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Dr. Larry Arnn On Winston Churchill And The Battle Of Britain

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HH: Time for our weekly Hillsdale Dialogue with the president of Hillsdale College, Dr. Larry Arnn. We have spent the last five weeks talking about Winston Churchill, and that is oh, so relevant today, two days after the Republicans have their own political Dunkirk. Dr. Arnn, welcome, it’s good to speak with you.

LA: Yeah, did they all get back from France, those escaping Republicans?

HH: I think that no one is missing, but they left a lot on the beach, as has happened before. I am curious, Larry Arnn, and I want to remind everyone all of these dialogues, our weekly conversations about great books and great people of the past are all available at, or at, or via the button at Dr. Arnn, what did you make of Wednesday’s cease fire and then surrender?

LA: Well, it was, so first of all, I was glad that the bill passed. And the reason I was glad is that it looks to me like the government shutdown and the debt payments are different questions. And I think that Speaker Boehner, I think he had a lot to do with this, but the leadership in general, and a lot of the Republicans, they came up with a really cool idea about the government shutdown, and that is when some part of the problem of the government that was shut down started causing a lot of people a problem, they just sent a bill over funding it. And so they kind of had a serial have some government for a while. And that was good, because it helps to highlight the truth is, I think only about 20% of the government was not operating, did anybody really miss it all that much?

HH: No, they didn’t miss the EPA, they didn’t miss the Consumer Products Safety Commission. They did miss the national parks, and they did need the FDA for food inspection. But you’re actually right. But then, the issues became conflated.

LA: Yeah, that’s right. And now the debt thing is a different thing, and the reason is the United States has had until recent years not just the best credit in the world, the best extended line of good credit in the history of the world. And that comes from the genius of Alexander Hamilton, who pushed for us to fund at par, that is to say at the amount that was borrowed, the Revolutionary War debts. And those debts stunk to high Heaven, because the poor people who had bought the bonds in the first place had mostly sold them at pennies on the dollar to speculators. And so there was a very big public opinion in favor of not letting these speculators make all this money when the real people who bought it at real value got a pittance. And Hamilton’s response to that was if we fund this, everybody’s going to know we pay our bills. And we have never missed a payment. And so it’s a big deal to miss a payment. And then, and I don’t know if Thursday, today, was really the day, whatever day we’re talking, was really the day. But I think that it might have been, and I think that people who are complicit, whoever they are, in causing that to happen for the first time in the history of the republic, would do some real harm. And so I wouldn’t want to be responsible for that, myself.

HH: And this is, what’s interesting about this, Larry Arnn, is that it completely, I’d rather, by the way, believe they ought to have passed a clean debt limit and kept the government shut. That’s what I would argue.

LA: I thought that, too.

HH: And it, but that’s the exact opposite of what Republican leadership said all summer long, saying we don’t want to shut down the government, and we do want to leverage the debt limit, which is exactly the opposite of the priority you and I have agreed on, and it’s based on their fighting the last political war, the 1995 shutdown, with Bill Clinton.

LA: Yeah, I think so. And I think, by the way, I thought they, as I said before, I thought they fought the shutdown part better than before.

HH: Yes.

LA: And so anyway, and there’s a million questions about this whole episode and what the right strategy was, and there were two competing ones in the main, and which one was right. There’s lots of questions about that. But the immediate question you asked me, and the topic we agree on, was I was glad the bill passed last night.

HH: Now our friend, Tom Cotton, voted for it. He’s catching some heat. I didn’t view it, voting against it, as a necessary demonstration of ideological purity. And I think he needed to demonstrate he was indeed responsible, because Mark Pryor was going to attack him for that very reason. But what ought to be the consequences, if any, for people not Tom Cotton, but people like Lindsey Graham, who attacked Ted Cruz repeatedly throughout the process, and John McCain, and others who went after their colleagues in very personal, specific terms?

LA: Yeah, and the attacks on Cruz, Cruz is very good. And Cruz, you know, first of all, if anybody thought that they were going to defund Obamacare from one house of the Congress, and actually get that done, the chances of that are very small. And the government doesn’t work that way for a lot of reasons. In principle, by the way, you can do it, because a Congress can’t commit its successor to expenditure. And the House, money bills start in the House, so they could have done it, except that that isn’t how it’s going to play out. And there’s a lot of reasons for that, and some of them have to do with the fact that there’s been two elections since Obamacare passed, and the people have not put in office the people who would have gotten rid of it in sufficient numbers, and in the three places where you’ve got to put them.

