(Sent to Editors December 1999)
Given the number of extraordinary developments in science over the last hundred years, it is not altogether surprising the editors of Time Magazine selected the greatest scientist of our age, Albert Einstein, as their "Person of the Century." His name is certain to remain associated with our era long after its other luminaries fade from memory. Nothing compares to the transforming and revolutionary nature of his discoveries, not to mention their multifarious and useful effects. No person better symbolizes intellectual achievement in our time. However, though Einstein's greatness as a thinker is undeniable, it is insufficient to qualify him as the greatest person of this century. Saving civilization and liberal democracy is.
Scientific progress is only one of the 20th Century's great themes. We must not minimize another major theme, namely, the great struggle between good and evil, between tyranny and freedom. We must not forget that the history of the world once hung in a delicate balance, when one of the greatest evils ever invented by man, came close, very close, to becoming an unconquerable contagion. I am referring to National Socialism, an insidious scourge, which for several perilous years was poised to smother Western civilization, and dominate the planet. One man was more responsible than any other for saving entire populations from enslavement and unbridled perversions that could have lasted for generations. That man is Winston Churchill.
As France began to fall in the spring of 1940, most prominent members of the British Cabinet wanted to sue for peace, believing their position to be utterly hopeless in the face of the greatest war machine on earth. Indeed, by any rational standard it was hopeless! However, Churchill was not an entirely rational man, and the concept of defeat without a fight was abhorrent to him. More than anyone, he understood that to make peace with Hitler would quickly devolve into Britain's subjugation to the Reich. Germany would thereby gain the enormous strategic advantages of the far-flung British Empire and its military, then the second most powerful military force on earth. With the ability to concentrate his forces, he would then quickly subjugate the Soviet Union, his erstwhile ally. By this point, we Americans, slumbering in our isolation across the Atlantic, would have been helpless before such an awesome foe.
Some Americans might believe we could have defeated Germany at any time. This is a delusion, as students of the period know. Had Churchill not stood firm against the odds for the two years before we entered the war in earnest, Germany would have been unstoppable by the time the Japanese aroused us in late 1941. While the Nazis were overrunning Europe, the majority of Americans were opposed to becoming entangled in European affairs. In fact, Hitler even had many prominent American admirers, and there was a sizable pro-German movement in this country. Only gradually, and with much cajoling, did Churchill convince F.D.R. of the necessity of stopping Hitler. While it was not politically feasible for F.D.R. to go to war before Pearl Harbor, he was able to supply Britain with much-needed munitions and supplies. The U.S. certainly played a critical role; and was indispensable to victory, but Churchill made it possible by leading the way.
Churchill came to power only after spending years as a lone voice decrying the rise of Nazism, and warning of the dangers that lie ahead. His political contemporaries and the British intelligentsia believed him to be something of an embarrassment, a throwback from a prior age. Even the leaders of his own party considered him something of a laughingstock. They handed him the reigns of power only when it was clear the nation had arrived at the precipice of the abyss. By then, those who would have made peace with the devil finally realized that he had been right all along. In their darkest hour of desperation, they knew, if there were any chance at all, only Churchill's boundless courage and unbridled passion could lead them from oblivion.
To my mind, saving our civilization is sufficient to proclaim Churchill as this century's indispensable man, and its greatest person. His life is also interesting in many other respects. Among other things, he fought gallantly in close combat on three continents; he escaped from captivity as a prisoner of war; he was an aviator, a painter, and the greatest orator in the English language; he was a journalist, novelist, biographer, and historian; he won the Nobel prize for literature; and he served in the House of Commons for nearly six decades. Perhaps it is also worth noting that Time selected him as its person of the half century.
The editors of Time did at least seriously consider Churchill, and they acknowledged his singular courage. However, they said he was on the wrong side of history on issues such as women's suffrage and colonialism. This seems rather unfair. Churchill came to support the enfranchisement of women several years before it became the law in Britain, and seven years before it was extended to women in the United States. Moreover, Churchill was born into a colonial power; but he did not create it or add to it; in fact, he presided over much of its disintegration. While it is true that he was a stalwart defender of the Empire for most of his life, he was equally unwavering in his support of democratic institutions, and a vociferous opponent of tyranny and injustice.
Einstein was surely a great thinker. Given the fact that his writings were banned in Nazi Germany, one cannot help wonder, if it were it not for Winston Churchill, would we be free to read about him today? I rather doubt it.