"It is not given to human beings, happily for them, for otherwise life would be intolerable, to foresee or to predict to any large extent the unfolding course of events. In one phase men seem to have been right, in another they seem to have been wrong. Then again, a few years later, when the perspective of time has lengthened, all stands in a different setting. There is a new proportion. There is another scale of values."- Winston Churchill, eulogy for Neville Chamberlain, November 12, 1940
"The actual day-to-day history of these two months, April and May 1940, is now known to everybody who can read . . . It makes a savage but coherent tale, one thing following ruthlessly and logically upon the next, but at the time . . .nothing seemed at all logical." *- Margery Allingham, The Oaken Heart: The Story of an English Village at War (1941)
"Why should not Britain join the spectators who, in Japan and in the United States, in Sweden, and in Spain, might watch with detached interest, or even relish, a mutually destructive struggle between the Nazi and Communist Empires? Future generations will find it hard to believe that the issues I have summarised here [negotiation of a separate peace with Germany] were never thought worth a place upon the Cabinet agenda, or even mentioned in our most private conclaves."- Winston Churchill, Their Finest Hour (1949)
Despite the former Prime Minister's confident and reassuring assertion, the issue of peace negotiations with Germany was discussed over several days in late May of 1940, discussions at the center of the fine new movie Darkest Hour, featuring Gary Oldman, an actor who bears no natural physical resemblance to Churchill, in one of the most marvelous portrayals of the great man on film, assisted by a prosthetic transformation and his formidable acting talents.
(Oldman as Churchill)
(Churchill as Churchill)
The film is tightly focused, beginning on May 9, 1940 with raucous Labour party and Conservative backbenchers calling for Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's resignation. On May 10 Churchill is summoned by King George, who reluctantly asks him to become Prime Minister; the same day Germany attacks Holland, Belgium, and France. It ends on June 4 with Churchill's somber, yet stirring, speech to Parliament in the wake of the successful evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk and France on the verge of collapse.
Contrary to what I and many others thought for years, Churchill did not have broad political support in his cabinet when he became Prime Minister (PM) on May 10 (that unity would only come later in the summer). Part of this misconception can be attributed to Churchill himself who deployed it in the course of his six volume history, The Second World War, written shortly after the conflict ended. One should keep in mind that The Second World War provides a distinctly Churchillian view of events and be careful in taking it at face value; as Winston himself warned us, "I consider that it will be found much better by all Parties to leave the past to history, especially as I propose to write that history".
It was only at the insistence of the Labour opposition who proposed a national unity government but would only accept Churchill as its leader that Winston ascended to the role he had yearned after for decades. For many he remained a rogue; a man of uncertain judgment, of impetuous and unpredictable temperament, an egoist who confused eloquence and verbal bombast with wisdom and maturity. Some, more distant from Westminster, saw it differently; Nella, a Mass-Observation reporter from Bolton, wrote on May 11, "If I had to spend my whole life with a man, I'd choose Chamberlain, but I think I would sooner have Mr Churchill if there was a storm and I was shipwrecked", a sentiment reminiscent of Apsley Cherry-Garrard's, in his book The Worst Journey In The World (1922), regarding the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton; "Scott for scientific method, Amundsen for speed and efficiency but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton" (it was Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, who gave Shackleton permission to proceed with his most famous voyage in August 1914 amidst the outbreak of the First World War).
Darkest Hour is at its most splendid in conveying the atmosphere of those days; the continuous onslaught of disastrous news, the crushing pressures that members of the British War Cabinet laboured under without respite, the sheer uncertainty of what the future held. We know how it turned out but the participants didn't when having to make decisions with momentous consequences. Even the indomitable Churchill is seen to waver at moments. It truly was a desperate time. On May 19, General Ironside, chief of the Imperial General Staff, told Anthony Eden, "This is the end of the British Empire" (the following week, Churchill dismissed Ironside from his position because of his defeatist attitude). The same day, Chamberlain wrote in his diary, "The scene . . . darkens every hour". Two days later, Churchill's secretary John Colville, "It is clear the full horror of the situation is dawning on people". These quotes and some of those below are from Five Days in London, May 1940 by the historian John Lukacs. Lukacs is a good guide to the long-unknown cabinet debates, though I should add the author has, over the years, been erratic in the quality of his output, in particular making some remarkably silly observations about America and the Cold War.
