On the night of March 8, 1932, Winston Churchill appeared at the newly built Westchester County Center to give a speech titled “The World Crisis.” Tickets cost from $1 to $2.50 (about $20 to $50 in today’s money), yet it seemed the British statesman was a poor draw at any price. According to a local newspaper, “all but a handful of Westchester folks wasted the opportunity to hear him.”
The fact of the matter was that Churchill at age 57 was in a deep career trough, a period dubbed the “wilderness years.” His political reputation needed repair, and after taking a beating in the 1929 stock market crash, he needed money — hence a 41-day lecture tour that spanned 15 states, 28 cities, and 11,700 miles.
Nevertheless, Churchill’s message was correct: The world was indeed in crisis. The Great Depression was in full swing; fascism was a growing threat; and Japan’s invasion of Manchuria signaled the start of another global war. Americans in 1932 generally believed getting involved in the last war had been a mistake — and a series of neutrality acts codified the public’s distaste for foreign entanglements. Maybe that explains why so few came to the county center to hear him.
Churchill tried to split it down the middle by suggesting that the United States and England had a special relationship that didn’t include the rest of the world — most particularly continental Europe.
“Let us have no fear of the United States of Europe as long as the United States and England grow closer together,” he said. “Any sinister results could then be properly dealt with.”
Well, we know how that turned out. The “sinister result” was the rise of Hitler and World War II. In 1940-41, England, with Churchill as prime minister, all but fought Nazi Germany alone — weathering the Blitz that killed 43,000 civilians over an eight-month period.
It was England’s “finest hour” when Churchill stood virtually alone on the redoubt of democracy and became the free world’s indispensable man. His inspirational stare-down with evil was immortalized by these words:
We shall fight on the seas and oceans. We shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields and in the streets. We shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine famously cribbed from Churchill’s most famous speech when he spoke before the British House of Commons in March. Bringing tears to the eyes of jaded politicians, he was inevitably hailed as a modern Churchill despite some obvious differences between the two.
It was England’s “finest hour” when Churchill stood virtually alone on the redoubt of democracy and became the free world’s indispensable man.
Of course, we wouldn’t be talking about this at all if not for the intervention of fate. Four months before Churchill spoke at the county center, he was almost killed by a taxi while crossing Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. The car was driven by a Yonkers man. It was Churchill’s fault; he freely admitted he was jaywalking. Though not seriously hurt, Churchill was banged up and briefly hospitalized. His right shoulder was sprained, and his nose and forehead were scraped.
One slight move to the left or right, and Churchill would’ve been roadkill, and then where would we be today? In a semi-satirical essay published in 1998, titled “What a Taxi Driver Wrought,” the American historian Williamson Murray posed that very question. Williamson imagined an obituary that “underlined Churchill’s life as one of great political promise that he never quite fulfilled.” For England, World War II ended in the summer of 1940, with Lord Halifax, the prime minister, surrendering to Germany. Meanwhile, the U.S. continued to fight the Nazis in South America “and the wars for survival never seemed to end.”
In short, Murray was saying that the events of history are not solely determined by “great social movements” but can turn on “the actions of a few great men.”
And now we have Zelensky — and another profound “what if” of history. What would be the situation if this extraordinarily brave man had missed destiny’s call and simply remained an obscure comedic actor on Ukrainian TV?
It’s hard to know, but Churchill’s spirit must be whispering in his ear. We shall never surrender.
Churchill understood tyranny — and he could see the future. Ninety years ago, when he spoke before a disappointingly small audience in White Plains, someone asked him if Russia had contributed anything to world progress.
Churchill replied, “Not half as much as to world disaster.”