Prudence, the Crucible: Five Portraits

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In the modern era of endless news and a thousand blogs for every opinion, the ability to gather one's wits and act prudently on the world stage is almost mythical. World leaders are somehow diminished in the 21st century. Some of this may be a consequence of their ubiquity thanks to that entire media, but there are other possible factors as well. The great leaders of the 20th century had vigorously cultivated character, forged through adversity and with determination. Among these personalities, the question of right judgment and its consequences loomed large – and history was shaped by their ability to rise to its challenge. 

Winston Churchill

In Winston Churchill's complex public life, he consistently demonstrated the unmistakable quality of temerity. Early on, he stubbornly satisfied his personal desires through public pursuits, using the power of the Churchill name to feed his hunger to be in the middle of military action. Later, he would sublimate that stubbornness and use it to force the issue on the positions he held that were least popular and about which he was most certain. In some cases, when he did so, he demonstrated poor judgment. Often, however, he was well ahead of the curve. He had a tremendous sense of history, as was evinced in his massive history of Britain, and that allowed him to see what was coming and prod the country and its allies into action while others were still reacting. He did not always strike gold, however; early in his career, he pushed for the Dardanelles attack during World War I, a strategic blunder that led to the bloody Gallipoli Campaign, leaving a half million dead (Klein, 2014). Was it an early, ambitious overreach? By the arrival of Hitler, Churchill's sense of the political and the military would be much more finely tuned, and he became the lone voice of warning against a madman. History remembers the many lost at Gallipoli but also the many more that could have been saved had Churchill been heeded. Later, Churchill would switch his political party, then change back again, to be in the midst of power (Johnson, 2010, p. 23). This was very likely a manifestation of that overreaching ambition once again, but he weathered criticism of the move both times and was closer to the levers of power than he otherwise would have been. If it was not wise in the moment in terms of his reputation, it was nevertheless practical. Gallipoli was neither wise nor practical, and it was an expensive lesson to learn. One hopes that the sharper Churchill that emerged later in life owed something of that skill to the tremendous cost of his early mistake.

The world felt that Hitler was the manifestation of bellicose Germany fussing over the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Churchill paid closer attention to his new foe and thought differently. The general opinion, completely accepted by Chamberlain, was that Hitler was responding to a sense in Germany of the injustice of the treaty. Churchill knew he had no sense of justice, only an appetite for power and expansion. He spoke out against the appeasement that happened anyway, and he was vilified for it (Mann, 2010). Later, he would be hailed as prescient. This ability to persist in one's opinions even when everyone near says those opinions are wrong might have been lost as a result of his early misjudgment, but it seems that he resolved instead to not make such blunders.

Churchill only grows stronger over time in the sagacity of his judgment, his pragmatism, and his willingness to step out in front of the pack. When he needed allies to fight the Nazis, he made a pact with the Soviets. This was roundly condemned, and he was labeled inconsistent. Had not he condemned the Communists? There was no question that he had. His change in attitude was only a pragmatic calculation. The Nazis, with their endless blood lust and appetite for expansion, would never stop. He saw Hitler was insatiable. On the other hand, he understood the intellectual roots of Marxism and knew the Soviets saw the coming of a new age as inevitable. He reasoned that they would not be so driven by time, even if they also had expansionist visions. Once the war was brought to a conclusion, he returned to his position that the Soviets were an adversary and always would be. Some considered him inconsistent. Instead, he was operating as a master of realpolitik on the world stage.

His judgment was not always so sound. Race was a blind spot for him. As a result, he miscalculated the capacity of the Japanese, and it cost the British dearly. He also resisted Indian independence, which put him squarely on the wrong side of history. He made substantial errors, but he acted, and he was right more often and more significantly than he was wrong. His prudence was integrated into his ability to persist in believing in himself, and his dedication to clear perception and right judgment.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

For a society enamored of the underdog and allergic to authority, the story of Martin Luther King, Jr. has become one of resilience and triumph in the face of a failed system. There is a great deal of truth in that assessment. Certainly, the United States had failed again and again to rid itself of the scourge of slavery, even after the bloodiest war that was ever fought on its lands pitted citizen against citizen, racism emerged, the Hydra's head removed and grown back via Jim Crow laws and lynching. King introduced nonviolent strategies that flummoxed his opponents. He somehow convinced a people that had waited for centuries for change to not wait but to not be angry, either; instead, to demonstrate and march and sit in with grace and dignity. It was a colossal feat, without a doubt, and the Goliath of racism was bested by the David of people power. 

