On June 18, 1940 Winston Churchill delivered one of his most famous speeches. France was on the verge of surrendering to Germany and Churchill needed to prepare England for the prospect of soldiering on alone against the Nazis. With the hundreds of thousands of casualties suffered during World War I still on everyone’s mind, Churchill needed to provide meaning, purpose and inspiration for the heavy price to be paid and burden to be borne in the upcoming war. To this end, to quote President Kennedy, he “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.”
These are the words with which Churchill inspired his fellow citizens:
What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empires. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fall, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. 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.”
With these stirring words Churchill helped inspire his nation to fight on. He successfully provided existential purpose to the upcoming conflict. While nobody wants to suffer, people will more readily do so when they understand why it is necessary.
General Eisenhower also understood this concept. On the eve of the invasion of France, in June 1944, Eisenhower wrote a message for all the military personnel participating in the battle.
You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.
Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle hardened. He will fight savagely.
But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man-to-man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our Home Fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to
Good luck! And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.
Though Eisenhower had to be very careful, for security reasons, what information he put in the message, he managed to convey the historic significance of what the soldiers, sailors and airmen were about to do. Like Churchill, Eisenhower understood that motivated men will fight much harder and longer than unmotivated men. Successful leaders have always ensured that their troops knew the answer to the question: “Why are we fighting?”
About the Author: Rabbi Dr. David Hertzberg is the principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush Middle Division and is an adjunct assistant professor of History at Touro College.
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