Galloping Lies, Bodyguards of Lies, and Lies for the Sake of Your Country

Galloping Lies, Bodyguards of Lies, and Lies for the Sake of Your Country

About lies. Can you please advise whether or not Sir Win­ston Churchill said: “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”  Many thanks. —A.S., Bermuda

That one lies with Cordell Hull

Cordell Hull (Library of Congress)
Cordell Hull (Library of Congress)

It was Franklin Roo­sevelt‘s Sec­re­tary of State, Cordell Hull, not Churchill. I have a slight vari­a­tion of it in the “Red Her­rings” appen­dix of  Churchill by Him­self, page 576: “A lie will gal­lop halfway round the world before the truth has time to pull its breech­es on.”  Although com­mon­ly ascribed to Churchill (who would have said “trousers,” not “breech­es”), this is def­i­nite­ly down to Hull. See Mem­oirs of Cordell Hull. 2 vols. (New York: Macmil­lan, 1948), I, 220.

From Wikipedia: Cordell Hull (1871-1955) was an Amer­i­can politi­cian from Ten­nessee. He is best known as the longest-serv­ing Sec­re­tary of State, hold­ing the posi­tion for eleven years (1933–1944) in the admin­is­tra­tion of Pres­i­dent Roo­sevelt dur­ing much of World War II. Hull received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1945 for his role in estab­lish­ing the Unit­ed Nations, and was referred to by Roo­sevelt as the “Father of the UN.”

Hull resigned as Sec­re­tary of State in Novem­ber 1944 because of fail­ing health. Roo­sevelt described Hull, upon his depar­ture, as “the one per­son in all the world who has done his most to make this great plan for peace (the Unit­ed Nations) an effec­tive fact.” He died on 23 July 1955 at age 83, at his home in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and is buried in Chapel of St. Joseph of Ari­math­ea in the Wash­ing­ton Nation­al Cathe­dral.

Winston Churchill on Lies and Lying

As a prac­tic­ing politi­cian Win­ston Churchill had a pass­ing acquain­tance with lies. It seems he had more affec­tion for them than Cordell Hull. “In wartime,” he famous­ly told Stal­in at Teheran in 1943, “Truth is so pre­cious that she should always be attend­ed by a body­guard of lies.” Stal­in, who relied on lies reg­u­lar­ly, found this uproar­i­ous­ly funny.

Less known but more along Hull’s line is a 1906 Churchill crack—but he didn’t orig­i­nate it. “There are a ter­ri­ble lot of lies going about the world. And the worst of it is that half of them are true.” (Sounds like Yogi Berra!) That also made my “Red Her­rings” appen­dix. While Churchill used the words, he quick­ly cred­it­ed them to a “wit­ty Irishman.”

One orig­i­nal we safe­ly ascribe to Churchill ran in the Dai­ly Tele­graph in 1994, from Vice-Admi­ral Sir William Craw­ford (1907-2003). It is a line all politi­cians should sub­scribe to, but few ever admit they do. On a vis­it to the Home Fleet at Scapa Flow in 1941, Churchill board­ed HMS Rod­ney. Its offi­cers lined up on the deck to receive him. One asked: “Prime Min­is­ter, is every­thing you tell us true?”

“Young man,” said Churchill, “I have told many lies for the good of my coun­try. I will tell many more.”

3 thoughts on “Galloping Lies, Bodyguards of Lies, and Lies for the Sake of Your Country

  1. A good ques­tion but out of my depth. I asked Prof. War­ren Kim­ball, author of the Churchill-Roo­sevelt Cor­re­spon­dence and oth­er books on their wartime rela­tion­ship, who replies as follows:

    Much of what Dr. Capet writes is accu­rate. Cordell Hull was ini­tial­ly appoint­ed for his strong polit­i­cal con­nec­tions with Con­gress, hav­ing served served eleven terms in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives (1907–21, 1923–31). Elect­ed to the Sen­ate in 1930, he resigned in 1933 to become Sec­re­tary of State. He was a sol­id New Deal­er and a Wilson­ian inter­na­tion­al­ist who won the Nobel Prize in 1945 for his role in cre­at­ing the Unit­ed Nations. But he was nev­er part of FDR’s inner cir­cle.  He did pro­mote Roosevelt’s “Good Neigh­bor Pol­i­cy” toward South Amer­i­ca, and sup­port­ed aid to Britain in the pre­war years. But from the out­set, Pres­i­dent Roo­sevelt pre­ferred to use Sum­n­er Welles as his first-line diplo­mat. Hull did not attend any of the major wartime con­fer­ences, while Welles par­tic­i­pat­ed in the ones held in the U.S. and Cana­da before his res­ig­na­tion in 1943. There­after, Averell Har­ri­man became FDR’s major rep­re­sen­ta­tive in wartime Europe. 

    Hull’s one great moment came when he flew to Moscow in autumn 1943 to meet with his fel­low for­eign min­is­ters, Eden and Molo­tov. Hull and Roo­sevelt had dif­fer­ences about how to struc­ture the post­war world, par­tic­u­lar­ly over FDR’s “four police­men” approach, which Hull feared could become lit­tle more than spheres of influ­ence. But ego more than sub­stance was what set them apart. Hull’s pride was well stroked by his appoint­ment to head the Amer­i­can del­e­ga­tion. Eco­nom­ic lib­er­al­ism, decol­o­niza­tion, sus­pi­cion of Britain, Chi­na as a bal­ance-weight in Asia, and post­war coop­er­a­tion were broad con­cepts he and the Pres­i­dent could agree on—and by then the goal was to get the British and Sovi­ets to agree to the prin­ci­ples, not the details. 

    More­over, Hull was dis­in­ter­est­ed in mil­i­tary affairs and would not get enmeshed in the Sec­ond Front or Mediter­ranean strat­e­gy dis­putes. Roo­sevelt met Hull on his return from the for­eign min­is­ters’ meet­ing, but bare­ly lis­tened to the Secretary’s report. As Hull com­ment­ed some­what for­lorn­ly in his mem­oirs, the Pres­i­dent “was more inter­est­ed in dis­cussing the forth­com­ing con­fer­ences at Cairo and at Teheran,” than hear­ing any­thing more than high­lights of the Moscow talks.

  2. I am intrigued by the fact that he fig­ures so lit­tle in the lit­er­a­ture on Churchill and the Sec­ond World War, notably in the Offi­cial Biog­ra­phy. It seems that he was nev­er there when Churchill met the Pres­i­dent, nev­er par­tic­i­pat­ed in their din­ners and oth­er leisure activ­i­ties. He nev­er served as a trust­ed inter­me­di­ary between the two lead­ers, unlike Har­ry Hop­kins and Averell Har­ri­man. Also, where­as Churchill often took Antho­ny Eden with him to inter­na­tion­al con­fer­ences, Roo­sevelt left Cordell Hull at home, or so it seems. 

  3. Lov­ing the truth was sure­ly one of Churchill’s virtues. Telling the truth is a virtue in the right time, right place, right cir­cum­stances, and in the right man­ner. That is called polit­i­cal pru­dence. Thank you for this. K.B.O

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