The Story of Churchill's Greatest Speech You Don't Know but Should

Winston Churchill made 16 visits to America in his lifetime. He traveled here as a soldier, a tourist and a lecturer, but his winter visit to America in 1941 as a wartime leader was perhaps his most important.

The story of that trip—and the speech he delivered to a joint session of Congress the day after Christmas—is worth telling. It revealed Churchill's status not just as a statesman but as a salesman too.

The day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Churchill, who'd just turned 67, packed his bags and headed for America. It would be the most important sales trip of his life—and one of the most important sales of the 20th century. The stakes could not have been higher.

"With the fall of France, Britain stood alone, decisively inferior in military power to the Nazis," said Larry Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College and author of Churchill's Trial. "The only thing that could save it was the English Channel—and entry into the war by the United States."

Few understood that stark reality better than Churchill. It was why he was on a boat crossing the Atlantic after one of America's darkest days. His plan: strengthen relations with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Congress and the American public—and prepare them for the exigencies of war.

It was a 10-day trip through cold, storm-tossed seas. And a dangerous one too: U-boats filled the Atlantic. There were serious concerns about Churchill's safety, but he wasn't deterred. This was work that couldn't be done by phone.

Churchill's boat docked in Norfolk, Virginia, two weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack. He flew to Washington, D.C., where Roosevelt greeted him. Churchill spent the next few days at the White House as a house guest, talking, drinking, joking and smoking—and keeping Roosevelt up late into the night.

"It was astonishing to me that anyone could smoke so much and drink so much and keep perfectly well," Eleanor Roosevelt said of the prime minister.

Having successfully bonded with Roosevelt, and having mapped out some important wartime planning, Churchill moved to an equally important objective: bonding with Congress and the American public and selling them on the importance—the inevitability—of combining America and British forces to combat the Axis powers.

Churchill addresses Congress
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill speaks to a joint session of Congress on December 26, 1941. "We are doing the noblest work in the world, not only defending our hearths and homes but the cause of freedom in every land," he said. Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images

For days, Churchill worked on his speech. It would become, once spoken, one of his masterpieces. Here's how it began:

The fact that my American forebears have for so many generations played their part in the life of the United States, and that here I am, an Englishman, welcomed in your midst, makes this experience one of the most moving and thrilling in my life, which is already long and has not been entirely uneventful. I wish indeed that my mother, whose memory I cherish, across the vale of years, could have been here to see.

Churchill then made clear that our countries were connected by more than a common language.

I may confess that I do not feel quite like a fish out of water in a legislative assembly where English is spoken. I am a child of the House of Commons. I was brought up in my father's house to believe in democracy. "Trust the people." That was his message. Therefore, I have been in full harmony all my life with the tides which have flowed on both sides of the Atlantic against privilege and monopoly, and I have steered confidently towards the Gettysburg ideal of government of the people, by the people, for the people.

He then addressed America's greater angels, more certain about the true character of our nation than many of our leaders are today.

I should like to say first of all how much I have been impressed and encouraged by the breadth of view and sense of proportion which I have found in all quarters over here to which I have had access. Anyone who did not understand the size and solidarity of the foundations of the United States might easily have expected to find an excited, disturbed, [self-centered] atmosphere, with all minds fixed upon the novel, startling, and painful episodes of sudden war as they hit America. After all, the United States have been attacked and set upon by three most powerfully armed dictator states, the greatest military power in Europe, the greatest military power in Asia—Japan, Germany, and Italy have all declared and are making war upon you, and the quarrel is opened which can only end in their overthrow or yours. But here in Washington in these memorable days I have found an Olympian fortitude which, far from being based upon complacency, is only the mask of an inflexible purpose and the proof of a sure, well-grounded confidence in the final outcome.

The speech then took a tough turn as Churchill walked Americans through the difficulty of the task ahead. And the nature of our enemies.

The forces ranged against us are enormous. They are bitter, they are ruthless. The wicked men and their factions, who have launched their peoples on the path of war and conquest, know that they will be called to terrible account if they cannot beat down by force of arms the peoples they have assailed. They will stop at nothing. They have a vast accumulation of war weapons of all kinds. They have highly trained and disciplined armies, navies, and air services. They have plans and designs which have long been contrived and matured. They will stop at nothing that violence or treachery can suggest. It is quite true that on our side our resources in manpower and materials are far greater than theirs. But only a portion of your resources are as yet mobilized and developed, and we both of us have much to learn in the cruel art of war. We have therefore, without doubt, a time of tribulation before us. In this same time, some ground will be lost which it will be hard and costly to regain. Many disappointments and unpleasant surprises await us. Many of them will afflict us before the full marshaling of our latent and total power can be accomplished.

Churchill then spoke of the brutal path forward, invoking Scripture in this part of the speech. He understood the battle ahead wasn't merely physical and material; it was a spiritual battle too, and he wasn't afraid to define it in those terms.

Some people may be startled or momentarily depressed when, like your president, I speak of a long and a hard war. Our peoples would rather know the truth, somber though it be. And after all, when we are doing the noblest work in the world, not only defending our hearths and homes but the cause of freedom in every land, the question of whether deliverance comes in 1942 or 1943 or 1944 falls into its proper place in the grand proportions of human history. Sure I am that this day, now, we are the masters of our fate. That the task which has been set us is not above our strength. That its pangs and toils are not beyond our endurance. As long as we have faith in our cause, and an unconquerable willpower, salvation will not be denied us.

Churchill closed out his speech by invoking the spiritual dimension of the battle one last time, and the unique relationship that two great allies—England and America—shared:

If you will allow me to use other language, I will say that he must indeed have a blind soul who cannot see that some great purpose and design is being worked out here below, of which we have the honor to be the faithful servants. It is not given to us to peer into the mysteries of the future. Still, I avow my hope and faith, sure and inviolate, that in the days to come the British and American peoples will, for their own safety and for the good of all, walk together in majesty, in justice and in peace.

The crowd in the chamber roared with applause. Churchill responded by flashing the V-for-victory sign that would become his signature gesture.

"Study history, study history. In history lie all of the secrets of statecraft," Churchill once told a student who asked a question about the subject, according to historian Andrew Roberts, author of Churchill: Walking With Destiny.

Churchill's statecraft—and salesmanship—were on display days after the speech to Congress. On New Year's Day, he visited Mount Vernon to lay a wreath on the tomb of our nation's first president and one of our greatest soldiers: George Washington. He also met with diplomats from several Allied countries to sign a joint declaration to fight the Axis powers. None, they agreed, would negotiate a separate peace.

On January 14, 1942, after nearly a month away from home, Churchill left for war-torn London. "His visit to the United States has marked a turning point of the war," a London Times editorial said upon Churchill's return.

"It would take the New World, the United States, to come to the rescue of the Old," the late Churchill biographer Sir Martin Gilbert told an audience at Hillsdale College in 2006. "And emerge as the defenders of freedom."

Few could better understand Gilbert's words—spoken a half-century after the prime minister's 1941 Christmastime speech to Congress—than Churchill himself.