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Dr. Larry Arnn On Chapter One Of Churchill’s Trial: The Fighter

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HH: It is the last radio hour of the week. That means it is time for the Hillsdale Dialogue, all of which are collected at And if you’re so inclined, allows you to sample from all of the Hillsdale College offerings and subscribe to their speech digest, Imprimis. That is for free. All you need to do is register for that or any of the courses, including a brand new course on Winston Churchill that is offered by my guest, Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, about his brand new book, Churchill’s Trial: Winston Churchill And The Salvation Of Free Government, on which we are spending many weeks. Dr. Arnn, welcome back, good to speak with you.

LA: How are you doing, Hugh?

HH: I’m great. Before we thrust ourselves into Chapter One, I have to ask you about your assessment of your friend, Paul Ryan’s, laying down of conditions on becoming the next Speaker of the House of the United States. He did so after a conference of the Republican caucus, and he did so publicly, and he said upon these conditions, I will serve and none other. What do you think?

LA: It was perfect. Yeah, I haven’t spoken with him, so I’m not speaking for him, or repeating anything he said. But I know people who, let’s say I know people who talk to him, and he wants to do this so that it can be done right. And what would it take to do it right? The House of Representatives has two things about it. One is it’s a deliberative body. They argue and debate. And then the other is they discharge a function. And when they do it, which is pass legislation, and oversee the executive branch, and when they do that, they do that together. And so they have been weakened in recent years under, when the Republicans are in power, in their ability to act together. And that’s one reason that they’re not formidable to the Obama administration. They don’t really do any oversight, and that’s partly because they don’t lay the ground for it in appropriations that assigns money and tasks to executive branch agencies. So what Paul is saying is I want to do the job if I’m in a position to do the job. And that means I have to have your support, and then I have to be able to have the authority to do the job. And so good for him.

HH: I must say in Chapter One of Churchill’s Trial, there is a new bit of information to me. When Churchill was asked to take over the government, and right before he gave his first speech as prime minister, you write on Page 14, it was a business speech, abrupt and startling. Churchill had over the weekend restructured the government extensively. And many people, all of them Conservative leaders, members of Churchill’s own party, had lost their jobs or had been demoted. Churchill apologized to these people for “lack of ceremony” with which it was necessary to act. They were the first political casualties of the Churchill administration. Paul Ryan was criticized for being rather brusque and demanding, and I thought well, there’s a great precedent for being brusque and demanding.

LA: Yeah, well, you know, this is a crisis, and the Congress is not working. You know, there was an excellent article in the Wall Street Journal yesterday by Chris DeMuth of the Hudson Institute. And people should look that up and read it, because it’s about how it’s supposed to work and why it’s not working. And a lot of people I know, and to some extent, me, have some scholarship for thirty or forty years now about how the bureaucracy, and the existence of the bureaucracy, has reshaped the working of the Congress. And the Congress has got to work together to take control again, or else what? There’ll be these demonstrations, and every six to nine to twelve months, there’ll be a crisis over shutting down the government, and not much will be accomplished by those except bad feelings.

HH: And no political advantage of any lasting character, either. I am fascinated by Chapter One of your book, and that’s where I want to plunge into now, in Churchill’s Trial, because you write at the beginning, “Churchill was a fighter. As a soldier in combat, he had that deadly mixture of calm and aggression. One can see in George Washington at Trenton, Princeton or Monmouth as a warlord, he brought urgency and direction to everyone around him, even to the whole nation. He meant to win, and he found a way.” And that’s a great thing to say about a leader, if you mean to win. You know, we’re not used to people who mean to win these days. I’m not sure President Obama ever means to win anything.

LA: Well, he means to beat those Republicans.

HH: That’s true, and you know, Hillary Clinton, they’re her enemies.

