As the twentieth century ended, a debate ensued over who had been its greatest man. The Weekly Standard nominee was Churchill. Not only was he Man of the Century, said scholar Harry Jaffa, he was the Man of Many Centuries. To Kissinger he was “the quintessential hero.” A BBC poll of a million people in 2002 found that Britons considered Churchill the “greatest Briton of all time.”
What makes Churchill the Man of the Century? Comes the reply: He was the indispensable man who saved Western civilization. Without Churchill, Britain might have accepted an armistice or sued for peace in 1940. The war in the west would have been over. Hitler, victorious, would have turned on Russia and crushed her, and the world would have been at his feet. By standing alone from June 1940 to June 1941, the British bulldog held on until Hitler committed his fatal blunders — invading the Soviet Union and declaring war on the United States.
Churchill’s claim to be Man of the Century thus rests on a single year: 1940. Assuming power as the German invasion of France began on May 10, he presided over the miraculous evacuation of Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain, as Fighter Command defended the island in one of the more stirring battles of the century. Magnificent it was, and, in that hour, it was the good fortune of Churchill to have been chosen by destiny to give the British lion its roar. Asked what year he would like to live over again, Churchill replied, “1940 every time, every time.” He was the man of destiny who inspired Britain to keep fighting until the New World came to the rescue of the Old.
Less well known is the fact that Churchill entertained the idea of a negotiated peace in the last hours before Dunkirk (May 26, 1940). As John Lukacs recounts the scene in Five Days in London: May 1940: “At this juncture Churchill knew that he could not answer with a categorical no [to peace terms with Germany]. He said that he ‘would be thankful to get out of our present difficulties on such terms, provided we retained the essentials and the elements of our vital strength, even at the cost of some territory’ — an extraordinary admission.”
Patrick J. Buchanan [send him mail] is co-founder and editor of The American Conservative. He is also the author of seven books, including Where the Right Went Wrong, and A Republic Not An Empire. His latest book is Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War.