May 13, 2013


“…if you recognise anyone it does not necessarily mean that you like him. We all, for instance, recognise the Rt Hon Gentleman, the Member for Ebbw Vale [Aneurin Bevan].” —WSC, 1 July 1952


A reader asks, “Why was Churchill so down on China as a fourth member of the Big Four in World War II and a Security Council permanent member afterward?” Before we adopt any sweeping conclusions, consider Churchill’s statements on China, which express considerable balance of thought:

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• “If the Chinese now suffer the cruel malice and oppression of their enemies, it is the fault of the base and perverted conception of pacifism their rulers have ingrained for two or three thousand years in their people….China, as the years pass, is being eaten by Japan like an artichoke, leaf by leaf.”

—”The Wounded Dragon,” Evening Standard, 3 September 1937, reprinted in Step by Step, 1939.

• “I was very much astonished when I came over here after Pearl Harbor to find the estimate of values which seemed to prevail in high American quarters, even in the highest, about China. Some of them thought that China would make as great a contribution to victory in the war as the whole British Empire together. Well, that astonished me very much. Nothing that I picked up afterwards led me to think that my astonishment was ill-founded….I think on the whole you will not find a large profit item entered on that side of the ledger, but that doesn’t alter our regard for the Chinese people.”

—Ritz-Carlton Hotel, New York, 25 March 1949, published in In the Balance, 1951, 34.

• “Ought we to recognise them [Communist China] or not? Recognising a person is not necessarily an act of approval. I will not be personal, or give instance. One has to recognise lots of things and people in this world of sin and woe that one does not like. The reason for having diplomatic relations is not to confer a compliment, but to secure a convenience.” —House of Commons, 17 November 1949.

“[Invading China from Korea] would be the greatest folly. It would be like flies invading fly-paper.”

—1951, Anthony Montague Browne, Long Sunset, 1995, 317.

• “…I am by no means sure that China will remain for generations in the communist grip. The Chinese said of themselves several thousand years ago: ‘China is a sea that salts all the waters that flow into it.’ There is another Chinese saying about their country which dates only from the fourth century: ‘The tail of China is large and will not be wagged.’ I like that one. The British democracy approves the principle of movable heads and unwaggable national tails.”

—U.S. Congress, Washington, 17 January 1952, published in Stemming the Tide (1953), 223.

• “To hear some people talk, however, one would think that the way to win the war is to make sure that every Power contributing armed forces and branches of these armed forces is represented on all the councils and organisations which have to be set up, and that everybody is fully consulted before anything is done. That is, in fact, the most sure way to lose a war.” —House of Commons, 27 January 1942.

During World War II (emphasis ours), Churchill saw no reason to include China in the Security Council because he doubted China’s status as a first-rate power, based on her internal divisions and performance against Japan. China had been engaged with Japan, not very successfully, long before World War II. But Churchill supported recognizing China after the communist takeover, and believed Chinese communism would not prevail—as it probably will not.


One of Churchill’s immortal passages came in the House of Commons on 9 September 1941: “The mood of Britain is wisely and rightly averse from every form of shallow or premature exultation. This is no time for boasts or glowing prophecies, but there is this—a year ago our position looked forlorn and well nigh desperate to all eyes but our own. Today we may say aloud before an awe-struck world, ‘We are still masters of our fate. We still are captain of our souls.'”

A reader in England wrote to ask: “Did Churchill place ‘We are still masters of our fate’ etc. in quote marks as a rhetorical flourish, or was he quoting someone else, and if so, whom? I’m studying World War II. My great uncle was a pathfinder for the Dambusters and still alive today. What would you recommend?” ([email protected])

The Dambusters were among the heroes of the war. The book to start is Churchill’s six-volume memoir, The Second World War. Next, try one of Geoffrey Best’s books, Churchill at War or Churchill: A Study in Greatness, or Paul Addison’s Churchill: The Unexpected Hero. “Masters of our fate” sounded very familiar but offhand we couldn’t place it, and asked our friend Ralph Keyes, author of The Quote Verifier. Ralph first thought Kipling, but then found it in the Yale Book of Quotations (a very good book, incidentally). It is from one of Churchill’s favorite poems, “Invictus,” by W.E. Henley, English poet and playwright (1849-1903):

It matters not how strait the gate
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am master of my fate:
I am captain of my soul.
—”Invictus” l.13 (1888)


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