Sign up for our free Churchill newsletter:
The Atlantic Takes a Dive

Print

From Finest Hour 113, Winter 2001-02

We shouldn't be upset about the shrill cries of the muckrakers.
They give us such great material!


RICHARD M. LANGWORTH

Perhaps in self-defense, The Atlantic website has now posted links to other articles about Churchill from its archives. For the list of articles, follow this link.

The cover story on the April issue of The Atlantic Monthly - "Churchill Takes A Fall: The Revisionist Verdict: Incompetent, Boorish, Drunk, and Mostly Wrong," by Christopher Hitchens - was not so bad as the title suggests.

Hitchens, a paid iconoclast who regularly skewers phonies of the left and right, takes proper aim at the politicians who've wrapped themselves in Churchillian rhetoric since September 11th. The pols are still at it, and unless they begin seriously to mobilize the citizenry it's going to take another attack to make us realize what we're up against. Instead of frisking dowagers at airports and showing us colored disks to define the current threat level, they should have declared a state of war with "the nation of terrorism," financed it with War Bonds, plugged porous borders, invaded Iraq, and started discriminating against Middle Easterners boarding airplanes. Call it racism - or call it survival. Take your pick.

Unfortunately, Hitchens larded his 10,347 word critique with every accusation against Winston Churchill except the one about how he caused the stock market crash in 1929. As Churchill once remarked, "I have never heard the opposite of the truth stated with greater precision."

The trouble with this sort of bunk is that unless it is refuted, after awhile people believe it. That's already started, with columnists bearing IQ's no higher than their body temperature going "slack-jawed" at Hitchens's "revelations" (see "Around and About" on the preceding page). So here is a response - only to The Atlantic's most egregious errors:

1. Actor Norman Shelley's ridiculous notion that he delivered Churchill's war speeches over the BBC has been laid to rest by eyewitness testimony for years. What Shelley recorded, apparently in 1943, was an obscure, unpublished Churchill speech, the origin of which has eluded even the Churchill Archives. Neither the Prime Minister's 13 May speech ("Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat") nor his 4 June speech ("Fight on the Beaches") was even broadcast by anyone purporting to be Churchill. Sir Martin Gilbert's official biography does quote a letter by Vita Sackville-West of 4 June, implying that at least part of that speech was repeated by the BBC announcer (Winston S. Churchill, London: Heinemann, 1983, VI:469). Shelley may have recorded the "Beaches" speech later, possibly for the BBC overseas
service, but no one has ever been able to track this.

2. Amusingly, Hitchens even gets the lie wrong: Shelley's role in "The Children's Hour" was "Dennis the Dachshund," not "Winnie the Pooh." Poor Mr. Shelley can't win.

3. Undoubtedly the "military and economic support of Canada, Australia, India, and the rest of a gigantic empire," not to mention the fighting Greeks, comprised a monumental consolation to the British during the Blitz. "Keep low, men, we still have the Greeks with us."

4. But Hitchens wants Greece both ways. He condemns Churchill for trading Greek freedom for Stalin's dominance of the Balkans; then he rabbits on about Greece's resistance to tyranny. A more rational view is that saving Greece was the best Churchill could make of a sorry situation, allowing Greeks to enjoy postwar the liberties they defended in 1941.

5. The first air force to bomb civilians was the Luftwaffe over Warsaw (and later Rotterdam) - not the RAF over Berlin. In March 1945, Churchill was the first to question the carpet bombing of Dresden and other German cities (see Christopher Harmon, "Are We Beasts?", Newport: Naval War College, 1991).

6. The silly charge that Churchill ran and hid in the country when warned in advance of air raids on London is almost as old as the accompanying canard that he let Coventry burn rather than tip the Germans that he'd read their codes. On the night of the Coventry attack Churchill, headed for the country, turned round and returned to London after reading decrypts which incorrectly held London the target. There he sent his staff to safety and mounted the Air Ministry roof to await the bombers that never came.

