“Americans will always do the right thing, after all other possibilities are exhausted”

“Americans will always do the right thing, after all other possibilities are exhausted”

In 2011, Con­gress ded­i­cat­ed a new bust of Win­ston Churchill in the U.S. Capitol’s Stat­u­ary Hall. (Is it still there? These days you nev­er know.)

Around the same time, Con­gress was engaged in the peren­ni­al mock debate about rais­ing the debt ceil­ing. (The ceil­ing was rather low­er then. If my ceil­ing had been raised as often in the last ten years, I’d be faced with zon­ing violations.)

In the debt ceil­ing debate Sen­a­tor Angus King (I.- Me.) deployed, for the 3,408th time, a dubi­ous Churchill apho­rism: “Amer­i­cans can always be trust­ed to do the right thing, once all oth­er pos­si­bil­i­ties have been exhausted.”

Did Churchill ever say any­thing like that? The answer is: unproven. It is in my quo­ta­tions book, Churchill By Him­self, page 124, Chap­ter 8 (Amer­i­ca), under the head­ing, “Char­ac­ter­is­tics of Amer­i­cans.” But I waf­fled in the accom­pa­ny­ing note:

Cir­ca 1944. Unat­trib­uted and includ­ed ten­ta­tive­ly. Cer­tain­ly he would nev­er have said it pub­licly; he was much too care­ful about slips like that. It can­not be found in any mem­oirs of his col­leagues. I have let it stand as a like­ly remark, for he cer­tain­ly had those sen­ti­ments from time to time.

Lack of provenance

This is one of the few quotes in my book for which I could not find sol­id attri­bu­tion. I was been told that it came from Sir John “Jock” Colville‘s mem­oirs, but I couldn’t find it there. Nor did Sir John men­tion it in our con­ver­sa­tions. If proven apoc­ryphal it will go to my appen­dix of inac­cu­rate quo­ta­tions,  enti­tled, “Red Her­rings.” In the mean­time, it sticks: for­mer Con­gress­man Paul Ryan used it awhile back (slight­ly inac­cu­rate­ly) in a speech at Clare­mont Insti­tute.

It’s a great line—more appro­pri­ate right now than it was in 2011. Undoubt­ed­ly Churchill nursed those sen­ti­ments, though maybe not pub­licly. Here is anoth­er remark along those lines which we do know is genuine:

Their nation­al psy­chol­o­gy is such that the big­ger the Idea the more whole­heart­ed­ly and obsti­nate­ly do they throw them­selves into mak­ing it a suc­cess. It is an admirable char­ac­ter­is­tic, pro­vid­ing the Idea is good. —The Sec­ond World War, vol. V, Clos­ing the Ring (Lon­don: Cas­sell, 1952), 494.

Reader comments

The post above is reprised from its first pub­li­ca­tion ten years ago. At the time it drew these com­ments by readers:

Mic­ah: “Quote Inves­ti­ga­tor offers what seems to be a pret­ty cred­i­ble geneal­o­gy of this quote. They attribute it to Abba Eban (1915-2002), a long­time Israeli For­eign Minister.”

There’s no rea­son to doubt Q.I. Don’t you wish we could find the exact moment where some gag becomes Churchillian Drift? It is now broad­ly accept­ed that Nan­cy Astor told Churchill’s close friend F.E. Smith that if she were mar­ried to Smith, she’d put poi­son in his cof­fee. F.E.—a great wag, and faster off the cuff than Churchill—replied that if he were mar­ried to her, he’d drink it. Wouldn’t it be fun to know pre­cise­ly when some vil­lain drift­ed that crack from the for­got­ten F.E. Smith to the leg­endary Churchill?

Richard Munro: “I have often heard it quot­ed, even by rep­utable his­to­ri­ans. You are right to be cau­tious. In any case it is not real­ly very com­pli­men­ta­ry to Amer­i­cans. I always thought it was unChurchill-like in its slight anti-Amer­i­can­ism. I think it will be found to belong to some­one else ultimately.”

Many would not see this remark as anti-Amer­i­can, but as a plain expres­sion by a friend—and after all, it has often been true. As has been said, “A friend is some­one who knows all about you, but likes you.”

Recent­ly a promi­nent his­to­ri­an said Churchill “could nev­er quite make up his mind whether Amer­i­ca was Britain’s friend or Britain’s ene­my.” Are we sure about when exact­ly WSC had that trouble?

“Yes there were times, I think you knew….” 

Churchill was appalled over Woodrow Wil­son’s naiveté at Ver­sailles. He railed over U.S. insis­tence that Britain repay every debt from the First World War, which had cost Britain the flower of a gen­er­a­tion. He crit­i­cized the U.S. sys­tem of set four-year elections—many still do today. WSC chafed over Amer­i­ca stay­ing out of World War II until Japan forced her hand. He argued over when and where to invade Hitler’s Europe. FDR’s appar­ent “tilt” toward Stal­in at Teheran depressed him. But from the time he set foot in Amer­i­ca, Churchill nev­er devi­at­ed from the belief in the cen­tral­i­ty of Anglo-Amer­i­can fra­ter­ni­ty. Nev­er did he lose hope in “the Great Republic.”

The “Spe­cial Rela­tion­ship,” born in 1940, had been nur­tured by his Amer­i­can men­tor Bourke Cock­ran four decades ear­li­er. To under­stand Churchill is to appre­ci­ate his belief in the pri­ma­cy of U.S. friend­ship, which nev­er wavered, how­ev­er often he dis­agreed with U.S. pol­i­cy. That was estab­lished on his first vis­it to Amer­i­ca in 1895, when he wrote his broth­er: “This is a very great coun­try, my dear Jack.”




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