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Jewish World Review Dec. 30, 1999 /21 Teves, 5760

Chris Matthews

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Churchill's fighting words saved the century -- The 20th century is ending in triumph for values Americans hold dear freedom, democracy and a growing, sometimes grudging, respect for human rights.

A new book by historian Paul Lukacs, "Five Days in London, May 1940," tells how close we came to losing the battle.

Adolf Hitler had triumphed in Europe. Czechoslovakia, Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway and France had fallen. Marooned on the continent were 200,000 British soldiers. The British foreign minister was Edward F.L.W. Wood, the Viscount Halifax, who wanted to try yet again to appease Hitler. His plan was to begin negotiations with the German leader using the help of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, who had not yet entered the war.

Churchill, Britain's new prime minister, saw the trap. He knew that Hitler's best offer would be a demand that his country cease rearming. Worse yet, the Fuhrer might insist England turn over the force that had guarded the island nation for centuries: the great British fleet.

There was a more immediate danger, Churchill recognized, in parleying with Hitler. If the British people saw their leaders making any offer to the Axis powers, whether it be to give Gibraltar to the Italians, or its lost African colonies to Germany, they would lose all resolution. Why should they surrender their lives to a cause that could be bought?

On May 28, the gutsy Churchill, who had spent a decade warning of the Nazi menace, made his move. Calling a meeting of the entire British cabinet, he made his case for all-out war, whatever happened to the country's army still trapped at the French port of Dunkirk.

"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," he told the 25 men around the table. "Of course, whatever happens at Dunkirk, we shall fight on."

The reaction stunned Churchill to his soul:

"There occurred a demonstration which surprised me. Quite a number seemed to jump up from the table and come running to my chair, shouting and patting me on the back. I am sure that every minister was ready to be killed quite soon, and have all his family and possessions destroyed, rather than give in.

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"It fell to me in those coming days and months to express their sentiments. This I was able to do, because they were mine also."

A week later, with British troops evacuated from the continent, Churchill expressed those sentiments to his nation and the world in a speech that changed the course of the century. He warned Hitler that the British people would fight a German invasion in the streets and in the hills, that they would never surrender.

"We shall go on to the end. And 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 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 liberation of the old," he said.

The New World did come to Britain's rescue. In 1941, Japan foolishly attacked Pearl Harbor. Hitler then declared war on the United States, an act of folly even the best minds of history still cannot fathom.

By envisioning all that in May of 1940, Winston Churchill saved his country from a sordid deal and the world from a Hitler victory.

JWR contributor Chris Matthews is the author of Hardball. and hosts a CNBC show of the same name. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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