HH: Yeah.

LA: So the point is, I don’t think that was ever going to happen. But was it a mistake to have a fight? I don’t think so, because I think we need to remember that we are, you know, the ones who are against this, need to be able to say so. And Cruz was doing that. I think there’s a question about whether there was a sufficient fallback position, or if it was adopted early enough. I think there’s stuff like that. But I don’t think that’s, you know, I don’t think you should be hammering Ted Cruz. I think he’s a very capable man and an asset to the country.

HH: Absolutely. Now I want to play for you some comments the President made yesterday, Thursday, after it was all over except the vilification of Ted Cruz. Here’s his first comment.

BO: Now there’s been a lot of discussion lately of the politics of this shutdown. But let’s be clear. There are no winners here. These last few weeks have inflicted completely unnecessary damage on our economy. We don’t know, yet, the full scope of the damage, but every analyst out there believes it slowed our growth.

HH: Here is his second comment.

BO: But all my friends in Congress, understand that how business is done in this town has to change, because we’ve all got a lot of work to do on behalf of the American people, and that includes the hard work of regaining their trust. Our system of self-government doesn’t function without it. And now that the government has reopened, and this threat to our economy is removed, all of us need to stop focusing on the lobbyists and the bloggers and the talking heads on radio, and the professional activists who profit from conflict, and focus on what the majority of Americans sent us here to do.

HH: So Dr. Larry Arnn, what do you make of the President’s both dismissal of his critics and attempt to silence them?

LA: Well, you know, he’s very good. That’s what he does. Let me first of all refute his first point. One of the foremost economic analysts in the country happens to be a friend of mine, and I’ll be of yours, named Brian Wesbury.

HH: Yes.


HH: Yes.

LA: And he’s the chief economist for First Trust Bank, and he’s on all the business channels all the time, and he publishes articles in the Wall Street Journal. He’s a very eminent economist. And his, this week’s Monday morning outlook, which you can read by doing a Google search for Brian Wesbury Monday morning outlook, the title of it is No Sign Of Economic Problems.

HH: Yeah. And so all economists don’t agree.

LA: They don’t. I know one.

HH: I know one, and so it’s…

LA: And if you say all, right?

HH: Yup.

LA: Every is what he said, but the other thing is there are plenty that don’t agree, right?

HH: Yes.

LA: And so that’s bunkum. But the other thing is, he can’t carry the day that way. Let me say something positive first. Here’s what I think we ought to be doing these days, you know, people who are in the opposition. We are effectively, people who are conservatives, and the Republican Party, are effectively in the opposition. And the way you behave in the opposition is that you register your opposition strongly, and also you look for ways to focus attention on the weaknesses of the people who are in power. And so a series of bills that delays the individual mandate, that talks about all those taxes that are in Obamacare, that highlights people whose premiums have gone up, that God-awful website they’ve launched, in other words, they’re making a hash of this, and they should have to bear the burden of that, because they’re the ones in power. And so that would be an excellent tactic. And there is a lot of that going on now, and there should be a lot more.

— – – – –

HH: And Dr. Arnn, we’re going to talk about Churchill as wartime leader. He had experience with war both as a cabinet minister and in the trenches of World War I. Interestingly enough, I received an email this morning, Hugh, we’re both military history aficionados, and for the last week or so, the defunder strategy brings to mind the 1918 German Spring offensive, the Kaiserschlacht, as a metaphor, an initial tactical success and accompanying euphoria that petered out, because there was no real strategic objective. As Ludendorff, who placed all faith and superior skill and martial ardor of the German infantrymen, characterized his strategy, we’ll chop a hole, the rest will follow. What did Churchill make of that at the time?

LA: In 1918?

HH: Yeah.

LA: Well, that was a crisis, right? People were frightened to death, and the Germans got a big ol’ gun that the Allies called Big Bertha. Sometime, I’ll tell you how that led to the invention of seismic oil exploration. But it’s actually true. But they were shelling Paris, right? And it looked like they might get there. But what was happening was that a million American troops were also coming into the line during these months, and the offensive stalled. And offensives in this, the First World War, were terribly expensive. You know, it took three or four to one in casualties, because to go out and leave the trenches was to expose yourself to barbed wire and murderous fire. And that bled the German Army, and they had not really advanced across the trenches much since they took Northern France and Flanders and Belgium. So Churchill, it was an emergency, but then it turned. And then when the German Army began to fall apart, it fell apart overnight. And that, by the way, and it fell apart still on French soil. And so they never drove them back into Germany. And laid the ground for Hitler to then very soon claim, you know, the leader of the many Volks parties in Germany, that the certain establishment, which evolved gradually into being the Jews, had stabbed the army and the German people in the back, because one moment, they were on a grand offensive, and the next moment, they collapsed and surrendered.

