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Dr. Larry Arnn On Winston Churchill From Pearl Harbor To D-Day

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HH: I am now back with Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, for our weekly Hillsdale Dialogue. And we have been doing these dialogues since the beginning of this year. And eight weeks ago, we stopped, oh, around the time of St. Augustine, and said we need to talk about Churchill because times are dark, and we should focus on leadership. And Dr. Arnn, of course, is a Churchill expert. And he will have a new book out on Churchill sometime in the next decade. Joel Miller, I hope you’re listening. And that’s his publisher, and my publisher as well. He is also, of course, the president of Hillsdale College, where numerous scholars and wonderful faculty reside, and where it was announced this week that the commencement speaker will be Eric Metaxas. Am I correct about that, Dr. Arnn?
LA: That’s correct.

HH: You know, I’ve known Eric a long time. He can give a very good speech. You’d better go first.

LA: Well, at Hillsdale College, I go first and last, and anywhere I please in between.

HH: But he is quite a talker. And when he gets done talking about Bonhoeffer, your young men and woman are going to be willing, if they’re not already, to sacrifice all, which is what, of course, Bonhoeffer did.

LA: He wrote a great book, you know.

HH: It is. Now we left off with Churchill. Do you have any comments, by the way, on the elections of this week, Christie in New Jersey and Cuccinelli in Virginia before we begin?

LA: Well, it was, I guess two things. One is Christie is a very direct human being, and that’s good. And he fought those unions there, and that’s good. And so there’s a lot of good in that. I’m not so happy about his decision about the gay marriage stuff there, but so I’d say that. And the Virginia election was a lot closer than everybody thought, that seems to have had something to do with Obamacare. And so maybe Obamacare is a more important thing than the government shutdown. That’s what I think.

HH: I think you’re absolutely right. Would Governor Christie be welcome on the campus of Hillsdale?

LA: Sure.

HH: I think he ought to go there, because I think now, he’s going to do his process of getting ready to run for president. And my guess is that a trip to Hillsdale will become as obligatory for a would-be Republican presidential nominee as any sight in the country. I’m trying to think of an analogy. Cooper’s Union? Was Cooper’s Union a must-go to if you were running for president?

LA: Well, yeah, it was an excellent venue, because it’s in New York City, and because he had to go east. But…and so after that, for a while, it was a place where you needed to go, because you could be like Lincoln.

HH: And did Reagan ever speak at Hillsdale?

LA: He did. Of course, he did.

HH: How often?

LA: Well, he spoke for Hillsdale three times, once on the campus.

HH: And do you know by heart what he said on the campus?

LA: I know it well. I know pretty well, yeah. And he, the best thing he ever said, well, on the campus, he talked about freedom, and he praised the college. And the best thing he wrote, said about Hillsdale, was in, and I’m sorry I’m interrupting myself too much. But he did, he said something really cool that we use sometimes in DVDs or videos about the college. And he praised its fight against the government for its independence. And there have now surfaced private memos and letters he wrote about that fight, and said you know, I’m on their side. So yeah, he was a friend of the college, a good friend.

HH: Well, I have an idea that if some beneficent donor is listening, I want them to underwrite. I would like them to underwrite the travel to the college of Charles Krauthammer, Mark Steyn, Joseph Epstein and myself so that I could moderate the discussion between those three and you on freedom. Have you read Krauthammer’s new book, yet?

LA: No, I haven’t. It’s sitting here on my desk, I’m proud to say. But I haven’t read it, yet.

HH: It’s really remarkable for how far seeing he has been for so many years, and his autobiographical note. And has he been a guest at the college?

LA: Oh yeah, several times.

HH: Yeah, and Epstein, of course, finest essayist. We talk about him. And so I just, I like to think about that kind of a carnival of ideas at Hillsdale. Now, let’s turn to the carnival of the war. When last we left off, things were grim for the Empire, because Britain was alone. And FDR was helping out a little bit, and trying to nudge his isolationists, and ignoring the Japanese threat in the East to some extent. And then along comes December 7th. And many people have rightly said that we were unprepared at Pearl Harbor, and many people have rightly said that the Brits were unprepared. But were they unprepared in the East? Or were they simply beyond the ability to prepare in the East?

