Arriving propitiously this Sunday and running for seven more Sundays on public television is a political drama. Here is a pr,ecis:
The nation is suffering a severe slump which has depressed government revenues yet strengthened the case for ameliorative social spending. A consensus across the political spectrum insists that military spending must be cut to fund compassionate programs. But one stiff-necked politician of notoriously strong convictions--years ago they caused him to change parties--objects. He is no longer young, and critics accuse him of nostalgia for a simpler age. He is a great communicator, but enlightened opinion holds that his rhetorical power is a function of simplicity and anachronistic nationalism.
All his weaknesses are revealed in his alarmism about the foreign power to the East. He ignores the events of this century that make that power's policies understandable in terms of its national experience--it suffered much from the world war. Proof of his shallowness, say his multiplying critics, is that he takes seriously that power's bellicose rhetoric.
He is deaf to academic, media and foreign policy elites, who explain that the totalitarian regime's rhetoric is a residue of the past, and is less important than the fact that the regime is a fact we must live with. His program for matching that power's buildup dooms the arms control dialogue that must be the source of safety since the development of the ultimate weapon, the airplane.
This is a drama about a stubborn man, Winston Churchill in the 1930s, "the wilderness years."
Early episodes deal primarily with other matters, such as India. But soon the paths of the lion and the jackal cross. Visiting Munich in 1932, Churchill stays at a hotel frequented by the man who came to power in Germany 50 years ago Jan. 30.
Today Churchill is remembered, reverently, for his implacability. Then, when implacability meant spending money people did not want to spend, he was ridiculed, and execrated as a "scaremonger."
British policy in the 1930s traced a trajectory similar to that of U.S. policy since the 1960s. First it proclaimed British superiority; then it pledged to maintain "parity"; then it fell to explaining why Germany's numerical superiority did not really mean British inferiority, and why advocates of military spending were moved by ambition or venality.
In the dramatization, Prime Minister Baldwin says of Churchill: "Talk like that scares people." And it might impede d,etente with Germany. Establishing a defense ministry would be "expensive and provocative."
Churchill's critics, who included most mainstream politicians, wanted to entrust Britain's safety to arms control talks, not because there was any record of achievement from talks, or because Hitler seemed likely to be tamed by them, but because safety through arms control was the only safety that could be had on the cheap. Deterrence costs money.
Persons who wanted to trust Britain's safety to arms control first argued that Germany was not aiming for superiority. Then they argued that the very fact that Germany was spending so much suggested that British rearmament would be matched by Germany. Besides, Germany would bankrupt itself. Sound familiar?
When critics of Churchill's rearmament plans could no longer deny or suppress the facts, or impugn the motives of those who cited the facts, they said: Britain's real strength is economic. We must attend to that first. Military spending will complicate recovery, hence it must wait. So said the chancellor of the exchequer, Neville Chamberlain.
Appeasement, said Chamberlain, would free resources for "more creative uses." The message transmitted to Germany, with devastating clarity, was: we are desperate for an arms agreement because we believe we cannot afford to match your arms spending.
Martin Gilbert, Churchill's biographer, has published a book in conjunction with this series ("Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years"). It is a timely study of how a democracy allowed considerations of political convenience and budgetary "necessity" to control defense policy. Churchill's doctrine was: we can afford what we need; what we cannot afford is to say we only need what is easy to provide.
Today Washington is full of people whose political bravery extends only to ridiculing the steadfastness of the secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger, whose duty is to decide what safety demands, and to say so, stubbornly. He is not permitted the luxury of pandering to wishful thinking.
To those who today say that polls prove (in words hurled at Churchill) there is "no mandate from the people" for more defense spending, Churchill's reply remains unanswerable: "The prime responsibility of any government for the public safety is absolute and requires no mandate."