One cliché sure to linger well after our current predicament goes along the lines of, “We’re in unknown territory now.” It conveys an obvious truth but not the whole truth. Better to change the angle of view: less hand-wringing about the future—which might, but probably won’t, be as dire as the blamers and calamity-mongers insist, and which in any case lies in large part beyond our power to control—and more remembering of the past, which lies within our power to understand.

This writer is now seventy-one years old and indeed has known nothing like this atmosphere of fearful unknowing in his lifetime: not the stock market crash of 2008, not 9/11, not the Cuban Missile Crisis, not the recurrent polio scares of boyhood that finally ended with a safe vaccine in 1955. Virtually no one now lives who can remember the great epidemic that followed World War I. A few remain with us, however, who can remember a time when the horizon seemed as assuredly “unknown territory” as this epidemic does to us now: the summer and fall of 1940 in Britain. One of them is the Queen, another an old friend of the author.

The Queen’s speech on Sunday, April 5, reminded us that, as a voice of calm confidence and conviction, she is beyond compare. No American head of state has come close since Reagan and Roosevelt, no figure in British public life since Churchill. That Sunday night, with her chief minister gravely ill, Her Majesty (and her writers) enlisted a historical moment in the cause: her debut childhood speech in October 1940, with her sister Margaret Rose at her side, to children of the Commonwealth at home and abroad.

All of us children who are still at home think continually of our friends and relations who have gone overseas, who have travelled thousands of miles to find a wartime home and a kindly welcome in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States of America. . . . I can truthfully say to you all that we children at home are full of cheerfulness and courage. We are trying to do all we can to help our gallant sailors, soldiers and airmen, and we are trying too, to bear our own share of the danger and sadness of war.

After the fall of France and the Dunkirk evacuation, whether you sat in the Cabinet Room deep beneath Whitehall or were a princess or a village schoolboy, you shared two knowns. Britain stood alone, and a frightful (the German schrecklich says it better) fury was certain soon to be turned upon her. You also shared frightful unknowns: What kind of fury? From where? To what degree? For how long? We know the story’s (relatively) happy ending. The British did not.

“National spirit,” in the Queen’s words, belongs not to the past alone. Lest there be any doubt, she virtually talked it into being that Sunday, with the same technique Churchill used in “Their Finest Hour”—projecting listeners forward in time and then turning back their eyes from the future onto now: “I hope in years to come everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge. And those who come after us will say Britons of this generation were as strong as any.” The speech was meant to inspire and sustain a wide canvas of humanity; it was inclusive in the best sense. For a screen-habituated populace, the producers interspersed video clips illustrating all walks of life sharing in the fight: doctors, nurses, caregivers, logistics crews, soldiers, police and rescue workers, children and the elderly.

To confirm or correct my observations about this monarch and those times, I turned to an old friend of mine, an Englishman the same age as the Queen who grew up in Oxfordshire and remembers her then. He paused a bit before answering. “Well you know, when you’re a boy,” he said (it has been eighty years since he turned fourteen), “about all you can see is where you are every day, which of course was school and family.” The masters at his grammar school never said a word about politics, just kept pounding on the Latin and math. He was too young to go to the pub where the men talked after work. His shopkeeper father, who had survived the Somme and lost his first wife and child in the Great Influenza, said very little about big events. His mother was pessimistic about the future. His aunt who had come down from the North to look after granny was, though bandaged from an explosion, optimistic about everything. They all had an instinctive faith in the Navy to repel invasion. Just in case the Germans did come, he recalled, great elms were felled and mounted on cart wheels to be swung across the lanes to obstruct the Panzers. He listened religiously to the BBC news bulletins on the wireless at six o’clock each evening. Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” speech moved everyone. All the schoolboys worked in the summer on local farms as “spud-pullers.” And with two chums and their rifles, my friend became a respectable poacher on nearby estates for rabbit, squirrel, and whatever else might go into the pot at home. He loved “aeroplanes” in any form—“theirs or ours.” He watched high overhead what was the developing Battle of Britain. He paid a shilling to touch a shot-down ME-109. He heard the bombers coming in “the night they got Coventry.” No one had any whiff of victory for two more years, until El Alamein, when it “looked like we really could beat them.”

Americans must go back to the early 1930s and the assault of the Great Depression to find the same feeling the British had in 1940—the sense that “the world as we know it” (risking another cliché) was about to change forever, and not for the good. But both peoples are in the same boat now; the Queen speaks to the United States, too. Among the speech’s mere 523 words, we find an old term, strange-sounding in our do-whatever-you-want culture: “Resolve.” Just get on with it, however long it takes, with handwashing and not hand-wringing, with good humor, self-discipline, and fellow feeling. (Thank you, Your Majesty, for not saying “compassion.”) My old friend, the Queen’s contemporary, also watched her Sunday performance. He had a career in photography and observed that, words aside, all you had to do was look in order to predict the rock-solid message to come: nothing too shiny, nothing too dull.

Queen Elizabeth II during her video address on April 5, 2020.

A Message from the Editors

As a reader of our efforts, you have stood with us on the front lines in the battle for culture. Learn how your support contributes to our continued defense of truth.