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 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.

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