Taking a Lesson from Churchill for Today

State of Play

The Cipher Brief’s State of Play series encompasses reviews of the books, movies and TV shows that help shape our understanding of the national security space. This week, Cipher Brief Expert Michael Morell offers an interesting perspective on Darkest Hour, the new movie depicting Winston Churchill and the decisions he was faced with as Britain lingered on the edge of invasion during WWII.

When I sat down to watch the movie “Darkest Hour,” I was expecting, because of what I had read about it, a superb, even Oscar-quality film. I had been provided an advance-screening copy, most likely because I once wrote about the movie “Patriot’s Day” on the pages of The Cipher Brief.

The film is certainly top notch. From an entertainment perspective, you will want to see this movie.

But I was not expecting something else—a story about a critically important moment of history that carries crucial lessons for us today. As the film’s writer and one of its co-producers, Anthony McCarten said in material accompanying the screening copy: “This story is anchored in the past, yet it resonates all the way into the here-and-now.”

So, “Darkest Hour” is not only a want-to-see film; it is a must-see film for anyone who cares about the direction our country and our world are headed.

“Darkest Hour” is a dramatization set in Britain in the days from May 10 to June 4, 1940. The film follows Winston Churchill, the newly installed prime minister in the early days of World War II, as he deals with a critically important decision: whether to fight on against the Nazis facing terrible odds; or to negotiate a peace with Hitler and save the British people the horrors of war, but at the terrible price of the loss of liberty for millions in Europe and, at minimum, the loss of British sovereignty.

We know from history, of course, how this question is resolved. But what we learn from the film is just how close Britain came to the alternative. What seems absolutely the right thing to do today, with 20/20 hindsight, was much less clear to many in the moment. Luckily for the world, Churchill was in charge and made the right choice against intense political pressure to negotiate in the face of German aggression. Fighting the Nazis led to the defeat of the most tyrannical regime in history, while negotiating could have led to decades of German domination of Europe. It was one of the defining moments of the last century.

So what are the lessons for today? The first, not surprisingly, is the importance of leadership. It is not possible to watch the movie without thinking about the lack of leadership today in making the tough decisions to deal with the many critical issues facing society – from climate change to income inequality to the opioid crisis to race relations, and on and on. “`Darkest Hour’ is timely because we feel a void of leadership now; we want someone to rise to the occasion as Winston did,” said film co-producer Lisa Bruce.

Churchill knew what the right answer was because he saw the bigger picture, when others were more narrowly focused. He saw the long-term consequences of the choice Britain faced, when others could not see beyond the short term. It took all of his political skills, and most importantly, his rhetorical skills, to bring his party, Parliament and the British people to the right answer. Churchill did not follow; he led. We need a Churchill today.

The second lesson for today is that we must address the tyranny we see in the world. Indeed, when I viewed the film, my mind kept wandering to Putin’s Russia and the need of the West, led by the U.S, to push back on Putin’s destabilizing behavior in the world, his unrelenting attacks on democracy and the rules-based international order, both of which he sees as a significant threat to his power at home and Russian influence abroad.

Do not misinterpret what I am saying. I am not saying that Putin is the equivalent of Hitler, nor I am saying we should go to war with Russia. But Putin’s actions are far from benign. They are a serious form of tyranny, and we need to take Putin on in a much more aggressive fashion than we have. The limited sanctions that we have put in place have not been effective in moderating his behavior. Not even close.

To which behavior am I referring? Putin was directly responsible for: the invasion and subsequent partial occupation of Georgia in 2008; for the invasion of Ukraine in 2014; the seizure of Crimea, and the ongoing support to separatists in eastern Ukraine; for coming to the rescue of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime in 2015; and for using information operations to create political divisions in the democracies of many nations, including the U.S.

I believe Putin is fully responsible for the 2014 shoot-down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 by Russian supported separatists over eastern Ukraine that killed 298 people. He, along with Assad and Iran’s Supreme Leader, are responsible for the humanitarian disaster in Syria – the worst since World War II – with 12 million displaced people, and more than 400,000 people killed. This is not to mention the thousands killed in Ukraine and Georgia, as well as the hundreds of political opponents Putin has killed at home and abroad.

The West has not appeased Putin the way former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain appeased Hitler, but it has not been steadfast in defending its interests either. One wonders what Churchill would do. “Darkest Hour” gives us a glimpse of what that answer might be.

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5 Responses

  1. Dorian Dale says:

    The elemental comparative irony is the catch phrase, “America First,” which was the name of the organization of isolationists who resisted confronting Nazism.

  2. William Marsh - Mierzejewski says:

    I think the historical accomplishments of the seemingly impossible objectives you’ve referenced of Churchill, during his time in office, are embodied by our Nation’s current Commander in Chief, Donald J. Trump! Leadership unmatched in the White House for decades! Yes, Churchill, Trump, I would agree Michael, it is a stricking similarity; two peas in a pod when it comes to determination to bring their country through their darkest hours.

