The Place to Find All Things Churchill

Tangling with the Media: The Curious Case of of William Griffin

FINEST HOUR 152, AUTUMN 2011

BY RICHARD M. LANGWORTH

Thanks to Allen Packwood, Sir Martin Gilbert, Michael McMenamin and the Churchill Archives Centre for kind assistance in research.

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Search the web for the words at right and you will find at least a half-dozen citations unquestioningly attributing them to Churchill—a striking reversal of his off-stated view of American intervention in World War I and grist for the isolationists then and now.[1]

Churchill did acknowledge that in 1914 the United States had good reason for staying out of the war,[2] but on America’s entry in 1917 he was unequivocal: “There is no need to exaggerate the material assistance given by the United States…the moral consequence of the United States joining the Allies was indeed the deciding cause in the conflict….”[3] Without America’s entry, he continued, the war “would have ended in a peace by negotiation, or, in other words, a German victory.”[4] A German victory was never something Churchill favored. Nor did he advocate Britain (he would not have said “England”) making peace in 1917.

GRIFFIN AND THE ENQUIRER

In 1926 William S. Griffin (1898-1949), a protégé of William Randolph Hearst, used Hearst money to found the New York Enquirer, a Sunday afternoon broadsheet designed as a platform for new ideas which Hearst might adopt in his own papers.[5] Hearst and Griffin had opposed American entry into World War I and were isolationists in its aftermath. In the 1930s Griffin frequently demanded that Britain pay her World War I debts to America, starting perhaps by handing over the Queen Mary and Bermuda.He was of Irish heritage, and Time snidely wrote that he “goes to Ireland and makes speeches on trade…. Occasionally Publisher Griffin starts a movement to draft William Griffin for mayor (1937) or senator (1938).”[6]

Isolationism aside, Griffin ran articles critical of Hitler and won awards from Jewish organizations for promoting Christian-Jewish amity. Roosevelt had asked him to second his nomination for President in 1932. But Griffin remained fiercely isolationist, and by the late Thirties was leading the Keep America Out of War Committee. He considered it “an honor” when his paper was banned in Germany in 1940, and he was placed on the enemies list of the German-American Bund.[7]

In 1942, with America at war again, a grand jury indicted Griffin for sedition, though the charges were later dropped.[8] There is evidence that the indictment was trumped up by a hostile U.S. government. “For a number of years before Pearl Harbor,” a New York newspaper commented, Griffin had “used the ‘no danger’ line….[He] constantly praised the utterances of Ham Fish and worked closely with Prescott Dennett.”[9] Griffin died in 1949; the Enquirer’s circulation was down to 17,000 when it was sold in 1952 to Generoso Pope, Jr., who turned it into the supermarket tabloid it remains to this day.[10]

THE CHURCHILL CONVERSATION

Griffin was in London in the summer of 1936, when, he claimed, he received a “telegram” from Churchill (which he never produced), asking to “come to see me.”[11] The Churchill Archives indicate it was Griffin who requested the meeting. When Churchill asked his private office to check, his secretaries reported that Griffin had made several phone calls seeking an appointment, describing himself as “a friend of the President and the Ambassador here [Robert Bingham], and an admirer of yours.” Griffin said he had “no axe to grind,” nor did he wish “to speak of anything particularly.”[12] The meeting took place in Churchill’s flat at 11 Morpeth Mansions at 5 p.m. on 5 August 1936.

Griffin did have an axe to grind and did wish to speak of something particularly: the British war debt. Churchill agreed Britain owed the money, Griffin wrote, but insisted that Britain should “deduct fifty percent of the cost of all the shot and shell she fired at the Germans from the time America declared war in the Spring of 1917 until she actually put troops in the front lines a year later,” an estimated $4.9 billion, plus interest. Griffin says he demurred, saying, “if we hadn’t entered the war England would have lost,” and that “England would probably be ruled from Berlin.”[13]

Churchill allegedly retorted that “there was no one in England happier over [America’s] decision to enter than he was but he could see now that our entry had been a great mistake”—followed by the remark above. Then he added: “You may want to stay out of [the next war], but…you will find yourselves fighting shoulder to shoulder with us.”[14]

Churchill next offered Griffin an article “containing all of the statements he had made to me that day” for $500 ($8000 in today’s money) provided Griffin would publish nine more articles at the same price. “I said I could not see my way clear to buy ten articles but that I would be glad to buy one,” Griffin wrote, but “Mr. Churchill was not willing to agree to this stipulation.”[15]

Ever living “from mouth to hand,”[16] Churchill frequently proposed articles to publishers; he certainly wished to syndicate his foreign affairs column for the Evening Standard in America. But it was Churchill’s startling assertions that the U.S. should have “minded her own business,” and that U.S. entry was a “mistake,” that Griffin would publish in his newspaper that same month. There is no evidence that Churchill knew of publication. But as he would learn three years later, the matter was merely dormant.

