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Senate Stories | World War II


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Welcome to Senate Stories, our new Senate history blog. This blog features stories that reveal the depth and breadth of Senate history from the well-known and notorious to the unusual and whimsical. Presented to enlighten, amuse, and inform, Senate Stories explores the forces, events, and personalities that have shaped the modern Senate.

For more notable moments in Senate history, please visit our Historical Highlights collection.


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Winston Churchill Addresses Congress, 1941 202205 2Churchill’s Historic Speech to Congress
May 2, 2022
British prime minister Winston Churchill delivered a historic wartime address in the Senate Chamber before an informal meeting of Congress on December 26, 1941. In the days following the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, Congress had approved declarations of war and formally allied the U.S. with the British to defeat the Axis powers of Japan, Germany, and Italy. In Washington, D.C., to coordinate military strategy with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Churchill accepted an invitation to speak before Congress.

British prime minister Winston Churchill delivered a historic wartime address in the Senate Chamber before an informal meeting of Congress on December 26, 1941. In the days following the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, Congress had approved declarations of war and formally allied the U.S. with the British to defeat the Axis powers of Japan, Germany, and Italy. In Washington, D.C., to coordinate military strategy with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Churchill accepted an invitation to speak before Congress.1 Traditionally, Congress holds joint meetings and sessions in the more spacious House of Representatives Chamber. On this occasion, perhaps because many senators and representatives were out of town for the holidays, Senate Majority Leader Alben Barkley invited the prime minister to speak in the more intimate Senate Chamber.2 Churchill’s schedule during his visit to Washington was tightly packed with business both official and social. He met with government officials, held a joint press conference with the president, joined Roosevelt in the ceremonial lighting of the National Christmas Tree, and on Christmas Day attended services at Foundry Methodist Church. Everywhere he went, the charismatic Churchill drew cheers and applause. “In less than a week’s time,” the Washington Post noted, “Americans have caught on to one of Winston Churchill’s major characteristics—his ability to thrill a crowd.” His most significant public appearance, however, came when he spoke to Congress in the Senate Chamber.3 On the chilly morning of December 26, Capitol Hill buzzed with anticipation. Crowds gathered, hoping to catch a glimpse of Churchill’s arrival at the Capitol. Shortly before noon, the House recessed and its members proceeded to the Senate Chamber. Senate doorkeepers seated House members at desks on the side of the Chamber reserved for the Republican senators while senators crowded into desks on the Democratic side. Supreme Court justices and members of President Roosevelt’s cabinet sat in the first row. Soon, all 96 desks were occupied, forcing doorkeepers to place extra chairs at the rear of the Chamber to accommodate the crowd. Even with limited public access to the event, the visitors’ galleries overflowed with members’ families and foreign guests.4 A hush fell over the crowded Chamber as Churchill took his place at a lectern bristling with microphones. Three national radio stations broadcast his speech live, and two others delivered it overseas via shortwave radio. Powerful overhead lamps illuminated the otherwise dimly lit Senate Chamber. Newsreel cameras began to roll, recording every word for posterity.5 The prime minister began on a light-hearted note. “The fact … that here I am, an Englishman, welcomed in your midst, makes this experience one of the most moving and thrilling in my life, which is already long and has not been entirely uneventful.” The audience erupted in laughter, but soon his speech turned serious. The prime minister warned that “many disappointments and unpleasant surprises await us” and predicted that Allied forces would need more than a year to turn the tide of war. The United Kingdom had been the target of a nine-months-long German bombing campaign—known as the Blitz—and Churchill