Winston Churchill’s Rule of Criticism after the Fact

Winston Churchill’s Rule of Criticism after the Fact

Q: On criticism

A piece in the Wall Street Jour­nal was enti­tled, “Once Again, Churchill Sets a High Stan­dard.” It explained that Churchill “had a rule of nev­er crit­i­ciz­ing a pol­i­cy after the event unless he had giv­en his opin­ion before.” Did he real­ly have such a rule? —M.M., Cleveland

A: Churchill’s rule

The Jour­nal could say that on good authority.

In the third para­graph of his pref­ace to The World Cri­sis, Churchill writes:

I have made no impor­tant state­ment of fact relat­ing to naval oper­a­tions or Admi­ral­ty busi­ness, on which I do not pos­sess unim­peach­able doc­u­men­tary proof. I have made or implied no crit­i­cism of any deci­sion or action tak­en or neglect­ed by oth­ers, unless I can prove that I had expressed the same opin­ion in writ­ing before the event…. In every case where the inter­ests of the State allow, I have print­ed the actu­al mem­o­ran­da, direc­tions, min­utes, telegrams or let­ters writ­ten by me at the time, irre­spec­tive of whether these doc­u­ments have been vin­di­cat­ed or fal­si­fied by the march of his­to­ry and of time. The only exci­sions of rel­e­vant mat­ter from the doc­u­ments have been made to avoid need­less­ly hurt­ing the feel­ings of indi­vid­u­als, or the pride of friend­ly nations.[1]

Second World War memoirs

In the third para­graph of his pref­ace to The Gath­er­ing Storm, Churchill writes:

I have adhered to my rule of nev­er crit­i­cis­ing any mea­sure of war or pol­i­cy after the event unless I had before expressed pub­licly or for­mal­ly my opin­ion or warn­ing about it. Indeed in the after-light I have soft­ened many of the sever­i­ties of con­tem­po­rary con­tro­ver­sy. It has giv­en me pain to record these dis­agree­ments with so many men whom I liked or respect­ed; but it would be wrong not to lay the lessons of the past before the future.[2]

I pro­vide the sec­ond quote in full con­text because it shows Churchill’s char­ac­ter­is­tic col­le­gial­i­ty. That is some­thing sad­ly lack­ing in today’s polit­i­cal dis­course. Churchill’s prac­tice, wrote Sir John Kee­gan, invest­ed “the whole his­to­ry with those qual­i­ties of mag­na­nim­i­ty and good will by which he set such store, and the more so as it deals with personalities.”[3]

Qualifications and afterthoughts

The World Cri­sis and The Sec­ond World War com­prise Churchill’s for­mal mem­oirs of the two great cat­a­clysms of the past cen­tu­ry. They were writ­ten 25 years apart. Yet it seems rea­son­able to con­sid­er the pre­cept he expressed in both as his “rule of criticism.”

Cyn­ics might right­ly observe that Churchill was often on both sides of major issues: Free Trade, India, Sovi­et Rus­sia. Thus he could cite the side which suit­ed his lat­er mem­oirs. That is true, but in time he usu­al­ly end­ed up with the right con­clu­sion. William Man­ches­ter beau­ti­ful­ly cap­tures this quality:

Churchill, how­ev­er, always had sec­ond and third thoughts, and they usu­al­ly improved as he went along. It was part of his pat­tern of response to any polit­i­cal issue that while his ear­ly reac­tions were often emo­tion­al, and even unwor­thy of him, they were usu­al­ly suc­ceed­ed by rea­son and gen­eros­i­ty. Giv­en time, he could devise imag­i­na­tive solu­tions. Rus­sia [in 1919-21] had been more than he could handle—though it should be remem­bered that he would have been con­tent to see a social­ist regime there pro­vid­ed it renounced whole­sale slaugh­ter. But his record had been impres­sive in South Africa, the Mid­dle East, and Ire­land. He was pre­pared [in 1930-35] to accept provin­cial self-gov­ern­ment in India pro­vid­ed Britain retained cer­tain rights of “para­mount­cy,” includ­ing con­trol of for­eign affairs, com­mu­ni­ca­tions, and defense. What he could not over­look was that India, Gand­hi­an satya­gra­ha notwith­stand­ing, was a land of violence.[4]


[1] Win­ston S. Churchill, The World Cri­sis, vol. 1, 1911-1914 (Lon­don: Thorn­ton But­ter­worth, 1923, 6-7).

[2] Win­ston S. Churchill, The Sec­ond World War, vol. 1, The Gath­er­ing Storm (Lon­don: Cas­sell, 1948), xi.

[3] John Kee­gan, quot­ed in Richard M. Lang­worth, “A Connoisseur’s Guide to the Book of the Cen­tu­ry,” in Finest Hour 108, Autumn 2000, 42.

[4] William Man­ches­ter, The Last Lion: Win­ston Spencer Churchill, vol. 1: Visions of Glo­ry 1874-1932 (Boston: Lit­tle Brown, 1983, 844-45.

Further reading

Wikipedia: Churchill’s World War Accounts, His­to­ry of Mem­oirs?,” 2022

Churchill’s Mag­na­nim­i­ty: Stan­ley Bald­win,” 2021

Win­ston S. Churchill’s Three Best War Books,” 2020

One thought on “Winston Churchill’s Rule of Criticism after the Fact

  1. Great Sum­ma­ry. I’m glad you spec­i­fy the source and page# as well. Con­grats to your read­ers for ask­ing impor­tant ques­tions and inves­ti­gat­ing the sources of info they read.

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