Hitchens has "never seen [this] addressed by the Great Man's defenders." Really? It was addressed in The Times by John Martin on 28 August 1976; by John Colville (The Churchillians, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1981). Norman Longmate, Ronald Lewin, Harry Hensley, and David Stafford -  none of them whitewashers - are just four historians who, as early as 1979, dismissed the Coventry story for the myth it is. Yet it lives on, a dark seam of treacle emerging regularly from the fever swamps and conspiracy nuts.

7. In cabinet discussions in May 1940 Churchill said at one point (not "more than once") that he'd considered whether it was part of his duty "to enter into negotiations with That Man [Hitler]." On this slim thread Hitchens assures us that Churchill did not want to fight! Numerous historians (e.g., Sheila Lawlor, Churchill and the Politics of War, Cambridge University Press, 1991) conclude that at that point, Churchill's political position was too unfirm overtly to dismiss Halifax's cry for negotiation. By the end of May Churchill had convinced his cabinet to fight on. History turned on that achievement.

8. Churchill did not skip Roosevelt's funeral out of "pique at Roosevelt's repeated refusal to visit Britain during the war"; in fact he agonized over missing it. Mr. Hitchens forgets that there was a war on. The Allies were closing on Berlin, the end might come any day. There were more pressing things than funerals to occupy heads of government.

9. "Unless fresh information comes to light," Mr. Hitchens will believe the fable that Churchill set up the Lusitania sinking to entice the Americans into World War I. Well, okay, if he wants to...but that particular red herring was exploded 20 years ago by Harry V. Jaffa (Statesmanship, Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 1981), and by others since.

10. There is not a shred of evidence that Churchill knew in advance about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and this, again, has been broadly rejected, most recently by David Stafford (Churchill and Secret Service, London: Murray, 1997).

Mr. Hitchens is an able pot-stirrer, but he should be reading the more balanced historians: Norman Rose, Henry Pelling, Warren Kimball, Paul Addison, Robert Rhodes James.

Churchill's faults were on a grand scale, and Mr. Hitchens has managed to list almost all of them, including the imaginary ones, which continue to impress the irrational. The overriding point is that the virtues outweighed the faults. If his "lapidary phrases" and "gallows humor" have reacquired renown, it is because Churchill crafted words to express what free people were thinking - and because last September those words proved starkly relevant.

In the 1930s - the period when Hitchens finds him particularly contemptible - Churchill said: "The worst difficulties from which we suffer do not come from without. They come from within...They come from a peculiar type of brainy people always found in our country, who, if they add something to its culture, take much from its strength."

Brainy people have been celebrating Churchill's feet of clay (and they were big feet) for half a century. Theirs is an error of proportion. They forget that at the key moment in the 20th century, as Charles Krauthammer wrote, one man proved indispensable. How sad to find a good writer like Christopher Hitchens suffering from the same amnesia.


From the Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge

1. There is no proof that any of Churchill's famous broadcasts were made by Norman Shelley. This claim is made by David Irving in the first volume of his book, Churchill's War, based apparently on conversations with Shelley [although Irving's footnote for said conversations is dated after Shelley's death! ‹Ed.]

As far as I can establish, Shelley did claim to have recorded as Churchill during the war, but (in public at least) never claimed that he broadcast the famous 1940 speeches contemporaneously. He may have claimed to have broadcast the June 4th "Beaches" speech at a later date. The only proof that his family have been able to offer is a BBC recording of Shelley speaking as Churchill and delivering an address that seems to relate to 1942, and does not seem to equate with the text of any Churchill speech held here.

There is no doubt that Churchill delivered the speeches in the House of Commons (at least there are hundreds of witnesses to that). However, where the argument really falls down, is that the speeches of 13 May and 4 June were only delivered by Churchill in the Commons and were not broadcast by him or anyone else at the time (although after the war WSC recorded them for Decca). The speech of 4 June was repeated by the BBC radio announcer.

2. We have the evidence that Churchill's speeches were set out by his private office secretaries in the blank verse style that they referred to as "speech form" or "psalm style," so this did not originate with William Manchester's books. Anyone can come to the Archives Centre and consult the original speaking notes.

3. It is not really my place to comment on the "revisionists" as the Archives Centre exists to provide access to all, and to make the Churchill Papers available for this type of historical debate. But I think it is fair to say that some of these works are much better researched than others.

--Allen Packwood, Keeper, Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge