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Dr. Larry Arnn On Chapter Four of Churchill’s Trial: The Strategist

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HH: Welcome to the last radio hour of the week. And it is the Hillsdale Dialogue which I can have every week at this time, and have been doing it, this is its fourth year, often with Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, or one of his great colleagues on the faculty at Hillsdale College. You can read or listen to them all at All of Hillsdale’s amazing online courses are available at And for those of you who are suffering from dangerously high exposures to political prognostication, I thought we needed a break, especially as New Hampshire people get ready to vote on Tuesday next, and the real primary season begins. We return to Dr. Arnn’s recent book, Churchill’s Trial: Winston Churchill And The Salvation Of Free Government. Dr. Arnn, welcome back, it’s good to talk to you.

LA: Good to talk to you, Hugh.

HH: You know, this is actually, I’m not just shining you on, this is a really good book.

LA: (laughing)

HH: And Chapter Four: The Strategist comes along at a really excellent time in our own political life cycle, because it talks about what makes for a great leader in war. Do you think we’re at war right now?

LA: Oh, yeah. I’m, just right now, we are finishing, I am going through for the last time, the 19th volume of the Churchill documents, and I just broke into the year 1944. Think what was going on in the world. And poor Churchill, you know, he’s got FDR and Stalin lined up against him in some ways now, and he’s trying to influence the world, and he gets sick, and he’s a 70 year old man. And the deluges of things that are coming, it’s just overwhelming. And yet, he’s not overwhelmed. And so I just think about, you know, there’s so many things to worry about and think about right now – the presidential campaign, there’s war all over the world, China’s in a mess and building a big military and being assertive with it. It’s just amazing what’s going on in the world right now.

HH: It is a time that calls for strategy, and that’s why I’m going to do something I haven’t done, yet, in the series of conversations we’ve had about your book, which is read the first paragraph of the chapter. It begins: “Once we understand how dangerous Churchill believed war to be, we have to adjust our thinking about him and about war. The famous and defiant Churchill was a real man. The one whose spirit rose at the prospect of battle or of managing a war was a real man. The one who maneuvered around the armored train, the one who kept his equanimity and even his sense of humor in the trenches was a real man. The one who refused Mussolini, his peace conference, the one who invited his cabinet colleagues to face death by choking upon their own blood was a real man. But the other Churchill, the one who was afraid of war, and cautious in approaching it, is equally real. The two men came together in the subject of strategy, which requires the alternation of pugnacity and reserve, of advance and retreat, of thought and action. It was for Churchill the discipline that brought a statesmanship and generalship, politics and war together. Strategy comes from the word for army, and remotely from the word meaning area or field. An army is big enough to occupy a field. And the movement or control of such armies is the discipline common to the general. Strategy concerns big things and the big people who do them, especially in war.” Now that’s a grand paragraph. That says a lot about Churchill, and about what we want in a president. But distill it for us. Put it down into the context of people in New Hampshire who might even have absentee ballots in their hands as they listen to it, or in South Carolina, who certainly have absentee ballots in their hands.

LA: Well, the nub of it is this, that the strategy, because, by the way, it concerns war, and war can overcome politics. War can be the destruction of a country, sap all its resources, lead to its conquest. You have to think about how to win in a way that is compatible with your continued existence as you are. And what are we, right? We are a liberal society in the old sense of that term. We want most resources to be in the hands of private individuals, that they use to live their fully human lives. And so war is conscription, and especially constant war, of the kind we live in, it can change a society, and Churchill was very aware of that. And that means that at its summit, strategy is a political conception. How do you win your wars in a way compatible with what you are, drawing on your strengths and preserving them?

HH: Now Great Britain did not suffer from the illusion that they could not be defeated. They worried about being defeated. Churchill, as you said, counseled his cabinet colleagues they had to be prepared to choke on their own blood. Do you think Americans believe they can possibly be defeated anymore?

LA: I think they’re coming to think that, and I think they’re afraid of that. I think that they think that their way of life is being lost, and I think this presidential race, you know, it’s like most things, very great dangers and very great opportunities go together. It’s possible that we’re on the edge of either a complete defeat of constitutional government, and of our way of life, or an amazing revival of it. And there’s big evidence for both in this presidential race.