Three days after becoming Prime Minister, General Ismay (chief military assistant to the PM) later recalled:
“I walked with him from Downing Street to the Admiralty. A number of people waiting outside the private entrance greeted him with cries of ‘Good luck, Winnie. God bless you.’ He was visibly moved, and as soon as we were inside the building, he dissolved into tears. ‘Poor people,’ he said, ‘poor people. They trust me, and I can give them nothing but disaster for quite a long time.’ ”Churchill's distress is seen in the bluntness of his communications with President Roosevelt as he beseeched America for action. On May 15 he messaged FDR:
"As you are no doubt aware, the scene has darkened swiftly. If necessary, we shall continue the war alone and we are not afraid of that. But I trust you realise, Mr President, that the voice and the force of a United States may count for nothing if they are withheld too long. You may have a completely subjugated, Nazified Europe established with astonishing swiftness, and the weight may be more than we can bear."Roosevelt had his own doubts about Britain's survival, contacting Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King on May 24, to propose that Canada and the other Dominions press Churchill to send the British fleet across the Atlantic before any negotiations began with Hitler. King refused, and Churchill thankfully never became aware of the suggestion.
Seen from the British perspective the bleakness of late May is overwhelming. Austria and Czechoslovakia were under the Nazi thumb by the outbreak of the war, and Poland destroyed in its first month. Italy was a Nazi ally. So were many of the Balkan states, now ruled by Fascist parties; Romania, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria, and Spain was controlled by the fascists. The Soviet Union was a de facto ally, a primary supplier of raw materials to Germany, and had instructed Communist Parties in France and Britain (and the U.S. for that matter) to undermine resistance to Hitler. In April the Germans occupied Denmark and Norway. Now Holland was conquered, Belgium almost gone, the French army shattered with breath taking quickness, and the British Expeditionary Force falling back on Dunkirk. It reinforced a broader sense of a revolutionary wave smashing against the faltering world of Old Europe, perhaps a fear, to borrow a noxious 21st century trope, that democracies were on the wrong side of history. In a secret memo to the War Cabinet in March 1940, Richard Boothbay, a Conservative MP and Churchill supporter observed:
" . . . the incredible conception of a movement - young, virile, dynamic, and violent - which is advancing irresistibly to overthrow a decaying old world, that we must continually bear in mind; for it is the main source of Nazi strength and power"In one sense Darkest Hour can be seen as a companion piece to Christopher Nolan's masterpiece Dunkirk (for my reviews go here and here). Where Dunkirk focuses solely on the combatants during the evacuation, ignores issues of strategy, and Churchill makes no appearance (even his June 4 speech is merely read by a soldier), Darkest Hour is about strategy, statecraft, and rightfully dominated by the Prime Minister. There is one crucial difference. Though both films end with the June 4 speech, the critical events in Darkest Hour take place in the days leading up to and during the War Cabinet discussions of May 26, 27 and 28 on whether to seek Italy's, meaning Mussolini's, help in seeking to mediate a peace between Britain and Germany. When the decision was finally made on the 28th not to seek settlement, but rather to fight on, the expectation was only a small fraction of the troops trapped at Dunkirk would escape. It was only on May 29 that large numbers of British troops were evacuated for the first time with 338,000 British and French soldiers eventually making it across the Channel. The decision to fight on was made before the "miracle" of Dunkirk.
The movie also captures many aspects of Churchill's odd behavior, usually in very effective, though brief scenes. We see his wife Clementine's ability to influence her husband where others failed as well as the strength of their relationship. We see Winston's working pattern; up late and rising late, the strain he placed on his secretaries, his prodigious alcohol intake, the way his ornate and melodramatic speech could inspire, bore, or irritate depending on the circumstances in which he fired his verbal broadsides. We see Churchill struggling at times with his elevation to the heights to which he always aspired but finally attained only under the worst of circumstances.