LA: Yeah, not our enemies, and so it’s bad for a man to envy. And I envy one thing, well, first of all, I look up to and admire Churchill very greatly, but I envy something. His wife wrote a letter to the prime minister, and said only Winton has the deadliness to fight the Germans. Wouldn’t you like it if Betsy had wrote that about you?

HH: I do, that’s on Page 11. “He has the supreme quality which I venture to say very few of your present or future cabinet possess – the power of the imagination, the deadliness to fight Germany.” Let’s go to the beginning of Chapter One, because you’re talking, it’s entitled The Fighter, and it begins with an episode in the Boer War, or it actually begins with a summary of the fact that here was an intensely ambitious fellow who would, I just think of the time he spent on freighters getting around to India, and then to Cuba, and then to South Africa. He must have been a prodigious reader, because he had nothing to do for long days at sea.

LA: Yeah, he was antsy at sea, too. But he wrote, well, later, when he became a great man, he had a staff. And he took boxes and boxes of papers, and he wrote. But in these days, he wrote a lot on these voyages, which means he consumed a lot of the ship’s paper, and you know, communication was hard on the ship. And somehow, he produced a lot. But yeah, he was antsy, too.

HH: Well, let’s start with what you say is his best adventure. Now you are not un-careful with your words. You chose that word very carefully when you say it’s his best adventure. So that’s a high thing given the number of things in which Churchill was involved.

LA: Yeah.

HH: And so you have to say the best adventure. Tell people the circumstances of the train adventure, because you begin the book with him, I think, for a very express reason. But tell people about the train adventure in the Boer War, November 15th, 1898.

LA: Yeah, the first thing you need to know is what kind of fellow was Churchill, right? And it’s revealed in this one important aspect of him. So when Churchill was a kid, you know, he was, he wasn’t rich. He was very well-connected, but he didn’t have a title. And so he gets into the cavalry. He goes to Sandhurst, and is added to the cavalry, which takes a lot of money. He doesn’t have it. Now how’s he going to get it? Well, he takes up riding. And like most of the things he did in his life, he was very good at it, and he made a lot of money. And that ticked off the army, because he’s a, you know, a second lieutenant, and he’s one of the most read people on strategy of the war. He makes the odd comment about the general being in the wrong. And he’s so low on the totem pole, he hardly ever gets to meet a general. So they, so he gets attacked by a general, and responds in the press, and then they pass a regulation that if you’re a serving officer, you can’t write for the press. So his reaction to that was to resign his commission and become an embedded journalist. And then for some months, he would take turns sort of being a soldier and sort of being a journalist. They couldn’t stop him. And then the day comes when he’s asked to get on this armored train. There are a lot of photographs of the armored train, and there’s one in my book. And it’s a big, strong-looking, ungainly thing, and a bad idea. And it’s a bad idea, because it’s vulnerable to the tracks being disrupted.

HH: It’s a big target, yeah.

LA: So he’s invited to go by Captain Haldane, who knew him and admired him. And so he didn’t really want to go, and he talked him into it, Haldane does, so he goes. And they go out on a spur of the railway so that the only way back is to back up, to come back backing up along the same track. And of course, that means that the enemy, the Boers, the South African Dutch, know when the train’s coming back. So the train, the tracks go down through an incline with rocky hills on either side, and they pile up a bunch of rocks on the track. And they open fire with artillery and small arms. And the engineer speeds up to get away, hits the rocks and derails some of the cars at what is now the front of the train. The locomotive is in the back. So they’re stuck there now, and they’re fire coming in on them, and they can’t really return it very well. And you know, 15 or so people are killed. And it has the makings of a mess. And then the journalist, Winston Churchill, gets out of the train and walks a big semicircle around the train looking at it. And he comes back and opens the door and says I need volunteers. We can get this thing moving. And so some people joined him. And for an hour, they work in the sun, in the open. Several of them are harmed by the gunfire, not Churchill. He was never wounded. And they used the locomotive to push, and they get the tracks cleared, and then it can go. And the point about this, and the locomotive is going away. They, at one point, the engineer is struck by, you know, he’s wounded, and a flesh wound, and he’s bleeding, and he’s going to run. He’s going to get down from the train and he’s the only one that can drive the train. And Churchill says buck up, man, you’re never hit twice in the same battle. And you will get a medal.

HH: Hold on right there. I’ll be right back. The train episode in Winston Churchill’s life makes up for his chapter of Churchill’s Trial by Dr. Larry Arnn. Stay tuned, America, it’s the Hillsdale Dialogue.

— – – – –

HH: The Boers have stopped the locomotive. The engineer is trying to get away. Winston Churchill is walking about, as Douglas MacArthur would later, exposed completely to fire and indifferent to it, demonstrating incredible physical courage. And he lies to the engineer, and says nobody’s ever sit twice in the same battle. That’s simply not true, Larry Arnn.

LA: You know, I don’t know. It’s a hard thing to prove at the moment.

HH: (laughing)

LA: (laughing) And so the engineer stayed, and you know, later, when Churchill was Home Secretary, he arranged for the guy to get a medal.

HH: Yes.

LA: He kept his word. But they’re getting away now. They’ve loaded the wounded. Only the locomotive is free and moving, and they load the wounded on the locomotive, and Churchill was on the locomotive. And the idea is the troops will run along beside, the British troops, the locomotive and get away and be shielded from the Boers. But the engineer can’t keep the locomotive going at the right pace. It’s hard to do, because there’s an incline. And so it goes too fast, and it leaves them behind. And Boer cavalry come out to surround the men. And Churchill sees that and jumps off the train and goes and joins them. So you know, I don’t know what he was thinking.

HH: But he reached for a pistol, didn’t he?

LA: Well, then, you know, there’s a battle, and two Boer horsemen come at him, and he’d laid down his pistol, but he’d forgotten it. And a man named Louie Botha, later president of the South African Republic, was in the area, although not apparently at that battle. And so Churchill came to believe that he had been, that one of those horsemen coming on him was Louie Botha. And so he reached for his pistol, and he didn’t have it. He had laid it down when he was working on the train. And so he didn’t shoot at them, and they didn’t shoot him. And he would, it later emerged that Louie Botha was not the man who captured him. He did surrender, but Churchill refused to believe it for the rest of his life. Of course, it was Louie Botha, because…

HH: (laughing) Of course, it was Louie Botha.

LA: Some regular guy captured me?

HH: (laughing)

LA: And at this point, it’s a good thing to say that the people, there are testimonies from several of the soldiers who watched this engagement, which went on for more than an hour, and they were amazed. They were just, they were just thrilled with what was going on. And they, Churchill walks up to Haldane and said thank you for that. The whole Durban Light Infantry, it’s a county, a shire, a county named Durban Light Infantry has watched this, and now I will be elected to Parliament.

HH: To the Parliament (laughing) The other, the amazing thing I did not know, either, and I have read a lot of Churchill, is that upon being marched with the other prisoners into the prison camp, he finds that the senior man in the area, and he announces he has a plan to win the war.

LA: Yeah, in my book, I put a photograph, and I think there’s only one in it, but the words are not too hard. You can read it. But it’s my favorite photograph of Churchill, just like this is my favorite adventure of Churchill, because there’s this photograph of him, and the first time I saw it, you know, years ago, I was just staggered, because the train has pulled up, and it’s in the middle of Pretoria, the capital of South Africa, and they’d been in a battle. And many wounded, and many killed, and then the ones who are captured are marched, and comes up a rainstorm, and they’re marched in the rain for hours. And then they’re put on a train at a railhead, and taken to the capital with rifles pointing at them all night. And they get out, and everybody looks really bedraggled. And there’s this one guy standing off at the side, and he looks just, he looks like he’s out for a Sunday stroll in St. James Park, and he’s looking impassive and slightly cocked his head, and he’s staring at the Boers like he holds them in complete indifference, no, contempt would be too much. And it’s like he, and I just thought wow, look at that guy. But it is, you’re right, and going through all that…

