Churchill Speaks to the USA (December 1941)

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This Christmas season radio broadcast to the citizens of the USA was triggered by the events of December 7, 1941. The speech has stood the test of time and it is a seminal moment in WWII history.

Mussolini (L) & Hitler

Arguably the person who used radio most effectively, and for more lofty moral purposes than anyone else ever, was Winston Churchill during World War II.  Churchill’s eloquent, courageous, and defiant speeches on BBC radio were the thread that kept Britain’s spirit alive in the early years of the war.  The world was crumbling as his country withstood ferocious bombing attacks and grave military setbacks. Britain stood alone as Churchill mobilized the English language against Germany’s Hitler and Italy’s Mussolini.

 

Churchill & FDR meet

The resolve and strength in Churchill’s voice was beyond compare. Even Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was no slouch at communicating by the new medium of radio, could not hold a candle to Churchill’s ability to inspire and motivate the masses.

In the darkest days of the war, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Churchill set off  on a heavily fortified warship for a ten day voyage to North America to meet with FDR.  On December 22nd, Churchill arrived off the coast of Newfoundland. From there, the British Bulldog rendezvoused with Roosevelt. The two heads of state planned for war and a highlight of the Prime Minister’s three-week stay in the USA was his speech at the lighting ceremony for the National Christmas Tree.

Churchill arrived on the mighty HMS Prince of Wales
Spectators at tree lighting, 1941

After the December 7th Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, whether there would even be a tree lighting ceremony was in doubt. But, with Roosevelt’s staunch support, the event went forward on the evening of December 24th, 1941. Thousands of frightened, stunned and angry Americans gathered at the White House South Portico to share that moment.

 

National Christmas Tree

The ceremony began with President Roosevelt presenting his own somber message. Then the President introduced Prime Minister Churchill. Churchill’s remarks were typically eloquent. Even today, over the Christmas season, newspapers will tell the story of Churchill’s wartime trip to the United States and then publish the transcript of his speech. Make no mistake about it, this was a ‘radio’ event. It took place a decade before television became commonplace. At the time, the closest thing to television was newsreels — films that accompanied movies in theaters.

In the four minute video below, we join Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech in progress, shortly before his introduction of the great orator Winston Churchill.

Historical newsreel film credit: British Pathe

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Author: Steven Smith

Presently editor and historical writer with Puget Sound Media in Seattle. Former radio broadcaster and radio station owner, 1970-1999. Journalism and speech communications degrees. I enjoy researching articles and online reporting that allows me to meld together words, audio and video. P.S. I appreciate and encourage reader comments and opinions.

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