Winston Churchill's speeches were overrated and some 'went down badly'

Discussion in 'Historiography' started by dbf, Aug 31, 2013.

  1. dbf

    dbf Moderatrix MOD
    By Jasper Copping4:10PM BST 20 Aug 2013

    They are credited with having galvanised the nation during its darkest hour, and helping to sow the seeds of the ultimate victory over the Nazis.

    But the impact of the wartime speeches of Winston Churchill has been vastly overstated and they were poorly received by many, an academic has claimed.

    Professor Richard Toye conducted research into the impact of the then prime minister’s orations by analysing responses to them from the time.

    In his findings, he has challenged the accepted view that the speeches were received enthusiastically and were a decisive influence on the nation’s willingness to fight on against Hitler.
    Rather, he claims, the works generated more controversy and criticism that historians have previously thought.

    Professor Toye, from the University of Exeter, found that many listeners even thought Churchill was drunk during one of his “Finest Hour” speech, one of his best known, which was given on June 18 1940, at the time of the fall of France.

    The research, presented in a new book, The Roar Of The Lion, covered the dozens of speeches given by Churchill during the war. Some were broadcast, while others were reported in the press.
    Prof Toye assessed reactions to the speeches by studying diaries collected by the social research group Mass Observation, which aimed to record everyday life by asking volunteers to record their opinions and experiences, as well as of those of people around them.

    He also analysed the Ministry of Information’s “Home Intelligence” reports, which monitored aspects of the public’s morale, including reactions to the way politicians presented the progress of the war.

    Prof Toye said Churchill’s speeches had since become part of a treasured national myth, and that this had obscured the fact that they often caused disappointment and criticism.

    The academic found that a survey carried out after Churchill’s first broadcast speech as prime minister, “Be Ye Men of Valour”, on 19 May 1940, found it was considered inspiring by half or respondents and depressing by the other half.

    “It has been too much a part of the national story for people to look to closely at this,” he said. “People have made broad brush conclusions about the impact of the speeches, without much evidence.

    “Large numbers did feel inspired by his speeches, but a much bigger body of people had a different reaction. This story of near unanimity in the reactions to his speeches is incorrect.
    “People think that everyone was inspired and were suddenly ready to go out and fight Germans. In fact, more were critical than you’d expect.”

    He added: “Many people thought that he was drunk during his famous ‘finest hour’ broadcast and there is little evidence that (the speeches) made a decisive difference to the British people’s will to fight on.”

    He went on: “The speeches weren’t so uplifting. Some went down very badly.”

    Part of the reason for this, Prof Toye claims, was that Churchill was giving a more honest assessment of the war and the length of time it would last, than the population had previously been given, and that this was a difficult message to take.

    However, the historian also argues that there was also a sizeable section of the population who were critical of Churchill’s leadership. Although opinion polls from the time showed very high support for the prime minister, Prof Toye argues that the Mass Observation diaries, in particular, give a truer reflection of attitudes.

    “There was peer group pressure in opinion polls, to give what you thought was the socially acceptable answer,” he added.

    Prof Toye said the ambiguous response to Churchill’s orations helped explain his defeat in the 1945 General Election.

    “There is this assumption that everyone thought he was a brilliant war leader but didn’t want him for the peace. Actually, there was more criticism of his war leadership at the time that we think now.”

    One of the most vivid responses to a speech found in the archives was written by a journalist who had joined the Army and had recorded the comments of his friend George, 24, from south London.
    As George listened to Churchill’s speech on the fall of Singapore in February 1942, he reportedly said: “F------ b-------. Get on with it. What a f------ cover-up. Any normal person could see it’s just pulling the wool over their eyes.”

    Although Churchill wrote his own speeches he would often take advice from government departments which sometimes led him to tone them down or make adjustments.

    Prof Toye said Churchill’s “We shall fight them on the beaches” speech of June 1940 was influenced by William Philip Simms, the pro-British foreign editor of the Scripps-Howard chain of American newspapers.

    There was concern that the US would not enter the war, so Simms provided suggestions on the language needed to maximise American sympathies for the British.

    Prof Toye's research found that, to scotch a growing belief that the Allies could not take much more punishment, Simms argued that the prime minister should say something like: “We intend to fight this thing through to a finish and to victory however long it may take ... Come what may, Britain will not flinch ... We, over here, know full well that difficult times are ahead ... We have taken the measure of our foe.

