Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

Speech at the Winston Chuchill Foundation Award dinner

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: British Embassy, Washington DC
Source: Thatcher Archive: transcript
Editorial comments: The dinner began at 2000.
Importance ranking: Key
Word count: 2059
Themes: Autobiographical comments, Civil liberties, Conservative Party (history), Defence (general), Defence (arms control), Defence (Falklands), Higher & further education, Foreign policy (Central & Eastern Europe), Foreign policy (USA), Foreign policy (USSR & successor states)


I am deeply grateful to the Winston Churchill foundation of the United States for honouring me with this award.

It is my great pride that when I first entered the House of Commons nearly 25 years ago Winston Churchill was still a member. I remember him then, small, a little deaf, a little hunched, yet towering above the rest of us as he has done ever since. He was always concerned to keep the courtesies of the House. I remember the day when he left it, supported by two friends he slowly turned and for the last time bowed to the speaker and to the Parliament he loved. Then he was gone.

No one, least of all a conservative Prime Minister, can receive an award that bears his name without an abiding sense of humility. In doing so, I am conscious that Churchill belongs to you in the United States as well as to us in the United Kingdom.

He began life with an American mother and an English father. By the end of his life he had been made honorary American citizen by the United States Congress. At his funeral the great Battle Hymn of the Republic was sung. Churchill knew before his death that you had set up this splendid foundation as a tribute to him.

Already eight of your Churchill fellows have won Nobel prizes. I congratulate you on that magnificent achievement. The presence of the Churchill fellows in Cambridge helps to sustain and enrich the close personal links between the United Kingdom and the United States which are the bedrock of our enduring friendship. Nothing would have delighted Churchill more.

He was a giant. He saw clearly. He warned clearly. He did what had to be done. His steadfast attachment to fundamental principles, his heroic indifference to the pressures and expediencies of the moment and his unbending determination both saved his own country and helped to save the world. It was he who said: “once you take the position of not being able in any circumstances to defend your rights against …   . aggression …   . there is no end to the demands that will be made or to the humiliations that must be accepted.”

True in the face of the Nazi menance in the 1930s, true in the face of the threats to our way of life today. True, too, in the South Atlantic last year when with the most heartwarming support and encouragement of the people of America, Britain again had to demonstrate that aggression must not be allowed to succeed and that international law and the right of people freely to choose their own way of life must be upheld.

The best memorial we can offer to the life of that man of destiny is to treasure the matchless gift of freedom which his leadership preserved for us and to pass it on to generations yet to come, both in those countries which already know freedom and to those which yearn for it.

That is the great role of the Western democracies in this age. It is our duty—to understand the threat we face—to be strong enough to deter any aggressor—to engage in and win the battle of ideas and, as Churchill always sought to do, to bind ever more closely those nations who cherish the dignity of man and the power of the human spirit. [end p1]

The threat

First, the threat. We have to deal with: the Soviet Union. But we must deal with it not as we would like it to be, but as it is. We live on the same planet and we have to go on sharing it. We stand ready therefore—if and when the circumstances are right—to talk to the Soviet leadership.

But we must not fall into the trap of projecting our own morality onto the Soviet leaders. They do not share our aspirations: they are not constrained by our ethics, they have always considered themselves exempt from the rules that bind other states. They claim to speak in the name of humanity—but they oppress the individual. They pose as the champion of free nations—but in their own empire they practise total control. They invoke the word democracy—but they practise single-party rule by a self-appointed oligarchy. They pretend to support the freedom of the ballot-box- but they are protected by a system of one man, one vote—and one candidate.

Their power is sustained by myth. Presenting themselves to the world as the fount of progress and revolution, they preside over a modern version of the early tyrannies of history. A structure so rigid that it totally precludes the normal processes of questioning, discussion and change.

They have little contact with their own people, still less with the free world.

This would-be revolutionary power has an unparallelled arsenal of nuclear and conventional weapons at its disposal. Its governing principles are force and dictatorship. It sees the expansion of Communism as inevitable, a logical step in the march of history, and the rest of the world as its rightful freedom.

We have watched the depredations of the Soviet Union in the 66 years since its creation. While the Soviet Union has imposed its rule on its neighbours and drawn an iron curtain between East and West, we in Great Britain have given freedom and independence to more than 40 countries whose populations now number more than one thousand million—a quarter of the world's total.

The readiness of Russia to use force outside its borders is manifest. It is active in every continent, reaching deep into the domestic affairs of independent countries—openly or covertly. By using the tools of subversion.

Less than a month ago, we saw fresh evidence of the nature of the system with which we have to deal. The destruction of the Korean airliner was an act of atrocity, and of profound contempt for their fellow human beings.

Mr. Chairman, it is disturbing but not surprising that the system I have described should be capable of such acts. The lesson for us is that our policies should recognise that system for what it is.

We are confronted by a power of great military strength, which has consistently used force against its neighbours, which wields the threat of force as a weapon of policy, and which is bent on subverting and destroying the confidence and stability of the Western world. That is the threat we face, what is our response? [end p2]

The allied response

Mr. Chairman, after the second world war, when optimism gave way to the sombre realisation that the democracies faced a new danger, a few far-sighted men, inspired by the wartime collaboration of Churchill and Roosevelt, established the Western alliance.