HH: There is. I began the week talking with the new House Speaker, Paul Ryan. And he is an optimist, as I am an optimist, as you are an optimist, that things can go very well indeed. But at the same time, I’m very aware of what Islamist radicals such as the young man in Milwaukee who wanted to get a machine gun and massacre the Masons assembled for whatever reason. He had it for the Masons, that they are not unique or even that few in number. There are lots of people who would like to do all America harm.

LA: That’s right. I’m, in preparation for talking to you today. I decided to get up on my computer screen a map of the Middle East, which I’m looking at now. And ISIS, which is, you know, founded in Iraq, largely by people who were part of Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard whom we did not destroy when we had a chance in the first Gulf War. What they hope to do is unite the former Ottoman Empire. And I urge you to go look at a map of the Middle East, with, put Iran in the middle, and then think about it, because if you just look at the Islamic states of one breed and another that are scattered all over that place now, including Turkey, then you’ve got the former Ottoman empire plus some. And that was a very great force, which of course, then went, because they’re up to the Straits of Marmora, where Istanbul is in Turkey. And of course, they crossed over into Europe, and they eventually besieged Vienna twice, and almost took it, didn’t ever take it.

HH: And did take all of Spain.

LA: Did take all of Spain and much of Northern Africa. And so that great force is rising up, and you have to ask yourself the question how would you fight that force? And you know, it looks to me like, I’m looking at the countries, right? And first of all, these countries, because it’s divided up into 30 countries or so, they’re very divided, one from another. There are different sects of Islam and different degrees of devotion to the radical principles of Islam. And they’re afraid of each other. And a bunch of them are our allies, and stable allies for a long time, some of them because they are stable states that are not cruel to their own people.

HH: Jordan among them, King Abdullah being our principal man of the West in the Middle East.

LA: That’s right, and Israel, you know, think of that, that’s not an Arab state, but it’s right there, and it’s a parliamentary democracy. And Turkey, which has been an old ally, much through the work of Winston Churchill over the course of 30 years, especially in the Second World War, he talked them into the war on the Allied side. Those places are promising, right? And you know, there’s some promise in Iraq, which we’ve paid for a lot, and then given a lot of that away by leaving. And so the point is, a smart foreign policy would capitalize on our strengths, and be reluctant to go put the prime of our armies in a war with people who are hardly trained and radicalized, and just trying to exert casualties on us. So Churchill’s thinking about war was always what would it cost. I talk in this chapter a little bit about a fact that in 1954, when Dien Bien Phu is falling, President Eisenhower…

HH: You’ve got to remember, Dr. Arnn, there are Steelers fans listening. That is in Vietnam.

LA: That’s right, so our involvement in Vietnam starts in the mid-50s as the French Vietnam had been a French colony, were expelled, and decisively at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. And Eisenhower had been the commander of the Operation Overlord, staged from Britain to put American and British soldiers into Europe to conquer Nazism. Churchill and Eisenhower knew each other well, and Churchill loved Eisenhower. And Eisenhower sent the chairman of the joint chiefs, a man names Admiral Radford, to see Churchill in 1954 to ask him to join the United States in intervening in Vietnam. And Churchill refused him. And that’s a very rare thing. And he mentioned at one point the United States offered help to Britain in Egypt, to which Churchill regarded as the pivot of the world, and which like much of the British empire, the bases in it, Churchill was trying to give to the United States at this time. And even on that provocation, Churchill wouldn’t go, because he said you know, we’re going to send our people in jungles where you have never fought and we have.

HH: Yeah, Burma, yeah.

LA: You know, my wife’s uncle, who died last year, helped to build the Burma railway in the Second World War as a captive of the Japanese, a forced laborer.

HH: Wow. Stay on that point. Burma, if you know anything about jungles, that’s just like Vietnam. Don’t go anywhere, America. The Hillsdale Dialogue continues with Dr. Larry Arnn.

