Soviet expansion. In his words, he did “not want to be left alone in Europe with the bear [Russia].” He once again rose above the popular sentiment of tilling salt into the German soil by advocating for its protection in order to shield Western Europe from Soviet expansion.
Churchill’s ability to resist the winds of popular sentiment allowed him to make unbiased decisions about the future of his country. Whether he was the head of state or just a cog in the political machine, he preached a vision and was unfettered by what others thought of him. He possessed a rare talent to see how current events would impact his country’s future, almost as Otto von Bismarck foresaw events in his time playing out as the “logic of history.” When pressure within his political party was too great, he simply changed parties and drove on with his duty to protect Britain. To defy public sentiment and buck the party line takes immense courage. Britain, and indeed the entire world, was fortunate to have a statesman like Churchill to show us the meaning of this courage and navigate through the tumultuous first half of the twentieth century.
As we plot a course through the first half of the twenty-first century, will we be fortunate enough to have a courageous, visionary Churchillian leader or the fickle likes of Alexander Ledru-Rollin, following his people over the cliff’s edge?
Carl J. Ciovacco is a defense and national security specialist. He holds a Masters from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a Bachelors from West Point. He wrote his graduate thesis on al Qaeda’s media strategy with the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. He has also served multiple tours in Saudi Arabia and Iraq as an Army officer.