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80 years before Zelensky’s address to Congress, Winston Churchill steeled Americans for war

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill spoke to a joint session of Congress on Dec. 26, 1941, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. (Video: AP)
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correction

A previous version of this article misstated the day of Zelensky’s speech. It is Wednesday, not Tuesday. Additionally, this article misstated that Winston Churchill was a head of state. He was a head of government. The article has been corrected.

It was the day after Christmas in 1941, only three weeks after Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor, hurtling the United States into World War II. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill stood before a joint session of Congress, to steel Americans for what was to come, for what the United Kingdom had already been going through for two years.

He was only the second foreign leader to speak before a joint session in American history; the first was King Kalakaua of Hawaii in 1874.

Zelensky pleads for Biden to be leader of world, peace

On Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky joined this select group when he addressed a joint session of Congress, though this time it was virtual. Zelensky invoked the attack on Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 terrorist attacks in his speech.

“Our country experiences the same every day, right now, at this moment, every night for three weeks now,” he said.

Like Zelensky, who has been pleading with foreign governments to amplify their defense of Ukraine, Churchill urged the United States to ramp up its mobilization for war in order to turn back the Axis powers. A few hours after his well-received speech, he suffered a heart attack at the White House, though his personal doctor kept this a secret from everyone, including Churchill, according to Erick Trickey in Smithsonian Magazine.

Churchill would speak to Congress two more times, in 1943 and 1952, becoming the only foreign leader in U.S. history to address a joint session three times.

Below is an excerpt of Churchill’s 1941 speech. The full speech can be read here.

“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-cantered 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. We in Britain had the same feeling in our darkest days. We too were sure that in the end all would be well.

You do not, I am certain, underrate the severity of the ordeal to which you and we have still to be subjected. 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 marshalling of our latent and total power can be accomplished.

For the best part of twenty years the youth of Britain and America have been taught that war was evil, which is true, and that it would never come again, which has been proved false. For the best part of twenty years, the youth of Germany, of Japan and Italy, have been taught that aggressive war is the noblest duty of the citizen and that it should be begun as soon as the necessary weapons and organization have been made. We have performed the duties and tasks of peace. They have plotted and planned for war. This naturally has placed us, in Britain, and now places you in the United States at a disadvantage which only time, courage and untiring exertion can correct.

We have indeed to be thankful that so much time has been granted to us. If Germany had tried to invade the British Isles after the French collapse in June, 1940, and if Japan had declared war on the British Empire and the United States at about the same date, no one can say what disasters and agonies might not have been our lot. But now, at the end of December, 1941, our transformation from easy-going peace to total war efficiency has made very great progress.

The broad flow of munitions in Great Britain has already begun. Immense strides have been made in the conversion of American industry to military purposes. And now that the United States is at war, it is possible for orders to be given every day which in a year or eighteen months hence will produce results in war power beyond anything which has been seen or foreseen in the dictator states.

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Provided that every effort is made, that nothing is kept back, that the whole manpower, brain power, virility, valor and civic virtue of the English-speaking world, with all its galaxy of loyal, friendly or associated communities and states-provided that is bent unremittingly to the simple but supreme task, I think it would be reasonable to hope that the end of 1942 will see us quite definitely in a better position than we are now. And that the year 1943 will enable us to assume the initiative upon an ample scale.

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. ...

The United States, united as never before, has drawn the sword for freedom and cast away the scabbard.

All these tremendous facts have led the subjugated peoples of Europe to lift up their heads again in hope. They have put aside forever the shameful temptation of resigning themselves to the conqueror's will. Hope has returned to the hearts of scores of millions of men and women, and with that hope there burns the flame of anger against the brutal, corrupt invader. And still more fiercely burn the fires of hatred and contempt for the filthy Quislings whom he has suborned.

In a dozen famous ancient states, now prostrate under the Nazi yoke, the masses of the people, all classes and creeds, await the hour of liberation when they too will once again be able to play their part and strike their blows like men. That hour will strike. And its solemn peal will proclaim that night is past and that the dawn has come. ...

After the outrages they have committed upon us at Pearl Harbor, in the Pacific Islands, in the Philippines, in Malaya and the Dutch East Indies, they must now know that the stakes for which they have decided to play are mortal. When we look at the resources of the United States and the British Empire compared to those of Japan; when we remember those of China, which have so long valiantly withstood invasion and tyranny — and when also we observe the Russian menace which hangs over Japan — it becomes still more difficult to reconcile Japanese action with prudence or even with sanity. What kind of a people do they think we are? Is it possible that they do not realize that we shall never cease to persevere against them until they have been taught a lesson which they and the world will never forget?

Members of the Senate, and members of the House of Representatives, I will turn for one moment more from the turmoil and convulsions of the present to the broader spaces of the future. Here we are together, facing a group of mighty foes who seek our ruin. Here we are together, defending all that to free men is dear. Twice in a single generation the catastrophe of world war has fallen upon us. Twice in our lifetime has the long arm of fate reached out across the oceans to bring the United States into the forefront of the battle.

If we had kept together after the last war, if we had taken common measures for our safety, this renewal of the curse need never have fallen upon us. Do we not owe it to ourselves, to our children, to tormented mankind, to make sure that these catastrophes do not engulf us for the third time? ...

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.”

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