    “Knowing all that, we are in it and in it to stay. The proposition is simple: It is whether the kind of world we know in Scandinavia, the Low Countries, Britain and the Americas is to survive, or whether most of the progress made by human kind since the Dark Ages is to be wiped out. For her part Britain intends to fight until Germany’s power for evil has been broken. Give in - never.”
    Simms knew Churchill would use his own phraseology.

    Prof Toye said that in terms of structure the similarities between that passage and Churchill’s speech - with its repetition of “We shall” - was striking. “The ‘fight them on the beaches’ speech was delivered in the House of Commons,” Prof Toye said.

    “It was never broadcast, though it was reported on the BBC by an announcer and quoted in the press. However, people claim to remember having heard this famous speech from June 1940, even though they hadn’t. It was recorded for posterity along with others of his wartime speeches nine years later.”
  2. dbf

    dbf Moderatrix MOD
    By Robert Colvile8:53PM BST 21 Aug 2013

    As a new book doubts the role of Winston Churchill’s rhetoric in galvanising the nation, we argue that a great speech still has the power to change the world

    It is one of our most cherished national myths: Britain, standing alone in the darkest days of the Second World War, sustained only by the rhetoric, passion and willpower of its greatest prime minister. In the words of William Rees-Mogg, recalling a childhood spent glued to the radio, Churchill’s speeches “persuaded the country as a whole that the Nazi regime was wholly evil; that there could be no security in surrender”. In doing so, “they saved Britain and, through Britain, they saved the world”.

    Except that, according to Richard Toye, a history professor from the University of Exeter, it didn’t happen that way at all. In The Roar of the Lion, his new book on Churchill’s wartime speeches, he argues that, for all the rhetorical flourishes, “there is little evidence that they made a decisive difference to the British people’s will to fight”. During the “finest hour” speech, delivered on June 18 1940, in the wake of France’s surrender, many thought the prime minister was drunk (perhaps because he delivered the text, a copy of his speech that day to Parliament, while working his way through a large cigar). The Labour MP Harold Nicolson thought Churchill sounded “ghastly”. Cecil King, the newspaper baron, considered it “the poorest possible effort”.

    In general, the reviews were kinder, but Toye has something of a point. While a solid majority of the population did tune in to Churchill’s speeches on the radio, what they were listening for were his all-important – and surprisingly honest – updates on the progress of the war, which actually formed the bulk of the content. The high-flown oratory, they could take or leave.

    It’s one of our most cherished ideas that a single person can, by words alone, change the course of history. But it happens much less often than you might think. Roosevelt’s “fireside chats”, for example, were long thought to have rallied the American nation during the Depression. But, in his recent book On Deaf Ears: the Limits of the Bully Pulpit, George Edwards insists that their effect has been exaggerated, not least since FDR gave only two or three such talks a year. Even then, his radio addresses failed to add more than a percentage point to his approval rating.

    It takes nothing away from Churchill’s rhetorical genius to point out that many speeches, his included, aren’t so much born great as become so. Real life isn’t like the conclusion of The King’s Speech, with everyone from the humblest urchin to the grandest toff listening to their leader in silent rapture. There will always be those in the audience who aren’t interested, or have better things to do. Yet somehow, sometimes, the words strike a chord, one that reverberates more and more strongly as the years go by.

    Take probably the most famous political speech in history: the Gettysburg Address. At just over two minutes, it is a model of miraculous concision (so much so that my English teacher once challenged us to find a single surplus phrase; no one could). But initially, the reviews were mixed, partly because of its very brevity.

    While newspapers loyal to Lincoln’s Republicans cheered it to the skies, those who supported the opposition were less kind. “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States,” said The Chicago Times. Its namesake in London – displaying its traditional good judgment – claimed that “the ceremony was rendered ludicrous by some of the sallies of that poor President Lincoln. Anything more dull and commonplace it would not be easy to produce.”