— – – —

HH: It is such an appropriate consideration before the voting really accelerates in New Hampshire and then South Carolina. We may take a couple of weeks on just this chapter on how to assess a presidential candidate who wishes to be commander-in-chief. As we went to break, Dr. Arnn was retelling how Eisenhower appealed for Churchill’s support in the aftermath of the collapse of the French in Vietnam, and Churchill declined. And you were explaining that he knew a little bit about jungle warfare.

LA: He did, and then also about the prime point that we’re going to send the best of our military, young men, mostly, and they’re going to fight proxies of the communist powers that are the real enemy. And so why is that advantageous? Why is that a good thing? And then he mentions that the Russians have a bomber that they have just flown in full view around Moscow, and that we, and they advertise the fact that it can reach all the bases in East Anglia, American nuclear bases. So are you going to risk that? Are we going to trade East Anglia for an unfavorable fight in the jungles of Southeast Asia? And he wouldn’t go. And he even repeated a phrase that was rather like a phrase of Neville Chamberlain’s about Czechoslovakia – distant lands of which we know nothing.

HH: Huh.

LA: And that’s, and see, what that proves, by the way, about statesmen, is the times, Churchill wrote a lot about this, govern what you say. And whether Churchill was right or wrong, in 1935-’34-’33, Churchill was urging Britain, arm fast and you’ll never have to fight this guy. By 1938, he was saying fight him now when you’ve got Czechoslovakia to help you.

HH: Yeah.

LA: …and before he’s reached his strength. And in 1940, he was then reduced to saying fight him to the death. Now what he thinks is we’re not in that situation, and so we should find a way to fight economically. And time is on our side against these despotic powers, because they don’t offer a life to people that people will like.

HH: I don’t know if time is on our side now. That’s the most interesting question of whether, because the Soviet Union was bound to collapse, we know in retrospect, because it was a horrible regime that did not inspire any devotion of its people, but was in fact a kleptocracy. I’m not sure that’s the same about jihadism, Dr. Arnn.

LA: Oh, I am very much, right, and I’ll tell you why. First of all, justice breeds prosperity and harmony. And if you take, you know, first of all, you know, Hugh, would Betsy like to wear a burqa?

HH: Of course not.

LA: You know, and Penny Arnn would surely not, right? And the truth is those two women, whom we both know very well, and we both know them well…

HH: Yes.

LA: Those women are capable of wonderful contributions, and have amazing productive lives. And we marvel at them. What about a society that truncates that and reduces them to property? They’re not going to like that. In 1945-46 when MacArthur is doing the constitution of Japan, he insists on the women vote. And at one point, he is told by the Japanese delegates who eventually do everything he said, they won’t vote. And you know, in the 1946 election, they turned out in droves to vote, you know, and they were, and of course they did, right?

HH: Of course, yes.

LA: So…

HH: I didn’t know that. I’d never heard that, or if I read that in Manchester’s marvelous American Caesar, I’d forgotten that.

LA: It is in there, yeah, that very book. And so the truth is just remember, these societies do not offer, I mean, to the extent that they are backward, backward is, let me put it, what am I saying, tribal societies that are underdeveloped and out of communication, that life, that can last a long time, of course, but even there, right, I mean, read the Old Testament of the Bible. Did Sarah and Hagar, the two wives of Abraham, get along?

HH: No. Nevertheless, I still think that the surge of religious zealotry has about it an animal spirit that that’s why Churchill had to fight it in the Sudan, and why it is back now and has to be defeated again. And how one captains that battle, certainly it’s not the way President Obama has, I want to read a quote that you have in this chapter from Churchill which is new to me. I didn’t know he had said this. He says about the commander-in-chief, or generals, that, “Only massive common sense and reasoning power, not only imagination, but also an element of ledger domain, an original and sinister touch, which leaves the enemy puzzled as well as beaten.” That’s quite a skill set, and I don’t know that we’re assessing our presidential candidates looking for a sinister touch, but Churchill is counseling that we should.

LA: You know, I think, you know, in the Trump phenomenon, there is some of that. And I’m not coming out for Donald Trump, but I’m trying to understand what’s so compelling about him.

HH: You are, like me, Switzerland, right? We are neutrals.