There are also nice touches in small moments as when Winston charms Clemmie after an outburst and, most affectingly, a scene between Churchill and his secretary (played by Lily James) in which he learns about the fate of her brother, a soldier in France. During the last part of the scene we keep waiting for one of them to speak but neither does, instead conveying all that is needed to be said through their expressions; abruptly halting Winston's normal torrent of words is a brilliant stroke of film making.
How historically accurate is the film? The screenwriter and co-producer is Anthony McCarten, a New Zealand author, playwright and screenwriter, best known in film circles for his screenplay for A Theory of Everything, the recent film about Stephen Hawking. McCarten, an admirer of Churchill, wanted to explore the "ability of words to change the world", which, as he makes clear in the film, many of Churchill's opponents characterized as his chronic confusion of fulsome rhetoric with coherent policy. There's much for McCarten to work with; in the course of three months in 1940 Churchill made four of the greatest speeches in the history of the English language; "Blood, toil, tears and sweat" on May 13; the Dunkirk speech on June 4; "Their finest hour" on June 18; and "The Few" on August 20.
In a discussion with McCarten on making movies about historic events he remarks:
"There's a really fine line between artistic license and artistic licentiousness . . . History is a lousy filmmaker, it doesn't give you all the ingredients you need [for the medium of movies] . . . you are compelled to apply your imagination to a real-life story and if you don't it will be inert."I think McCarten correct here. As always, the question is where the line is drawn between what actually happened and what needs to be created or altered for purposes of making an effective motion picture. For the most part, Darkest Hour gets it right, though there are certainly inaccuracies. I didn't go to the film expecting a documentary; I went hoping it would, as Churchill said of Roosevelt's trusted confidante Harry Hopkins, "get to the root of the matter". It did. In this I dissent from the verdict of Kyle Smith, the fine film critic of National Review Online and the NY Post, who criticizes the movie for over emphasizing Churchill's wavering, "For the sake of a good yarn, it mistakes a lion for a jellyfish". I might have changed a scene or two to lighten up on this theme, but I also know I'd make a really bad screenwriter or director. Anyone watching Darkest Hour, without much prior knowledge of the man, will come away an admirer of Winston Churchill. And there's plenty of lion in the film.
Of course this being Churchill the movie also shows him saying things that sound strange to our ears today, as though they were the invention of an overwrought screenwriter, but which the Prime Minister really did utter as with his May 28 declaration to a meeting of his Outer Cabinet (the thirty ministers not part of his War Cabinet):
"If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground."There are more substantial inaccuracies including a preposterous invented scene in which the Prime Minister rides the Underground and seeks advice from passengers about what to do. Churchill never rode the Underground, though he did visit houses struck by German bombers during the Blitz and was seen to get teary-eyed speaking with their occupants. Oddly enough, I found the scene worked even as I thought "this is ridiculous". I understood dramatically why it was done because it followed immediately a scene between Churchill and King George VI** in which the King gave the same advice as the subway riders, allowing the film to make the point that both royalty and the common people stood with Churchill.
The film also engages in a simplification of the politics. It portrays Churchill as initially only supported by Labour and not by any Conservatives, with the exception of Anthony Eden. The Parliament of 1940 had been elected in November 1935 (and continued to sit until July 1945), and was overwhelmingly Conservative (386 seats) compared to 154 Labour and 33 Liberal. But there was also a faction of Conservative backbenchers (not members of the party's leadership) who supported Churchill or, at least, opposed Chamberlain. On May 8, with the vote on an Opposition motion for censure of the Chamberlain government, the nominal Conservative majority of 200 shrunk to 81, with more than thirty Conservative MPs supporting the motion and sixty more abstaining from supporting their party. Though the movie portrays Labour leader Clement Atlee's attack on Chamberlain, many felt the most memorable moment of the debate came when Leo Amery, a Conservative backbencher, quoting Oliver Cromwell, said to Chamberlain, "You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go."
Darkest Hour also simplifies the conflict between Chamberlain, Halifax and Churchill. Churchill kept Chamberlain and Foreign Secretary Halifax, in his War Cabinet, adding Atlee and another Labour leader. In the film, Chamberlain and Halifax plot to get Churchill to accept mediation and, failing that, to maneuver him out of the Prime Ministership. In reality, Chamberlain and Halifax were not aligned during this period (and the movie reveal, in which Chamberlain confesses to Halifax that he's been diagnosed with cancer, didn't happen as he was not diagnosed until a month later; he died in November).