    How, then, did it enter the history books? Partly because people came to recognise the perfection of its structure. And partly through repetition and circulation, which can be all-important. For instance, Lincoln rose to fame via his pre-Civil War election debates over slavery with Stephen Douglas. But for all Lincoln’s oratory, it was Douglas who won their race for the Senate. It was the wider publicity fuelled by Lincoln’s publication of edited transcripts of the debates – which became a huge best-seller – that led to his nomination for president.
    Another golden rule is that a speech has to be given at the right moment – and by the right side. Queen Elizabeth’s greatest act of oratory came when she dressed herself in armour and paraded before the troops at Tilbury, pronouncing that, while she might have the body of a weak and feeble woman, “I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too.” The cheers were real, and heartfelt – but it greatly helped matters that the Armada had already been dispersed by storms.

    Of course, it would be stretching matters to argue that victory is all that matters. If Iain Duncan Smith had won a landslide victory in 2005, or Neil Kinnock in 1992, we would not be talking about “the quiet man is here to stay, and he’s turning up the volume” or “We’re awright!” as the new “Blood, toil, sweat and tears”.

    No, the speeches that become part of the warp and weft of our history, like Churchill’s and Lincoln’s, do so because they reflect values and ideals that we cherish today. Elizabeth’s address at Tilbury, like its fictional echo in Henry V (“Cry God for Harry, England and St George!”) still stirs the blood because we still love our country. Churchill’s speech defending Operation Catapult, which saw the Royal Navy wipe out the French fleet lest it fall into German hands, was – as Prof Toye points out – every bit as well-known in 1940 as “Fight them on the beaches” et al. Because it fails to fit into the preferred narrative, it has dropped off the radar.

    Yet sometimes, even today, a speech cuts through the chatter – is so powerful, and so stirring, that even those listening at the time know that they have heard something extraordinary. Starting with his speech to the Democratic convention in 2004, in which he castigated the division of America into red states and blue states, Barack Obama rode to the presidency on a wave of words that felt immediate, clear and absolutely right. Brian MacArthur, editor of the Penguin Book of Modern Speeches, also cites Earl Spencer’s speech in Westminster Abbey over the catafalque of his dead sister. It was, he says, “so deeply felt that the masses outside the Abbey started applauding – before the sound of the applause penetrated the Abbey and the congregation joined in”.

    When lightning does strike, it is an experience that few forget. Reviews for John F Kennedy’s inaugural address, in which he urged Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you”, were universally rapturous. And then there was Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, delivered 50 years ago next week, on the steps – fittingly – of the Lincoln Memorial.

    Yet even here, the myth has obscured the fact. The truth is that King’s speech that day was something of a dud: pulled together at the last minute, it was decent and workmanlike, but far from hitting his usual heights. Still, thought his adviser Wyatt Walker during the preparations, at least he hadn’t used that line about having a dream that he’d trotted out a few times before, without generating much enthusiasm. He’d told King: “It’s trite, it’s cliche. You’ve used it too many times already.” Then the draft of the speech was typed up.
    According to an article by Clarence Jones, one of King’s team, something magical happened. As King was reaching his peroration, “Martin’s favourite gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson… called to him from nearby: 'Tell ’em about the dream, Martin, tell ’em about the dream!’ ”

    “Martin clutched the speaker’s lectern and seemed to reset. I watched him push the text of his prepared remarks to one side. I knew this performance had just been given over to the spirit of the moment. I leaned over and said to the person next to me: 'These people out there today don’t know it yet, but they’re about ready to go to church.’ ” In front of his eyes, King transformed from teacher to preacher, abandoning his set text and speaking the words that would define his legacy: “I have a dream…”

    Kennedy died in 1963, and King in 1968. In so doing, their images, and their words, were frozen in time: symbols of inspiration untarnished by subsequent disappointment. For all Obama’s rhetorical gifts, it is strangely hard to associate him now with one single phrase: the simplicity of “Yes We Can” or the majesty of talk of “the moral arc of the universe” sit strangely alongside the weary compromises of governing.

    More broadly, the great speech sometimes seems to be an endangered species. In politics, the advent of television has led to the excision of passages in favour of devastating zingers, or verbless sentences. On American news programmes, the length of the average political soundbite has dropped from more than 40 seconds in the late Sixties to less than 10: perfect for “Where’s the beef?” or “Read my lips: no new taxes”, less so for “Four score and seven years ago…” In Britain, modern speeches are – according to Danny Kruger, a former speechwriter for David Cameron – “often just vehicles for a policy announcement or a soundbite”.

