Johnson notes that when Hitler and the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, most Europeans failed to recognize the gravity of the threat. Winston Churchill - retired soldier, popular writer, not very popular politician - was the exception. He understood that unless free peoples acted decisively, they would come under attack, sooner or later.
Churchill was derided as an alarmist, or even a "warmonger." The economist, John Maynard Keynes, argued that Hitler had legitimate grievances. Clifford Allen, a prominent British politician, "applauded Hitler," saying: "I am convinced he genuinely desires peace." Archbishop Temple of York agreed. Hitler had made "a great contribution to the secure establishment of peace," he said.
Today, of course, it is the ruling Islamists of Iran who candidly express their aggressive and even genocidal intentions. For three decades, "Death to America!" has been the regime's rallying cry. And once again, those who argue for taking these threats seriously and acting decisively are denigrated as alarmists or warmongers. And what about Iran's grievances? Did not the CIA meddle in Iranian domestic politics in the 1950s?
In the 1930s, the Nazis bought heavy weapons from Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator, who could not imagine that Hitler would use those weapons against him a few years later. Iran's Khomeinists have been working feverishly to acquire nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. They have had little difficulty buying what they can't develop on their own from Russia, as well as from some Western European countries.
Hitler made common cause with Fascists in Italy and militarists in Japan. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has established close alliances with such anti-American leftist strongmen as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.
Iran's war machine includes Hezbollah, an international terrorist proxy. Our intelligence community appears to know little about Tehran's relations with al-Qaeda. But there can be no doubt that Shia militants and Sunni militants collaborate on occasion. The recent revelation that Osama bin Laden's closest relatives - including one of his wives, six of his children, and 11 of his grandchildren - have been living in a compound outside Tehran provides additional evidence, if any were needed.
In 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain engaged the German Fuhrer -"supreme leader" - at Munich. He returned home to announce that through his diplomatic efforts "peace in our time" had been assured. Churchill saw through this fog of self-deception. Chamberlain's diplomacy, he said, had resulted in "total and unmitigated defeat."
Today, President Barack Obama extends his hand to Iran's rulers, apparently not perceiving the significance when a spokesman for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei calls it "the hand of Satan in a new sleeve," and - adding racist insult to injury - tells the world: "The Great Satan now has a black face."
After Munich, Churchill wrote to a friend: "(T)he peace-loving powers have been definitely stronger than the Dictators, but next year we must expect a different balance." Indeed, he said, the democracies were unlikely to survive "unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigor, we arise and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time."
Today, taking a stand for freedom would require less. We would need to impose serious sanctions on Iran. In addition, it would be useful to provide - at long last - moral and material support to Iran's brave anti-regime dissidents.
In the end, Johnson's "Churchill" is inspiring and distressing. Inspiring because Churchill was, finally, vindicated. Hitler and the Nazis were decisively defeated. But it's distressing because Churchill's spirit is so little in evidence these days, while the views and values of his detractors echo in the speeches of too many Western policy makers.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.