WIT AND WISDOM: FINEST HOUR 130, SPRING 2006
The following quotations were discussed with Ralph Keyes, author of The Quote Verifier, to be published in 2006 by St. Martin’s. Neither Mr. Keyes nor FH are sure about attribution for some of these, and we invite the comments of readers. —RML
1. “The hottest part of hell is reserved for those who, at a time of grave moral crisis, steadfastly maintain their neutrality.” This remark (not in any of our sources) was supposedly about WSC’s failure to convince people of the dangers of Hitler in the 1930s. A version of the saying is commonly attributed to Dante, without evidence. If Dante used it first (at least “the hottest part of hell”), Churchill might have stored it in his photographic memory, since he undoubtedly read Dante as a youth.
2. “[Clement Attlee] has much to be modest about” [and is] “a sheep in sheep’s clothing.” The “modest” comment is attributed by the late Clark Clifford, aide to President Truman, who was with Truman and Churchill on the train bound for Fulton, Missouri, in 1946, where WSC delivered the famous “Iron Curtain” speech. As Clifford remembered it to the editor:
HST: “Clement Attlee came to see me the other day. He struck me as a very modest man.”
WSC: “He has much to be modest about.”
Some versions are more elaborate, beginning, “Indeed, Harry…” But Clifford told it as quoted. It was apparently not, as more often repeated, “A modest man with much to be modest about.” “Sheep in sheep’s clothing,” was also allegedly said about Attlee, but we have not been able reliably to verify. Churchill did not say it in Parliament, where few holds were barred, and Churchill could be scathing “in the nicest possible way,” e.g. December 1946, about Stafford Cripps: “Neither of his colleagues can compare with him in that acuteness and energy of mind with which he devotes himself to so many topics injurious to the strength and welfare of the State.”
5. “He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire.” Quoted by the fairly reliable Bill Adler, in his slim volume, The Churchill Wit (1965), but Adler provides no attribution. An alternate version, “He was possessed of all the virtues I despise, and none of the sins I admire,” is commonly thought to have been said about Churchill’s erstwhile opponent in successive elections as MP for Dundee, Ernest Scrymgeour, who eventually bested WSC in 1922. Again, we found no attribution.
6. “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” Recorded in Churchill’s war memoirs as a remark to Stalin at WSC’s birthday party, 30 November 1943, during the Teheran conference. Ralph Keyes read that this may have originated in a Russian proverb, and that Churchill could have cited it thinking that Stalin might be familiar with it. Virtually all sources agree that Churchill said something like this to Stalin. But did he originate it?
Sir Martin Gilbert writes in Winston S. Churchill, vol. VII (London: Heinemann, 1988), 586: “Stalin said that the Russians had ‘made considerable use of deception by means of dummy tanks, aircraft and airfields. Radio deception had also proved effective.’ He was ‘entirely agreeable,’ Stalin added, ‘to the Staffs collaborating with the object of devising joint cover and deception schemes.’ Churchill and Stalin were in agreement, Churchill commenting ‘that truth deserved a bodyguard of lies.’ This phrase was to become the key of a new and most secret operation, ‘Bodyguard,’ the deception plans for ‘Overlord’, to which Stalin was, within a few months, to make his contribution.” But this is not a verbatim transcript, so we will stick for now with the “so precious” version used by Churchill in his book.
7. “Don’t talk to me about naval tradition. It’s nothing but rum, buggery [sometimes “sodomy”] and the lash.” In a speech during our 1985 Churchill Tour, Sir Anthony Montague Browne (Sir Winston’s private secretary, 1952-65) told us that in 1955 during a dinner conversation, he confronted Churchill with this quotation. “I never said it. I wish I had,” responded WSC. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations states: “Compare ‘Rum, bum, and bacca’ and ‘Ashore it’s wine women and song, aboard
it’s rum, bum and concertina,’ naval catch-phrases dating from the nineteenth century.”