HH: Now Churchill was in power at that time, and there is a commentary line on his war leadership in World War II, that he wanted at all cost to avoid that which he had personally experienced in overseeing trench warfare. How much do you credit that, Dr. Arnn, given that you worked on the biography of him for a long, long time?

LA: Well, God granting, and let me say a word to my editor, Joel Miller, whom you know.

HH: Yes, he’s my editor, too. But I’m done.

LA: God granting in the next few days, I will finish a book about Winston Churchill that makes the following argument. Churchill learned in 1898 at the Battle of Omdurman, that modern war was extremely dangerous. And he resisted the trenches with all his heart. And then he fought in them, by the way, and he was good at it. And he did very much, first of all, he wanted to avoid the whole Second World War, thought it was the unnecessary war. We’ll talk about that. But along the way, you know, first of all, the situation in the First World War, and the situation in the Second World War, are very different in the beginning, because in the First World War, Churchill believed, the Allies, France and Britain, and there are other allies, Italy, had options. They didn’t necessarily have to attack across the trenches. They could wait. And time might well be on their side, and they could look for another way. In the Second World War, the situation from May 20th onwards in 1940 was simply desperate for two years. And there wasn’t, they weren’t having any options except the option to try to survive.

HH: Survive, make it through the next day, yeah.

LA: Yeah, and they didn’t, and so they didn’t have any force on the Continent. They all got off at Dunkirk with those Republicans you were talking about.

HH: (laughing)

LA: And so there wasn’t any risk of trench warfare. The job was to keep the warfare going as best you could.

HH: And this is where Churchill enters into center stage. And if you would talk a little bit about the drama of his assuming the reins of power, so long in the wilderness, welcomed back by Neville Chamberlain as first lord of the admiralty, and finally at the last minute, in the darkest hour, they turned to him. It’s really quite remarkable.

LA: Well, Churchill went into the wilderness in 1929, really, when the Conservatives lost the election to the Labour-Liberal coalition. And he was a shadow minister, that is, I say he was one of the leaders of the opposition, and he was chancellor of the exchequer in the government that fell in ’29. And he got along with him pretty well for about a year and a half. And then one thing and then another began to crop up, and he didn’t get on with them. He didn’t like what they did in Egypt about the treaty rights of the British in Egypt. Then India came up, and he fought against dominion status for India. And in January, ’33, Hitler came to power, and Churchill began to talk, a little before that, even, of rearmament. And the official policy was disarmament. And so Churchill, he was, in my opinion, very adroit in his battle over appeasement and disarmament. And he made himself a national figure with a following. He actually built a huge coalition called a focus, an inspiration to modern, like the Tea Party or something. It’s kind of like that.

HH: Yeah.

LA: And it spread across party lines, and it involved lots of Labour and Liberal people whom he gladly accepted, anybody who wanted to rearm the nation against Hitler. And then, and he made a record. And his speeches, I think I talked about this last time, but there was a time in the 30s when nobody was going to hear him, and they became exciting and interesting. And he was always a brilliant talker. And he would command huge crowds. And then when the war broke out in September, ’39, they really had to ask him into the government, and they gave him the navy. And very soon, all of his energy and imagination and vigor asserted itself, and he was made chairman of the Military Coordination Committee, and he was really, after the prime minister, running the war. Not much happened in the war between September 3rd of 1939 when the war broke out, and May 10th of 1940. Most of the fighting was to the east around Poland, and not much happened in the western front. But people began to be very uneasy. And the government began to break on the 8th and 9th of May. And Churchill was the leading defender of the Chamberlain government. And in his speeches, especially on the 9th of May, you can find them on the internet, are very worth reading. And he gave a brilliant defense of Chamberlain. And everybody knew in the chamber that if the government fell, he was one of the two people who would be prime minister. And he fought hard for Chamberlain, more effectively than others. Then on the 10th, Chamberlain, and there was a man named Leo Amery, Churchill went to school with him. He was a diehard, really tough Conservative, interesting guy. And he delivered a decisive blow in the debate on the 9th of May. He said, he stood up and he said I will quote to the government, and he was speaking directly at Neville Chamberlain, the words that Cromwell said to the long parliament. You have been here too long for any good that you’ve been doing. In the name of God, go.

