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He stood to speak before a joint session of Congress, to a packed crowd of legislators and public officials, who repeatedly interrupted his address with loud cheers. His presence there, as a foreign leader, was historic. He was one of the most famous men in the world, heralded for his tenacity and courage. He had been Time magazine’s Man of the Year, under the label, “Blood, toil, sweat, and untold courage.”
He had a gift for electrifying oratory, and he brought it on: “The wicked men and their factions, who have launched their peoples on the path of war and conquest, know that they will be called to terrible account if they cannot beat down by force of arms the peoples they have assailed,” he predicted, warning, “They will stop at nothing that violence or treachery can suggest.”
His familiar voice rumbled across the chamber, as he called on the American people to fully join the fight. “By singleness of purpose, by steadfastness of conduct, by tenacity and endurance, such as we have so far displayed, by these, and only by these, can we discharge our duty to the future of the world and to the destiny of man.” A deafening applause rose as his speech came to a close.
As I write this, Volodymyr Zelenskyy has just finished speaking before Congress, and the description above seems to fit him. The setting is similar, the appeal framed in the same way. The admiration of the audience, as well as the Time Person of the Year credit are also shared. But the scene above describes Winston Churchill, on December 26, 1941. He had traveled to Washington in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor and worked with President Roosevelt on a joint strategy before addressing Congress.
I am struck by the parallels between these two men, Churchill and Zelenskyy, who in their own times stood in the breach to defend freedom when the odds were almost insurmountable. Churchill was virtually alone in the world against Hitler, even as bombs were falling nightly on his cities. Zelenskyy wasn’t expected to survive a week after the Russian invasion, much less nearly ten months and counting. Even during his darkest moments in the early days, when there seemed little hope of victory, he was resolute, drawing inspiration from Churchill’s similar resolve. Reproducing Churchill’s words for his purposes, Zelenskyy vowed, “We will fight till the end, at sea, in the air. We will fight in the forests, in the fields, on the shores, in the streets.”
Both were leaders as well as supplicants, repeatedly sending out calls to the free world to join the fight. With a mastery of the political moment, Zelenskyy chose the timing of his December speech well, almost certainly recognizing the significance of following Churchill’s lead. Both men came to Washington in the Christmas season, on the brink of a harsh winter, which they knew would pose unimaginable hardships for their citizens and soldiers.
Zelenskyy appeared for his historic address before a joint session of Congress in the House chamber, wearing humble attire—green fatigues and a sweatshirt. He addressed Americans and all those who value freedom and justice, declaring, “Ukraine didn’t fall. Ukraine is alive and kicking.” He claimed the first great victory when Ukraine “defeated Russia in the battle of the minds of the world.”
For significance and meaningful references Zelenskyy deftly reached back into our history, quoting FDR’s expression of confidence in ultimate victory, and then going even further back to America’s war for independence, comparing Ukraine’s struggle to our own.
Both Churchill and Zelenskyy were always seeking partnership with the United States—in Churchill’s words “Common Cause.” Churchill famously acknowledged, “No lover ever studied every whim of his mistress as I did those of President Roosevelt.” Likewise, Zelenskyy’s mission was to get inside the minds and hearts of Americans and to woo its leaders, hoping for an enduring unity and continued support.
Through Churchill’s and Zelenskyy’s words and deeds we are reminded of the power of individual leaders to bring nations to their feet. How else could Great Britain have withstood its lengthy, solitary stand against Hitler—holding on long enough for the United States to join the war? How else could Ukraine, almost universally expected to be doomed, have come to represent the indestructible force that brings freedom to the world? Americans loved Churchill (often more than his own countrymen), and they love Zelenskyy, whose common humanity and raw courage are so appealing.
In the wake of these powerful appeals by irresistible men, our political leaders always have decisions to make about the scope of our commitment. There are growing concerns about the rising cost of U.S. involvement, with some fearing expenditures without end. But the man and his message were largely well received and gave a shot in the arm to Ukrainian supporters.
In the scope of history, the appeals for help from both Churchill and Zelenskyy strike a chord that runs deep, reminding us of our status as the first great democracy that other seek to emulate.