Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in 1943 in Morocco during World War II. Photo: AFP

It is May 1940, and Winston Churchill takes over as British prime minister from the cowardly and weak Neville Chamberlain. In his first speech as PM to the House of Commons, he thrusts the morale of the people through his appeal for “blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

One month later, he tells the British people and the world that as England stands alone against the Nazi menace, “we shall fight on the beaches.” Two weeks on, and after the evacuation from Dunkirk, he says that even if the British Empire were to last another 1,000 years this would be its “finest hour.”

Five years later, Britain – and so the West and democracy – is triumphant against barbarism.

So goes the traditional view of Winston Churchill and the core narrative of the ever-lasting Churchill myth – one that was reflected upon by many as they marked Victory in Europe Day last week. Through fervent optimism and passionate rhetoric, this myth contends, one politician dragged his country and much of the democratic world through the greatest crisis of the 20th century.   

It is also the myth that so many politicians and political commentators have thrown themselves upon during our own moment of crisis, our “war” against the Covid-19 pandemic. A letter to The New York Times on April 19 queried, “Where Is Our Churchill?”, a reference to the shoddy responses by American politicians.

Canada’s Globe and Mail appealed to Churchill’s fighting spirit in an editorial titled “It’s time for Canada to go to war against a virus.” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison echoed Churchill in Parliament in March, stating “we will never surrender” to the coronavirus. Even those who never name-checked Churchill, like Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who spent much of January and February in a state of wishful optimism about how his country would deal with the pandemic, were channeling his spirit.

Over in Britain, the Telegraph in early April proclaimed that “Boris Johnson needs to unleash his inner Churchill in our war against coronavirus,” a not-so-difficult appeal for the current British prime minister, who owes much of his own political success to his claim that he is somehow the embodiment of the Churchill spirit (something he forced down readers’ throats in his 2014 book The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, which, like much of Churchill’s own writing, said more about the author than subject).

Later, on April 27, the same newspaper intoned, “What is clear is that Boris has an extraordinary opportunity to be a 21st-century version of his hero, Churchill, leading the nation to defeat the enemy virus.”

But Johnson, and others, grasped at the wrong Churchill myth. Of course, there are many Churchill myths; few politicians are as mythologized as him.

There’s the myth of Churchill as the revealer of the Cold War, because of his “Iron Curtain” speech at Fulton, Missouri, in early 1946. There’s the enduring myth of Churchill as founder of the “special relationship” between the United Kingdom and United States. Churchill’s legendary witticisms even gave name to the misapplication of quotes to one source, which has become known as “Churchillean drift.” 

But there’s also the myth of Churchill pre-1940, before he became prime minister, which stands at odds with his post-1940 portrayal. Instead of unbending optimism, Churchill before 1940 was an extreme pessimist, foreboding about the threat of Nazism, obsessed with the looming calamity.

For his detractors (and he had many), he was a warmonger, a militarist hawk, who hyped the Nazi threat in order to bring Britain closer to conflict. To his supporters, though, instead of just inspiring rhetoric, Churchill before 1940 was a politician whose warnings were supported by well-researched fact and statistics (often from documents given to him illegally by his supporters within the civil service) and reasoned arguments. Indeed, he moved Parliament during the 1930s through facts, not rhetoric.

The pre-1940 Churchill knew that it was better to think of the worst and plan for the most dire situation – not to rely on platitudes or hopeful thinking to avert a crisis.

Indeed, had his warnings about the rise of Hitlerism been heeded before 1939, and had his appeal that Britain and France actually put aside their differences with the Soviet Union for an anti-Nazi pact (quite a step for a man who argued for British intervention against the communists during the Russian Civil War), then the Churchill of post-1940 might never have been needed.

For some erudition of the pre-1940 Churchill, I would direct the reader to the marvelous biography by Andrew Roberts, Churchill: Walking with Destiny. For those who don’t want to wade through this lengthy tome, I would suggest that instead of the 2017 film Darkest Hour, which begins in May 1940, the reader watches the more nuanced and interesting The Gathering Storm, a 2003 release by BBC–HBO (and which can be found for free on YouTube here).

Through these, the reader will find that it was actually Churchill’s predecessor, Neville Chamberlain, who before 1940 was the man of sanguinity and unbound optimism; who thought he could lead his country toward greatness and peace through rhetoric and fine words; who believed wishful thinking would triumph in crisis.

Today, Chamberlain is remembered as something of a synonym for not quite a traitor or collaborator – the Danish military leader Vidkun Quisling gave his patronymic to that – but certainly as an appeaser or tragic optimist, a fool blinded by seeing the best in a terrible situation and who failed to see the looming disaster staring him directly in the face. It was Chamberlain who didn’t take a threat seriously enough, who failed to prepare his country enough to fight it.

Note, too, that this is also somewhat mythologized. Many other British politicians were more or equally foreboding about the Nazi threat than Churchill, and he did much to play down the dangers of Italian Fascism, for instance.

And do remember that Chamberlain also gave a speech in early 1940, when prime minister before Churchill, in which he said, “If the enemy does try to invade this country we will fight him in the air and on the sea; we will fight him on the beaches with every weapon we have. He may manage here and there to make a breakthrough: if he does we will fight him on every road, in every village, and in every house, until he or we are utterly destroyed.”

Had world leaders, including Boris Johnson, identified the right Churchill myth, they might have been in a better position to face the Covid-19 threat. Put differently, they forgot that Churchill had been an alarmist and fear-monger ahead of a crisis – and only an eternal optimistic once that crisis began.

The war-like analogy to the Covid-19 crisis isn’t always helpful. But in one way, it is; history shows us repeatedly that if one prepares for peace, one gets war; but if one prepares for war, one gets peace. It’s always better to be a pessimist proved wrong than an optimist proved wrong; better to be a fear-monger and alarmist than the opposite; better to be Cassandra than Pangloss.     

The likes of South Korea and Taiwan have done so well during this crisis because they prepared for it in times of normalcy. Many Europeans and North Americans didn’t. They were too much like pre-1940 Chamberlain, believing that bluster and optimism and wishful thinking would overt a crisis, and too little like pre-1940 Churchill.  

David Hutt is a political journalist based between the Czech Republic and Britain. Between 2014 and 2019, he was based in Cambodia, covering Southeast Asian affairs. He is Southeast Asia columnist for The Diplomat and a regular contributor to Asia Times, including the column Free Thoughts.