“Americans will do the right thing..”

by Richard Langworth on 20 November 2011

As Con­gress ded­i­cated a new bust of Win­ston Churchill in the U.S. Capitol’s Stat­u­ary Hall on Octo­ber 29th, NPR con­sid­ers a famous non-quotation by Win­ston Churchill.  Kudos to NPR for get­ting it right. Of course, all the politi­cians quoted mis­quoted the mis­quote! Oh well….

“The Amer­i­cans can always be trusted to do the right thing, once all other pos­si­bil­i­ties have been exhausted.”

Did Churchill say it? I’m asked often.

The answer is: unde­ter­mined! 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 in World War II.*

This is one of the very few Churchill quotes in my book that I could not find among his 15 mil­lion pub­lished words and 35 mil­lion about him. I have been told that it came from Sir John Colville’s mem­oirs, but I can’t find it there, nor did Sir John men­tion it to me in our con­ver­sa­tions. If proven apoc­ryphal it will go to my appen­dix of inac­cu­rate quo­ta­tions,  enti­tled, “Red Her­rings.” In the mean­time, it sticks: Con­gress­man Paul Ryan recently used it (slightly inac­cu­rately) in a speech at Clare­mont Insti­tute.

It’s a great line (and fairly appo­site at the moment). Here’s another Churchill 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 Warvol. V, Clos­ing the Ring (Lon­don: Cas­sell, 1952), 494.

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