LA: Yeah, just like he’s very compelling right now, and maybe he’ll stay so. But one of the things he says is we need to go find winners to be generals. In other words, this is a problem to solve so that Americans can get on with their own life. And that’s very much Churchill’s spirit, right? When he wrote that thing, he’s saying the guys who sacrificed, almost a million dead, British soldiers in the First World War, hammering across the trenches, did a massive disservice to their country. And so we don’t want to do that, right? That’s not the way you fight until the last draw when there’s no other way to fight.

HH: But what is the sinister touch, though? What does he mean by that? I thought, I spent, I wrote notes about this chapter at great length, and I kept coming back to that phrase. And Nixon had a sinister touch.

LA: Yeah.

HH: I’m happy to admit that. He had a very sinister touch. I think Johnson definitely did. I think FDR did.

LA: Oh, yeah.

HH: I don’t think Ike did.

LA: Well, think of generals, right? First of all, in the battel of Blenheim, Marlborough tempted a massive French army, bigger than his own, five hundred miles south down to Bavaria, trapped them against a river, brought a massive force around a hill that they had lost track of, and drove them into the water. And there came that moment in the battle when they looked around and said to everybody, looked around and said oh, my God, right?

HH: Yup, we’re screwed. We’re dead.

LA: Think about, think about MacArthur. In the island hopping, MacArthur was one of the first to bring all the arms, Navy, air and land forces together into a single battle. And as the island hopping went along, and before they got to the small islands where they were entirely entrenched in concrete bunkers all over the island, he would attack the Japanese, and they would immediately begin reinforcing in their rear, because he expected them to come that way. He was always confusing the daylights out of them.

HH: Huh. You know who else did that? Hannibal and Scipio.

LA: Oh, yeah.

HH: And Hannibal and Scipio are not dog names. They are real people in a real time doing battle in the Italian Peninsula and eventually in North Africa. But Hannibal came down and fell upon the Romans. I can’t remember, where did he wipe them all out? He wiped out an entire legion somewhere. I can’t remember where it was.

LA: Cannae.

HH: Yeah, Cannae.

LA: Yeah.

HH: And not Roman left, right?

LA: 70,000 men.

HH: We’ll be right back, America. That’s sinister touch right there, but then Scipio Africanus has a sinister touch, too. We’ll tell you about that when we come back. Don’t go anywhere.

— – – – —

HH: When we went to break, we were talking about Hannibal and Scipio, two ancient generals, and they both had this sinister touch that Dr. Arnn writes that Churchill urged a commander-in-chief had. But they were very different. Scipio Africanus had a sinister touch that involved not fighting.

LA: Well, he, well, he did finally fight, because he went across to Carthage and fought them outside the walls of Carthage. But then he had them on the ground where he wanted them. It’s actually Publius who delayed, and who in Italy would not come to battle. And he would harry them, and he was very like, by the way, George Washington’s strategy through much of the Revolutionary War.

HH: Oh, this was not Scipio? It’s Publius? Oh, I’m sorry.

LA: Yeah, it was.

HH: I sounded like a Steelers fan. Go ahead.

LA: There we go. And what he did was he said there’s this enormous Carthaginian army in Italy. They’re a long way from home. And they can live off the land, but not very well. And so time is on our side.

HH: Right.

LA: And so to go up against this tremendous movement general, that’s one characteristic, right? Great generals move. And it’s not safe to move on a battlefield.

HH: That’s Page 71. “Maneuvers are dangerous for the army.”

LA: That’s right. I mean, why was Robert E. Lee so incredibly bold? And he flummoxed everybody until he got up against, you know, finally, Sherman, but he wasn’t ever really directly against Sherman all that much, because he was so quick. I’ll give you a World War II example. So George Patton, what did the Germans think about him? They had fought against him in North Africa, and then in Sicily, and what he noticed was he was never where you thought he was going to be. And for him to move, right, because you dig in and everybody gets settled, you’ve got your artillery ready, the airplanes know where to go, and then if they come at you there, you’ve got a big advantage. And if you move, now you’re in motion. You might get attacked.

