"Their Finest Hour" by Winston Churchill
2018 Common Reading Selection
We selected this reading, first, because the United States has been engaged in a series of related wars and lower-level military conflicts, grouped under the overarching “War on Terror” for most or all of the lifetimes of the class of 2022. Some of you are more aware of this than others, but arguably the American public is less aware of and less directly impacted by America’s military engagements today than it has been during the United States’ previous military engagements. However, the severity of consequences of war demand that we remain intellectually engaged with the ideas that surround the decision to fight and the consequences of modern militarized interstate conflict
This intellectual exercise is essential because you are directly linked to the decision to use military force as citizens in a modern representative democracy. War is the most consequential and severe policy action nations take against one another. Your decisions on whose views on war are preferred determine how, when, against whom, and to what degree the United States will use its extensive military power against other societies around the world.
Second, we selected this reading (and the accompanied audio file) because academics and other observers regularly cite it as an excellent example of rhetoric from one of the modern era’s great orators, Winston Churchill. Close reading of the text allows students to explore its structure and content to understand why it had such impact. In its original form, as a speech rather than a reading, students can listen closely to changes in tone and delivery style to understand why this speech (and Churchill) had such impact and remains celebrated nearly 80 years later.
Before you read
Part of effectively reading or listening to any material from an academic perspective is understanding the context in which it was created. Additionally, we must be aware of the context and purpose we bring with us when encountering a document. We can summarize these two elements as: (1) Why was this created and who created it? And (2) Who am I and why am I reading this? Two good backgrounders on the German bombing of Britain that follows this speech can be found here and here. To assist you in approaching this speech, consider the following questions:
- Who is Winston Churchill?
- What is Winston Churchill’s background in war and foreign policy before he becomes prime minister?
- How long had Churchill been in office when he delivered this speech?
- What event triggered this speech to the House of Commons?
- What other prior events are essential in understanding how the British position in World War II reached this point?
- What are ethos, logos, and pathos?
- What are my feelings towards war? Do I find it exciting? Does it make me nervous? Does it make me feel patriotic? Does it make me feel less-attached to my country?
Preparing to Encounter Mr. Churchill
Other than a physical paper copy of the reading, you will need two important tools to effectively read and listen to this speech:
(1) A pen or pencil to take notes on the reading. You can mark interesting portions of the reading you would like to think about further, underline or circle words you may need to look up to understand a passage, circle names or dates, or mark passages you feel are important to the author’s point.
(2) A separate piece of paper. Treat reading course materials as you would written correspondence. Approach this reading (in our case the text of a speech) as letter, text message, or email to which you must respond. Write down questions you would have for the author that are designed to clarify parts of his argument and to begin a conversation about areas of disagreement. Because this is a speech, you should also listen to the audio and take notes on what you hear, much like you would do in a class lecture. To assist you in taking notes, we provide the following guidance on what you should look and listen for in this artifact.
While you read
- Is assigning blame for the loss of France the purpose of the speech according to Churchill?
- How does Churchill turn the conversation from opponents’ attempts to assign blame to building public morale? Hint: What is the “dread balance sheet”?
- What is the purpose of listing the numbers of armed and unarmed defense forces in Britain?
- What evidence does Churchill use to dismiss the possibility of a German or Italian invasion of Britain?
- What evidence does Churchill give to suggest Britain’s air defenses and capabilities are better than others believe them to be?
- How does Churchill argue that the Italian decision to declare war on the Allies improves Britain’s position militarily?
- How does Churchill argue the loss of France actually improves Britain’s defensive position and doesn’t actually change Germany’s military options much?
- How does Churchill link the British position in June 1940 to the first four years of the First World War?
- What does Churchill mean when he says that in World War I, “we were so glutted with victory that in our folly we threw it away”?
- What does Churchill mean when he says “the survival of Christian civilization” depends on the Battle for Britain?
- What was the “Dark Age” and why would a German victory mean “a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science”?
- Why does Churchill talk about a British Empire that might last a thousand years in the context of WWII?
While you listen
Try to discern at what points Churchill changes tone, pace, volume, or other delivery elements in the speech and why. The following questions will assist you in taking appropriate notes while you listen.
- At what points does Churchill seem to “change voices”?
- Does the content of these spoken words change when Churchill’s delivery changes?
- Try to organize your notes to determine what type of information or ideas Churchill tries to communicate in each phase of his speech.
- When does Churchill use humor, and why do you think he uses humor in such dark times for the British in World War II?
After you read and listen
If you have followed the guidance above, you will still have a pen, a paper copy of the speech (now well-annotated), and some notes on a separate piece of paper. Write more complete notes on areas of the speech that seem important the second time you read through.
- Consider the line: “…remember, the enemy is crafty and there is no dirty trick he will not do.”
- Do political leaders in the United States similarly portray those labelled as “America’s enemies” as similarly less-moral or less-human?
- What do you think the purposes of portraying the enemy in an armed conflict as inferior or subhuman might be?
- What are the differences between the security threats and positions of United States in 2018 and Britain in June 1940?
- Do American presidents and other political leaders frequently use Nazi Germany as a parallel to international terrorists? Is the U.S. War on Terror framed as a “war for the future of Western or Christian civilization” in the same way Churchill portrayed British defense against Hitler?
- Are such claims defensible?
- In terms of the actual threat posed, i.e. factually?
- What are the benefits of framing the War on Terror in this way?
- What are the dangers of framing the War on Terror in this way?
- What are the different kinds of evidence that Churchill uses?
- How does an interdisciplinary undergraduate experience prepare you to both support your opinions or beliefs in different ways and also evaluate others’ arguments?
- What kinds of evidence do you generally find most convincing and why (quantitative/statistical; qualitative/descriptive; logical as 3 examples)?
- What are the moral, personal, and societal costs of war?
- Is there a difference in between necessary and unnecessary wars?
- If there are “necessary wars”, are the costs justifiable even in these wars?
- Are such claims defensible?
Further reading, listening, and viewing
Poem quoted in the speech
Andrew Marvell, “An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s return from Ireland”
From Winston Churchill:
“We shall fight on the beaches” speech following Dunkirk
- Thucydides, “Pericles’ Funeral Oration”
- Abraham Lincoln, “Gettysburg Address”
- George Orwell, “Pacifism and the War”
- “Duty, Honor, Country” speech of Douglas Macarthur at West Point.
- George Kennan, published as author “X”, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct”.
- United States’ 2002 National Security Strategy
- Barack Obama, Nobel Peace Prize Lecture
- 2017 US National Security Strategy
- 2017 Hollywood blockbusters: