April 5, 2013



Q: In the Wall Street Journal letters column, 2 August 2011, I read that Church “had a rule of never criticizing a policy after the event unless he had given his opinion before.” Did he really have such a rule?

A: In his preface to The World Crisis, volume 1 (1923), Churchill “I have made or implied no criticism of any decision of action taken or neglected by others, unless I can prove that I had expressed the same opinion in writing before the event.” And, in his preface to The Gathering Storm (1948): “I have adhered to my rule of never critising any measure of war or policy after the event unless I had before expressed publicly or formally my opinion or warning about it. Indeed in the afterlight I have softened many of the severities of contemporary controversy. It has given me pain to record these disagreements with so many men whom I liked or respected; but it would be wrong not to lay the lessons of the past before the future.”

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He adhered to that rule, with some difference of emphasis. His Rhineland crisis account was more censorious than he was in 1936. (See “Churchill and the Rhineland,” FH 141.)

Q: I am writing a book on Leadership and am seeking your assistance in finding the original sources for the following unattributed Churchill quotes that I have collected over the years:

1. “The greatest lesson in life is to know that even fools are right sometimes.”
2. “Do not fritter away your energies on small schemes.”
3. “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”
4. “Kites rise highest against the wind, not with it.”
5. “…do not become the passive matrix upon which others impose their designs.”
6. “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”
7. “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”
8. “Mountaintops inspire leaders but valleys mature them.”
9. “…to encounter [Franklin] Roosevelt, with all his buoyant sparkle, his iridescent personality, and his sublime confidence, was like opening your first bottle of champagne”


Q: The best book on the subject I’ve read is Churchill on Leadership: Executive Success in the Face of Adversity, by Steven Hayward (no relation). Alas, quite a few things he never said are attributed to Churchill and others without authority, to make them more interesting, including some of these: 1/3/6/7/8. These five quotations have no attribution among Churchill’s 15 million published words, books, articles, speeches and private papers. (Regarding #7, he did say, “We remember the sardonic war-time joke about the optimist and the pessimist. The optimist was the man who did not mind what happened so long as it did not happen to him. The pessimist was the man who lived with the optimist.”)

2. Mr. Hayward himself later sent us the correct quote: “Well, I want this government not to fritter away its energies on all sorts of small schemes; I want them to concentrate on one or two things which will be big landmarks in the history of this Parliament…” —Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, vol. 5, Prophet of Truth 1922-1939 (London, 1976), 70. It seems this comment on a specific government has been turned into an all- purpose aphorism.

4. Mr. Hayward tracked this to American lawyer, author and critic John Neal (1793-1876): “a certain amount of opposition is a great help to a man. Kites rise against, and not with, the wind. Even a head wind is better than none. No man ever worked his passage anywhere in a dead calm….”

The two remaining quotes can actually be ascribed to Churchill: 5. Commenting on the London Naval Treaty in the House of Commons on 15 May 1930, Churchill said the treaty constituted “a formal acceptance by Great Britain of definitely inferior seapower.” At the end of his speech Churchill declared bitterly: “We are the passive matrix on which others imprint their claims.” —Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, vol. 6 Finest Hour 1939-1941 (London, 1983). 146.

9. “…to encounter Roosevelt, with all his buoyant sparkle, his iridescent personality, and his sublime confidence, was like opening your first bot- tle of champagne. That physical effect it had on you was like the effect champagne had.” —Undated, Halle Papers, Kennedy Library, Boston.

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