(One of a series of weekday posts on the life of Winston S. Churchill.)
Neville Chamberlain, Churchill’s predecessor as Prime Minister, died November 9, 1940 from stomach cancer. In the six months since he’d resigned the premiership, Chamberlain had given Churchill his full cooperation as Lord President of the Council. With great personal fortitude, Chamberlain had striven to serve the government until the very last days of his life.
Churchill was to deliver a political eulogy in the Commons. By November 1940 Britons knew that under Churchill’s leadership they had warded off invasion. They were beginning to realize they’d won the Battle of Britain. And two months into the Blitz they, were standing up to the Luftwaffe with a “we can take it” attitude.
In November 1940 Churchill’s personal popularity and political stock were very high. Chamberlain, on the other hand, was scorned as “the apostle of appeasement” and “the man of Munich.”
The House was expecting at best a pro-forma eulogy from Churchill, especially as the Members knew that beyond the expected political give and take, Chamberlain had been shabby, even rough, in his treatment of Churchill. Some members had even urged Churchill to use the occasion to remind the public of the great harm Chamberlain’s appeasement policies had done the country.
When Churchill rose in the House he began a warm, generous and admiring tribute to his predecessor, saying in part:
It fell to Neville Chamberlain in one of the supreme crises of the world to be contradicted by events, to be disappointed in his hopes, and to be deceived and cheated by a wicked man.Churchill was almost always quick to forgive and practice magnanimity.
But what were these hopes in which he was disappointed?
What were these wishes in which he was frustrated? What was that faith that was abused?
They were surely among the most noble and benevolent instincts of the human heart – the love of peace, the toil for peace, the strife for peace, the pursuit of peace, even at great peril, and certainly to the utter disdain of popularity of clamor.
Whatever else history may or many not say about these terrible, tremendous years, we can be sure that Neville Chamberlain acted with perfect sincerity according to his lights and strove to the utmost of his capacity and authority, which were powerful, to save the world from the awful, devastating struggle in which we are now engaged.
This alone will stand him in good stead so far as what is called the verdict of history is concerned.(p.119)
I copied the excerpt from the eulogy from Steven F. Hayward’s Churchill on Leadership.(Forum, 1997)