But the concomitant sense that the power of nonviolence is universal, that King could have accomplished the same anywhere, is based upon a level of comfort with democratic living that is so deeply entrenched that it is hard to think of another way of life. In essence, this belief amounts to saying that King would have beaten the gulags, that he would have undone Auschwitz. Through an analysis steered by the question of prudence – whether he had it, how much, and how was it used – this conception will be tested.

One of the principle issues of King's day was racism, and some would say that it continues to be one of the main issues of American society today. Americans are an impatient lot, and like to solve problems all at once. If they cannot, they lose interest. Despite this national proclivity, King made the whole country move slowly through the question of whether mean and women should be separated from one another due to the color of their skin and he led legions to the places where that was happening and said of them that they would take whatever abuse what handed out but they would not stay segregated. In this way, he was able to break the back of the system of laws that were keeping African Americans and white Americans officially apart.

As a champion of civil rights in the United States, King did much of his inspiring through oratory as well as deeds, and his language is suffused with a progressive Christian theology that believes in the transformative power of love. This religious worldview, this belief in the triumphant, humble church, the church that is the Ecclesiastes, the assembly of people, and not the place, it was this that allowed him the courage that another person may not have been able to maintain. It also compromised his ability to be prudent. He was on a religious journey and had some idea that it might be fatal to him. In the end, of course, it was fatal, but he told his followers shortly before that he was ready for death. That was the imprudence of the man, which his work could be left undone so that he would go where he pleased and say what he pleased.

To many, this speaks to the courage of King, and this is also true: He was a courageous, imprudent man. It also speaks to the strength of the country's democratic roots. Even as he criticized the laws of the nation, police came out to defend him. And the people bled for him. They did not riot. They trusted enough, saw freedom close enough to bleed for him – to his unending anguish (Frady, 2002, p. 8). Even as he committed crimes and went to jail, the leader of the country, who also had great faith in democracy, was rooting for him. These unlikely circumstances work in his favor, miraculously, for a long time, and they allowed him to lead profound change for the nation. They also would have been impossible in an authoritarian regime, or even a less robust democracy. King's work was great, but it was great to the extent that the nation he changed was great. He himself knew this and said so in his speeches. He was mobilizing the people to use their rights as citizens – this was the necessary lever (Frady, 2002, pp. 33-34). King knew that he could only achieve his goals to the extent that America was free, and he judged his time by the weaknesses of the democracy. Some preferred force over the vote; these would work against him and work against the country's moral fiber. What he did not know was whether it would come too soon for his changes to last, for his beloved community to come into being. 

It was not only that some part of the country was tired of racism and had fought against it for generations; it was also that the country was tired of the logic of violence. While King peacefully demonstrated in the streets, the president sent soldiers to fight and die in Vietnam, and the nation could not understand why. Those that understood and believed in the communist threat were increasingly perplexed by the endless body bags and the apparent dislike of the soldiers sent to save the country by just about everyone in the country. Whether that point of view was accurate or not, soldiers were coming home and telling stories of the limited power of violence to effect change, which made King's fantastic journey even more attractive. The old ways were no longer working; revolution was in the air. King pointed to a way where change could happen, life in America could get better, and the seemingly decaying power of force did not resist. In the end, this was where he was headed, a transformation of all of America, before his life was cut short (Frady, 2002, p. 6).

It did not resist because the country was based upon it not resisting. The Constitution protected King from at least federal oppression while states and individuals fought against him. The country's leaders rooted for him because he was invigorating the very thing that kept them all in business- democracy.

A more jaundiced generation followed King and told him nonviolence was not the way, and it seems, as one reads the papers in 2015 America, that their view has endured. It was King, however, who made change, and to the extent that the country continues to be a democratic force, it will be through nonviolence that people are able to continue to effect positive change in the U.S. and in any other highly developed democracy. King was perhaps the more reckless leader, as he was called to a spiritual path and less afraid for his life than a normal person, but his legacy is truly the one that will outlast the violence and hatred. It is the necessary course in democracy, but it must be understood as endemic to some initial freedom. There must be some restraint in the government, some concern about public opinion, for a nonviolent strategy to take hold and flourish.

