In the wake of yet another disappointing Oval Office speech, this time about the oil spill and energy policy, the arrival today of the 70th anniversary of two of the most influential speeches by world leaders is a harsh reminder of the gap between President Barack Obama’s pedestrian yet self-aggrandizing style and the measure of genuine leadership. Measuring anyone, even someone whose supporters tend to speak of him as if he were the Messiah, against the standards set on June 18, 1940, by Winston Churchill and Charles De Gaulle may be unfair. But the contrast between Obama and these historical icons isn’t so much one of eloquence but their ability to see moral choices clearly, to act decisively based on those choices, and then to be able to articulate the reasoning behind them in such a way as to not only render them explicable to a general audience but also to inspire their listeners to act and sacrifice in the cause they have set forth.
Addressing the House of Commons after the collapse of the French army under the weight of the German blitzkrieg, Churchill made one of the most justly famous speeches in history. His concluding sentence still has the power to raise the hair on the back of our necks today: “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’ ”
But there was more to this speech than just a memorable phrase. He was brutally frank about the extent of the catastrophe to the Allies while urging that time not be wasted on recriminations. He spoke of the hope of victory but grounded that hope in practical policy. Most important, unlike many in the Commons as well as in his cabinet who still thought that peace with Hitler was possible and that accommodation with the reality of Nazi victory was merely common sense, Churchill was unafraid to state explicitly that such a decision would be unthinkable, because “if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.”
Elsewhere in London that day, De Gaulle, a mere brigadier general and an undersecretary of war in the last government of France’s Third Republic, made a speech on the BBC declaring that he and not the French leaders who would soon sign an armistice and set up the Nazi puppet Vichy regime truly represented the people of France. Though almost all of his countrymen could not see past their lamentable predicament at that moment, DeGaulle, almost alone, refused to submit. Like Churchill, he saw the war as more than merely a struggle of countries but of ideas. As he put it, “Honor, common sense and the best interest of our homeland all command the free French to fight.” He asked the French to consider that when “the forces of liberty finally triumph over those of servitude, what will be the destiny of a France which submitted to the enemy.” Though most of the French passively waited out the war until they were liberated by the sacrifices of others, De Gaulle not only saved the honor of his country but also inspired many Frenchmen and others to fight on against the Nazis.
Taken together, it is easy now to see these two statements as examples of how true statesmen can react at a crucial moment of history. By contrast, today the United States may be in a far stronger position than was Britain and France in 1940, but it, too, is faced with grave threats to its security that force it to fight wars that also demand inspired leadership. But it is led by a man who prides himself above all on his cool temperament, his willingness to see the world in terms of moral equivalences, his irrepressible desire to apologize to enemies of freedom rather than to confront them, and to temporize and prevaricate and to choose half measures when faced with dilemmas rather than to act decisively and with honor.
Comparisons with historical greatness are inevitably invidious, but seen in this light, the gap between Churchill and De Gaulle on the one hand and Barack Obama on the other must force Americans to sadly admit that this is not our finest hour.