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Book lauds Churchill's underappreciated first speech

BLOOD, TOIL, TEARS AND SWEAT: The Dire Warning — Churchill's First Speech as Prime Minister, by John Lukacs, Basic Books, 151 pages, $24

Just as Abraham Lincoln thought the Gettysburg Address was a "flat failure," Winston Churchill's most famous speech as prime minister of England, "Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat," seemed unappreciated by the British House of Commons on May 13, 1940. His predecessor, Neville Chamberlain, was criticized for appeasement, and Churchill gave his speech just three days after Adolf Hitler invaded Holland, Belgium and France.

Yet the response was tepid. The speech was not broadcast, and it received little applause.

In this extraordinary book, John Lukacs, an eminent World War II historian, discusses what he considers an extraordinary speech. In Lukacs' opinion, Churchill appreciated both the threat of Hitler and the strength of German troops much sooner than other European leaders.

Therefore, in retrospect, the speech means much more than it did at the time it was delivered. It was not only eloquent, but Churchill, a gifted statesman and historian, was a man ahead of his time. In fact, as Lukacs points out, Churchill was a political failure at the same time Hitler was climbing to power in Germany.

In other words, Churchill's well-founded fears about Hitler were not taken seriously by most observers. He spoke about it over and over again to a deaf House of Commons. It was not until Churchill became prime minister that he could act in any decisive way.

In one of his shortest speeches, Churchill immediately expressed his intention to "prosecute war with Germany" and that he had "nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime."

He said his goal was victory, and he approached the task "with buoyancy and hope."

At a critical time, Churchill indicated the power and effect of oratory when delivered with conviction and knowledge. Unlike most politicians, Churchill wrote his own speeches. The phrase "blood, toil, tears and sweat" he put in quotes because his source was Giuseppe Garibaldi, an Italian patriot whose biography Churchill almost wrote.

In June 1849, the government of the Roman Republic voted to capitulate to the French army, and Garibaldi spoke with fervor: "I offer not pay, not lodging, not provisions. I offer hunger, forced marches, battles and death."

Churchill was also brave enough to warn of trouble. Later, he said, "I always hesitate to say anything of an optimistic nature, because our people do not mind being told the worst."

Even though numerous leaders since have compared their enemies with Hitler, none has been as convincing and eloquent as Churchill.