Ronald Wilson Reagan

The vicissitudes of the reputation of President Ronald Reagan have to be one of one of the most instructive cycles for students of power and ambition in the late 20th century. Reagan's critics accuse him of being an ineffectual leader who let his cabinet run the country. Although he had great polling numbers at the height of his popularity, his reputation also suffered some setbacks. In the end, however, it seems that the legacy of the man who reinvigorated conservativism in the U.S. will be that he brought lasting peace to the world and a restored presidency to the United States.

President Barack Obama likes to praise Reagan, but it is unlikely the two would have had much to talk about, were they to have ever met. Obama is a smart man, but he is also sure of himself. Early in his career, he approached Valerie Jarrett, who would become an important advisor to his presidency and, trying to convince her of his prospects, he declared, “There's something about me.” This story, as told by Jarrett, is not one that could be said of Reagan. His approach to his presidency was humble, not unlike another Obama – and American – favorite Oval Office occupant, Abraham Lincoln. Reagan spoke up for America and bragged about the nation, but he did not have to do much bragging about him. Instead, he got things done. In his humility and his focus on efficacy as a manager, he displayed great prudence.

Reagan believed in less government, the inherent wrongness of taxation, and the evils of communism (Mervin, 1989, p. 283). He did not stake out these positions; he did not poll them to gauge their merit. He believed them in his heart, and he made important decisions based on those beliefs. These were to him the great challenges of the U.S., along with the need to be strong in the world and for the country to have faith, as he did, in its promise. Armed with absolute conviction, Reagan pursued these ideas and in some way achieved all of them during his tenure. His first year in office, as noted by scholar David Mervin, he achieved a huge increase in military spending, a huge cut in domestic spending, and the largest tax cuts in American history (Mervin, 1989, p. 276). Later, some of those achievements would be dialed back, but they made a huge impression, and if politicking led to compromise, the vision for the country they conveyed was heard loud and clears, and a lot of Americans liked what they heard.

Living in a post-Communist era, we are able to comfortably second guess the Cold Warriors. Exhibits showcase Russian propaganda posters with a whiff of nostalgia. Vladimir Putin rattles a saber and we can almost be charmed by his diminutive stature – or at least relieved that he does not have the full power of the USSR at his disposal. Some will argue to this day that the collapse of the Soviet Union was inevitable and that Reagan's arms race and cuts to domestic spending to pay for it was completely unnecessary. By even the most fundamental, nonpartisan political level of analysis, these claims do not stand up to scrutiny. There is no doubt that the military health of the United States was a point of calculation for Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the U.S.S.R. Its dissolution in 1991 was largely an acknowledgment that it could no longer maintain the military presence its hegemony demanded. Only with a robust American defense budget would that be a consideration. The vigor with which Reagan infused the military aspect of the U.S. had to have disheartened the Cold War foe, its own economy crumbling. Arguably, this was the wisest decision of his presidency – the pushing of the Soviet Union to its breaking point.

Reagan’s great domestic legacies are the suspicion Americans now have of “entitlement programs” and belief in the efficacy of the presidency. Americans will not trust the office in and of itself, but they do believe in its ability, in the right hands, to make change. When Reagan took office, the legacy he inherited was stained with the disgrace of Richard Nixon and somewhat limp as a result of Jimmy Carter's inability to convey a sense of the strength of the country. Through his accomplishments and his facility at running the administration, he showed that the presidency could mean something and could get things done once again (Mervin, 1989, p.  281). Ironically, Obama can likely thank Reagan for the ability to pass health care reform. Only with the perceived power to make change could such an ambitious transformation have been pushed by the White House.