Its aim was then, and remains today, entirely defensive—to safeguard the democratic ideals and way of life of its members.

Its membership was then, and remains today, entirely voluntary. It has been an unqualified success. The member countries of NATO have preserved their freedom and provided material prosperity for their people on a scale that only 50 years ago would have seemed like a dream. And peace has reigned secure.

Why? Because potential aggressors know that we in the West are strong and that we have the will to use that strength to defend what we believe. Does it need saying that the Soviet Union has nothing to fear from us? For several years after the war the United States had a monopoly of nuclear weapons, but was a threat to no-one. Democracies are naturally peace-loving, there is so much which our people wish to do with their lives, so many uses for our resources other than military equipment. The use of force and the threat of force to advance our beliefs are no part of our philosophy. The radical proposals for disarmament come from the West. It is the response from Moscow which is deficient. This week we have seen yet again genuine proposals from the West peremptorily rejected.

No amount of propaganda, of spurious half-truths can disguise the determination of the Soviet Union to maintain or gain numerical advantage in weaponry, men and materials.

No amount of facile argument can conceal the fact that Soviet flexibility to date has been designed to beguile public opinion, not to make progress by genuine negotiation at Geneva.

Some may recoil at the thought of negotiating with men whose theories and actions have been responsible for so much suffering. Yet the character of modern weapons, not only nuclear but conventional, obliges us to do so. So we must persist in our efforts but resolved to do nothing that would hand an advantage to the other side, nothing to put at risk the credibility of the Western alliance and nothing to unsettle that military balance on which peace itself depends. [end p3]

The battle of ideas

Mr. Chairman, the facts of nuclear life have—we profoundly hope—ruled out war as an instrument of national policy—provided of course that there is no military weakness on our side which would tempt the other into ill-considered action.

But there is another battle. In June 1983 Mr. Andropov told the central committee of the Communist party:- “a struggle is under way for the minds and hearts of billions of people on the planet, and the future of mankind depends, to a considerable extent, on the outcome of this ideological struggle.”

That is Mr. Andropov 's challenge. I accept it. And I do so with the confidence which Winston Churchill would have shared that in this battle we in the West hold the cards.

Here, in the West, the peoples of the world find creative thinking, creative art, and inventive genius, standards of excellence in literature and music, indeed in that whole great area of human reflection, and expression that we call culture.

It is to the West that friend and foe come for investment capital; grain supplies; science and technology; medical research; methods to protect environment and to preserve wildlife—and for so much else. People turn to the West because we are free. It is our human values to which men aspire.

“You in the West” , said an Hungarian poet, “have a special duty because you are free. That freedom is both a blessing and a burden. For it makes you spiritually responsible for the whole of humanity.” He was right. For if we do not keep alive the flame of freedom that flame will go out, and every noble ideal will die with it. It is not by force of weapons but by force of ideas that we seek to spread liberty to the worlds oppressed. It is not only ideals, but conscience that impels us to do so.

Is there conscience in the Kremlin? do they ever ask themselves what is the purpose of life? What is it all for? Does the way they handled the Korean airliner atrocity suggest that they ever considered such questions?

No. Their creed is barren of conscience, immune to the promptings of good and evil. To them it is the system that counts, and all men must conform. [end p4]

Nevertheless in Poland they have seen that Communism, even when disguised as military government, cannot suppress the soul of the people. Do they ever wonder, nay even fear, whether the day will not dawn when their own people will give voice to their feelings and frustrations?

Freedom of conscience is a natural right which laws did not give and which law can never take away.

It is the countries of the democratic West which recognise the limits of the power of the state, and which enshrine the conscience of man, in the very structure of their institutions. It is this which is the burden of our responsibility to mankind. Surely this was what Churchill meant when he said in a war-time broadcast to this country: “United we can save and guide the world. Divided the dark ages return” .

Those words are as true today as they were in June 1941.

Our ideals and our values are our living strength. Soviet ideology teaches that we in the West are like ripe apples, ready to fall into their laps: that all they have to do is shake the tree.

As someone else might have said: “some apple, some tree” .

Anglo/American relationship

Mr. Chairman, I yield to Winston Churchill in many things but not in his admiration and affection for this country.

The American commitment to freedom is the lynchpin of the West. You have shown incomparable generosity to others as we, in Europe, have good cause to know. By promoting post-war economic recovery through the Marshall plan, by offering the shattered European democracies your military protection, by contributing your resolve and strength to the Western alliance. You have made possible that remarkable renaissance of Western Europe which stands in such stark contrast to the Eastern half of our continent.

Differences between us?

Yes, we have a few. But they are as nothing compared with the things we share, our resolve to defend our way of life, to deter all threats and to ensure in the end that triumph of freedom which America and Britain work for, long for and believe will one day come.

Mr. Chairman, I began with Winston Churchill, and I will end with him. Who better? Churchill wrote; “where we are able to stand together and work together for righteous causes, we shall always be thankful, and the world will always be free.”