  3. Cheryl says:

    Hello Mr. Morell:
    Thank you so much for taking the time to review the movie, The Darkest Hour at this busy time of year. I totally, completely agree with your assessment of the film, and believe that the appearance of this film at such a time in our history is no accident-it is a gift straight from hands and heart of God. This film should remind us of how the absence of U.S. leadership led to Hitler and war. Sadly, that seat of leadership has been vacated again, and I fear the possible consequences for us here, as well as abroad. Don’t become silent, Mr. Morell. Continue to speak out! Continue to be the jeremiad that is needed in this hour, to sound the alarm, to wake us up.
    I hope that your podcast, Intelligence Matters, will continue to enlighten and inform us for many years to come. But whether you know it or not, you are teaching your listeners that there are other important things that matter besides intelligence.
    First, history matters. Having the historical background or foundation to any situation is vital. I learned that lesson as an 8th grader when a history teacher helped to ignite a love and passion for the subject, as well as a father, who served in the army for five years, fought in the Korean War for part of that time, and taught his youngest child how to read the newspaper on a daily basis in order to stay abreast of current events from a very early age. That passion led me to college and graduate school (Kent State University), where I majored in 19th-20th Century European and British history.
    Second, discovering your passion in life and doing it matters. That message has come forth strongly and clearly with every guest. They have greatly inspired me and I am very proud of them.
    Third, love and respect for one another matters. To this day, the remarks of one guest that has resonated with me the most (and that I have replayed more) were those of Denis McDonough (October 5th). Near the end of the podcast, when the degrees of separation between people was discussed, I jumped out of the chair in my office and screamed in affirmation when he said, “There is no knock-out punches in Washington. Everybody acts like there are and they treat each other like s___ and forget that they’re dignified people made in the image of God and we should start treating each other with a little respect; and when the country sees that, by the way, I think they will start to recognize that”. Amen to that!!!
    Finally, yes, Mr. Morell, Intelligence does matter. Never before have I understood the sacrifices the men and women of our intelligence organizations have made, as well as how hard you all work to keep this country safe and our congressional representatives well informed. Your book, The Great War of Our Time, as well as your podcast, has done that for me, and I am truly grateful.
    Thank you for your time. I apologize for such a long post, but these words have been on my heart for a long time, and did not know where else to send them. Keep sounding the alarm; keep speaking out and keep writing!

    • John Davis says:

      Mr. Morrell is correct concerning Mr. Churchill’s refusal to considered negotiation with Germany and his unparallelled skills of oratory . However, his record as role as Minister of Defense is at best mediocre, the usurpation of which was ego driven by a desire to reprise his ancestor Wellington. His ego lead him to suggest that the Belgians make their commander in chief when the Germans invaded in 1914. He continued to meddle throughout WW 2 with disastrous consequences such as Dieppe, Greece, his fascination with an invasion of Yugoslavia and his pushing to make the disastrous Italian invasion which was strategically a mistake with the greatest loss of American lives in the European war. His desire was to preserve the British Empire with American lives and materiel. He was the right man for Britain in 1940, but by 1943, he was not an asset to the war effort

      • Cheryl says:

        “Churchill’s words did all that words can do in the world. They said what had to be done; they announced why it had to be done then; they inspired those who had to do it” – Adam Gopnik, “Finest Hours: The Making of Winston Churchill”, The New Yorker, August 30, 2010.
        These words were written in reference to Churchill’s “We shall fight…” speech in the British Parliament in June 1940, after the rescue of British Expeditionary Forces at Dunkirk and when voices calling for capitulation and cooperation with Adolph Hitler were growing louder and resounding throughout Parliament and the nation.
        The merits of Churchill’s skills as a military tactician can be debated without end; he as the architect of Britain’s disastrous 1915 Gallipoli military campaign should have barred him from even reading a military map! But this is not the point of Mr. Morell’s essay. It is the power of words to inspire, to encourage a nation, to speak the truth to it’s people and to move it’s leaders to action that is the point, and that gift was something that Churchill had in abundance.His words were powerful weapons that were just as great, if not greater, than any bomb, bullet or Spitfire plane.
        I believe that his spirit is still alive in this nation and in the world right now. It is present within those who are rising up in defense of Special Counsel Robert Mueller; in defense of the dedicated men and women of the FBI and our Intelligence agencies; in defense of our judicial system. His spirit is alive in those who are risking everything by speaking out and providing concrete evidence of how Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election.
        It seems as if Americans have turned a deaf ear and are disinterested. Well, for nearly 10 years, Winston Churchill had to endure being labelled a crank, a pest and an alarmist when he tried to warn the world about Hitler’s true intentions and that Britain has to prepare for impending war; hardly anyone listened, until it was almost too late.
        We do not have 10 years or 10 months. Hopefully the voices speaking out will become louder, bolder and stronger. That sleeping, lethargic giant called “We the People” must awake and come alive-now- to preserve and protect our democracy. I have faith that this will happen.

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