HOISTED ON SOMEONE’S PETARD

As war clouds gathered in the summer of 1939, Churchill’s alleged remark was raised by a powerful isolationist, Senator Robert Rice Reynolds (D., N.C.) who said he had the story from Griffin. Insisting he had said no such thing, Churchill engaged an attorney, William N. Stokes, Jr. of Houston, who protested to Reynolds: “Mr. Churchill’s distinguished career in public life as well as his outstanding contributions as an historian have led me to believe that in future years he will be recognized as one of the great men of our generation. Certainly, he has analyzed Great Britain’s position in the world of nations much more accurately than those who have guided his nation’s destinies during the past decade.”[17] Stokes sent Reynolds a photostat of Churchill’s written denial, which does not survive. “I had hoped he would insert it in the Congressional Record,” Stokes wrote. Given Reynolds’ point of view, this was a false hope.[18]

Churchill’s next embarrassment was an August 26th German radio broadcast quoting his alleged remarks to Griffin. The next day The New York Times asked WSC to confirm. Churchill pronounced the story “a vicious lie.”[19]

Queried by the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, Churchill called Griffin a liar and denied having heard of him. The September 1939 issue of The Catholic Worker reprinted Churchill’s alleged 1936 statements.[20]

THAT’LL COST YOU

Griffin responded with a $1 million libel suit, asking New York courts to attach Churchill’s earnings from his New York publishers against the settlement.[21] The Enquirer’s October 9th issue headlined the lawsuit,[22] Griffin claiming that his account of their 1936 conversation had been published in 1936 without Churchill’s objection, and that he had testified to WSC’s alleged statement before the Senate Naval Affairs Committee.[23]

Churchill responded that while Griffin “may” have called on him in 1936, he had “no recollection.” But he was adamant “that I never said anything which remotely resembles in substance or form the passage [Griffin claims]. These views are entirely contrary to all the views I hold and have frequently expressed.” Griffin, he continued, had “exploited a private conversation, and betrayed in a dishonourable manner its confidential and private character. But this might have been allowed to pass if his account had not been the exact opposite of the truth, and a palpable travesty and distortion of anything I have ever said or thought.”[24]

Based on his secretaries’ confirmation of their meeting, Churchill admitted they had met: “No doubt he came to see me on suggestion of some friend of mine that his papers could syndicate in States my fortnightly articles, whereupon private and casual conversation followed. No thought of an interview.” He added a marginal note: “Can deny on oath.”[25] If, as I am advised, the libel was Churchill’s denial of meeting Griffin (rather than calling him a liar), it seems odd that the lawsuit continued after Churchill’s admission that they had in fact met.

The case dragged on. In January 1940 the Enquirer fanned the flames, charging, “Churchill tries to defeat justice.”[26] Churchill for his part was now asking that the British Foreign Office investigate his antagonist, suggesting (without apparent foundation), “There is no doubt in my mind that Griffin is set on by German agents, which would fully explain his malignity against this country.”[27]

Griffin, though a witness, did not hesitate to comment publicly. In the February 1941 issue of Scribner’s Commentator, which had republished the alleged Churchill quote the previous November, he penned a detailed version of his story, saying Churchill had sought him, not the other way round. Churchill’s remarks had been published at the time “in a large number of newspapers,” he continued, omitting to mention that he himself had circulated them.

For Griffin to say Churchill never denied his allegations is like saying that if someone doesn’t protest a false statement, it must be true. Churchill had been denying the alleged quotation since he first heard about it July 1939. He admitted to having met with Griffin.[28] The editorial stance of Scribner’s Commentator was itself called into question in 1942, when it shut down over allegations of bribe-taking from Japanese interests, in return for publishing propaganda promoting United States isolationism.[29]

His lawyers suggested Churchill not contest the lawsuit, certain that any damages awarded would be minimal. But the pugnacious prime minister wanted to fight it out, and the British Treasury agreed to help meet his legal expenses on the grounds that Griffin was politically motivated. After Griffin was indicted, Churchill wrote the British Ambassador in Washington, Lord Halifax: “He has now been arrested for aiding the enemy, but that is no reason why his suit against me should not be carried forward or dismissed.”[30]