HH: Wow.

LA: And that’s an ally, and a Tory, see? And the next day, Chamberlain talked to the Labour Party, which happened to be having its annual conference, will you come into a national government? The reply was not with you as its head. We will accept Halifax or Churchill. We’ve got to go

HH: We do. We’ll take a break and be right back as the government of Great Britain hangs in the balance in May of 1940.

— – – –

HH: What happens next, Dr. Arnn?

LA: Well, they sit in a room. A man named Kingsley Wood, who was a lawyer from the north of England, who Chamberlain brought into politics and put him in the cabinet, went to Churchill the night before, and told Churchill Chamberlain’s going to make a speech about how he’s got to go, and it’s got to be one of you two. And you should wait. Don’t talk first. Let Halifax talk first. And Churchill records that he did do that after Chamberlain made this little speech, and that there was, he said, Churchill says, a moment passed. It seemed longer than the moment of silence, sixty seconds, that we have on Remembrance Day, on November 11th each year. And then finally, Halifax spoke up and said well, you know, it might be hard for me to be prime minister from the House of Lords, and Churchill then said I will form a government by nightfall.

HH: (laughing)

LA: And that was the day that Hitler lost this amazing attack to the west. And the French and the British armies had gone into Belgium to occupy a line there that is defensible, they believed. And they had the Maginot Line to their right, south and west of them, and they thought they were protected. And Rommel and Guderian devised a tank assault farther south through the Arden Forest, and got a whole tank army behind the British and the French. And one of the reasons they thought they couldn’t do that was the roads weren’t good enough. They weren’t good. And the other was they thought they can’t, they’ll never carry enough gasoline to fuel the tanks, forgetting that there were gas stations all over France.

HH: Yeah.

LA: So they slashed through the British and the French lines, completely disorganized their armies, cut them off from Paris, and there was just chaos everywhere. And the British and the French armies began, without, really, anybody giving an order, to move home. And that meant that they divided. And the British moved toward the sea, which they’re good at, and it’s the way home. And the French moved more toward Paris. And the British ended up grouped along the coast around Dunkirk, and up to Calais, to the north, and the Germans came sweeping down that way. And of course, an army at Calais, Churchill had to give the order to a Major Nicholson, was told to hold Calais. Here was the order. Nicholson cabled and said we must be reinforced and resupplied or removed. We have little ammunition remaining. And the order went back, you are to hold your place, you will not be reinforced or resupplied, in other words, a death sentence. And Churchill had, and you know, I will stop and say that my wife’s father was on Dunkirk Beach being sheltered by those men.

HH: I didn’t know that. Penny’s dad?

LA: Came off on the last day anybody came off, and of course, my wife was born after the war. So my marriage was at stake at this moment.

HH: And your children.

LA: And my children. And they’re both better than I deserve.

HH: Yeah, well that’s absolutely obvious and true. I want to assure the audience.

LA: And this Major Nicholson, you know, a very brave man, the German, you know, and he fought and held them off for a day and a bit, and the German commander said send him a note, ask him to surrender. He said what do you hope to accomplish from here? And Major Nicholson replied, my duty, sir, as you must do. And they all died or were captured. And that saved the day and got the army off from Dunkirk, but they didn’t bring anything back with them. And so it was kind of an army without any heavy equipment. And they organized a defense of Britain from a German invasion, because by the middle of June, the French were conquered, and had made a separate peace. And they, Marshal Petain, a hero from the First World War, became the head of a French government in the south, in Vichy. In France, Vichy remains something more than the name of a bottle of water. And his idea was if I let Hitler have part of France, I can keep another party, and it’ll still be French, and we’ll preserve the soul of France. It didn’t work out that way.

HH: And throughout this, Churchill has only rhetoric, really.

LA: Well, yeah, but you know, that only is an interesting qualification, because it turned out to be a lot.

— – – —

HH: If you could use these eight minutes, Dr. Arnn, to take us from that moment through the Battle of Britain when Winston Churchill was essentially at the head of a single country against the fascist nightmare.