Internationally, Reagan's legacy is problematic outside of his victory over the Soviet Union. As was the case with every president before him, his efforts to fight little wars hobbled him. His South American adventures were particularly egregious in the way they attempted to sidestep Congress through exotic arms deals and funding schemes. Without a doubt, he was not prudent in the way he attempted to support the rebels in Nicaragua, known as the Contras. If he was not aware of the details, then he was equally imprudent in that important moment of delegation. It may be that the presidents of the 20th century were right to fight proxy wars in an effort to demolish Communism, but it was always a costly effort. In fact, it is the Iran-Contra scandal that truly besmirched Reagan's reputation as he appeared confused and out of control, thereby feeding into two-dimensional caricatures of his affable manner.

In assessing Reagan's ultimate legacy, it is worthwhile to ask what the value of the national mood is to the health of the nation. What Reagan did in a way that no president until Obama was able to approach was fill the country with a sense of possibility. Feeling proud of one's country was mainstream again, after a difficult cultural malaise, thanks to Reagan. In a democracy, this attribute should not be underestimated. Countries succeed and fail based upon the national spirit, which can be turned to destructive ends when it is pessimistic. Reagan believed in America. He loved it, and he loved the presidency, and he made a lot of people love them again, too. The nation and the institution were revitalized by the spirit of Ronald Reagan. 

Pope Pius XII

The much-maligned Catholic Church and the pop culture fascination with all things Nazi collided toward the end of the 20th century with an unfortunate new epithet: Hitler's Pope. The term was coined as the title of a 1999 book that purported to reveal a conspiracy between the Catholic Church and Pope Pius XII and Hitler to facilitate the Holocaust. The Church's terrible track record in managing sex abuse cases and a growing dislike in developed nations of the constraints of traditional religions made the accusation too attractive to resist. The moniker stuck, and now a man once beloved by Jews and Catholics alike for his defense of the Jewish people during the dark years of World War II.

Unlike the technology created by Werner von Braun, Pius XII has been credited with saving as many as hundreds of thousands of Jewish people during the Holocaust. He was also an early voice of warning about the dangers of Hitler's ideology. On January 19, 1940, the Pope instructed Vatican radio to condemn Nazi atrocities in Poland, which it referred to as “the dreadful cruelties of uncivilized tyranny” (Dalin, 2001, p. 7). He spoke out against the bombed of the vulnerable by Nazis in his 1940 Easter homily. On May 11, 1940, he referred to the invasions of Belgium, Luxemburg, and Holland as the result of “a world poisoned by lies and disloyalty and wounded by excesses of violence” (Dalin, 2001, p. 7). Pius XII's 1942 Christmas message, in which he articulated a vision for a new world order based on peace and love, was condemned among Nazis as directed against them and in favor of the Jews (Dalin, 2001, p. 7). If he was less vocal later on, it should not be assumed that there was some agreement between him and Hitler. Instead, the move was likely strategic, in that some criticism of the Nazis by others in later years led to reprisals. Was this prudent? Dalin suggests that stronger condemnation by the Pope may have jeopardized his efforts to save Jewish people, especially those hidden in the Vatican and among clergy all over Italy, in part under his direction (2007, p. 10). Of course, not only would the people under the protection of the Church have been at risk, but the priests who were protecting them would have been at risk of slaughter. 

There are two strikes against the church that fuel these rumors. The first is an agreement signed by the Church in 1933, an agreement that laid out the rights of the Church under the Third Reich. As it turns out, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, who would become Pius XII, was secretary of state for the Vatican and therefore was the signatory for the Church. To some, this is a smoking gun. Certainly, it is an early misstep. Hitler took it as a ratification of the Reich by the Church – which, in essence it was. As explained by Robert Krieg in his 2003 account of the agreement, Pacelli and Pope Pius XI understood their primary duty as protecting the Church's institutions in Germany. What this reveals is a stunning piece of bad judgment in terms of underestimating the Reich, but one among many committed this early in its existence by several heads of state. It is an imprudent act, but not enough to justify accusations of a conspiracy. Another major issue is why, once he became Pope and saw the atrocities of the Reich, Pius XII did not excommunicate Hitler. He certainly could have easily done so, along with the rest of the Reich's leadership. Again, the explanation is strategic. There is reason to believe that such a step would have led to reprisals against the Church – perhaps even an invasion. 

Was Pius XII less courageous than he should have been? This is an important question and one that is not easy to answer. Unlike traditional heads of countries, Pius' faithful were scattered all over the world. He may have been trying to keep as many safe as possible. If, by condemning the Reich earlier, he could have prevented some death and destruction, then he made some bad decisions. But who is to say that is the case?

