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Misquotes and Corrections

Obama, Churchill and Torture
Not Quite the Great Man's Words
by Richard M. Langworth

Mr. Langworth (www.richardlangworth.com) is editor of the Churchill Centre quarterly Finest Hour and of Churchill by Himself, an annotated collection of 4000 Churchill quotations.


In his press con­fer­ence of 29 April, in response to a ques­tion on the dis­clo­sure of top secret memos on the use of “enhanced inter­ro­ga­tion meth­ods,” Mr. Obama said:

I was struck by an arti­cle that I was read­ing the other day talk­ing about the fact that the British dur­ing World War II, when Lon­don was being bombed to smithereens, had 200 or so detainees. And Churchill said, ‘We don’t tor­ture,’ when the entire British—all of the British people—were being sub­jected to unimag­in­able risk and threat….the rea­son was that Churchill under­stood — you start tak­ing short­cuts, over time, that cor­rodes what’s best in a peo­ple. It cor­rodes the char­ac­ter of a country.

While it’s nice to hear the Pres­i­dent invoke Sir Win­ston, the quo­ta­tion, includ­ing para­phrases and key sec­tions of it, is unat­trib­uted and almost cer­tainly incor­rect. While Churchill did express such sen­ti­ments with regard to prison inmates, he said no such thing about pris­on­ers of war, enemy com­bat­ants or ter­ror­ists, who were in fact tor­tured by British inter­roga­tors dur­ing World War II.

Obama seems to have been mis­led by Andrew Sullivan’s recent arti­cle in The Atlantic, “Churchill vs. Cheney,” which calmly urges that Vice Pres­i­dent Cheney be prosecuted. The British, Sul­li­van wrote,

cap­tured over 500 enemy spies oper­at­ing in Britain and else­where. Most went through Camp 020, a Vic­to­rian pile crammed with inter­roga­tors. As Britain’s very sur­vival hung in the bal­ance, as women and chil­dren were being killed on a daily basis and Lon­don turned into rub­ble, Churchill nonethe­less knew that embrac­ing tor­ture was the equiv­a­lent of sur­ren­der to the bar­barism he was fighting….

“Churchill nonethe­less knew” appears sud­denly and with no evi­dence to back it up. Sul­li­van makes no other ref­er­ence to Churchill, or to how he divined Churchill’s views on torture.

Sul­li­van likely picked this up in a three-year-old arti­cle about Camp 020’s chief inter­roga­tor, Col. Robin “Tin Eye” Stephens. In “The Truth that Tin Eye Saw,” by Ben Mac­in­tyre (Lon­don Times Online, 10 Feb­ru­ary 2006), Stephens is iden­ti­fied as an MI5 offi­cer who extracted con­fes­sions out of Nazis: “a bristling, xeno­pho­bic mar­tinet; in appear­ance, with his glint­ing mon­o­cle and cig­a­rette holder, he looked exactly like the car­i­ca­ture Gestapo interrogator.” Stephens was ter­ri­fy­ing, Mac­in­tyre wrote:

Sus­pects often left the inter­ro­ga­tion cells leg­less with fear after an all-night grilling….he deployed threats, drugs, drink and deceit. But he never once resorted to violence….This was no squishy lib­eral: the eye was made of tin, and the rest of him out of tung­sten. (Indeed, he was dis­ap­pointed that only six­teen spies were exe­cuted dur­ing the war.) His motives were strictly prac­ti­cal. “Never strike a man. It is unin­tel­li­gent, for the spy will give an answer to please, an answer to escape pun­ish­ment. And hav­ing given a false answer, all else depends upon the false premise.”

Nowhere does Mac­in­tyre men­tion or quote Churchill. Incidentally, Stephens was cleared of a charge of “dis­grace­ful con­duct of a cruel kind” and told he was free to apply to rejoin his for­mer employ­ers at MI5.

The CIA argues that “enhanced inter­ro­ga­tion” works, John McCain says it does not. Who­ever is right, the “Tin Eye” Stephens story is not the whole story. Accord­ing to recent research the British did use such meth­ods: in the “Lon­don Cage,” a POW camp in the heart of Lon­don, “where SS and Gestapo cap­tives were sub­ject to beat­ings, sleep depri­va­tion and starvation.”*

Churchill spoke fre­quently about tor­ture, mostly enemy treat­ment of civil­ians. I thank Larry Kryske for this exam­ple, from Churchill’s World War I mem­oir, The World Cri­sis, vol. 1, page 11: “When all was over, Tor­ture and Can­ni­bal­ism were the only two expe­di­ents that the civ­i­lized, sci­en­tific, Chris­t­ian States had been able to deny them­selves: and these were of doubt­ful util­ity.” (His gen­eral sen­ti­ment is clear enough, though com­bined with “can­ni­bal­ism,” this seems likely to refer to prac­tices of invad­ing armies.)

In World War II, when he had ple­nary author­ity, it is hard to imag­ine Churchill being unaware of activ­i­ties at places like the “Lon­don Cage.” His daugh­ter once told me, “He would have done any­thing to win the war, and I dare­say he had to do some pretty rough things—but they didn’t unman him.”

If Churchill is on record specif­i­cally about “enhanced inter­ro­ga­tion,” his words have yet to surface. The near­est I could come to his sen­ti­ments on tor­ture tech­nique refers not to ter­ror­ists or enemy com­bat­ants but to prison inmates. In 1938, respond­ing to a con­stituent who urged him to help end the use of the “cat o’nine tails” in pris­ons, Churchill wrote: “the use of instru­ments of tor­ture can never be regarded by any decent per­son as syn­ony­mous with justice.”**

If that line appeals to Mr. Obama, he can cer­tainly use it with confidence.


* Ian Cor­bain, “The Secrets of the Lon­don Cage,” The Guardian, 12 Novem­ber 2005. The Cage was kept secret, Cor­bain, wrote, though a cen­sored account appeared in the mem­oirs of its com­man­dant, Lieu­tenant Colonel Alexan­der Scot­land. Cor­bain does not men­tion Churchill, but to believe Churchill wasn’t aware of this activ­ity would be ask­ing a lot.

** Mar­tin Gilbert, edi­tor, Win­ston S. Churchill, Com­pan­ion Vol­ume V, Part 3: Doc­u­ments: The Com­ing of War 1936-1939. Lon­don, Heine­mann: 1982,1292. n.2.

Grate­ful acknowl­edge­ment to Larry Kryske for the World Cri­sis ref­er­ence; to Alex Spillius, “Obama Likes Win­ston Churchill After All,” Daily Tele­graph,30 April 2009; and to Tele­graph read­ers respond­ing to his article.


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