LA: Well that, so I’ll tell you about a, so after all this was over, Churchill comments, writes beautifully in his history of the war how united everybody was. But the truth is between the 23rd and the 28th of May, there was a crisis in the British cabinet. Mussolini, not yet in the war, sent an emissary to say we’ll arbitrate a peace conference. And Halifax, one of the appeasers who almost got the PM job, prime minister job, favored the idea. And there was a war cabinet now of five people, three of them Conservatives – Chamberlain, Halifax and Churchill, and two Labour or Socialist ministers. And the Conservatives had all the votes. And Chamberlain and Halifax were still very popular, and there’s evidence that Churchill was suspected by his own party, as he had been often. And so Halifax is pushing this thing, and Churchill thinks that if they open a peace conference, the war effort will come to a halt. And he wants to prevent that. But he can’t just give an order, because if a prime minister does do that, then the recourse that a minister has is to resign. And if Halifax or Chamberlain, or still worse, both of them had resigned, it’s not unlikely that Churchill’s government would have fallen. So he had to deal with that over several days while the British army is retreating and getting off France back to England from Dunkirk. And the news is worsening every day. And on the 28th of May, Churchill did something artful. There was a meeting of the full cabinet, which is 30 people in round numbers, and he gave them a talk for an hour. And he didn’t write the talk in advance. There are only notes. But the notes of two people jive up very well. And he, into the, he surveyed the war, and said that it’s going to be a naval war and an air war. And the Battle of Britain is about to begin, and if we can stand it, we can hold this guy off, and we can maybe get help from America. And then he ends the speech with these words. He says I’ve been thinking in these last few days whether it is part of my duty to open negotiations with that man. And I believe that every one of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if for a moment if I considered parlay or surrender. If this island story is to end at last, let it end when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground. And then he stopped, and there was a pause, and everybody leapt to their feet and cheered, and rushed up to him and patted him on the back and shouted. And then the war cabinet met again an hour later, and Chamberlain and Halifax both said you know, I think maybe we’d be on the slippery slope if we ever started opening talks with him. We should fight this out. So that was a moment of Churchill saving the country in a small room with 30 people. And it’s a very remarkable story, and you know, some historians, a couple of conservative ones, blame him for that, because they think Britain would have been better off in the end if they’d made a peace with Hitler. But that was the responsibility he bore. And then in that summer, he began to give all those speeches. On May 12th, the Monday after he took the office on the 10th, he gave his blood, toil, tears and sweat speech. On about June 19th, I think it was, he gave the fight on the beaches speech. At that time, he’d already been advised that if a German force got ashore, they couldn’t really defend the coastline, and that means they’d probably lose London as a first step, because London’s way down in the south. And so that was a grim time. And he gave that speech, and it was just full of resolution. And then he gave, and then the Battle of Britain unfolded, then ended about September 15th. And the Germans had all but won the Battle of Britain by compromising the British fighter force to the place where they’re going to have to move up to the middle of the country. And they didn’t, but that’s partly because at a critical moment, the Germans changed tactics, because their losses were so heavy. Although they had a lot more airplanes than Britain, they were losing many more. And so they decided we can just bomb them into submission. And so their spite got the best of them. And in the middle of all that is when Churchill gave that speech about the Royal Air Force, in which he said never in the field of human conflict have so many owed so much to so few. And an interesting thing is we remember those speeches. There are many of them from that summer. And he wrote them all himself while he was running the government and the war effort. And that is incredible.

HH: That is remarkable. And I also like to let people know everybody went to war. His private secretary insisted on resigning so he could join the RAF, as you pointed out, almost certainly to get shot down. He didn’t get shot down. His children served, and Churchill would go bounding around London in the middle of the bombing in a way that I only associate with Dugout Doug MacArthur, who was quite physically courageous in his indifference to personal danger. It’s remarkable what they let him do, actually.

LA: Well, let him, you know, he was the boss.

HH: He was the boss.

LA: He had, you can go to the cabinet war rooms, which are right across the street from 10 Downing Street, which is a bunker down in a basement next door to 10 Downing Street. And they have a museum about Churchill there that’s very worth visiting. But Churchill himself could not bear the place, because he was a painter. He liked light. He didn’t want to be down in a hole. And they actually built him another place in that same building with a view of St. James Park, where he would stay, but he loved to go up, if you’re standing with your back to St. James Park, you’ll be able to figure this out if you go there, and look at the cabinet war room, and look to the right. First of all, his room is in that same building with the cabinet war rooms up to the right on the first floor. And then second, the next building over is the Board of Trade. And on the top of it is a cupola. And you get a really great view of London. And he spent many air raids up there watching everything.

HH: And when Parliament was demolished, he went there and stood in the ashes. And I think it’s a remarkable moment. And his resolution never flagged or failed. I think we’ll have to do another week on Churchill, because we’re only to the Battle of Britain. Dr. Larry Arnn and the Hillsdale Dialogues will continue next week. In the meantime, catch up., or

End of interview.


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