By DAVID R. STOKES
One Monday several years ago, my wife and I traveled to Williamsburg, Virginia. Some friends had graciously offered their condo to us for a few days of relaxation. We had been looking forward to the trip for several weeks—a nice getaway at the end of the summer. The weather was perfect and we toured local sights that day. At dinnertime, we found a nice local eatery—a “home cooking” kind of place. I ordered the fried chicken.
Anytime I get the chance, I order the fried chicken.
But by the time the food came, Karen and I were lost in quiet thought and just picked at the stuff on our plates. It was one of those strange moments when spouses seem to be inside each other’s minds because at the same instant, we both said we felt a strong pull to return to our home in Northern Virginia. There was nothing pressing. Everything back there was covered, but it’s as if we had been in picturesque Williamsburg for a month and were homesick for routine. So, we blew off the getaway, packed our bags, and headed up the road. We arrived home about ten o’clock that night and found ourselves feeling a little silly for having cut such a nice trip so short. There had to be a reason, we thought.
The next morning we understood all too well, as a beautiful September day turned generationally horrific.
It was Tuesday, September 11, 2001.
People over seventy-five years of age remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news of a surprise attack on American forces in a faraway place called Pearl Harbor. Those a generation younger likely have the same recollection about November 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. But I imagine no memory quite compares with the images of that September day seared on our souls.
The pages of history are filled with horrific things. Back in the years 1940-1942, Great Britain experienced what we did in 2001 just about every day. Think about that—hundreds of enemy bombers raining death and destruction from the skies every day and eventually every night.
A year or so earlier, as the clouds of war gathered over Europe for the second time in a generation, the Ministry of Information in the United Kingdom developed some slogans for morale building—mantras that leaders felt would help people cope with what was believed to be coming—all-out war. We would call them “affirmations” today. The words were carefully designed for billboards, the walls of buildings, and other venues for public notice.
The first of these said, simply: “Freedom Is In Peril. Defend It With All Your Might.”
The next one was a little more to the point: “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory.”
The third poster in the series was actually never released. It was designed to be part of the public information plastered everywhere if the Germans actually invaded—a big concern at the time. The Nazis were fast advancing across Belgium and France and the threat to England seemed imminent and inevitable. But then, on May 10, 1940, Winston Churchill replaced the ever-wobbly Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister. This change at the top rendered the need for mere paper posters obsolete. They now had all the best slogans in the flesh.
The new premier’s face quickly became the most famous image of the era and his voice its soundtrack. Churchill’s passionate eloquence tapped into the dormant, but indomitable spirit of a battered population.
Legendary newsman, Edward R. Murrow, was famous for his broadcasts from the blitz and the trademark phrase, “This is London.” He reported from rooftops all over the city as bombs fell from the sky. And in many ways, his words helped prepare Americans for battles yet to come. After the war, Murrow remarked that Churchill had “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.”
On June 18, 1940, Churchill addressed the House of Commons, where he had lived out most of his, at times, erratic political career. He talked about how the Battle of Britain was about to begin:
Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, 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.’
On September 11, 2001, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani demonstrated energetic and effective leadership when he seized the moment and guided that most unmanageable of all municipalities through a very dark and difficult time. He was nothing short of an inspiration to the nation.
When Mr. Giuliani reached the point of exhaustion in the early hours of Wednesday, September 12th, he went home and revisited a book he had been reading the previous few nights. It was the full-length biography of Winston Churchill, written by Roy Jenkins. The mayor of New York was reading about how the British Prime Minister had led his country through the Battle of Britain. There is no doubt that Giuliani drew inspiration from Churchill’s powerful example.
So, the third Ministry of Information slogan, having been rendered unnecessary by Churchill’s persona and vocabulary, never made it to billboards in 1940: “Keep Calm and Carry On.”
As far we know, most of the copies of the original poster were destroyed at the end of the war and turned to pulp. But a few survived—hidden for six decades. In 2000, a bookseller from northeast England discovered a copy tucked away among some old books bought at an auction. Eventually, other copies were unearthed in archival collections at the Imperial War Museum and British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in London. And, as inexplicably happens every once in a while, the slogan eventually went viral. — DRS