Boris Says the Strangest Things

Boris Says the Strangest Things

Boris JohnsonBoris John­son, whose book, The Churchill Fac­tor, is fet­ed wide­ly, speaks his mind with a smile. Like Mr. Oba­ma, he’s a chap I’d like to share a pint with at the local.

But fame and lik­a­bil­i­ty don’t a Churchill schol­ar make. And in that depart­ment, Boris John­son needs some help.

His remarks are quot­ed from a Novem­ber 14th speech at the Yale Club in New York City.

Boris Fact-checks

1) Lend-Lease, Roosevelt’s World War II “loan” of $50 bil­lion worth of war materiel to the Allies, “screwed” the British.

I queried Pro­fes­sor War­ren Kim­ball of Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty, edi­tor of the Churchill-Roo­sevelt Cor­re­spon­dence and sev­er­al books on World War II, who wrote:

The U.S. did not con­struct Lend-Lease to take advan­tage of Britain. FDR and Trea­sury Sec­re­tary Mor­gen­thau reject­ed sug­ges­tions that Amer­i­ca take own­er­ship of British pos­ses­sions. The ini­tial agree­ment com­mit­ted Britain to so-called “free” trade, aimed pri­mar­i­ly at the Empire. This angered the British (includ­ing Keynes), but turned out to be meaningless.

Britain received 60% of Lend-Lease—$31.4 bil­lion (near­ly half a tril­lion today). Churchill regard­ed Lend-Lease “with­out ques­tion as the most unsor­did act in the whole of record­ed his­to­ry.” (Churchill By Him­self131)

Destroyers or Bathtubs?

2) Roosevelt’s “Destroy­ers for Bases” deal (Sep­tem­ber 1940, six months before Lend-Lease) was “heav­i­ly biased against Britain.” The fifty aged destroy­ers Britain received (in exchange for Amer­i­can bases on British pos­ses­sions) were “use­less bathtubs.”

This is both wrong and beside the point. Churchill said the Amer­i­cans had “turned a large part of their gigan­tic indus­try to mak­ing muni­tions which we need. They have even giv­en us or lent us valu­able weapons of their own.” (Churchill By Him­self, 129) Naval his­to­ri­an Christo­pher Bell, Dal­housie Uni­ver­si­ty, Hal­i­fax, author of Churchill and Sea Pow­er, writes:

Churchill was eager for the old destroy­ers, know­ing full well that they were WW1 vin­tage. They nev­er­the­less helped fill a gap at a crit­i­cal time. A mea­sure of Churchill’s deter­mi­na­tion to obtain them was his will­ing­ness (men­tioned in my book) to trade one of Britain’s new bat­tle­ships for them—an idea the Admi­ral­ty quick­ly shot down.

Pro­fes­sor Kim­ball adds the major point May­or John­son misses:

What mat­tered, as any thought­ful per­son knew and should know, is that Destroy­ers-for-Bases was a remark­able com­mit­ment by FDR and Amer­i­ca to Britain’s aid—if it could hold on. It was seen, and was intend­ed to be seen, as a morale builder in the UK, at a time when morale was crucial.

FDR’s Funeral

3) Churchill did not go to Roosevelt’s funer­al in 1945 because he was “miffed” at the President.

Facts: Ger­many was near­ing sur­ren­der, in a war that had taxed Churchill and Britain for six years. Would you go? Yet Churchill’s first impulse was to go. I owe these ref­er­ences to my col­league Paul Courtenay:

“At the last moment I decid­ed not to fly to Roosevelt’s funer­al on account of much that was going on here.” (Churchill to his wife in Mary Soames, Per­son­al Let­ters, 526). “Every­one here thought my duty next week lay at home.” (Churchill to FDR con­fi­dant Har­ry Hop­kins in Mar­tin Gilbert, Win­ston S. Churchill VII: 1294.) “P.M. of course want­ed to go. A[nthony Eden] thought they oughtn’t both to be away together….P.M. says he’ll go and A. can stay. I told A. that, if P.M. goes, he must. Churchill regret­ted in after years that he allowed him­self to be per­suad­ed not to go.” (Diaries of Alexan­der Cado­gan, 727.)

4) Remem­ber­ing Churchill’s “snub” of the Roo­sevelt funer­al, Pres­i­dent John­son took revenge by not attend­ing Churchill’s funer­al in 1965.

No: The Pres­i­dent was suf­fer­ing from a bad case of the flu. He sent Chief Jus­tice Earl War­ren and Sec­re­tary of State Dean Rusk. Pres­i­dent Eisen­how­er joined them and gave a mov­ing eulo­gy on the BBC. Pres­i­dent John­son said: “When there was dark­ness in the world…a gen­er­ous Prov­i­dence gave us Win­ston Churchill…. He is history’s child, and what he said and what he did will nev­er die.”


Boris repeat­ed sev­er­al alleged Churchill quo­ta­tions on which “I ‘eard dif­fer­ent” from eye-witnesses.

“I’ll kiss him on both cheeks—or all four if you pre­fer.” The object of that crack was De Gaulle, not the Amer­i­cans. “Proud to be British” involved an old man mak­ing improp­er advances to a young lady, not the way John­son spins it. Of course Churchill, who often stored and retread­ed favorite wise­cracks, might have said the same thing at dif­fer­ent times.

On the big issues, though, it would be a nice thing if Boris would run his state­ments past a schol­ar, lest they add to the cacoph­o­ny of Churchill tall sto­ries that pol­lute the Internet.

4 thoughts on “Boris Says the Strangest Things

  1. Anoth­er fac­tu­al mis­take in The Churchill Fac­tor is the descrip­tion of HMS Belfast as a Bat­tle Cruis­er. She is of course a Cruis­er, and with six-inch guns she is a light cruis­er. A Bat­tle Cruis­er was a design from the end of WW1 which was bat­tle­ship sized with bat­tle­ship fif­teen-inch guns but with lighter armour for high­er speed (the speed of a Cruis­er). HMS Hood would be the most famous exam­ple, Repulse and Renown were oth­ers. A Bat­tle Cruis­er would be near­ly twice the size of HMS Belfast, clos­er to the size of a mod­ern Amer­i­can air­craft carrier.

  2. Thank you for your vig­i­lance regard­ing Churchill’s detrac­tors. As I made my way through The Churchill Fac­tor, my hero was begin­ning to fall off the pedestal I put him on. Could it be John­son is attempt­ing to emu­late the charm of Churchill to which John­son crit­i­cal­ly attrib­ut­es Churchill’s suc­cess­es? Though I enjoyed the book, Major John­son falls short. WSC has returned to his noble upright posi­tion, high on his pedestal.

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