Chamberlain and Halifax had been political allies for years. Both opposed rearmament in the mid-1930s, and in February 1938 Chamberlain appointed Halifax as Foreign Secretary after dismissing Anthony Eden who disagreed with the Prime Minister's policy of appeasement. Though for many years after WWII appeasement was regarded as a completely negative term Halifax biographer Andrew Roberts reminds us:
"Although today it is considered shameful and craven, the policy of appeasement once occupied almost the whole moral high ground. The word was originally synonymous with idealism, magnanimity of the victor and the willingness to right wrongs."Though both were ultimately to break with the policy of appeasement and change their attitudes about Hitler; Halifax in the fall of 1938 after Munich, and Chamberlain in March 1939, after Hitler betrayed the Munich Agreement and occupied Czechoslovakia, both considered themselves realists and were horrified at the thought of another large-scale war in Europe and a repeat of the slaughter of 1914 to 1918. It is why, even after Britain's declaration of war on Germany in September 1939 it refrained from vigorous prosecution of the war, as Chamberlain retained hope of some resolution short of another all-out struggle on the Western Front.
Nonetheless, by the time of the War Cabinet debates in late May, Chamberlain was mostly, though not entirely, in Churchill's corner, convinced that further approaches to Hitler would be fruitless, though at times expressing a willingness to at least hear what was on offer. If Chamberlain had allied with Halifax the outcome of the debate may have been different. It was now Halifax alone who was Churchill's main opponent. Lukacs describes Halifax as being as different a personality from Churchill as possible; "calm and cool, perhaps even cold; shy rather than sensitive; always in control of his emotions".
Halifax found Churchill incomprehensible, confiding to his diary in late May, "I am coming to the conclusion that his process of thought is one that had to operate through speech", an appalling thought for a man who carefully calculated everything before he spoke, and referring to those Churchill brought into the government as "gangsters".
For dramatic purposes Darkest Hour telescopes the discussions on mediation in the War Cabinet, combining events and altering their sequence. There were nine cabinet meetings over four days in which mediation was discussed, in addition to which we know Churchill had separate one on one meetings with Halifax and Chamberlain of which no record or account has ever surfaced. Indeed, for part of one cabinet meeting no record was kept.
The days were jammed. On Sunday May 26, the War Cabinet met at 9am. An hour later, Churchill was at Westminster Abbey briefly attending a National Day of Prayer service. At noon, Halifax met the Italian Ambassador and then lunched with Chamberlain. Meanwhile, Churchill lunched with French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud*** who had flown in that morning for consultations with the British government. The War Cabinet met again at 2pm. Churchill asked Halifax to meet with Reynaud. Churchill and Chamberlain joined the two of them shortly thereafter. The War Cabinet met again from 5 to 630pm. Churchill dined with Chief of Staff Ismay and Eden. The dinner was miserable with the Prime Minister eating and drinking little and sitting in silence, an unprecedented event. At the end he stood up, told his colleagues he felt sick and left. Events were weighing heavily. That night Chamberlain confided to his diary, "Blackest day of all."
Though Churchill approved Halifax's conversations with the Italian ambassador and though, as portrayed in the movie, he carefully avoided ever completely ruling out any negotiation (prior to the events of May 28), he had also carefully prepared the ground ahead of time. Several days before the War Cabinet meetings on May 26 asking the military chiefs of staff to prepare a paper on the situation if France dropped out of the war. He had the paper distributed to the War Cabinet at the Sunday morning meeting in the form of a document obliquely entitled, "British Strategy in a Certain Eventuality". The paper presumed France out of the war, Italy in on the Axis side, Europe and French North Africa under German control and the loss of British troops in France. The military concluded that Britain could survive if the Royal Air Force and Navy remained in control of the Channel and the skies, and if the United States would increasingly support Britain and eventually enter the war. Still, by the end of the 26th, Churchill and the War Cabinet agreed that Halifax should prepare a draft of his "Suggested Approach to Italy". But it was also the day that made clear that while Chamberlain might, at times, take a position between Halifax and Churchill, he would not join his former ally in opposing Winston. One reason was Chamberlain's complete mistrust of Hitler by this point, and it is also possible that Churchill's magnanimous treatment of the former Prime Minister since May 10 may have had an impact. Though Chamberlain had treated Churchill shabbily for years, Churchill did not respond in kind when the tables were turned, handling him with respect, seeking his advice, and letting he and his wife remain in 10 Downing for several weeks (and his eulogy for the man in November was a magnificent, and honest, tribute, a textbook example of graciousness; relevant to the War Cabinet discussions Churchill remarked, "The same qualities which made him one of the last to enter the war, made him one of the last who would quit it before the full victory of a righteous cause was won".)
The following day saw three more and more lengthy War Cabinet meetings, at the second of which, in late afternoon, the conflicting approaches of the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary were laid out most clearly. On its surface the discussion, and that of the following day, were about efforts to keep the French in the war and how to respond to an inquiry from Reynaud regarding their stance on negotiations, but the context was really whether Churchill would agree to negotiate under any circumstances. Every mention by Churchill to Reynaud or the French should be read as a reference to Halifax [the decision in Darkest Hour to leave out the Reynaud/France aspect of the debate is a good example of how to simplify a factual narrative to make the story telling more effective]. According to the minutes:
"The Prime Minister said that he was increasingly oppressed with the futility of the suggested approach to Signor Mussolini, which the latter would certainly regard with contempt . . . The whole of this manoeuvre was intended to get us so deeply involved in negotiation that we should be unable to turn back . . . The approach proposed was not only futile, but involved us in a deadly danger."
Chamberlain suggested a middle position:
"While he agreed that the proposed approach would not serve any useful purpose, he thought that we ought to go a little further with it, in order to keep the French in good temper. He thought our reply should not be a complete refusal".But he suggested that the approach to Mussolini be made by Roosevelt, not by the British, which would buy them some needed time.
Halifax said that while he agreed with Chamberlain he was now "conscious of certain rather profound differences of point of view". As the Foreign Secretary went on, it became clear that whereas Chamberlain saw holding out the prospect of talks as a tactic to help the French and give Britain time, Halifax saw talks having the possibility of holding some, however small, chance of resolving the conflict between Germany and Britain, a chance that he believed needed to be preserved.
". . . the Prime Minister seemed to suggest that under no conditions would we contemplate any course except fighting to the finish. . . If, however, it was possible to obtain a settlement which did not impair those conditions [fundamentally important to Britain], he, for his part, doubted if he would be able to accept the view now put forward by the Prime Minister . . . He was prepared to take that risk [of destruction] if our independence was at stake; but if it was not at stake he would think it right to accept an offer which would save the country from avoidable disaster."He then went on to bluntly raise the key question:
"Suppose Herr Hitler, being anxious to end the war through knowledge of his own internal weakness, offered terms to France and England, would the Prime Minister be prepared to discuss them?"Churchill responded:
"He would not join France in asking for terms; but if he were told what the terms offered were, he would be prepared to consider them."The upshot of the meeting was that the Cabinet agreed that Prime Minister Reynaud should get a response along the lines suggested by Chamberlain but that if the Germans merely invited Britain to talks without terms being established beforehand the response should be no.
As the meeting ended Halifax asked Churchill to join him in the garden for a talk. Neither participant left a record of their private conversation.
The final War Cabinet meeting of the day, at the unusually late hour of 10pm, was dominated by more bad news. Belgium was surrendering to the Nazis, its King would remain and not flee to Britain, and the Belgian army would lay down its arms creating a hole in the shrinking Allied lines falling back on Dunkirk.
