“Americans will do the right thing….”

“Americans will do the right thing….”

AmericansAs 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 about Americans.Kudos to NPR for get­ting it right. Of course, all the politi­cians quot­ed man­aged to mis­quote the misquote!

“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: 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 in World War II.

Lack of Provenance

This is one of the few 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 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.

7 thoughts on ““Americans will do the right thing….”

  1. When con­tem­plat­ing Churchill’s often con­flict­ed atti­tude toward Amer­i­ca, it’s impor­tant to remem­ber that his moth­er was American.

  2. Great com­men­taries, Richard. Love it.You always give seri­ous and inter­est­ing com­men­taries. That’s why I like read­ing your stuff. Of course, Churchill is always fascinating.

  3. Inter­est­ing sub­ject. Many would not see this like­ly apoc­ryphal 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.”​ When exact­ly did Churchill have this trouble?

    “Yes there were times, I think you knew….” Churchill was appalled over Wilson’s naiveté at Ver­sailles. He railed over U.S. insis­tence that Britain repay every debt from World War I, which had cost Britain the flower of a gen­er­a­tion. He crit­i­cized the U.S. sys­tem of recur­rent elections—many still do today. He chafed over Amer­i­ca stay­ing out of World War II as long as she did. He argued over when and where to invade Hitler’s Europe, and was depressed over FDR’s appar­ent “tilt” toward Stal­in at Teheran. But from the time he set foot in Amer­i­ca, Churchill nev­er devi­at­ed from the belief in the cen­tral­i­ty of Anglo-Amer­i­can friendship. 

    The “spe­cial rela­tion­ship,” born in 1940, had been nur­tured by his Amer­i­can men­tor Bourke Cock­ran four decades ear­li­er. To under­stand Churchill is I think to appre­ci­ate or at least accept his belief in the pri­ma­cy of the UK-US rela­tion­ship, which nev­er wavered, how­ev­er often he dis­agreed with U.S. pol­i­cy. And 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.”

  4. 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 utli­mate­ly. Cheers.

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