“Americans will do the right thing….”

by Richard Langworth on 20 November 2011

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.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Richard Langworth October 14, 2016 at 10:15

Thanks for the kind words, Richard. K.B.O.

Richard Munro October 13, 2016 at 18:37

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.

Richard Langworth October 13, 2016 at 08:24

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.”

Richard Munro October 12, 2016 at 20:35

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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