The following is adapted from a speech delivered on October 16, 2015, in Omaha, Nebraska, at a Free Market Forum sponsored by Hillsdale College’s Center for the Study of Monetary Systems and Free Enterprise.
In 1945, after the war was won, Churchill was the greatest living man—he could have rested on his laurels and been that for the rest of his life. Instead, in the election that year, he declared war on the Labour Party. The leaders of that party had served in the coalition government with him during the Second World War, and some of them were heroes from the First World War. Yet Churchill went against the advice of all his advisors, including his wife, to make the point publicly that the socialists would never realize their ultimate aims without the use of “some form of Gestapo.” They did not intend this, at least the better of them did not, he said; but this is what it would take for their aims to be successful—this is what it would take to produce an equality of outcomes.
In 1931, the year before Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was published, Churchill wrote an essay called “Fifty Years Hence,” in which he looked ahead to a time when man might attempt to carry out the whole cycle of human reproduction in a laboratory. Just this past April, in the Wall Street Journal, two Nobel Prize-winning biologists called for a moratorium on the alteration of germ-line cells, because we can now alter DNA to eliminate some birth defects—in which case maybe we can also make some heritable improvements. And once we do that, then the human being becomes an artifact of the human being. What would that mean? But here is Churchill in “Fifty Years Hence”:
I read a book the other day which traced the history of mankind from the birth of the solar system to its extinction. There were fifteen or sixteen races of men, which in succession rose and fell over periods measured by tens of millions of years. In the end a race of being was evolved which had mastered nature. A state was created whose citizens lived as long as they chose, enjoyed pleasures and sympathies incomparably wider than our own, navigated the inter-planetary spaces, could recall the panorama of the past and foresee the future.
He is imagining a utopia created by science. And then he wrote, in one of his most beautiful and significant passages:
But what was the good of all that to them? What did they know more than we know about the answers to the simple questions which man has asked since the earliest dawn of reason—‘Why are we here? What is the purpose of life? Whither are we going?’ No material progress, even though it takes shapes we cannot now conceive, or however it may expand the faculties of man, can bring comfort to his soul. It is this fact, more wonderful than any that Science can reveal, which gives the best hope that all will be well.
Nine years after writing this, Churchill became the leader of his country, and he had put in front of him a proposal for a peace conference that had been arranged by Mussolini. At that moment, Britain stood alone in the West in opposing Nazi Germany, whose forces vastly outnumbered those of the British. Germany had conquered France, and was threatening to cross the Channel and take England. Some in Churchill’s war cabinet thought dealing with Hitler was the only sensible thing to do, but not Churchill. Here is what he said when the issue came to a head in a fateful cabinet meeting on May 28, 1940:
I am convinced that every man of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender. If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.
And the cabinet members rose as one and cheered, even those who had just spoken in favor of the peace conference.
Knowing the horrors of modern war, Churchill hated and feared war all his life. Yet he made this speech to rally his cabinet, as he would rally the British nation, to war. Why? Because he was possessed of the knowledge of the nature of the human being—the fact that we are made in God’s image to confront the eternal questions from inside a mortal body, and that our rights to our property and our rights to conscience and religious liberty are aspects of the two parts that integrate to make the human being. Churchill thought the human being was a thing produced by nature and by God and that no man, not even Adolf Hitler with his vast divisions, could ever conquer that. He fought for that belief. I think we are going to have to fight for it too.