LA: Well, there was something that both countries didn’t fully understand, although everybody was talking about it, and that is the military airplane had changed everything about naval warfare, as it had about other kinds of warfare. So at Pearl Harbor, the decisive thing that emerged there, there were two, and one was the Japanese aircraft simply devastated the American Navy in their port, and the second one was the aircraft carriers were out to sea. And I think even the Japanese did not fully understand how serious a fact that was. They didn’t destroy them, and a few months later at the Battle of Midway, the first major naval battle in history where no ships ever came in sight of each other, the United States devastated the Japanese Navy, and that’s because those aircraft carriers had survived. And the British, their problems came from the fact that they had those big battleships out there. They came from two facts, really. One was they had defended, they had organized at great expense and trouble the defenses of Singapore Island at the bottom of the Malay Peninsula from a sea attack, and the Japanese came down in a way nobody thought they could, down the Malay Peninsula through a series of amphibious invasions, landings, and took Singapore Island from the land. My wife’s father was captured there.

HH: Oh, I didn’t know that. At Singapore?

LA: Yeah, he was eventually, he was for four years a guest of the Japanese…

HH: I thought he got off the beach at Dunkirk?

LA: He did. He did that.

HH: What an unlucky man.

LA: And then he guarded, he came off Dunkirk Beach the last time, the last day anybody did. And then he guarded beaches in Britain for a few months waiting for the German invasion, which didn’t thankfully come, and then he was transferred east, and he arrived just in time to join the retreat down the Malay Peninsula, and was captured in Singapore with tens of thousands of others, was a camp commander of a Japanese POW camp for, he was second in command for a year and a half, and then commander for two years and a bit.

HH: Oh, how fascinating. Did he read King Rat? Did you ever discuss Clavell’s novel of Japanese prison life with him?

LA: No, I didn’t, that. He actively disliked the film, the Bridge On the River Kwai, and my wife’s father made, while he was in the camp, he was a handyman. He was a lawyer, but he could make things. And he fixed grandfather clocks and carved in ivory. He made a flute. And he made it out of a bit of pipe and some brass stuff, and he converted a hand-crank postage meter into a lathe. And he played the flute in the camp orchestra. My wife’s brother has that. And he carved two sets of chess men in Alice In Wonderland figures, and one of those is in the, no, it’s the flute that’s in the Imperial War Museum. Those chess sets are in the family.

HH: Wow.

LA: He made two chess sets, because the Japanese camp commander took one away from him, and he asked for it back to copy it, he did. And then later, when the Americans started drawing near, the Japanese camp commander returned the first one to him.

HH: Have you read King Rat?

LA: No.

HH: I would recommend it to you as a fine work of art. He reminds me, though, your father in law, a family friend, a fellow by the name of Bill Barber, Col. Bill Barber was a friend of my father in law, Col. Will Helmer, and fought with him on Iwo Jima. And Bill Barber was wounded on Iwo Jima, and then he was subsequently not in another battle until he commanded at the Chosen Reservoir, for which he received the Medal Of Honor. And so they said he only fought in two battles, but he picked two good ones. And your father in law fought Dunkirk and Singapore, the two greatest retreats in British history, aren’t they?

LA: Well, yeah, and see, my father in law was this gentle, tremendous, he was a great man. And he was the commander, leftenant colonel of a territorial army artillery regiment that was attached to the Cold Stream Guards, one of the five guards regiments, and that’s why he had such a difficult war, because they sent those guys to where it was going to be hell.

HH: Yeah, what a man. What a story.

LA: Yeah, great man.

HH: So we got off the track there, but that’s what World War II does. So he retreated, and Singapore was not ready, and Churchill was not ready for it not being ready.

LA: No, nobody, and then the sinking of the Royal Oak and all those things, those and the Prince Of Wales, those were devastating blows, and Churchill was very concerned that the British were surrendering quicker than the Americans, the British having had been in the war for a time, and we were just attacked from nowhere. And it took a long time for the Japanese to take the Philippines. And Churchill didn’t like the comparison, and fretted over it. The British eventually fought very well in the war, but that took time. It didn’t happen in 1942, which is the year we’re going to get into now.

HH: And when we come back from break, we will in fact turn to 1942. All of the Hillsdale Dialogues about Winston Churchill, and indeed going back all the way to the Iliad and forward are available at I know many of you have become quite attached to them. Turn your friends on to them, or send them directly to There’s also a button at But the direct route?

