Victory Was Anything But Certain

June 13, 1995|By PAUL H. LIBEN

YONKERS, NEW YORK — Yonkers, New York. -- As we mark the 50th anniversary of World War II's conclusion, the temptation is to treat victory as somehow inevitable. Those who were there know better.

Five years prior to victory, one man peered across Europe and saw anything but cause for optimism:

''Behind us . . . gather a group of shattered states and bludgeoned races: the Czechs, the Poles, the Danes, the Norwegians, the Belgians, the Dutch -- upon all of whom a long dark night of barbarism will descend.''

In June 1940, France joined the legion of conquered nations, and only Britain stood geographically between Hitler and America. Cooler heads cautioned that now was the time to make Hitler a peace offer; negotiation with Germany, it was said, was better than annihilation.

This was Winston Churchill's answer to them, to his country and to the world:

''Hitler knows that he will have to break us . . . or lose the war. If we can stand up to him all of Europe may be free. . . . But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States . . . will sink into . . . a new Dark Age. . . . 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.' ''

For Britain's prime minister, victory was not inevitable. It was imperative. The alternative was unthinkable, a world of unspeakable horror in which death was the preferred option. Again and again, during the dark days of 1940 and 1941, when Britain stood alone, Churchill returned to the same theme, the same desperate hope: We will prevail because we must prevail: ''Without victory, there is no survival.''

In the end, he did prevail. Victory over Nazi Germany was accomplished, largely due to intervention from across the Atlantic. Without America's help, Britain could not have held out against Hitler's hordes.

Yet it is also true that Churchill's lonely stand in Europe bought America valuable time. In 1940, America was ready neither militarily nor otherwise to fight the forces of tyranny that were engulfing the planet. In 1940 and 1941, America rearmed and became ready for its coming clash with fascism. Clearly, Churchill deserves at least some of the credit.

Today, even in Britain, the importance of Winston Churchill is being de-emphasized. Recent polls show that large percentages of British schoolchildren cannot identify him correctly. Most important, the 30th anniversary of his death came and went last January 24 with few words penned or spoken on either side of the Atlantic.

Churchill devotees should not be surprised. The fact is that even while among the living, he was often underrated, and his words often unheeded. In the 1930s, his was a voice crying out in the wilderness against the threat posed by Hitler; critics called him alarmist and a war-monger. British voters turned to him only when their nation was on the brink of national calamity, and once World War II was clearly won, they threw him and his party out of power.

Treating victory in World War II as inevitable and diminishing the importance of its architects are connected phenomena. If a historical outcome is inevitable, then individuals do not count. Yet when we look at World War II, we see how close Germany came to winning it, how the Allied victory was no sure thing, even after America's entry. It is then that we see key decision by key men as critical in determining the future of Europe, America and the world.

Today, we are in danger of succumbing to the same error regarding the West's victory in the Cold War. Totalitarianism's collapse was far from a foregone conclusion. At the conclusion of World War II, two things helped communist tyranny get off to a flying start.

First, the West was too caught up in euphoria and relief over the end of its long struggle with fascism. And second, the Soviet Union as an ally against Germany was able to reap the spoils of victory -- eastern Europe and eastern Germany.

In his famous ''Iron Curtain'' speech, delivered in 1946 in Fulton, Missouri, Winston Churchill once more sounded the alarm: Once again, tyranny was on the march; once more, Western civilization was threatened. Once again, action needed to be taken or all would be lost. The West, he stressed, needed to band together and face down a new foe -- Soviet communism -- through a strategy or peace through strength.

This time, Churchill was heeded. Through the Marshall Plan and NATO, America halted communism's westward spread and vigorously opposed it elsewhere until its weakening and collapse decades later.

As we commemorate the victory of democracy over tyranny in World War II, we can best honor its true heroes by recalling the odds they faced. Confronting the prospect that all that they cherished would be crushed underfoot, they fought not because victory was certain, but by moral imperative. This is what made them heroes. That is what made Winston Churchill a hero worthy of honor.

And that is why we should pause to remember him this year.

Paul H. Liben is a free-lance writer.

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