Like Churchill before him, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy must use his rhetorical gifts to maintain American support for his nation's war effort, writes Matthew Abbott.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s planned address to a Joint Session of the United States Congress on Wednesday comes at a pivotal time for Ukraine as the country has endured months of war following Russia’s invasion in February 2022. Comparisons have already been drawn between Zelenskyy’s planned address and that of another wartime leader: Winston Churchill.
Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer addressed the US Senate on December 21 and underscored the historic nature and gravity of the speech to come: “Where Winston Churchill stood generations ago, so too will President Zelenskyy stand here today, not just a president but also as an ambassador of freedom itself.” Churchill served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during World War II and addressed the US Congress on three separate occasions: twice during World War II and once following the war in 1952.
This will not be Zelenskyy’s first time speaking to Congress. Zelenskyy already addressed an informal meeting of Congress via video earlier this year. Yet this visit – his first known international trip since the onset of hostilities in Ukraine in February – will give him the opportunity to formally address members of the Senate and House of Representatives. The address will become one of the more than 120 given by a foreign leader to Congress since the first instance in 1874.
Churchill’s first address to Congress took place in December 1941 mere weeks after the United States entered World War II following the attack at Pearl Harbor. He delivered a rousing speech that underscored the stakes of American involvement in the war while making the case for democracy and its values. Likewise, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wrote in her invitation to Zelenskyy that, “The fight for Ukraine is the fight for democracy itself.”
Zelenskyy, like Churchill, is known for his oratory and wit. And those rhetorical skills will be put to the test at a particularly critical time for his country. While Churchill stated in his 1952 speech that, “I have come here to ask not for gold but for steel, not for favors but for equipment,” Zelenskyy’s visit comes as Congress is approaching a vote on another $45 billion in economic and military aid for Ukraine in the omnibus funding bill. Zelenskyy’s speech will certainly underscore the vast economic support provided by the US and other countries – aid that, if the new package is approved, would total more than $100 billion from the US alone.
Despite bipartisan support for Ukraine in the US Congress, there are also some members who have voted against aid packages for the country or are calling for more accounting of the aid being sent. The American public also seems to be growing wary of a drawn out war: recent polling from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs indicates that 47% of Americans now want Washington to urge Kyiv to settle for peace as soon as possible.
The stakes are high for Zelenskyy, and his speech Wednesday night will likely reflect this. Yet, as Winston Churchill said over seventy years before in the same location,: “Some people may be startled or momentarily depressed when, like your President, I speak of a long and a hard war. Our peoples would rather know the truth, somber though it be. And after all, when we are doing the noblest work in the world, not only defending our hearths and homes, but the cause of freedom in every land, the question of whether deliverance comes in 1942 or 1943 or 1944, falls into its proper place in the grand proportions of human history.”
Tonight, Zelenskyy has the stage to deliver his own message that will be recorded in the annals of history and may very well chart the course of his country’s future.
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