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HH: Dr. Arnn, during the break, I was reflecting on the fact that my mother in law’s first husband was a fellow named George Philip, who was in command of a destroyer that was sunk by kamikazes off of Okinawa. And his cousin was a fellow named Lt. Commander John Charles Waldron, who was the leader of the Lost Squadron at the Battle of Midway. And almost everyone our age, and you and I are in our 50s, have connections to almost someone somewhere, as you do to your father in law and others, who fought in the great war, but that memory, that collective memory, and they gave us Churchill, right? They were very significantly invested in understanding that Churchill and FDR were war leaders and great men. I don’t know that’s, that reverence for the war is going to last beyond a generation. What do you think?

LA: Well, there’s still keen interest in the Civil War. And what I think is these great events, they tell us something. You know, Thucydides in writing about the Peloponnesian War, about which we talked, said that it was a great movement of a great people, and revealing about them. And so the interest will remain, and may even grow, as it has for the Civil War. But it won’t be the same anymore. It won’t be personal connection as much anymore.

HH: So after the fall of Singapore and the Philippines were gone, and the Imperial Navy, before Guadalcanal, before Midway, before the war turns, was Churchill nevertheless happy that the United States had been dragged into the war?

LA: Well, what he wrote about it was that his first thought, when he heard it, was we’re going to win. And so yeah, he was very happy.

HH: And how, then, quickly, did he determine that he had to get FDR and Admiral King, especially, focused on Europe and not the Pacific?

LA: Well, that, immediately, and you know, he set off for Washington immediately. And he spent time with Roosevelt. And the disastrous early events of 1942 to offset the disaster of Pearl Harbor that also bode well, he was in Washington at the beginning and the end of the year ’42 when bad things happened. And he was there talking with him. And you know, the European Theater first argued for itself, really. I think we talked about that last time. And so that wasn’t a terrible fight. And you know, the Japanese were just far enough away, and far enough away from other things that what damage they were going to do, they were going to do, and you weren’t going to be able to get there quick enough to stop them. But in Europe, things were very critical, and what if Britain went under.

HH: There is a debate raging even as we speak, Larry Arnn, between Diana West and Vladimir Bukovsky on one side, Ronald Radosh and David Horowitz on the other, over whether or not Harry Hopkins, FDR’s right hand man, was a Soviet agent. We know Hiss was a Soviet agent. What do you think of this debate? And does it matter?

LA: Well, it doesn’t matter. That is to say here what it doesn’t matter to. We know that the Roosevelt administration was very loyal and excellent in the fight against Hitler, and to Britain, although they didn’t like the British Empire. And we also know that in the peace, and in the last phases of the war, several critical decisions were made in the Roosevelt administration that gave advantages to the Soviet Union. I don’t think that they were made for the sake, or at least one of them, the biggest one, I don’t think it was made for the sake of benefitting the Soviet Union. It was made for the sake of focus. Churchill wanted the Marseilles, 1944, second invasion of Western Europe, to be made further east. And he also wanted Eisenhower to remain, to stay as far east as he got, and go farther if he could. And Eisenhower retired. It is a fact that Eisenhower told Stalin about that before he told Churchill about that And Churchill didn’t like that a bit. And I don’t know what Harry Hopkins had to do with that. I don’t think anything, that second thing. And I don’t think that they were actually making decisions to benefit the Soviet Union. But I do think that they trusted them more than they should have.

HH: Churchill loved Hopkins, didn’t he?

LA: Oh, yeah.

HH: You see, that’s why, and I think he would have sniffed out a Bolshevik. They’re very good at not being sniffed out, but that’s, I haven’t done the work, and I’m not going to do the work, because time is short, and I’m not going to try and figure out whether or not Harry Hopkins was Alger Hiss 2.0. But it’s a fascinating debate. Tell me about Churchill and the White House, because if there’s something that Americans ought to get in their mind’s eye, it’s the image of this actually very small White House mansion with FDR and Churchill in it as cohabitants, as basically roommates.

LA: Well…

HH: Not in the same room, but in the same dorm.

LA: Well, there’s the story about Roosevelt wheeling into Churchill’s quarters, and Churchill was standing in the middle of the room naked. And Roosevelt, and Churchill turned to him and opened his arms and said the prime minister of Great Britain has nothing to hide from the president of the United States.

