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Winston Churchill's Way With Words

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Winston Churchill's Way With Words


Winston Churchill's Way With Words

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Of course, Winston Churchill was Britain's great prime minister during the Second World War, and his speeches rallied a nation - a world, really - under relentless Nazi attack. But he also won the Nobel Prize for Literature. And now, a new exhibition at the Morgan Library in New York City holds a megaphone to Churchill's extraordinary oratory.

Tom Vitale paid a visit.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: On May 13, 1940, three days after Germany invaded France, Winston Churchill gave his first speech as prime minister to the House of Commons, a speech that was later broadcast to the public.


WINSTON CHURCHILL: I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.

ANDREW ROBERTS: Winston Churchill managed to combine the most magnificent use of English, usually short words, Anglo-Saxon words, Shakespearean.

VITALE: Andrew Roberts is the author of a history of World War II called "The Storm of War."

ROBERTS: And also this incredibly powerful delivery. And he did it at a time when the world was in such peril from Nazism, that every word mattered.


CHURCHILL: You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: victory. Victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror; victory, however long and hard the road may be. For without victory there is no survival.

VITALE: Before he became prime minister, Churchill had already written an acclaimed 4-volume History of World War I. After the Second World War, he wrote a 6-volume memoir. His historical writings, along with his speeches, won him the Nobel Prize in Literature.

ROBERTS: This is the Nobel Prize citation from 1953. And it's, if you will, a modern illuminated manuscript.

VITALE: A gilt booklet accompanies the gold Nobel Medallion. They're part of the exhibition "Winston Churchill, the Power of Words." Declan Kiely is Curator of Manuscripts at the Morgan Library.

DECLAN KIELY: And then the Citation, which I think is wonderful: For his mastery of historical, and biographical description, as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.

VITALE: Winston Churchill overcame a childhood lisp by practicing enunciation. He understood the power of words early in his career. As a 23-year old British soldier in India, Churchill wrote an essay called "The Scaffolding of Rhetoric." The original manuscript is in the Morgan exhibition.

KIELY: You see here in the paragraph, he says: The climax of oratory is reached by a rapid succession of waves, of sound and vivid pictures. Those are the kinds of things you see 40 years later. He's using these vivid pictures and these great, successive waves of sound.

VITALE: Churchill said he spent an hour working on every minute of a speech he made. At the Morgan library are several drafts of a speech from February, 1941, when England stood alone against the Nazi onslaught, and Churchill appealed to President Roosevelt for aid. The first draft looks like a normal typescript. The final draft, says Declan Kiely...

KIELY: Looks like the draft of a poem. And that's of course to indicate for Churchill's own eye, how the speech should be delivered. He says, What is the answer that I shall give in your name to this great man? And then, quite a lot of white space. Here is the answer. And then, two blank lines. A long pause there. Put your confidence in us.


WINSTON CHURCHILL: Put your confidence in us; give us your faith and your blessing, and under Providence, all will be well. We shall not fail or falter. We shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle, nor the long drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down. Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.

VITALE: Historian Andrew Roberts says the impact of Churchill's speeches cannot be underestimated.

ROBERTS: An awful lot of people thought that it was impossible to beat the Nazis. Yet what Winston Churchill did, by constantly putting Britain's peril in the greater historical context of other times that Britain had nearly been invaded, but had been ultimately successful, he managed to tell the British people that this could happen again.

VITALE: Winston Churchill wrote every word of every one of his speeches. On April 9th, 1963, President John F. Kennedy summed up Churchill's achievement.


PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: In the dark days and darker nights when England stood alone and most men save Englishmen despaired of England's life, he mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.

VITALE: On June 18th, 1940, immediately after the fall of France, Winston Churchill rallied the British people once more.


CHURCHILL: Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say this was their finest hour.

VITALE: In 1938, Winston Churchill said dictators were afraid of the power of words, quote, "a state of society where men may not speak their minds cannot long endure." For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

SIMON: And you can read drafts of Winston Churchill's speeches and see his 1884 school report card on our website


SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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