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Curtis Shelburne

You don’t have to be an English major to be amazed by the power of words, but the English major under my hat is still amazed every time I open a really great book and find myself inside the head of a really great person. It’s almost a miracle to be able to sit at the feet of men and women who have long been gone but whose wisdom lives on, if only we sit down and take advantage of it.

I’d nominate Winston Churchill as the most influential leader, and one of the most fascinating people, of the 20th century. The first volume of his Nobel prize-winning The Second World War is entitled The Gathering Storm. Published in 1948, it is filled with the kind of wise perspective any would-be leader would do well to note.

When President Franklin Roosevelt asked Churchill what he thought the war (World War II) should be called, Churchill replied, “The Unnecessary War.” According to Churchill, it would have been completely unnecessary if the winners of the First World War had held their ground and behaved wisely. Instead, war-weary and hungry for peace at any price, they slept at the helm while Hitler took over the ship. Early on, Churchill saw what was happening and with a few others tried to sound the alarm, but to no avail.

The world watched as Hitler gobbled up Austria and showed time and again a complete willingness to break his word and any number of treaties. Corporal Hitler was a very dangerous man, a very evil man.

On the other hand, England’s prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, was by all accounts—even those of his political adversaries—a good and peace-loving man. Longing for peace, he went to Germany three times to meet with Herr Hitler. Chamberlain led Europe in acceding to Hitler’s demands, even at the price of the honor of Britain and France.

When Hitler cast his eyes toward Czechoslovakia, Chamberlain encouraged France to ignore a treaty obligating them to defend the Czechs, which allowed Britain to sidestep for the time its own obligations to France. Czechoslovakia was thus sacrificed, parceled up, and thrown to the hounds like chunks of old meat. Hitler’s appetite increased even as Chamberlain tried to avoid war by “sweet reasonableness.” Sadly ironic is the fact that Hitler’s generals were planning a coup against him that would likely have been successful but was put off (and never happened) because Chamberlain chose to come to visit Hitler on the very day the coup was to take place.

The Old Testament prophets warn us about those who say, “‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” And Jesus himself tells us to be “wise as serpents” at the same time as we are “harmless as doves.” Foolish doves live short and unhappy lives. Churchill has convinced me that this world has every bit as much to fear from those who are utterly naive as it does from those who are utterly evil.