Lately I’ve been reading Jon Meacham’s book Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship. I keep coming back to one moment in June 1942 when during a visit to the White House, Prime Minister Churchill received the devastating news that the British garrison at Tobruk on the North African coast had surrendered to Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps. Thirty-three thousand Allied troops had been taken prisoner. The notion of surrender was anathema to Churchill who had promised his people repeatedly that the British would never give in. Not long before the debacle at Tobruk, 85,000 British troops had surrendered at Singapore to an inferior number of Japanese troops. “Defeat is one thing; disgrace is another,” thought Churchill.
As Meacham tells the story, Churchill did not try to hide his dismay from his American hosts. The defeat at Tobruk was a bitter moment and a body blow to the man who had rallied the British people by promising to fight Hitler to the bitter end.
President Roosevelt understood the desperation of the moment. How he responded would make all the difference. Upon hearing the bad news about Tobruk, the president looked up and uttered one sentence–and one sentence only. “What can we do to help?”
One of Churchill’s adviser’s summarized the moment this way: “In six monosyllables he epitomized his sympathy with Churchill, his determination to do his utmost to sustain him, and his recognition that we were all in the same boat” (p. 185). “I remember vividly being impressed by the tact and real heartfelt sympathy that lay behind those words,” recalled General Brooke, who was there. “There was not one word too much or too little.”
Six words helped turned the tide of a world war.
Six words said, “I don’t care how you got into this, but we’re in it with you.”
In any crisis there are always moments when decisive action must be taken. It is easy to criticize, to second-guess, to offer opinions about why things didn’t work out, or even to say “I told you so.” You can spend hours debating what might have been or making sure the blame lands elsewhere. There is always time to analyze our mistakes, but God bless those who in desperate moments roll up their sleeves and say, “What can we do to help?”
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