    We should not be too downheartened, however. We will never be rid of rhetoric, because it fulfils an eternal human need. And sometimes, in the hands of the right speaker, at the right time, it really can change the world.
  3. Tom Canning

    Tom Canning WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran

    ......and I await the next book from a so called academic that George Best was an incompetent football player as was Gascoine.....we live in an age where heroes are not too welcome

    and must be put in their rightful places......and the incompetents and "celebrities " are the new heroes......don't think there is much hope for us all...only bad moves of Churchill were in the early days

    when he thought he was a great strategist - Norway - Greece - Crete et al - took Alanbrooke a while to sort him out - THEN we started to win the war .... co incident with my joining the Army.....these

    books are jokes

  4. Ron Goldstein

    Ron Goldstein WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran Patron

    Re Prof.Toye

    Those that can, do

    Those that can't, strive to denigrate

  5. bofors

    bofors Senior Member

    well said Ron
  6. gmyles

    gmyles Senior Member

    I feel really sorry for anyone even attempting a degree in the future. How do you sort out the wheat from the chaff?

    Book publishers today are now so obsessed with mass sales, modern history books are now either unconvincingly over-hyped or depressingly over-critical.

  7. MarcD

    MarcD Grandson of Royal Engineer

    Us Brits love a good moan, so no doubt his speeches weren't met with enthusiasm by everyone at the time, and no he didn't have a great track record as a military strategist to that point, but his speeches had a very British tone to them. They were often restrained, underplayed, and perhaps a tad nonchalant, with a dogged determination close to the surface. I think most Brits can relate to those traits.
  8. Joe Brown

    Joe Brown WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran

    Well said, Ron!

    An extract from my War Memoirs, recalls at the time of Dunkirk my Battalion was holding an important and vulnerable defensive position around the River Blackwater on the East Coast, lying south of Clacton-on-Sea and north of Southend-on-Sea. It was thought to be a line of attack if the Germans landed on the east coast, either to attack London or by-pass it and cut it off from the rest of the country.

    Squatting in the slit trench where we spent most of our time, we occasionally switched the wireless receiver to pick up music but on the evening of 18 June 1940 we tuned in to hear the stirring words of Winston Churchill: "The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war". My partner and I just stared into the darkness and now more anxious than ever, watched the mined beach ahead. We accepted what Churchill had said, like we accepted the War, and silently hoped we could play our part when the time came.

    He was an inspirational leader: gave me the belief that no matter the odds we would win through.

    Joe Brown.
    4jonboy likes this.
  9. Drew5233

    Drew5233 #FuturePilot Patron 1940 Obsessive

    I actually listened to him being interviewed on the radio and what he said made sense to me, but what do I know, I wasn't there....Especially the bit where he predicted people misinterpreting his point and rubbishing his research. He had actually found documents from the National Archives (IIRC) that were written during the war by some government department to do with the popularity of Churchill, government and other politicians. It was these documents that showed that a significant portion of people surveyed during the war thought some of his speeches were depressing and that he was drunk etc.

    I wouldn't shot the messenger - I'd shoot the WW2 Vets and WW2 Civilians that were interviewed and said they didn't like him. Anyway he could have been that popular, they didn't vote for him after the war.

    I sometimes think what's the point of research as many seem to think that if it was written 50 years ago it must be fact and anything after that is lies and a waste of time.
  10. Joe Brown

    Joe Brown WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran


    It was coincident with me becoming a Second-Lieutenant!

  11. Drew5233

    Drew5233 #FuturePilot Patron 1940 Obsessive

    Seems you are agreeing with the author then? He is referring to the 'early days'.
  12. Ron Goldstein

    Ron Goldstein WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran Patron

    Dear Andy

    I am down on record as being an unequivocal admirer of Churchill, for numerous and certainly far too many reasons to enumerate here.

    Despite this, I was one of the returning servicemen who voted him out of office, with, I admit, much soul searching as to my motives in casting my vote.

    At the end of the day, my choice was strictly political and had nothing to do with the regard in which I held him, both as the man who kept our spirits so high during those terrible days of ww2 and his undoubted value as a wartime leader.

    Despite a common view on this forum that veterans have no appreciation of post-war research, my main objection to Professor Toye is not his age (his bio says he was born in 1973) but that he has opted to join this pernicious culture of denigration that blights my, no other words for it, final years.

