LOOKING back on his country's dire predicament in the dark years of World War II, the leader whose wartime speeches did everything that words could possibly do to change the course of history observed: ``Rhetoric was no guarantee of survival.'' Words, alas, were no substitute for weapons and armies. But Winston S. Churchill's magnificent oratory touched the boundary between saying and doing, revealing the point at which words become deeds in publishing the truth, expressing and interpreting the meaning of events, and inspiring people with the will not only to survive but to prevail.

To an extent that few modern leaders have equaled, Churchill was a man of words and deeds, beginning his career in the last years of the 19th century as a soldier and journalist, emerging as spokesman, chief strategist, and chronicler of Britain's greatest struggle for survival, and winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953. In an age of increasing specialization, when the politician became a sort of composite figure housing teams of speech-writers, policymakers, and image-consultants, Churchill was a living embodiment of the classical ideal of the statesman as leader, thinker, and speaker.

It is no exaggeration to say that Churchill became a byword for eloquence: His name appears in Roget's Thesaurus - in the select company of Demosthenes, Cicero, and William Jennings Bryant - as a synonym for ``orator,'' and ``rhetorician.''

Rhetoric, or the art of speaking persuasively, sometimes connotes speech that is artificial, even misleading. The artful speaker can use words to mask or twist the truth, to stir up passion while obscuring facts and logic. Yet, without rhetoric in its positive sense, it can be hard to convince people of the truth, get them to see logic, or persuade them to do what is right.

Churchill was a master of rhetoric in the finest sense of that problematic word. Phrases from his wartime speeches still resonate today. Who is not stirred by the echoes of:

``I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.'' ``Never have so many owed so much to so few.'' Seen in context, the famous phrases are even more powerful. (See his 1940 speech following the evacuation of Dunkirk.)

Beyond the grandeur of the cadences, the force and clarity of the diction, Churchill's speeches took strength from a basic truthfulness: a willingness to acknowledge the gravity of the situation and a forthright determination to say what should be done.

Much later, in his 80th birthday speech, Churchill modestly characterized the relationship between orator and public as a simple case of the former expressing the latter's will: ``... if I found the right words you just remember that I have always earned my living by my pen and by my tongue. It was a nation and race dwelling all round the globe that had the lion heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.'' Such modesty is, of course, itself a rhetorical device, but points to an essential truth about the dynamic between speaker and listeners.

THE single volume of Churchill's speeches edited by David Cannadine offers an excellent selection of the great wartime orations as well as earlier and later speeches.

The range is impressive - in style and content - from his 1901 maiden speech in the House of Commons defending Britain's conduct in the Boer War, to his witty attack on the House of Lords, his impassioned denunciation of Bolshevist tyranny in the wake of the Russian Revolution, his gallant (and, in the latter case, surprising) tributes to Franklin Roosevelt and Neville Chamberlain, his stern warning about the postwar ``Iron Curtain,'' and his prescient prophecy of European unity.

With so much to choose from, it would be easy for aficionados to quibble with Professor Cannadine's selection, but hardly worthwhile. Within the constraints of a single volume he has chosen well. Only his headnotes - superfluous to the expert, too skimpy for the ordinary reader - leave something to be desired.

Throughout his career, Churchill was no stranger to controversy, and some of the themes he sounds may strike modern readers even more jarringly than they did his contemporaries.

In a speech of 1931, he famously attacked Mahatma Gandhi as a ``seditious Middle Temple lawyer.'' His early books, recounting his adventures in India and Africa, are frankly imperialistic and rather patronizing toward other races - anathema to today's left. Yet his faith in the efficacy and moral decency of central planning and government regulation are just as repugnant to today's right. And his firm commitment to interventionism will appall isolationist elements on both sides of today's political spectrum.

One might say that while he was a great prophet of his century, speaking to its deepest moral and political concerns, he remained, in other respects, a splendid anachronism: a 19th-century prophet, a latter-day Ruskin or Carlyle committed to the values of progress, uplift, work, and benevolent imperialism.

But are these values as alien as they may at first appear, and, alien or not, can they blithely be dismissed as outdated and irrelevant?

CHURCHILL'S first book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force, focuses on a region - the Northwest Frontier of the Indian subcontinent, now the territory near the Afghan border of Pakistan - that is still the scene of ethnic/religious conflict.

Published in 1898, the year he turned 24, it is the work of a brilliant and ambitious young man, eager to absorb new experiences, prepared to ponder the large issues raised by what he reports, and confident enough to render judgment.

Churchill had managed to attach himself as a correspondent to the field force formed under the inspiredly named Gen. Sir Bindon Blood which had been organized to put down rebellious tribesmen. Churchill's staunch imperialism leads him to defend a policy that he readily admits to be economically, morally, and militarily undefensible:

``Regarded from an economic standpoint, the trade of the frontier valleys will never pay a shilling on the pound on the military expenditure necessary to preserve order. Morally, it is unfortunate for the tribesmen that our spheres of influence clash with their spheres of existence.''

This, certainly, is a position that most defenders of the Vietnam War would have blushed to take publicly. But Churchill believes that having formulated this policy, his country should stick to it: ``Dynamite in the hands of a child is not more dangerous than a strong policy weakly carried out,'' he insists.

Churchill's accounts of his adventures in southern Africa, first published as dispatches in the Morning Post, then in 1900 as two short books, London to Ladysmith via Pretoria and Ian Hamilton's March, have been combined by Norton in a single volume, The Boer War. This, of course, includes his famous story of being taken prisoner and making a daring escape. It also shows Churchill's recognition of a problem that would not go away: the quest for Afrikaner self-determination and its dark underside - the drive to dominate and oppress Africans.

My African Journey, first published in 1908, recounts the tour of east Africa that Churchill undertook in 1907 as parliamentary under-secretary of state for the colonies. His focus on the roles played by Europeans, Asians, and Africans in the development of the continent highlights a situation that became such an unexpected nightmare in Idi Amin's Uganda.

While Churchill's own propensity to classify people according to race may strike us as misguided, if not repellent, perhaps modern academics and politicians who talk so cheerfully about ``ethnicity'' should not be the first to cast stones at Churchill's efforts to understand the differences between cultures.

Other historical parallels are even more interesting. Already, in his consideration of the best way to develop east Africa, we can see some by now familiar battle lines being drawn up: private enterprise vs. state regulation; exploitation vs. conservation. Writing at a time when the wildlife of this region seemed inexhaustible, Churchill (who took the opportunity to do some big-game hunting) worried about the consequences of unchecked private exploitation of the land and its people, even as he looked forward to greater modernization and development of the region.

What ultimately makes Churchill's imperialism defensible is the sense one gets from reading him that it is part of his pride in his country's values and his ability to view history on a global scale. What almost mitigates his racial thinking is one's sense that it was not race hatred, but an attempt, however patronizing, to understand - or at very least take account of - other cultures inhabiting the globe. In some ways, even his flaws were related to his greatness.

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