noted that the Axis powers “are enormous; they are bitter; they are ruthless.” These “wicked men” he called them, had brought evil forces into play. They must “know they will be called to terrible account.” “Now,” he stated solemnly, “we are the masters of our fate.”6 Churchill’s audience included isolationists who had resisted U.S. involvement in the overseas conflict. This bipartisan group, which included Senator Burton Wheeler, a Montana Democrat and a prominent figure in the “America First” movement, had worked to pass a series of neutrality acts to limit the administration’s financial and materiel support for Allied forces. The Pearl Harbor attack had significantly weakened this movement’s popularity, however, and Churchill noted Americans’ resolve to defeat the Axis powers. “Here in Washington,” he observed, “I have found an Olympian fortitude … the proof of a sure and well-grounded confidence in the final outcome.” His rousing speech prompted spontaneous cries of “Hear, Hear” and vigorous rounds of applause. At the conclusion of Churchill’s 30-minute address, Chief Justice of the United States Harlan F. Stone extended a “V” for victory sign. Churchill responded in kind. “The effect was instantaneous, electric,” observed one reporter. “The cheers swelled into a roar.”7 It was a speech “full of bubbling humor…, stern courage—and hard facts,” reported the New York Times, and seemed to have the intended effect of inspiring lawmakers to rally behind a unified war effort. Senator John Gurney of South Dakota offered his enthusiastic support for “complete cooperation” between the two countries, and Senator Joseph Guffey of Pennsylvania exclaimed that it was “one of the greatest speeches I have ever heard.” Even Wheeler conceded that the speech was “clever” and would appeal to the “average American.”8 After exiting the Senate Chamber, Churchill joined Vice President Henry Wallace and a select group of six House and Senate leaders for a private luncheon in the Capitol before returning to the White House. His visit to the Capitol, and the unusual occasion of a joint meeting held in the Senate Chamber, would not soon be forgotten. Churchill would return to the Capitol to address joint meetings two more times, in 1943 and 1952, an honor afforded to only one other foreign dignitary in the nation’s history.9
Notes
1. James K. Libbey, Alben Barkley: A Life in Politics (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2016), 221; Congressional Record, 77th Cong., 1st sess., December 26, 1941, 10119. 2. Robert C. Albright, “British Premier Will Address Senate Tomorrow,” Washington Post, December 25, 1941, 1; “Roosevelt and Churchill Attend Public Yule Church Services,” The Sun, December 26, 1941, 1; Libbey, Alben Barkley; John Fisher, “Give Us Victory! Roosevelt and Churchill Pray,” Chicago Daily Tribune, December 26, 1941, 3. 3. “Big Crowd Thrills as Winnie Appears,” Washington Post, December 27, 1941, 3; Fisher, “Give Us Victory!”; “Churchill Joins FDR in lighting Christmas Tree,” Chicago Tribune, December 25, 1941, 14. 4. “Churchill Tells Congress Allies Will Take the Initiative in 1943,” Washington Post, December 27, 1941, 12. 5. “Churchill to be on Radio,” New York Times, December 26, 1941, 3. 6. Senate Journal, 77th Cong., 1st sess., December 26, 1941, 515–17; “Don’t Count on Collapse in Reich, Says Churchill,” Washington Post, December 24, 1941, 1; “Churchill Promises We Will be Able to Take Initiative Amply in 1943,” Washington Post, December 27, 1941, 1. 7. “Congress Thrilled,” New York Times, December 27, 1941, 1. 8. Ibid.; “Capitol Opinion Gives Approval to Churchill Talk,” Daily Boston Globe, December 27, 1941, 2; “Churchill Speech Hailed in Congress,” New York Times, December 27, 1941, 3. 9. Gladstone Williams, “Georgian, Two Other Senators Greet Churchill,” Atlanta Constitution, December 27, 1941, 2; “Joint Meeting & Joint Session Addresses Before Congress by Foreign Leaders & Dignitaries,” History, Art & Archives, United States House of Representatives, accessed April 22, 2022, https://history.house.gov/Institution/Foreign-Leaders/Joint-Sessions/.
George S. McGovern, U.S. senator from South Dakota, 1963–1981. 202006 5A Generation of World War II Veterans
June 5, 2020
Of the 16 million Americans who served in the military during the Second World War, more than 100 later served as U.S. senators. While the heroic actions of some of them are well known—John F. Kennedy leading the crew of PT-109, for example—what about the others who went on to serve as senators? Here are a few of their stories.