HH: It’s the most famous, it’s the most famous scene in the movie starring George C. Scott, is when he moved the 3rd Army to the relief of the Battle of the Bulge people through a hundred miles. He made a left turn, he anticipated it, and Nixon would watch that movie again and again. He was mocked for it by some of his biographer, but I talked to Jon Meacham about it, and he actually was thinking about what distinguished great generalship.

LA: That’s right. In August of 1944, we were caught in the hedgerows off Normandy, which is in Northeast France, where we made our great invasion of Europe. And we couldn’t get past these big hedgerows, because from the top, they didn’t look like what they are from aerial photographs. And so what they did is they put Patton on the far right hand of the American line, farthest from Berlin they could get him, told him to guard a peninsula even farther to the west. And what he did was attack, meet resistance, move west, attack again, meet resistance, move again, attack, and then there was nobody in front of him. And the Germans knew he was going to do that, and so they did the exactly right thing. They attacked his flank, which was now exposed to them with all they had. They moved rapidly right on the place that he had just exposed, and when they got there, he was already gone. And then Victor Hanson quotes a conversation with one of his field generals who said, General, if you will protect my flank, I will give you five miles a day. And Patton replied, give me 50, you will have no flank.

HH: You will have no flank (laughing)

LA: (laughing)

HH: You know, I have a question, a digression. Why don’t colleges teach military history anymore? You learn so much from it. And it’s just not very, Woody Hayes taught it for years at Ohio State, and Victor Hanson comes up to Hillsdale and he teaches it, but why not?

LA: We have a professor here of war history, military history. And we got the chair, because the alma mater of the guy who gave it to us wouldn’t accept a chair with that title.

HH: You’re kidding? You’re kidding?

LA: So Hillsdale College would be impossible without things like that.

HH: I love it. I also want to quote before we go to break, “To think amidst the pressure is a rare gift. To think amidst a battle with the right mixture of aggression and caution, with the flare of deception and innovation, is almost unknown.” How do you discern that in a presidential campaign?

LA: Well, partly the answer is you can’t, of course. Power shows the man, writes Aristotle, so we won’t really know whether we’ve elected anybody any good until they try. But having said that, watch their coolness under fire, and I believe in this, you know, and that’s why I’m, you know, I’m always pining for Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill, and that’s unreasonable, because those two guys and two or three others are all there ever have been. But if somebody speaks directly and beautifully, firmly and clearly, then that means that conveys certainty. Now it can also convey demagoguery or dogmatism that’s unhealthy. But if you don’t sense that in him, it means that they’re confident of their position.

HH: And they’re not going to…

LA: And there are some candidates in the race that are like that.

HH: And they’re not going to get, you can’t grow that. You can’t put in what God left out. I’ll be right back with Dr. Larry Arnn.

— – —

HH: Before we run out of time, we have eight minutes to talk about Marlborough, and get us up to the part about the sinews of peace. And I like the part that Churchill praised, that Marlborough, “Had not lost his detachment from human suffering, and this regard was superior to Napoleon or Cromwell.” And that is a completely different asset than a sinister touch.

LA: Yeah, you know, prudence, which is exemplified by great generals, and more by great statesmen, that involves knowing, having an even lethal grasp of the shifting details around you, but also a sense of your ultimate purposes that is firm. And so Marlborough was trying to preserve a free society and civilization. And war is destructive of those things. And so he sought to fight his battles in a way that preserved his army first, and second, the enemy army. He much preferred French casualties to his own, but he was not looking like this battle of, he fought and won four massive battles and many smaller engagements, and he won them all, every single one. Hardly anybody can say that.

HH: And this is in 1600. This is…

LA: Around 1700.

HH: 1690. When is Blenheim?

LA: 1704.

HH: Okay, okay, that’s the first one.

LA: That’s right. No, it’s the second one. And, but at Malplaquet, it was a direct assault, and it was very bloody. And the French were driven off, but they were cheering as they left, because they had inflicted so many casualties, whereas at Blenheim, they were all dazed. Before the Battle of Blenheim, which you should go read the chapter before and the chapter of and the chapter after the Battle of Blenheim in Marlborough: His Life And Times by Churchill, it’s just better than any novel you’ll ever read. Not quite true, but it’s very good. And in this battle, the morning the battle was held, Marshal Tallard had been following Marlborough down the river, down the Danube, a long way, hundreds of miles. And he couldn’t cross, and he was afraid to take the time to cross to confront him, because Marlborough had stored boats and food over the winter at many places, and he was afraid he was going to get in the boats and go back up to Belgium and fight with Tallard away. So he’s writing a letter to Louis XIV, and he says at the end of the letter I must go now, Highness, because the enemy is making one last demonstration before he retires.

