Revisiting Churchill: Where are the statesmen today?

The English Oxford Dictionary defines a statesman as “a skilled, experienced, and respected political leader or figure.”  To be viewed as a statesman one must have principles, courage, and vision.  These are the qualities that make a statesman respected. 

Why does it seem so difficult to find politicians that possess these qualities today?  One of the last great statesmen, Winston Churchill, was recorded by Richard Langworth in his book Churchill by Himself as stating: ‘How hard to build. How easy to evacuate. How hard to capture. How easy to do nothing. How hard to achieve anything. War is action, energy & hazard. These sheep only want to browse among the daisies.’

Young Winston was expressing his frustration at being replaced as Lord of the Admiralty in the middle of World War I.  Churchill proposed a risky beach landing at Gallipoli which proved to be a huge defeat for the allies, leaving 46,000 Allied troops dead and 250,000 casualties.  While many leaders ran from the ill-fated plan, Churchill took complete responsibility.  Churchill believed “the price of greatness is responsibility” so as the Lord of the Admiralty he would accept his fate.  Despite the many politicians and military leaders who supported this military action, Churchill would almost exclusively carry the blame.  Churchill would be forced from his post, and the Dardanelles Commission would be launched to hold Churchill culpable.  The Commission would go on to find that many of the problems with the Gallipoli Campaign lay with the commanding officers themselves. It was the execution of the plan that caused its failure. 

After being removed from office Churchill would accept the official rank as Captain and fight in the trenches in France. Churchill’s political courage would not be forgotten. For the rest of his life the “ghosts of Gallipoli” would haunt him as displayed by jeers from critical crowds. However, Churchill’s vision of an enormous sea to land invasion would later make the Allied invasion of Normandy possible.  His actions after the failure at Gallipoli also displayed his political courage. A courage that would be displayed time and time again.

It is difficult to imagine this scenario playing out in modern day:  a politician who accepts the blame of a policy which turned out to have flaws in its implementation;  a leader willing to go from leading an entire branch of the military to the frontlines of a World War.  Today it would seem more likely to be a plot in a movie.  We see politicians more concerned with “browsing among the daisies” than achieving something great.  We see leaders more concerned with polling and sound bites than action.  At a time where the challenges are great, we need courage, we need vision.  We need a statesman.


Ryan Walters teaches world history, U.S. history and government at McAlester High School in McAlester, Oklahoma. He was a finalist for the Oklahoma Teacher of the Year Competition in 2016.