Over the Christmas holiday, I read a couple of books that, at least for me, may provide some guidance in the upcoming tumultuous and probably consequential year. The first book was "Munich, 1938" by David Faber (grandson of former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan), by far the most authoritative book on that world-changing event.
Beyond the obvious policy point that appeasement is generally bad, the value of the book is in its dissection of how the experienced leadership class of the then-leading power — the British Empire — was able to think, talk and deceive itself to a catastrophically bad policy decision. The author reveals in minute example how domestic politics, leaks and counter leaks to major newspapers shaped — and misshaped — both vital foreign policy judgment and how the world construed and misconstrued British strategic thinking.
The author also reveals in fresh details the well-known story of how Winston Churchill, Duff Cooper and a handful of others — in and out of government — dissented from the policy.
The other half of the story of "Munich, 1938" was events in Germany, where, unlike in Britain, the problem was a war policy advocated by Hitler that was opposed by most of the institutional leadership (including many of the very top generals) and by the general public, which feared another war. (As Hitler paraded his armored columns through Berlin in preparation for entering Czechoslovakia, according to a witness, "(T)he people of Berlin ducked into subways, refused to look on, and the handful that did stood at the curb in utter silence. It was the most striking demonstration against the war I’ve ever seen." Hitler watched it from a window and, in furious contempt of the German people, complained that "With such people I cannot wage war." Of course he did, in part because of what the author points out was Hitler’s "exceptional insight into the tendency of men torn between conscience and self-interest to welcome what made it easier to opt for the latter.")
The second book is a new short biography of Winston Churchill by the prolific English writer Paul Johnson. It has the advantage of being probably the last Churchill biography that will be written by an author who personally knew the great man — and is filled with personal tidbits that bring further color to the well-known story of Churchill’s life.
At a mere 166 pages, the book, among other things, encapsulates how to dissent on the great policies of war and peace by a politician who is both personally ambitious and honorable. It also brings to life how such a man fights on in the face of overwhelming public opposition and elite scorn. These are lessons we need to learn and practice here in America in 2010.
The author identifies five Churchillian attributes that guided his eventual success: 1) He aimed high, but never cadged or demeaned himself to gain office or objectives, 2) there was no substitute for hard work — even though he was brilliant, 3) Churchill "never allowed mistakes, disasters — personal or national — accidents, illnesses, unpopularity, and criticism to get him down. His powers of recuperation, both in physical illness and in psychological responses to abject failure, were astounding," 4) Churchill wasted extraordinarily small amounts of energy on hatred, recrimination, malice, revenge grudges, rumor mongering or vendettas. Energy expended on hate was energy lost to productive activity, and 5) he always had something other than politics to give joy to his life.
My old boss Newt Gingrich used to say that he studied history as a practical guide for a working politician and political activist. And it is with that in mind that I offer the foregoing.
2010 is going to be a tough year. We are going to have huge struggles over terrorism, war, shockingly large new deficits and public debt policies, crushing tax proposals on energy, income, health care and many other human activities. We have every right to dissent, and to do so vigorously even on such matters as terrorism policy.
Contrary to White House and Democratic Party complaints in the last few days, there is nothing partisan or improper about sharply criticizing such administration policy. As a loyal conservative Republican, I nonetheless wrote an entire book in 2005 criticizing Bush’s anti-terrorism policy and operations. As did many other conservative Republicans dissent. At a much, much grander level, Winston Churchill in the 1930s powerfully dissented from a policy of appeasement that Britain’s leaders at the time were convinced were vital to secure the peace. Dissenting with honesty, ferocity and courage is one of Churchill’s lessons to us today.
And, whether fighting as an underdog in a political struggle or trying to keep things together as a breadwinner in this second hard economic winter, Churchill’s last words in his last speech in Parliament as prime minister in 1955 are sturdy guides to conduct: "Meanwhile, never flinch, never weary, never despair."