HH: Because at that moment…

LA: What he did was questioned, he talked, he questioned, he talked to the guards, talked a blue streak, wrote an article in the train for publication, too. By the time he gets there, he knows the lay of the land, and the officers where he was are kept in a place called the state model schools, which is just a big school building with a wall around it, and the enlisted men who had been captured in the war are supposed to be in the stadium, and it’s nearby. And he learns all that. So his idea is we’ll overwhelm the guard, march on the stadium, free the men, seize the weapons of the guards, take the capital, and win the war. That’s his plan. And you have to remember, he’s not a soldier at this moment.

HH: No, newspaperman.

LA: Yeah, and so he treats the Boers with great indignation. I’m a civilian. You have no right to hold me, he says. And he starts writing letters.

HH: And there is a story, there’s a story in Plutarch of Caesar being captured by pirates. And he talked to them endlessly, and he told them he would return and hang them all, and they laughed at him. And he was eventually ransomed, and they he did go and get the governor of the area, and he came back and got the pirates and crucified them all.

LA: Yeah, yeah, see?

HH: It was, he was…

LA: This is, Churchill actually became friends with some of his captors, and especially with a family, because Churchill gets away. So see, first of all, isn’t this strange that this fellow that’s famous, that everybody knows about, did this thing I’m telling you about? He did a lot of things like this. This is my favorite. But he does, he can’t get the camp commander to agree to end the war by taking the capital with escaped prisoners or liberated prisoners. So he’s disgusted with that, and so they make up a plot to get away. And Haldane is in the plot. And when it came, Churchill, they found a way to hoist themselves up on the wall. There was a shadow where there was a shed near the wall that ran around the camp, a stone wall, and so they could hoist themselves up and hide in this shadow. And when the guards turned away, they could let themselves down and run for it. And Churchill was the only one who got over the wall, and there was some controversy about that later, about whether he left them behind and ruined their own chances of escape. There’s some testimony by, for a brief period, by Haldane that this is the case. But never mind that. He goes running. And you know, he doesn’t know where he is, and he doesn’t have any stuff. He had some chocolate with him. And 24 hours or so, and I’m going to forget how long he was on the road. He went up some railroad tracks, mostly. He’s starving, and he’s dying of thirst, and there’s wanted posters out for him everywhere. And so finally, he breaks down and he stumbles into a camp, a mining camp.

HH: Hold it right there. He stumbles into a mining camp. We’ll be right back. Winston Churchill’s escape during the Boer War, stay tuned, America.

— – – –

HH: So as we went to break, he was 24 hours on the run from the Boers, having climbed the wall, and he stumbles into a mining camp. What happens? That’s not in this book.

LA: So there’s a bunch of houses there, people who work in the mines, and he just picks a door and knocks on it. And there’s only one British subject living in these houses. All the rest of them are occupied by Boers. And so he knocks on the right one.

HH: Providential.

LA: He doesn’t have any way to know, right? And the odds were overwhelming against him. And so this guy hides him in a mine for a few days and lets the heat cool off, and then he puts him in between some bales of cotton on a train going to Mozambique, going east to Mozambique, and gives him some food, and tells him don’t come out until you hear you’re in Mozambique. And so there’s a photograph of young Churchill, right, and he’s had this amazing adventure. And see, there’s writing about it in the press, about the adventure, and he manages to write some of it, you know, from the POW camp, of course.

HH: (laughing)

LA: And meanwhile, there’s a long string of letters that he writes to the Boers saying I’m just a civilian, you can’t keep me, this is an outrage. And the Boer commander on the scene where he was captured says do not let this man go. He is very dangerous.

HH: Very dangerous.

LA: Yeah, and then they make a decision. Churchill keeps at them, and Churchill, in his letters, they’re very interesting, and one of the most interesting letters of his life, he writes to his American mentor, Bourke Cockran, from the camp, but he couches everything, because he knows the Boers are going to read his stuff, to get them to let him go. And his articles are like that, too.

HH: Well, you write in this that he is thinking about four things throughout this period of time. He’s thinking he is in danger, he is thinking about the political implications of this, he is thinking upon escape, and he’s thinking upon victory, and he’s doing this all at once while looking unconcerned and contemptuously, not contemptuously, indifferently at his captors, and he pulls it all off.

LA: Yeah, and see, Churchill writes a lot. I mean, one of the things that’s, you know, he’s a very extraordinary man, in my opinion, and one of the extraordinary things about him is he writes a lot about what you do when you make hard decisions under pressure, what goes on in your mind. And it’s a feat of imagination, because you picture these scenes of what will happen if you do this, and what the outcome will be, and all of that is taking into account both your convictions about what kind of person you should be, but also all of the details and circumstances. And in a statesman’s life, and in a battle, they’re unfolding very fast. And so you’re thinking really fast, and you’re running a bunch of options through your mind all the time, and then moments come when you have to choose, and then you choose. But this particular episode is great, because he wrote a lot about it later. And Churchill had the knack of telling stories about things that happened to him where he doesn’t seem to be in the center. And it’s fun to read what he says about his own actions, you know, which are pretty modest, although you can tell he’s doing a lot, and then go read what people said about him, and you know, an impartial account of the thing. And gosh, he was up to a lot. And this made him, and so he gets off this train in the capital of Mozambique, and he, and there’s a photographer there. And there are people crowded around him. And the train is in the background, and there he is. He’s escaped. And the war is not going very well. And there have been accounts of this armored train battle in the press, and so he becomes a national hero. And he goes back and runs for Parliament, which he had already tried unsuccessfully, and this time, he wins. And so it launches his political career, of course.

HH: You write that could Hitler have foreseen in his capacity for self-effacement the stirrings of a capacity to stoop and to woo that would entice Franklin. He wrote in one of his portraits of Lord Rosebery, he would not stoop, he would not conquer. He believed, you write, in stooping when necessary.

LA: He wrote it a lot, see? In the Aristotle class where we just finished Book 4, and I’m teaching that this term, and in there is the magnanimous man. And two great teachers, one, my teacher, and one, his teacher, Leo Strauss and Harry Jaffa, said they loved to say that Winston Churchill was the magnanimous man. And they understood what the magnanimous man was by watching the career of Winston Churchill. But in Aristotle, he says to the magnanimous man, nothing is great, and he will never pretend that anything is great. And you know, Churchill not only was constantly wooing great people, bowing before them when he needed something from them, but in addition, he talked about that a lot.

HH: And we’ll be right back to talk about talking about that a lot. Don’t go anywhere, America, it’s Hugh Hewitt with Dr. Larry Arnn.

— – – – —

HH: It’s a rip, good read, and self-effacement is not what one expects in a chapter on the fighter, but he writes a lot about the strategery behind such a thing, Larry Arnn.

LA: That’s right, and see, if you want to understand somebody, like Churchill says that he wooed both Franklin Roosevelt and Josef Stalin harder than any man ever wooed a maid. And then in his Marlborough: His Life and Times, of his great ancestor, he says that Marlborough stooped to conquer, and you’ve just pointed out that he said that Lord Rosebery, a liberal politician of the 19th Century and a mentor to Churchill, would not do that.

HH: Yup.

LA: So Churchill is telling us, and you can think of several motives why he would tell us that he would do that. First of all, Churchill was a great man, and that means that if he seems to be saying, which he never does quite say, that Franklin Roosevelt is a greater man than Winston Churchill, he’s telling you he might not mean that.

HH: Yeah.