May 28 began with yet another War Cabinet meeting focused on the Belgian surrender and the deteriorating situation at Dunkirk. Churchill doubted more than 50,000 soldiers could be evacuated. The Prime Minister then went to the House of Commons, from which he'd been absent for a week, to tell the MPs of the war situation and the Belgian surrender. He ended his brief report with these words:
"Meanwhile the House should prepare itself for hard and heavy tidings. I have only to add that nothing which may happen in this battle can in any way relieve us of our duty to defend the world cause to which we have vowed ourselves; nor should it destroy our confidence in our power to make our way, as on former occasions in our history, through disaster and through grief to the ultimate defeat of our enemies."At 4pm the War Cabinet met in a room at the House of Commons. I'll quote at length from the minutes because they demonstrate how all the participants were agonizing over the right course of action:
The Prime Minister said that it was clear that the French purpose was to see Signor Mussolini acting as intermediary between ourselves and Herr Hitler. He was determined not to get into this position.The meeting ended without resolution. It was now 5pm and the Prime Minister moved to another room in the Commons to meet, for the first time, with his Outer Cabinet, a meeting portrayed rousingly, and accurately, in Darkest Hour. It was at this session that Churchill made his "choking on his own blood" remark. The Prime Minister laid out the dire circumstances facing the nation, reiterating he felt that no more than 50,000 could be evacuated from Dunkirk. According to one of the attendees (we have no transcript of the meeting), the PM then went on to say:
The Foreign Secretary said that the proposal discussed with M Reynaud . . . had been as follows: that we should say that we were prepared to fight to the death for our independence, but that, provided this could be secured, there were certain concessions that we were prepared to make to Italy.
The Prime Minister thought that the French were trying to get us on to a slippery slope . .
The Foreign Secretary said that we must not ignore the fact that we might get better terms before France went out of the war . . .
The Prime Minister then read out a draft which expressed his views . . . If we once got to the table, we should then find that the terms offered us touched on our independence and integrity. When, at this point, we got up to leave the Conference-table, we should find that all the forces of resolution which were now at our disposal would have vanished.
The Foreign Secretary said that he still did not see what there was in the French suggestion of trying out the possibilities of mediation which the Prime Minister felt so wrong.
The Lord President [Chamberlain] said that . . . it was right to remember that the alternative to fighting on nevertheless involved a considerable gamble. The War Cabinet agreed that this was a true statement of the case.
The Prime Minister said that nations which went down fighting rose again, but those which surrendered tamely were finished.
The Minister without Portfolio [Greenwood of Labour] said that any course which we took was attended by great danger. The line of resistance was certainly a gamble, but he did not feel that this was a time for ultimate capitulation.
The Foreign Secretary said that nothing in his suggestion could even remotely be described as ultimate capitulation.
The Prime Minister though that the chances of decent terms being offered to us at the present were a thousand to one against.
"I have thought carefully in these last days whether it was part of my duty to consider entering negotiations with That Man."He then went on to reject that notion, saying the Germans would demand the British fleet and install a puppet government; "We should become a slave state". Better to use reserves and advantages and go on fighting. And better to die than surrender. There was not "even the faintest flicker of dissent" and many went up to Churchill at the end, patting him on the back and giving encouragement.
A jubilant Prime Minister returned to the War Cabinet at 7pm to inform them of his meeting (which they had not known about) and its outcome:
"They had not expressed alarm at the position in France, but had expressed the greatest satisfaction when he had told them that there was no chance of our giving up the struggle. He did not remember having ever before heard a gathering of persons occupying high places in political life express themselves so emphatically."Halifax knew he was beaten. The debate was over. Churchill sent Reynaud a cable that evening informing him the War Cabinet decided there was no reason to offer concessions to Mussolini, in order to induce him to mediate, at the present time.
Churchill's judgment was correct. Under the circumstances, once mediation or negotiation were entered into it would be nearly impossible to rekindle the fire of resistance, and withdrawal, no matter how harsh the enemy's demands, difficult to accomplish. And given the history of Hitler, both up to that point and in the future, it is difficult to see how in the long-term Britain could survive other than as subservient to the Nazis. A decision to enter into negotiations takes us into a dark alternative world with unthinkable implications for Western Civilization. We should also pause a moment and add thanks and praise for the Labour Party leadership which insisted it would only serve in a government led by Churchill and to those Conservative Party backbenchers who, at great political risk, broke with their own leadership.
