Over the last few days I’ve been looking at articles comparing Ukrainian President Zelensky with a Winston Churchill. Most see a favorable comparison but with some substantial differences. Beyond the things noted in many of the articles, including the one written on March 9 by Zachary B. Wolfe, a Senior Writer at CNN (@zbyronwolf) – to see more

  • like Churchill in 1940 and1941, although the United States is furnishing a fair amount of war materiel, Zelensky is facing a vastly superior military force with no allies;
  • just as Churchill knew that he was at the center of the Nazi bull’s-eye, Zelensky acknowledges that he is “target number one”
  • while Churchill did not abandon London at any time during the Blitz, so too Zelensky has chosen to remain in Kyiv as it is being attacked; and
  • just as after Churchill became Prime Minister, Britons looked to him as children would look to a parent – for protection, wisdom, courage, and consistency under grim circumstances, the Ukrainians look toward Zelensky similarly.

As Wolfe points out, unlike Churchill, Zelensky cannot, however, empower his people with his fervent belief that they will prevail. But, as he does, he overstates Churchill’s ability to rely on the likelihood that in 1940-41 the United States would have actively participated in the war in Europe.

Before Pearl Harbor there were strong isolationist feelings in America. Indeed, during the 1940 presidential election, Roosevelt was forced to run on a platform assuring that the United States would not get involved in another European war. (And for the first 2½ years of World War II the United States did not participate.) Pearl Harbor, which of course was an attack by the Japanese, did not change this. That is on December 8, 1941 the United States declared war on Japan — not on Germany. Churchill was, in fact, worried that America would fight against the Japanese but not assist Britain and Russia in the ongoing war in Europe. But Hitler relieved the Prime Minister’s concern on December 11, when he declared war on the United States. (He had promised the Japanese he would do so even though under Germany’s agreement with Japan, she did not have to declare war on America and in fact Hitler had urged Japan not to attack America but rather to go after the British and the Russians.) Had Hitler not taken it upon himself to declare war against the US, many historians believe that it would have been exceedingly difficult for Roosevelt to have gotten the US to join the European war.

Wolfe’s article also mentions Douglas Brinkley’s opinion that Zelensky is more appropriately compared to Vaclav Havel and Leich Walensa. I have great respect for Mr. Brinkley and his pointing to similarities between Zelensky and both Havel and Walensa is well taken. However, he too easily dismisses important parallels between Churchill and Zelensky.

First, one of the overriding things that can be taken from Churchill’s story is that great national leaders can come from anywhere. In Churchill’s case, prior to September 1939 he had been out of Government for the preceding 10 years, and even after Chamberlain’s poor showing in a no confidence motion in the House necessitated his resignation, Churchill was not the first choice to succeed him. But for the fact that Lord Halifax turned down the job, Churchill may never have even become Prime Minister. Zelensky may have been a comedian/actor without much seasoning for the presidency –but here he is, leading Ukraine in a time of great crisis and doing an excellent job.

Moreover, while Churchill did believe in the Empire, Brinkley also unduly minimizes Churchill’s pro-democracy feelings. Just five weeks after becoming Prime Minister Churchill told the House of Commons that Britain was fighting for the freedom of Europe and the world; something that he would reiterate many times. Likewise as WWII was waning, Churchill put in much energy, with little return for Britain, to saving democracy in Greece from a Communist takeover. At that time he also continued to press Stalin adamantly for free and fair elections in Soviet-occupied Poland. This is a man who fervently believed in democracy and abhorred totalitarianism. In that regard he and Zelensky share something extremely important.