Seventy years ago this summer, Americans listened intently to the radio, riveted by the static-filled reports from BBC correspondents describing the swirling dogfights over southeast Britain that would determine the fate of the free world. It was the height of the Battle of Britain -- when British Spitfire fighters confronted Nazi Messerschmitts, as German bombers ravaged RAF airfields.
Today, the compelling lessons of the Battle of Britain are still very much relevant for those military strategists and politicians charged with directing America's foreign policy at a time of war.
During the summer of 1940, after losing thousands of men and virtually all of its ground armor and weapons following their evacuation from Dunkirk, many felt that -- barring a miracle -- there was no rational reason for Britain to stay in the fight. Joseph Kennedy, America's ambassador to Great Britain and father of the future president, told Americans that "democracy was finished" in England, as he sought a meeting with Hitler "to bring about a better understanding between the United States and Germany."
Britain's new prime minister, Winston Churchill, saw things quite differently and used the soaring power of oratory to restore, rally and mobilize his citizens. There was never going to be "an understanding" between democracy and the Third Reich.
Churchill fully realized the stakes and appreciated just how bleak Britain's military position was and that the coming air battle would determine whether Britain would survive. Yet Churchill would need more than ringing oratory. He would need the Royal Air Force, its squadrons of Spitfires and a radar system that gave them precious advance warning time to counter the Luftwaffe.
Those assets did not suddenly appear. Men such as Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, who have either been forgotten or scorned by history, made strategic decisions years earlier that allowed these weapons to be created and then forged into an integrated defense system. Churchill was prepared to use their sword and shield to counter the Nazis.
Seventy years later, America can learn lessons from Churchill's galvanizing leadership and the strategy behind the Battle of Britain, as we confront today's ongoing war against terrorism. There can never be "an understanding" with an ideology that despises democracy. There can never be "an understanding" with the type of suicide bombers who crashed passenger planes into New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. There must never be "an understanding" with those despots who, many perceive, have current-day ambitions resurrected from centuries past to achieve a new era of Islamic conquests.
But the White House also cannot hamstring our forces in the field, preventing them from deploying the full sweep of our military technology when needed to ensure the protection of our troops and the victory that will deny terrorists their safe havens.
Ceremonies this summer at the American Airpower Museum outside Manhattan will commemorate the Battle of Britain. A Spitfire fighter, one of the few World War II aircraft "veterans" in the United States, will fly in tribute to those who fought against the might of the Luftwaffe. The program will invite British Consul General Sir Alan Collins to echo the words of his historic prime minister when the future of the world hung in the balance.
Churchill recognized that rallying his citizenry was just part of his job as a war leader. He was prepared to authorize the use of every weapon at his disposal to keep the enemy at bay and to destroy his ability to invade the British homeland. It was his strength and leadership in the defense of democracy that defined him in the eyes of his allies, his enemies and, ultimately, history. He understood that the Battle of Britain was just one step in a long, difficult and brutal conflict that democratic nations around the world would have to fight and win at all costs.
We will pause during the ceremonies to recall a time when worldwide civilization was at stake. It still is.
This article originally appeared in the New York Post, July 31, 2010