Halifax's biographer provides a charitable summing up:
"Churchill's instincts proved correct. Halifax had attempted to bring logic and reason to a problem long since devoid of either . . . "While Lord Halifax's position is presented in Darkest Hour, the power of its substance is undercut by the screenplay presenting him as a personally unappealing man (played by Stephen Dillane), and emphasizing his Machiavellian plotting against Churchill. I think Halifax wrong but his position had a certain logic under the circumstances and presenting it a bit differently could have heightened the conflict in the film. The deficiencies of appeasement were irrelevant to the crisis at hand. What, realistically, were the chances of Britain's survival if France fell? It took a series of misjudgments by Hitler to assure the island's survival - slowing the Panzer advance on Dunkirk; switching from airfield and radar targeting during the Battle of Britain to area bombing of cities; the catastrophic decision to invade the Soviet Union under the delusion that Britain would only enter into peace talks if the communist state was eliminated as a potential English ally; and declaring war on the United States after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, an unforced error for which Germany had no treaty obligation. Posing the issue that way would also have raised questions of war and peace, confrontation and negotiation, and the costs of each that would have resonated with discussions we've been having in the 21st century.
Neville Chamberlain went on to serve as loyal cabinet member and supporter of the war effort until his death in November. Churchill finally got Lord Halifax out of the way by appointing him ambassador to the United States in December 1940, privately remarking that he "would never live down the reputation for appeasement which he and the F.O. had won themselves here. He had no future in this country.". He proved effective in that role though he lacked the ability to build close personal relationships due to his reserved nature. Halifax was still serving as ambassador when Churchill, now out of office, gave his famous speech in Fulton, Missouri in February 1946 warning that an Iron Curtain had descended across Europe. Halifax thought the speech too confrontational and urged Churchill to be more conciliatory to the Soviet Union. Some things never change.
Darkest Hour ends with a little timing illusion, making it seem that the Prime Minister's Dunkirk speech occurs rights after the resolution of the War Cabinet debate. Instead, a week passed between May 28 and the speech on June 4. Nonetheless it remains memorable and a fine way to close the picture. Two passages from the speech not shown in the film are important because they show Churchill no longer concealing the magnitude of the disaster on the Continent:
We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.Finally, we come to the unforgettable closing of the speech. Note the last phrase; Churchill, unlike most of the British establishment, had great faith in the capabilities of the United States.
Nevertheless, our thankfulness at the escape of our Army and so many men, whose loved ones have passed through an agonizing week, must not blind us to the fact that what has happened in France and Belgium is a colossal military disaster. The French Army has been weakened, the Belgian Army has been lost, a large part of those fortified lines upon which so much faith had been reposed is gone, many valuable mining districts and factories have passed into the enemy’s possession, the whole of the Channel ports are in his hands, with all the tragic consequences that follow from that, and we must expect another blow to be struck almost immediately at us or at France.
I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our Island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone. At any rate, that is what we are going to try to do. That is the resolve of His Majesty’s Government-every man of them. That is the will of Parliament and the nation.--------------------------------------------------------------------
The British Empire and the French Republic, linked together in their cause and in their need, will defend to the death their native soil, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of their strength. Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail.
We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.****
* Several decades later a similar observation was made by the philosopher Joseph Walsh:
"You know, there's a philosopher who says, 'As you live your life, it appears to be anarchy and chaos, and random events, nonrelated events, smashing into each other and causing this situation or that situation, and then, this happens, and it's overwhelming, and it just looks like what in the world is going on. And later, when you look back at it, it looks like a finely crafted novel. But at the time, it don't."** Nor have I found any evidence the scene between the PM and King occurred during this time period.
*** Prime Minister Reynaud resigned on June 16 rather than sign an armistice with Germany. Imprisoned by the Vichy regime, he was turned over to the Germans in 1942 and initially imprisoned at Sachsenhausen concentration camp before being sent to Castle Ittr in Austria where he was held with other prominent French political prisoners. On May 5, 1945 he was involved in one of the most bizarre battles of the war in which an improvised assemblage of American soldiers, French prisoners, and German army personnel successfully repulsed an attack by a Nazi SS detachment. The German commander was killed while protecting Reynaud. This was the only time during the war when American and German soldiers fought side by side. Returning to France, Reynaud also returned to politics, serving in various positions until the early 1960s. He died in 1966 at the age of 87.
**** Early in my career I had a job requiring a lot of writing and a boss who crusaded unrelentingly against run-on and compound sentences. I taped the last sentence of Churchill's speech to his door one day.