June 5, 2013

Finest Hour 143, Summer 2009

Page 33

Leading Churchill Myths – Myth: “We Don’t Torture” / Fact: We Did

For twenty-five years Finest Hour has skewered world-famous fictions, fairy tales and tall stories. For lists see FH 140:20, or www.winstonchurchill.org/learn/myths/myths. Grateful thanks to Alex Spillius, “Obama Likes Winston Churchill After All,” Daily Telegraph, 30 April 2009 (http://xrl.us/beqyft), to Telegraph readers responding, and to Cdr. Larry Kryske.

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In a 29 April press conference, in response to a question on releasing top secret memos about “enhanced interrogation methods,” President Obama cited an article he’d read, that “during World War II, when London was being bombed to smithereens, [the British] 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…. Churchill understood—you start taking shortcuts, over time, that corrodes what’s best in a people. It corrodes the character of a country.”

Whether his thesis is right or wrong, the quotation is incorrect and gives a false implication. While Churchill did express such sentiments with regard to prison inmates, and the lack of torture in World War I, he said no such thing about prisoners of war, enemy combatants or terrorists, who were tortured by British interrogators during WW2.

“Torture” appears 156 times in digital transcripts of Churchill’s 15 million published words (books, articles, speeches, papers) and 35 million words about him. Not one appears in the context the President stated. Similarly, key phrases like “character of a country” or “erodes the character” do not track.

Mr. Obama was misled by Andrew Sullivan’s Atlantic article, “Churchill vs. Cheney” (http://xrl.us/beqyfx), which calmly urged that former Vice President Cheney be prosecuted.1

Most enemy spies, Sullivan wrote, “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.

It seems that Sullivan picked up this impression in a 2006 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, http://xrl.us/beqyfc), Stephens was 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….he deployed threats, drugs, drink and deceit. But he never once resorted to violence….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 did Macintyre mention or quote Churchill. Incidentally, after the war, 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, others that it does not. Whoever is right, the “Tin Eye” Stephens story is just another red herring—because according to recent research the British did use such methods: in the “London Cage,” a POW camp in London, “where SS and Gestapo captives were subject to beatings, sleep deprivation and starvation.”2

Churchill spoke frequently about torture, mostly enemy treatment of civilians or conquered nations. Cdr. Larry Kryske reminded us of this example, from WSC’s World War I memoirs:

“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.”3 The general sentiment is clear enough, though combined with “Cannibalism” it seems likely to refer to the practices of conquering armies.

The situation was more acute in World War II, when Britain was being bombed and threatened with invasion and Churchill had plenary authority. Certainly it is hard to imagine him being unaware of activities at places like the “London Cage,” or not condoning what went on there. Lady Soames once said, “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 about “enhanced interrogation,” his words have yet to surface. The nearest I could come to his sentiments on the point refers not to terrorist fanatics 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, WSC wrote: “the use of instruments of torture can never be regarded by any decent person as synonymous with justice.”4

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


1. Longtime members may recall that Sullivan appeared at our 1987 Dallas conference, made friendly conversation, then wrote a long polemic in The New Republic about our “weird mix” of Churchill worshippers, as “the damp seam of détente seeps into the Reagan Administration.” We reprinted it, noting twenty-four “terminological inexactitudes,” in Finest Hour 58, Winter 1987-88.

2. Ian Corbain, “The Secrets of the London Cage,” The Guardian, 12 Nov05 (http://xrl.us/beqyue). The Cage was kept secret, Corbain wrote, though a censored account appeared in the memoirs of its commandant, Lt. Col. Alexander Scotland. Corbain does not mention Churchill, but to believe Churchill wasn’t aware of this activity would be asking a lot.

3. Churchill, The World Crisis, vol. 1, 1911-1914 (London: Butterworth, 1923), 11.

4. Martin Gilbert, ed., Winston S. Churchill, Companion Volume V, Part 3. The Coming of War 1936-1939 (London, Heinemann: 1982), 1292. n. 2.

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