On 22 October 1942 Churchill had his wish: the judge dismissed Griffin’s lawsuit, apparently because Griffin had not appeared in court. Suffering from the effects of a heart attack, he was still under indictment, and under house arrest in his hospital.[31]

THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE

Griffin’s Churchill quotation was revived in a 1956 book by the armored warfare expert J.F.C. Fuller, a former member of the British Union of Fascists and Nordic League. Fuller had been Hitler’s guest at his Berlin birthday parade in April 1939. In 1999 it was quoted from Fuller’s book by The Spectator editor Frank Johnson. Johnson made no comment as to the quote’s veracity, but Fuller had been more careful, writing that it was “alleged.”[32] The quote survives several places today on the World Wide Web.

Churchill’s denials, all his published writings, and his determination to contest Griffin’s lawsuit in the midst of a desperate war, powerfully support his contentions. Griffin’s lifetime isolationism is ample motive for writing what he did. Putting the kindest light on it, he may have misinterpreted some offhand remark in their private conversation and, given his mindset, believed what he wished. And Griffin clearly used the occasion of a private conversation, granted only after he’d said he had “no axes to grind.”

BODYGUARD OF TRUTHS

It’s an old journalistic tactic (to make an antiphrasis of a famous Churchill axiom) that a Lie should always be surrounded by a bodyguard of Truths. Two parts of the supposed Churchill quote do sound authentic: being happy that America entered the war, and being certain she would be “shoulder to shoulder” in the next one.

Superficially we might accept the whole quote without considering Churchill’s and Griffin’s public record. Isolationists were a dime a dozen in the 1930s. Churchill himself had few nice things to say about war debts in the 1930s. He was affronted by America asking payment for the “shot and shell” fired at the enemy by British soldiers risking their lives. He believed that the war debt carousel (Germany paid France, France Britain, Britain America, and America Germany) helped no one. But nowhere in his criticisms of war debt did he say that America should have minded her own business and kept out of World War I.[33]

We may even visualize Churchill voicing such thoughts as a conjecture or alternate scenario, which he did sometimes for amusement or curiosity among family or friends. Harder to visualize is his declaring this as his settled view to a stranger—even one who egged him on by talking of war debt. Churchill was an open book. If he really felt that America should have “minded her own business”—that American intervention had led to Nazism, Communism and Fascism—there would be examples in his archive, from which nothing is censored. There isn’t a single one.

That Churchill made his alleged outburst after the suggestion that without the U.S., Britain would be “ruled from Berlin” seems plausible—until we consider that Churchill never voiced such an opinion anywhere else, to anyone, at any time, or in his books, articles or speeches. Griffin claimed Churchill had also said that “there was no one in England happier over [America’s] decision to enter [the war] than he was but he could see now that our entry had been a great mistake.” Nowhere, to anyone, at any time, did Churchill ever write or say that American entry “had been a great mistake.” Not even a small mistake.

“HISTORY WITH ITS FLICKERING LAMP…”

One event does not follow another; history is too complicated for that. Nazism was not the inevitable consequence of World War I—except insofar as any defeated nation yearns for a strong leader. Far more crucial, as Churchill explained, was the harsh peace of Versailles and Germany’s postwar depression.[34] A surviving Kaiser in postwar Germany would have given in to Hitler as easily as Hindenburg did. The exiled Kaiser held his nose at Hitler’s pogroms, but was equally anti-semitic, and congratulated Hitler on his 1940 victories. Hitler, however, held Wilhelm in contempt, having decided he didn’t need him.[35] Nor would a 1917 German victory have necessarily forestalled Fascism or Communism.

It wasn’t just that Churchill “had” to deny the Griffin quote in 1939; he would have had to deny it in 1936—and any other time. From 1934, he was pushing for collective security against Hitler, his anxious gaze resting first on France, then on Russia, then on America. Why would he at any time in the Thirties have said words which would only encourage American isolation?

Griffin casts the final doubt on his credibility when he claims Churchill said: “You may want to stay out of [the next war], but…you will find yourselves fighting shoulder to shoulder with us.”

Quite a switch for a country Churchill thought should mind her own business. But at least this is one Churchill sentiment we can accept as genuine.

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ENDNOTES

1. See for example Bob Ruggenberg, “Why America Should Have Stayed Out.”

2. Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis, vol. III, 2 parts (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1927), I 226-27.