In the end, the numbers tell the story that some try to obfuscate. While roughly 80 percent of Europe's Jewish population was destroyed in the Holocaust, 80 percent of the roughly 40,000 Jewish people in Italy were saved (Dalin, 2007, p. 10). This combined with efforts of Catholic priests and brothers and nuns all over Europe may have been the largest, most successful rescue operation. It is easy to strike out at a target as large and powerful as the Catholic Church. The great danger in this case is to create a false narrative that winnows down the number of friends Jewish people had in dark times, and to minimize the courage of countless of people who risked all to do the right thing. It feeds into a certain kind of lightweight cynicism, and perhaps that is the attraction. Thinking the world is simply filled with self-interested people makes a decadent reading of the world a little easier. In this case, the facts reject that perverse perspective.

Charles de Gaulle

Charles de Gaulle's greatest challenges to his legacy may be the company he kept – including his own mind. His actions in response to the invasion of France by the Nazis were certainly on the right side of history. The practical manifestation of his vision for the future of France and Europe when he made his comeback years later was by and large fulfilled. 

He was a talented soldier and is largely remembered as a military man. He was noticed for his ability in the 1930s – and for his arrogance. He did not endeavor to make friends. Instead, he fought for what he thought was best – and he was often right. With his mentor, Philippe Petain, he sought a mobile, well-equipped army when ideas about warfare in France were heavy and slow. He was rising in the ranks and had control over the Fourth Armored Division when history played a cruel trick on him and the Nazis took control of France. He fled the country, headed to London, and, in stroke of genius, established the London base of the Resistance, which he called Fighting France. While the French government was negotiating with Hitler, de Gaulle was broadcasting from London. It allowed the country an alternate narrative, a Resistance when it was as aspirational as anything. Indeed, all these years later, the legend of the French Resistance has become legendary, and the country that saw itself as Europe's head can tweak the fact that it was subdued by the Germans. 

Later, after the liberation of France, de Gaulle would not be able to stay in power; he did not like politics, as it turned out (Weber, 1995). Nevertheless, he came to the aid of his beloved country once again in 1958 and oversaw the transformation of France into, among other things, an important architect of a more unified Europe. This, however, is where the prudence of the head of the Resistance is sorely lacking. De Gaulle loved France so much that he could only see it as the leader of Europe. This is likely what gave him the audacity to declare a French Resistance when there was not one. And it led to a vision of the European Union that did not align with reality. Eventually, reality grew tired of the increasingly out-of-touch lion of the Resistance and he ended his comeback. 

To have led the fight against Germany among the French, to have led France in its difficult years in the middle of the 20th century, there is little question de Gaulle required prudence and grit. These things he had and it may be that he is simply unable to compete with the figures that surround him. He has the courage of a soldier and he made two or three brilliant tactical moves on the political chessboard. If he were not among towering figures like Churchill and Roosevelt, he might be remembered more generously. He was on the right side of history, and he was an effective leader. Where his prudence was lacking, he could be forgiven. Yet he somehow seems pale in comparison to other figures in the history of World War II and its aftermath. 


Among these men there are some salient features that deserve brief mention. There is a self-confidence, even as one blunders, a willingness to continue through the consequences and not be intimidated by history. Many display a commitment to country – an almost rabid passion for it – and a kind of complete identification. There is a firm faith in and dependence upon democratic ideals – in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s case, it is a defining quality, in Churchill's it also explains him, certainly his motivations. Reagan seemed to believe that he could endow the entire country with his faith in its system.

They have all been maligned in various ways across the years and many have been vindicated. The path of action is a difficult one, and it is increasingly so, as the ability to act is hindered by a much larger media environment and a more fraught and self-doubting political system. To take the measure of a handful of men who have done so, who endured the criticisms and the complaints in order to make a difference, to leave their mark on the world, is a worthwhile exercise and a reminder that there is a grey area in every story, that what matters in the end may be something as simple as the faith one has in one's own convictions.


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Fenby, J. (2010). De Gaulle's shadow still lies over France. The Guardian. Retrieved from

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