HH: Oh, I remember this from, I remember (laughing)

LA: And see, he gave it to the rider, and the rider flew off to Paris. And by that night, Tallard, I’m saying the name wrong, Marshal Tallard, was a captive in Marlborough’s coach (laughing).

HH: And everybody was in the river dead.

LA: That’s right.

HH: It was, the description of the casualty and of the carnage is grotesque.

LA: Oh, yeah.

HH: But it’s, I don’t know how many were lost there, but it was 17th Century fighting that is brutal. It is cannonballs blowing off arms and bayonets and stuff like that. And there’s blood everywhere, and he is sickened by it.

LA: Oh, at Malplaquet?

HH: Yeah.

LA: Yeah, very much. And that was, and see, he just, he repined that for the rest of his life, right? He should have thought, he thought to himself, of a better way to fight them on that day.

HH: To flank. And there’s where I want to finish. I did not know until I read this chapter in World War I, Churchill considered a northern flanking move on the Germans. I know, of course, about Gallipoli and trying to force the strait, but what was the northern plan?

LA: An island in the north, in the Baltic, called Borkum, was the one they had settled on. And they were going to take that island, and then they could move a bunch of men and materials there, and be poised there to go ashore in Germany. And that would distract the German army, and one hoped, they would have to weaken their line against the British and the French over there in the east, and maybe they would have to withdraw their line.

HH: Yeah, did that come close? Was that even a close second to Gallipoli?

LA: Oh, yeah. It was thought about for a long time, and see, one of the stories about the Dardanelles that Churchill’s great tragedy in his life, which by the way, told in the late, in the Second World War, because George Marshall and others, Churchill wanted a more Mediterranean strategy to get farther east, and partly, it’s explicit, to block expansion of the Soviet Union. And the United States wouldn’t go along with it, and Marshall said he’s just refighting the Dardanelles. But the man who pressed for the Dardanelles hardest was a famous man named Jackie Fisher, who Churchill had brought out of retirement to join him in the navy, number two in the navy, and he had wanted the southern route. He is the one who said we should send our best new battleship, the Queen Elizabeth, down there.

HH: Did you read Dreadnought by Robert Massie?

LA: Yeah.

HH: It’s a terrific picture of Jackie Fisher.

LA: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

HH: And what an amazing guy, but he probably was overmatched by the times.

LA: Yeah, well, mostly, you know, there’s some sign, because what he did, by the way, brought back by Churchill, and the Dardanelles went, you know, there were difficulties, right? They lost some ships, one big one, and Churchill wanted the prime minister, Asquith, to order the admiral to attack one more time. And we know from the later record that the Turk were out of shells by this time.

HH: Yeah.

LA: And the mines were mostly cleared. And Fisher left his post in the admiralty, in wartime, Asquith sent bailiffs looking for him, and he was in the Charing Cross Hotel with his mistress, and he sent letters to the opposition to break the government and take Churchill’s place. And Churchill was his patron at that time. And he had fostered this thing more than anybody at the beginning. And Churchill was left holding the bag. And you know, the lesson that Churchill draws from all of that is, first of all, political lessons. He understood that people might act very badly, even in war.

HH: (laughing) You guess?

LA: And then second, that you have to have unity of command. He admired the fact that the American Constitution sets that up. And remember, the American Constitution was written by a bunch of people who had just own a long and difficult war.

HH: And that’s why when Vice President Cheney has been a guest on this show, he talked about unity in the executive, why it was so fundamental to what the framers set about. We’ll talk more about that next week as we continue in Chapter Four of Churchill’s Trial. Go and get it. It really is, I hate to compliment him this way. It’s a magnificent read.

End of interview.


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