The latest issue of Imprimis features Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn‘s assessment of key lessons we can learn about statesmanship from Winston Churchill.

The first rebuts the notion that history depends more on impersonal forces than on people and their individual choices.

It is not trends but choices that matter most at the key moments of history. These days we tend to think of history as a story of great sweeping trends and evolutions. We imagine that forces gather and play themselves out over time, and that we humans are merely the pawns with which they play. This is one reason so many are often quick to believe that the United States is in an eclipse, that new emerging powers, younger, more numerous, and located on the Eurasian center of world population, will overcome us.

The day on which Churchill put an end to the idea of a peace conference was May 28, 1940. He walked into the cabinet room and made a stirring speech, which in the diary of Minister of Economic Warfare Hugh Dalton ended with these words: “If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.” This speech, which provoked a demonstration of enthusiasm that swept throughout the government, was not a product of any trend or great evolution of history. It spoke in defiance of those forces.

No one else on that day was either inclined to make or capable of making that speech, and Churchill had only become prime minister by a series of narrow chances. No story better illustrates one of Churchill’s favorite lessons—a lesson valuable for us to keep in mind: both chance and choice play a large part in human affairs. If everything were fate, Hitler would have won the war, for he was the one who believed that everything was fated in the historical process.