Of the 16 million Americans who served in the military during the Second World War, more than 100 later served as U.S. senators. While the heroic actions of some of them are well known—John F. Kennedy leading the crew of PT-109, for example—what about the others who went on to serve as senators? Here are a few of their stories. On June 6, 1944, more than 150,000 Allied troops landed along a 50-mile stretch of beach on the coast of Normandy, France. This extraordinary military operation marked the beginning of a strategic plan to liberate continental Europe from Nazi occupation. Philip Hart waded ashore at Utah Beach that day with the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division. As he and his fellow soldiers advanced on fortified German targets, an artillery shell hit his right arm, severing the main artery. He slowed the bleeding with a hastily made tourniquet and insisted that medics attend first to a fallen comrade before consenting to his own evacuation. Hart was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. He later served 17 years in the Senate, from 1959 to 1976, representing the state of Michigan. Miles east of Hart’s location, Lee Metcalf, a commissioned officer with the army’s 5th Division, stormed Omaha Beach. Two thousand Americans died in a single day in a battle that came to be known as Bloody Omaha. American journalist Ernie Pyle later confessed what many thought at the time: “It seemed to me a pure miracle that we ever took the beach at all.” After Omaha, Metcalf helped to liberate Paris and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Discharged in 1946, he returned to his home state of Montana, where voters elected him to four terms in the House of Representatives, followed by three terms in the Senate, from 1961 to 1978. While Allied forces took Normandy beaches, James Strom Thurmond crash landed miles inland at an apple orchard near Sainte-Mère-Église, France, as part of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. Thurmond sustained minor injuries, spent the next few days in combat, and later helped to organize local provisional governments. He was awarded the Legion of Merit with Oak Leaf Cluster, the Bronze Star with Valor device, and the Purple Heart. The native South Carolinian represented his state in the Senate from 1955 to 2003. Other future senators also fought with distinction. Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Edward Brooke, a former ROTC cadet and recent graduate of Howard University, was assigned to the U.S. Army’s segregated 366th Combat Infantry Regiment. In addition to the hazards of combat, Brooke encountered daily reminders of the second-class status given to African American soldiers who fought bravely in the European theater while facing intimidation and even violence from military officials. The U.S. military barred black soldiers from the PX and officers’ clubs and granted them access to the base movie theaters only at designated times. Later promoted to captain, Brooke earned the Bronze Star and a Distinguished Service Medal. Brooke represented the state of Massachusetts in the Senate from 1967 to 1979. Throughout the war, American air power offered crucial support to Allied ground forces. Army Air Corps Lieutenant George McGovern flew a B-24 bomber on 35 missions over wartime Europe and never lost a man on his crew. The army awarded him the Distinguished Flying Cross in recognition of his “high degree of courage and piloting skill … intrepid spirit … and rare devotion to duty.” He later served three Senate terms for the state of South Dakota, from 1963 to 1981, and was the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee. In the spring of 1945, the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division began an offensive to gain control of northern Italy. Robert Dole, a combat infantry officer in the division, was critically wounded while leading his platoon on a mission to neutralize a pocket of German resisters holed up in a farmhouse. Dole spent nine agonizing hours on the battlefield awaiting his medical evacuation. The army awarded the future senator two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star with Valor device for his leadership and courage under fire. Dole represented Kansas in the Senate for 27 years, from 1969 to 1996, and won the Republican presidential nomination in 1996. That same month, another future senator fought in the Italian countryside. When the U.S. military dropped its enlistment ban on Japanese Americans in 1943, Daniel Inouye joined the U.S. Army’s segregated all-Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team. On a Tuscan battlefield in April 1945, Inouye was shot in the stomach while leading a flanking maneuver. He refused medical treatment and then organized a second attack. That’s when a German rifle grenade nearly severed his arm. Doctors later amputated it. For Inouye’s effort and perseverance, the Army awarded him the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, and the Distinguished Service Cross. Later, while recuperating in a Michigan hospital, he befriended Philip Hart and Robert Dole, both of whom were recovering from their own injuries in the same hospital. Inouye represented the state of Hawaii in the Senate for 49 years, from 1963 to 2012. These men, and more than 100 other veterans of the Second World War, shaped the Senate for decades to come. In 2013 the Senate’s last World War II veteran, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, died in office. Each year, as we commemorate D-Day on June 6, the war memorials that dot the coastline of Normandy serve as reminders of the sacrifices made by Allied forces during World War II, including the future senators who served in so many theaters of war. “We are duty bound to keep [their memory],” the Omaha Beach Museum states simply, “that future generations may never forget at what cost our freedom came.”