About that jarring gong: why Hagel already invoked a call-to-arms

On his first day in office, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited the Pentagon Memorial and later told DOD employees that those attacks were, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, a “jarring gong.” Churchill’s quote, it turns out, comes from a 1935 speech to the House of Commons. Churchill was sounding an early warning in Parliament that, according ...

Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images
Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images
Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images

On his first day in office, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited the Pentagon Memorial and later told DOD employees that those attacks were, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, a “jarring gong.”

Churchill’s quote, it turns out, comes from a 1935 speech to the House of Commons. Churchill was sounding an early warning in Parliament that, according to U.K. intelligence, Adolf Hitler’s Germany already had far greater air power than the U.K. was admitting publicly.

The U.K should be arming up, he was saying, before Germany strikes, waking up skeptical British leaders.

On his first day in office, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited the Pentagon Memorial and later told DOD employees that those attacks were, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, a “jarring gong.”

Churchill’s quote, it turns out, comes from a 1935 speech to the House of Commons. Churchill was sounding an early warning in Parliament that, according to U.K. intelligence, Adolf Hitler’s Germany already had far greater air power than the U.K. was admitting publicly.

The U.K should be arming up, he was saying, before Germany strikes, waking up skeptical British leaders.

“Want of foresight,” Churchill said, “unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong — these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.”

It was a call to arms. Britain, Churchill warned, should be rearming after its own post-World War I downsizing before “the emergency comes.”

It turns out that Churchill was wrong about the German air force. According to Paul Addison, Churchill biographer and professor at the University of Edinburgh, the Luftwaffe was not yet a threat to Britain. But Churchill, Addison wrote in an email to the E-Ring, believed a stronger deterrent force would have prevented war.

Hagel seems to be saying that the U.S. missed the threats on its doorstep. 

"Secretary Hagel used this phrase to define 9/11 as a wake-up, a pivotal moment that shook the United States and our allies, and one that forced us to rethink our national interests and security in the 21st century," a senior defense official explained to the E-Ring, on Thursday.

The new Pentagon chief already has signaled he does not intend to let the U.S. military be unprepared for or surprised by any jarring gongs. We’ll see what that means for the sequester and drawdown.

Here’s the full explanation by Addision, for you history buffs:

The quote is from a speech by Churchill in the House of Commons on 2 May 1935. The context is that Churchill had been warning for a year or more that Germany was overtaking Britain in air strength, measured by the number of front-line aircraft. The government had repeatedly claimed that the RAF had a 50% margin of superiority in front-line strength and had also promised to ensure that the RAF would never be inferior in strength to the German air force.  By May 1935 the government was compelled to admit, on the basis of its own intelligence sources, that its previous estimates had been mistaken, and that Germany had, as Hitler had recently claimed, obtained parity with Britain in the air. Sections of the British press were publishing even more alarming estimates claiming that Germany was already far ahead. Churchill himself always argued, sincerely I think, that his rearmament campaign was intended to prevent war through deterrence and collective security and he always argued after 1945 that it could have been prevented by foresight and timely action. The air historian Richard Overy argues persuasively that the intelligence sources greatly exaggerated the number of front-line German aircraft, misleading both the government and Churchill: Germany, in other words, didn’t have parity of strength in the air and as late as the Munich crisis of September 1938 the Luftwaffe posed no significant threat to Britain.

Kevin Baron is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy, covering defense and military issues in Washington. He is also vice president of the Pentagon Press Association. Baron previously was a national security staff writer for National Journal, covering the "business of war." Prior to that, Baron worked in the resident daily Pentagon press corps as a reporter/photographer for Stars and Stripes. For three years with Stripes, Baron covered the building and traveled overseas extensively with the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, covering official visits to Afghanistan and Iraq, the Middle East and Europe, China, Japan and South Korea, in more than a dozen countries. From 2004 to 2009, Baron was the Boston Globe Washington bureau's investigative projects reporter, covering defense, international affairs, lobbying and other issues. Before that, he muckraked at the Center for Public Integrity. Baron has reported on assignment from Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the South Pacific. He was won two Polk Awards, among other honors. He has a B.A. in international studies from the University of Richmond and M.A. in media and public affairs from George Washington University. Originally from Orlando, Fla., Baron has lived in the Washington area since 1998 and currently resides in Northern Virginia with his wife, three sons, and the family dog, The Edge. Twitter: @FPBaron

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