3. Ibid.

4. World Crisis, vol. III, I 213-14.

5. National Enquirer

6. “The Press: Tactful William,” Time, 8 May 1939. (Henry Luce’s Time, strongly interventionist, added that the isolationists “had hit on a new scheme to keep out of war: stir up bad feeling over the War debts, which nobody could do better than William Griffin.”

7. “William Griffin,” on Metapedia, “The Alternate Encyclopaedia”. New York Times archives, researched by Michael McMenamin.

8. John Roy Carlson, Under Cover: My Four Years in the Nazi Underworld of America (New York: Dutton, 1943), 246.

9. “The Record of Strange Associates of Hamilton Fish,” Putnam County Courier, Carmel, New York, 15 October 1942, 11. Hamilton Fish III (1888-1991), New York Congressman, 1920-45. An isolationist, he was considered an “American ally” by Berlin. Prescott Dennett (1907-1992), secretary-treasurer, Make Europe Pay War Debts Committee. He ran the Columbia Press Service, a Nazi front. Together with Nazi propagandist George S. Viereck, he organized the Citizens Committee to Keep America Out of the War. Dennett was a defendant in the Great Sedition Trial of 1944. Viereck was imprisoned in 1942-47 for failing to register as a foreign agent. See here.

10. Enquirer/Star Group, Inc. Company History.

11. William Griffin, “When Churchill Said Keep Out!,” Scribner’s Commentator, February 1941, 25-28. Why WSC, at Morpeth Mansions, would send a telegram to Griffin, at the Savoy, is unclear. This article is available from the editor by email.

12. Private Office notes, Chartwell Papers (hereinafter “CHAR”), Churchill Archives Centre, CHAR 2/383/44-46.

13. Griffin, op. cit., 26.

14. Ibid.

15. Griffin, op. cit., 27.

16. The phrase is from Winston S. Churchill, The Gathering Storm (London: Cassell, 1948), 62.

17. William N. Stokes, Jr. to Senator Robert Reynolds, in Stokes’s letter to WSC, 22 July 1939, CHAR 2/383/12. The inference is that this allegation surfaced in the summer of 1939.

18. Stokes to WSC, 27 September 1939, CHAR 2/383/11. Time (note 6) reported that Reynolds had “introduced a resolution to send William Griffin abroad as a special envoy to remind European nations of their debts.” Reynolds remained an isolationist through 1941, when the Roosevelt Administration backed a pro-FDR senator who succeeded him in Congress.

19. Correspondence, CHAR 2/383/12.

20. John Boland, Secretary, Catholic Truth Society, to WSC, 11 October 1939, CHAR 2/383/15.

21. Alan C. Collins to WSC, 19 September 1939, CHAR 2/383/1.

22. Churchill Archives cuttings file, CHAR 2/383/23.

23. Griffin sworn deposition, CHAR 2/383/101.

24. WSC to J. Arthur Levy, 1 November 1939, CHAR 2/383/25-26.

25. WSC to Levy, 15 November 1939, CHAR 2/383/38.

26. New York Enquirer, 29 January 1940, CHAR 2/408/71.

27. WSC to Ambassador Lord Halifax, 14 February 1940, CHAR 2/408/77.

28. Griffin, op. cit., 26-27.

29. “Scribner’s,” St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, BookRags, 2005-06.

30. WSC to Halifax, 28 July 1942, T. 1050/2, CHAR 20/88.

31. The New York Times, Thursday, 22 October 1942, and Times archives researched by Michael McMenamin.

32. J.F.C. Fuller (1878-1966), Decisive Battles of the Western World and Their Influence Upon History, 3 vols. (London: Cassell, 1956), III 271. Frank Johnson, The Spectator, 9 October 1999. At his birthday parade, reviewing a long line of armored vehicles, Hitler said to Fuller, “I hope you were pleased with your children?” Fuller replied, “Your Excellency, they have grown up so quickly that I no longer recognise them.” From Max Boot, War Made New: Technology, Warfare and the Course of History, 1500 to Today (New York: Penguin, 2006), 224.

33. Winston S. Churchill, “The Truth About War Debts,” Answers, 17 March 1934, reprinted in The Collected Essays of Sir Winston Churchill, 4 vols. (London: Library of Imperial History, 1975), II 314-18.

34. The Gathering Storm, Chapter I, “The Follies of the Victors,” 3-15.

35. See for example Jonathan Petropoulos, Royals and the Reich (Oxford University Press, 2006), 170 et. seq. and Alan Palmer, The Kaiser: Warlord of the Second Reich (New York: Scribner, 1978), 226.

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