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 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 War, vol. V, Closing the Ring (London: Cassell, 1952), 494.