HH: (laughing)

LA: So yeah, there was neat stuff that happened. And above all, they talked and talked. And Churchill wooed Roosevelt. He said that. No lover ever courted a woman more intensely, some phrase like that. And they came to an agreement that didn’t stick, in Churchill’s opinion, about how to remake the world along what lines. And it didn’t stick, because when they got into contact with the Soviet Union, at the first conference in Tehran, distance grew between them. And Roosevelt engaged Stalin in a dinner conversation deriding the British Empire. And you know, the British Empire may have been a really terrible thing, but Stalin had committed a crime or two himself, and Churchill was very wounded by that. But in these early days especially, and Churchill loved Roosevelt. He disagreed with him before the war, and in principle about some things, and he wrote about those things, took issue with him on the NRA and the court-packing plan and things like that. And he did it gently, but he did it clearly. So they had their differences, but Roosevelt was a man very much to admire. I think he was a heck of a guy. Churchill once said to his daughter, Roosevelt leaving the room, I do love that man. And I think he did. And Roosevelt did him, and Britain, an enormous service.

HH: But did he love him for his inequalities, or because he did the service?

LA: I think both. I think Roosevelt was a, you know, a galvanizing personality. And Churchill liked people like that. Roosevelt was hard to figure out. I mean, his friends write of him, his friendly historians write of him, that he was a man of many wiles, and not excessive candor. And Churchill noticed that, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t love him, too. And I think he did, and I think he should have, too. But I also think that some of the things that were done at the end of the war were very unfortunate, let’s say.

— – – – –

HH: I see on CNN a story about the looted art of World War II that has been discovered recently, this week, actually, in Germany, that the Nazis stole and which has been secreted away for all these seventy years, and which needs to get back to its rightful owners. Larry Arnn, that war, you know, continues to echo on through history. And I said before the break I wanted you, if you could, to etch out the rest of the big four, and by that, I don’t mean Stalin or Chiang Kai-shek. I mean George Marshall and Sir Alanbrooke, who were the military guys who served Churchill and FDR.

LA: Yeah, well, Marshall, you know, had a tremendous career, of course. And he was chief of staff of the army, and he grew the American Army many fold, thirty or forty times. He organized for it to get overseas. He didn’t get to go and get near the front, and he was a very close counselor to FDR, and then later to Harry Truman. And he, the Marshall Plan, right, that was Harry Truman’s plan to spend, you know, it was about 2% of the gross domestic product of the United States for multiple years to feed and get Europe back on its feet. Churchill called that the most unsorted act in history, and that was Marshall’s. He administered that plan. He and Truman agreed it. And so when you talk about Marshall, Marshall was very much against moving the second invasion of Europe farther east, and said that Churchill was just playing the Dardanelles over again. That’s from the First World War. And I fault him for that. On the other hand, Marshall was very much part and parcel of the turn in American foreign policy that led to the Truman Doctrine, which was a guarantee to Turkey and Greece that helped save those countries, and to the Marshall Plan, and to the Berlin Air Lift.

HH: He’s also so thoroughly, and I’m not now, nor have I ever been a soldier. I’m a civilian. But I know a lot of soldiers, and I think George Marshall really personifies maybe the military ideal of citizen servant and military subject to civilian leadership. Is the same true of Alanbrooke and the Imperial general staff?

LA: Yeah, and Alanbrooke, those guys were all very close. And we talked about Alanbrooke last time, I think. But he kept a diary, and probably shouldn’t have done it, but he did. And in the diary, in the last entry in the diary, he and Churchill were very close. And all of those guys, Dowding and Tedder and the air guys, and the Navy guys. And you know, they were saving their country for more than a year when they thought they might lose it. And then they were dealing with these massive events that in Europe, passed across British soil, mostly. So they just did an enormous work, all of them, and built up the British forces, and managed to go back on the offensive, having been brought nearly to their knees. So they had all these experiences together. And in Alanbrooke’s last entry in his diary, there are really three main sections, and the first one, he reproaches himself for his complaints about Churchill. And in the middle section, he repeats some of those. And then in the final section, he says that it’s a privilege to have lived and served with such a man, few people ever get such a privilege. So Alanbrooke, and these guys, you know, by Churchill’s account, Churchill wrote beautifully about both of them, Marshall and Alanbrooke. And they were tremendous and very important figures. And of course, you have to remember about people like this, it’s like most presidents of the United States. They work themselves to death, you know.

HH: Yeah.

LA: They were old men by the time they finished.

HH: Yeah.

LA: And that’s because they just kept terrible hours and endured strain year after year after year.

— – – – –

HH: Larry Arnn, he had two principal lieutenants at D-Day – Eisenhower as supreme commander, Montgomery, the leader of the men who took the beach. He was responsible for Montgomery. He enable Eisenhower as well. And he also had quite the roll, Churchill did, in picking when and where the allies would reinvade Europe. Can you tell that story?