    We will, I'm sure, talk more on this subject

  13. Tonym

    Tonym WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran

    Whatever ones political views of Churchill I can only say that thank god Edward VIII and Neville Chamberlain were replaced by George VI and Winston Churchill otherwise we would not be having this discussion now.

    With regard to Churchill losing the 1945 election, one of Labour's promises was to end conscription which I read at the time influenced the vote for a Labour lanslide victory but Churchill did come back!

  14. Blutto

    Blutto Plane Mad

    One of the few things that my father and I disagreed strongly on was a number of the actions of Winston S Churchill, both in war and peace time.

    What we did agree on, just as strongly, was his outstanding ability as a leader in crisis. A person who could effectively motivate the wartime populace when faced with dire consequences.

    My father experienced it first hand, whilst I had to rely upon reading and listening to recordings.

    I have no time for dreary academics publishing papers who evidently have done neither and seek pruely to promote controversy.

    I am also a fan of Magaret Thatcher - warts and all. As she did almost as good a job, although in somewhat lesser circumstances.
  15. Joe Brown

    Joe Brown WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran

    I was disappointed when the Tories were not elected to govern in the immediate post-War but in retrospect agree with the majority decision as the Attlee Government did a fine job in implementing the much-needed social reforms of National Health Service and the Beveridge Report .

    That he lost the General Election did not diminish the high regard I felt for Winston Churchill. After his death, his life and service to the Nation saluted with the highest honours that could be accorded to a valiant leader, I took an early opportunity to visit his grave at Blaydon - no great momument but a simpe resting place - and stood silently in tribute to a valiant Briton and that he had led us in the life-and-death struggle that faced my generation.

    Joe Brown.
  16. dbf

    dbf Moderatrix MOD

    I'd dare to suggest that the proposal set out by the author has less to do with Churchill himself and more to do with the perceptions of the people at the time.
    (Hence sources from mass observation, quotes by fellow politicians etc.)

    If we can accept the nuance that someone could admire the man and his achievements yet still not vote for him, then I think we might also be able to accept that an author might admire Churchill yet find source material which shows that not as many people in the UK, as is now perceived to be the case, appreciated his words and style of rhetoric - at the time.

    To paraphrase Joni Mitchell: You don't know what you've got till it's gone.
  17. Ron Goldstein

    Ron Goldstein WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran Patron


    Like yourself, I have paid my respects to Churchill at Bladon.

    It was not until years later that I read this story told by Loopy Kennard about his funerall.

    I think it worth re-telling.

    This, from "Loopy"-The autobiography of George Kennard who was my last OC in the 4th QOH:

    When Churchill was buried at Bladon the coffin was borne, by his request, by bearers from his own Regiment (The 4th QOH)
    Surrounded by his family, the quiet tranquility of these last rites was suddenly and distinctly broken by a loud tinkle. What the world does not know is that Sir Winston lies there now with Staff Sgt.Webb's Long Service & Good Conduct medal close to his heart. It had fallen off the Staff Sgt's tunic as the coffin was finally lowered into the grave.

  18. Joe Brown

    Joe Brown WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran


    A lovely story . . . As if fate destined this unique tribute.

  19. Smudger Jnr

    Smudger Jnr Our Man in Berlin

    Many years ago I too have visited W.S.Churchill's final resting place.

    Having been informed of the Location by a man whilst staying overnight at the Woodstock Arms, Woodstock, Oxfordshire.

    I was in the Company of this man most of the evening and who turned out to be the undertaker who took care of the Arrangements for burial.

    I firmly believe that Churchill was the man of the time and he worked hard in the fight against the enemy.

    Yes, he may well have had critics, but how many other members of the cabinet and the Commons etc never took a day away from their work during the Duration of hostilities?

  20. Drew5233

    Drew5233 #FuturePilot Patron 1940 Obsessive

    Speaking of critics of Churchill (I am not one of them by the way) I remember watching a WW2 documentary years ago about the Blitz and they were interviewing a women who survived the Blitz in London and she mentioned about Churchill visiting a bomb site and she said he shouted out to the gathering crowd 'We are in this together' and he was jeered at by the crowd with them shouting something back like 'You're not in it with us, you weren't bloody down here last night' and the crowd boo'ed him away.

    Anyone familiar with this incident - I'm sure there was some film footage to go with it?

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