LA: In addition, he’s telling you, because Churchill is interested to explain himself. But it never sounds like my favorite contemporary politician, John Kerry.

HH: Ugh.

LA: You know, who loves to talk about himself.

HH: Never not telling you how wonderful he is.

LA: Yeah, you know…

HH: Let me…

LA: And you know, let’s discuss today my greatness, right? And you can almost hear him saying that. And so he, Churchill is not like that. It’s artful, but he is telling you what’s going on in his mind if you’re interested to know.

HH: Well, there are two paragraphs in here, and before we run out of time, I want to cover them. One is about Hitler. “One wonders,” you write, “if a certain former German corporal had seen this photograph of the train and knew this story of the escape, would he have acted differently. The fatal decision of his life was to turn his back on this man and attack to the east.” I think that is just wonderfully put. But then I did not know that Churchill learned from his decision to go to Antwerp that he ought not to have gone to Antwerp. And we only have like four minutes. Would you explain to people that? They can read the entire book, and the chapter, The Fighter, for themselves. But that is a revelation to me.

LA: Yeah, it, that’s another thing. Churchill explains all the time what he learns, what he did wrong. So in the outbreak of the First World War, it was sort of like the outbreak of the Second World War would be later. The Germans go sweeping to the far right. They didn’t do that in the Second World War, but they’re sweeping down the coast, which did eventually happen in the Second World War, and the Allied armies are trying to form and get ready, and dig some trenches, and stop this German rapid overrunning of France that’s going on. And they did it over, on about a third of France. And so there’s the city of Antwerp in Belgium on the coast, is a strongpoint. And they think they need to delay these Germans. And so Churchill is First Lord of the Admiralty, and he sees the strategic situation quickly, and he sends the Royal Marines, who are kind of a young, not really fully formed fighting force at the moment. He sends them over there, and then he goes over there. And the next thing you know, he’s in command of a bunch of stuff over there. And by, and by accounts of the Belgians who were near him, he did pretty well. And there’s even testimony that he delayed the Germans in ways that made a difference in the war. But to the people back in the cabinet, it looked silly, right, because they’re all guys wearing suits all the time, right?

HH: Right. And Kitchener.

LA: Yeah, and now the head of the British Navy, the most important arm of the British military, is commanding some land troops. What’s he doing? And he writes to them and says you know, maybe I should give up my cabinet post and just run things here for a while, you know? And they think that’s zany. And later, he thought, and you know, I think that there’s a good argument that Churchill did strike a very important blow here, but also, Churchill says this. He says if you’re occupying the mountaintop, you should stay up there, because while you’re up there, there are important protections for you and your reputation and your actions, because forces are arranged beneath you that need you to succeed. But if you descend down, you’re exposed, right? So he thought better of that thing. But that didn’t mean that he was able to stop himself at the time.

HH: Now, and he takes away from that a lesson that will be useful to him in the future, and I think it’s part of the statesmanship lessons that make up Churchill’s Trial that we only know because he had such a long and storied career and full of ups and downs. Will we come back, I’m only at Chapter One, to his conduct in the trenches once he is exiled to the trenches in World War I?

LA: Yeah, there’s some good stuff about that, and I mention some of it.

HH: Okay.

LA: I try to say in the beginning of the book what he’s like as a warrior.

HH: We will come back to that. Churchill’s Trial by Larry Arnn, Winston Churchill And The Salvation Of Free Government. Are all of the new videos posted at once, or are you releasing one a week at

LA: One a week, and they’re kind of, I think there are three up right now.

HH: All right, so do not delay another day, America. Head on over to And for all of the Hillsdale Dialogues, I’ve just lined the first chapter. I’ve only given you a little bit about it, including the necessity to have fear if you’re going to have courage. It is all there. You should read this book. It’s really very riveting. Churchill’s Trial: Winston Churchill And The Salvation Of Free Government by Dr. Larry Arnn.

End of interview.


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