LA: Well, Eisenhower was stationed in Britain, and the thing to know about the D-Day invasion is it was huge. It was the largest military movement ever. That’s the first thing. The second thing was it wasn’t nearly big enough to succeed if the Germans could concentrate what they had there against them. So it had to be, it had to have a free run for a while. And then the third thing was you had to commit to it, because the timetables and logistics were such that you couldn’t just wake up one morning and say go. And so it depended, like if there’d been two weeks of impossible weather, it would have threatened, and there nearly were. It would have thrown everything off. And so this enormous thing is being prepared for years in Southern England. And that means Eisenhower is there working on it all the time. And everybody is cooperating with it. And that’s the big thing. And of course, they had an enormous deception effort. And the Germans were sure, because modern war, especially in the Second World War, is so logistical. It’s basically enormous numbers of men eating food and hurling steel at each other.

HH: And living, and needing beds, and needing facilities and medical doctors. It’s a civilization on the move.

LA: Yeah, yeah, in other words, you know, the better part of Chicago is moving down the road, right?

HH: Yeah.

LA: And so it’s just crazy. And the Germans were sure they would have to go to some deep water port. And they fortified those. And so the anxious decision was made not to do that. And they went instead to Normandy, where there wasn’t a big port, but a pretty favorable series of beaches. And Churchill invented a kind of floating harbor that you could make over in England and drag across the sea and set up in the port.

HH: Pause for a moment. Churchill invented it?

LA: Yeah.

HH: (laughing)

LA: Yeah, the Mulberry Harbour. And you know, and Churchill was frightened to death about this, as everyone else was. It’s overstated how reluctant he was. But it’s also true that they needed to fool the Germans, and they did. And apart from going to a place where it looked unlikely they could actually achieve the logistics, and they managed to do it, in addition, they kept Patton out. And they put rumors out that Patton was going somewhere else, and the Germans had learned to fear Patton. It’s worth mentioning him. And he, and that worked. That helped, because they couldn’t quite believe they wouldn’t use Patton in this thing. And so they got them ashore on June 6th, 1944, and they got a beachhead, and the landing was relatively easy everywhere except at Omaha Beach, where there were cliffs. And so the Germans had excellent position to look down, and they were trapped there most of the day. And of course, you’ve seen the D-Day movies, and most of them are about Omaha Beach.

HH: And did Churchill resist to the end, because that is the overstated understanding of many people, that Churchill wanted to go north, he wanted to go south, he wanted to go anywhere except across the Channel.

LA: Well, he didn’t want to go…for a while, he wanted to go in ’42. And you know, then they looked at it, and you know, and then, he didn’t want to go in ’43, mostly. He didn’t think they were ready. But once they were ready, he was there, and he knew that was the thing to do. And he, by the way, more than Roosevelt, was the one who had to go talk to Joe Stalin and get upbraided about it. And Stalin once in a conversation insulted the British Army and the courage of the British Navy.

HH: Yeah, yeah.

LA: Once you get to try fighting a little bit, you’ll find it’s not so bad. He said something like that. So this is all, you know, Churchill wanted to beat Hitler. And he staked a lot on it. and one of the proofs of that is he so wanted to beat Hitler and thought it was urgent to do, that he was prepared to try to get along with Stalin. And you know, whatever you think about Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Hopkins and Alger Hiss, there can be no doubt that Winston Churchill did not like communism.

HH: We’ll talk next week about the battle that then envelops Europe, but finish by talking about when Churchill actually got back to Europe, because he was at the bit to go immediately, I believe.

LA: Yeah, yeah, he wanted to be there for D-Day. And he got there, and so first of all, they get trapped, right? And they didn’t understand about these hedgerows, because they had aerial photographs of them. And if you ever go to Normandy, they’re still like it today. They’re these hedges that just look like very wide hedges are in fact up on an elevation above the road. And they curve outwards. And they’re big. And so when you drive a tank up to them, they turn the tank up on its tail. And then the Germans, because they’d been there a long time, knew that, and they shot things into the belly of the tanks. And it was impossible to move. And they didn’t make any serious progress inland until August. And it was in August that Churchill finally got over there.

HH: That is remarkable, actually, that they did not, a lot of people forget. They think June 6th, and then they roll on to Germany. But it takes two months thereafter to break out. One wonders what the American media would say about such a thing as that today. Dr. Larry Arnn of Hillsdale College, we’ll continue with the race across Europe and the battle to reclaim the Pacific next week as the Hillsdale Dialogue and the inquiry into Winston Churchill’s wartime leadership continues. Thank you very much.

End of interview.


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