Editor's Note: This column was coauthored by Bob Morrison.
Winston Churchill became Prime Minister of an embattled Great Britain on May 10, 1940. At last, his political exile was over. Also that day, Adolf Hitler launched his blitzkrieg against Belgium, Netherlands and Luxemburg, and his armored panzer divisions ripped through the Ardennes forest.
Churchill had been warning against this outcome for a decade. It was Churchill, after all, who foresaw the possibilities of tank warfare in the darkest days of World War I. Surely, Churchill pleaded, there must be a better way to employ brave soldiers than having them “chew barbed wire in Flanders.”
Hitler, too, learned the bitter lessons of trench warfare of World War I. Hitler did not spend the 1930s in the political wilderness. He spent those years in rapid rearmament. From the day he became Chancellor in 1933 until the day he launched his war against Poland, Hitler wanted nothing so much as revenge. He sought vengeance against the French, to be sure, and, to a lesser extent, against the British. But mostly, Hitler wanted to avenge Germany’s loss against the Jews. He blamed the Jews for what he called “the stab in the back” of Germany’s surrender in World War I.
In 1940, after ten years as a voice crying in the wilderness, Winston Churchill became Prime Minister in Britain’s hour of maximum danger. “Hitler knows he must break us in this island or lose the war,” Churchill told his people. Many thought at the time that he was over dramatizing Britain’s plight. But we now know that Hitler’s best chance of winning the war came in that summer of 1940. That was when France fell under his tank treads. That was when his Wehrmacht soldiers haughtily goose-stepped through the Arc de Triomphe and the swastika flag flew over the Eiffel Tower.
Most important, we now recognize that Winston Churchill, whose mother was American, stood for America, too. Had Britain succumbed to Nazi invasion, how long could America have held out in a world suddenly grown more dangerous? How long could the United States have held out if a triumphant Hitler had given his nuclear scientists the same latitude and encouragement he gave his rocket scientists?
America’s destiny was bound up that summer of 1940 with the Royal Air Force battling Hitler’s Luftwaffe in the skies over Southern England. “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few,” Churchill would say of his brave young RAF pilots.