The Darkest Hour

Speaking to the House of Commons in the wake of the evacuation at Dunkirk, Winston Churchill told a nation facing annihilation “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” Over the next year, as cities and towns throughout Britain hunkered down for a sustained bombardment at the hands of the Luftwaffe, the Prime Minister erected an oratorical monument to the human spirit, distilling England’s determination to fight on alone against the Nazi menace into a series of speeches that have yet to lose their power over 70 years on. Crescendoing in one of his most famous addresses, Churchill assured his countrymen and the beleaguered peoples who turned to Britain as the last bastion of resistance to Nazi totalitarianism:

“We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France. 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. And even if, which I do not for one moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the waves, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until in God’s good time the New World with all its power and might steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the Old.”

Few people know how integral Churchill’s status as a manic depressive was to his abilities as an orator. He admittedly had few peers in terms of the time and thought he gave to each of his speeches and his jovial infatuation with the English language. As Churchill’s foremost biographer William Manchester has observed, it is ludicrous to envision the Old PM employing a speech writer. He was renowned for striding about his study in the wee hours of the morning, hands clasped behind his back as a secretary with a writing pad followed diligently in tow.

Nevertheless, the vivid imagery that Churchill achieved with the spoken word derives primarily from his tempestuous inner struggle with the “Black Dog,” as he somewhat affectionately dubbed his disorder. The historical record would suggest that he first became aware of his melancholia while serving as an officer in the Fourth Hussars, when he wrote a novel in which the autobiographical protagonist engages in speculations on the futility of the constant struggle to do and dare.

Unlike Conan Doyle’s fictional detective, however, Churchill was not known to truckle to the prolonged periods of inactivity that plague many manic depressives. Instead he, like Theodore Roosevelt, found outlets for his angst in near constant activity, writing upwards of fifty books, achieving such skill as a painter of Romantic scenes that some of his work was admitted to the Louvre anonymously, and laying bricks on his estate in Kent, among his many activities outside the Gothic walls of Parliament. Indeed, as HBO’s “Into the Storm” suggests, Winston’s wife Clementine refused to accompany him on a strategic trip to Washington for the simple fact that she “couldn’t keep up with him.”

Yet most impressive of all was his capacity for carrying his conquest over deep inner turmoil over into public life, expressing the dogged endurance of a nation beleaguered in inimitable language. As he observed to George VI following his replacement of the flaccid Neville Chamberlain as prime minister, he was born for the existential conflict between Hitler and the free world. FDR, for all his accomplishments as president, could not have mimicked Churchill in his reply to Lord Halifax’s suggestion that Britain accept Italian offers to act as mediator in peace negotiations between London and Berlin:

“I have thought over these last few days whether it were part of my duties to enter into negotiations with that man. If this Long Island history of ours is to end at last, let it end only when every man among us lies choking in a pool of his own blood upon the ground.”

As one might have noticed from the allusion to Teddy Roosevelt, depression, or rather victory over depression, is common to great men throughout history. Its rivals include Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, and Goethe. Manchester speculates that it serves to counteract delusions of omnipotence. I would argue that in fact the disease affords its sufferers a sixth sense, a deep insight into the qualities that are required during times of adversity. Notwithstanding Churchill’s insistence that “It was the nation and the race dwelling all around the world that had the lion’s heart, I simply had the luck to be called upon to give the war,” the essence of these men’s ability to move and inspire lies in their fundamental understanding of the full spectrum of human emotion, and their mastery of its vicissitudes.

Our respect and admiration for them must increase with the realization that they transformed what is typically assumed to be a crippling handicap into a political asset.

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