Dan Reiter


On his book How Wars End

Cover Interview of December 31, 2009

A close-up

The chapter on the American Civil War describes what may have been Lincoln’s finest moment as president. During the summer of 1864, Northern public support for the war was collapsing.  If Lincoln did not make a peace deal with the Confederacy, including renouncing the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation which freed the Confederate slaves, he was guaranteed to lose the November presidential election to the anti-war Democrat George McClellan.

But Lincoln refused to negotiate, specifically refusing to budge on the Emancipation Proclamation.  The Proclamation had enhanced the Union’s military power by encouraging blacks to fight for the Union and against the Confederacy.  Lincoln feared that if he backtracked on the Proclamation, it would inspire the Southern states to break any peace agreement and demand full independence.  Such an outcome would, in Lincoln’s mind, lead to the unraveling of the entire Union.  Lincoln preferred losing the fall election and sacrificing his political fortune on the altar of freedom to winning a Pyrrhic electoral victory and see his beloved Union become, in the words of his predecessor James Buchanan, “a rope of sand” disintegrating as each state went its own way.  Fortunately, General William Sherman’s great victory at Atlanta in September 1864 boosted Union public support for the war, and saved Lincoln’s presidency as well as perhaps the Union itself.

Another fascinating case is Winston’s Churchill’s decision to fight on against Germany in late May 1940.  Things looked quite bleak for Britain.  France was falling, and Germany was racking up a string of other conquests of Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Norway.  The Soviet Union was at this point a German ally.  America was not yet even close to entering the war.  Germany appeared poised to invade Britain after conquering France, and Britain’s prospects for fending off such an attack were dim. 

Some of Britain’s highest leaders, such as Lord Halifax, urged Churchill to negotiate with Hitler in order to save the country from conquest.  But Churchill refused.  He thought that Hitler would not abide by any war-ending peace deal.  Hitler would demand that Britain hand over its navy and its colonial possessions; after doing so Britain would be at Germany’s mercy.  So, because he deeply distrusted Germany, and despite Britain’s precarious position, Churchill decided to take his chances and continue to fight, rather than strike a deal with Hitler. 

It was during the months that followed that Churchill gave his most stirring speeches encouraging Britons to fight on: “We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”  More tersely, he also declared, “If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”