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Dr. Larry Arnn On Winston Churchill As World War II Begins

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HH: It’s our weekly Hillsdale Dialogue with the president of Hillsdale College, Dr. Larry Arnn. Sometimes, Dr. Arnn is joined by one of his colleagues on the Hillsdale faculty. But these past few weeks, we’ve been focused on Winston Churchill, and of course, Dr. Arnn part of the original Winston Churchill official biography team, the Churchill papers now housed in large part at Hillsdale College, and the biography goes on under its aegis. And the reaction to this series of six or seven weeks thus far has been extraordinary, and we continue to stay where we are on Churchill in the war years this week. Dr. Arnn, I want to begin by telling you I am really stunned, actually, by the number of people who come up to me and tell me they love this story. And on Friday last, I participated in something called the Intelligence Squared debate put on by NPR, where teamed with Stephen Moore against Gray Davis and Michael Lynn, we debated the proposition that resolved, for a better future, live in a red state. And we crushed them. And if I hadn’t crushed them, I would have thought I ought to retire. But it occurred to me that the great proposition that you ought to debate in that is that resolved, Winston Churchill is the greatest man of the 20th Century. And it would be, then, for the other team to come up with people who might better fit that. They’d only have to prove one other person. Who is next in line?

LA: Well, Time Magazine, I wrote an article about this a few years ago, Time Magazine once picked Gandhi, followed by Roosevelt, followed by Churchill. And their reasoning had to do with imperialism. Gandhi and Churchill were adversaries over the British empire in India, and this was understood to be a black mark against Churchill. And Roosevelt was better, because Roosevelt was great and he remade America. And so that was their reasoning, and I responded to that, that Churchill had warned about India that if the British were to leave, that there would be a million people killed in strife between the Muslims and the Hindus, that he was optimistic, that it was worse than that, and that today, Pakistan and India face each other with hostility and nuclear weapons, one a Muslim and one a Hindu power, and that Gandhi himself was murdered by a Hindu extremist who was angry because Gandhi was working, to his great credit, to make peace between the Muslims and the Hindus, and was living at that time among Muslims. And he was killed for that. And so it isn’t…also, I took exception to a letter that Gandhi wrote to Hitler with the salutation, dear friend.

HH: Yes.

LA: So I do think that Churchill was the greatest man in the 20th Century, although I regard Gandhi as, how will I put this point? I think Gandhi was wrong about some important things, and I think it cost his country a lot. But as a man of courage and good faith and good intention, I think he was very much that.

HH: You see, others could be thrown up – Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Norman Borlaug, for that matter, the invention of the approach to agriculture which has revolutionized hunger. But it would make for a fascinating debate, because you and whoever would ally with you, another Churchill expert, would have to hold off the world. And I thought of Roosevelt, of course, and then you would be arguing domestic policy as well as wartime leadership. But I am recommending that to the Intelligence Squared people. The second reaction to this last few weeks is a request from a dear friend in Los Angeles, we must get Dr. Arnn to come and we’ll do a dinner in his honor, and he will speak to us about Churchill. And I imagine you get more than a few of those. And are you available? Do you go out and speak to small dinners and small gatherings, not only about the college with which I’m certain you do, but about Churchill?

LA: Well, the answer is that when I have time to do it, I do it. I have a big job, and…

HH: If they make a large gift to Hillsdale College, will you come?

LA: Yeah, well, it wouldn’t depend on that, but sure, I would. But it, you know, I have a book. I heard from our editor this morning, yours and mine, Joel Miller, saying they’re waiting with warm anticipation. And so you know, I’m really busy with that, and I hope to finish that in the next few days. I made some progress this morning, and so…but the answer is I’ll do any good thing subject to schedule.

HH: And how was Churchill on deadlines, by the way?

LA: Well, Churchill, you know, he was like Martin Gilbert, the great Martin Gilbert, and by the way, it’s the Martin Gilbert papers that we have at Hillsdale, not the Churchill papers…

HH: I’m sorry, I misspoke, yeah.

LA: …although lots of Churchill papers are included in those, lots of other things, too. I once said to Martin Gilbert, I said you know, you’re the only man I’ve ever met who could write 85 large, powerful books of history and have the reputation for being late.

HH: (laughing)

LA: And you know, so Churchill did so very much, and in my own little way, I do a lot, too, but not like him. I mean, goodness gracious. And he, like the English, there’s a story, I might have told it already, but I’ll tell it again. In 1939, Churchill was first lord of the admiralty after the war broke out, and he was broke, as he was, typically, from 1929 when the stock market crashed until after the Second World War. And he had a progress payment coming when he finished chapters on The History Of The English-Speaking Peoples, which he published after the war. And he had a big overdraft, and so he would, at lunchtime, stop and dictate passages in that book. And once a week or so, the bank manager would show up and check on how he was doing.

HH: You haven’t told that story before.

LA: Yeah, and Martin Gilbert and I met, he came to Martin Gilbert’s house in Oxford when I was working there. A naval officer, who was an aide in Churchill’s office when he was first lord of the admiralty in 1939, and he just thought this was the most amazing thing he’d ever seen, first that Churchill would work 15, 18, 20 hours a day, and second, that he would take an hour and write this book. And third, Churchill really quickly became the leader of the British government in the greatest war in history, even before he became prime minister, and he found time to write a book while he was doing that.

HH: Well, he is a great prod to the lackadaisical, the dithering and the self-pitying. But a lot of people will instantly say to themselves he must have been uniquely endowed with energy, to which you respond what?

LA: Well, he was an extremely, he was very energetic. He was also an extremely purposeful person. And this is, every great person I know, there are stories about them like this. I can’t think of one about Lincoln, actually, but I do know he worked very long hours. It’s true, James Madison, too. Churchill experimented with his schedule to get the best out of himself. He believed in napping, he believed in working in bed, and he worked very long hours. And he also spent money, sometimes money that he barely had, if he had it, to have staff around him to help him with things. And so his day, which started at 7:00 in the morning, was they bring him newspapers and coffee. He read seven, six, seven, eight newspapers carefully, cover to cover. He used to clip out things from the Daily Worker, the communist paper, and sometimes mentioned what they had written in the House of Commons. Then after he got through those, the newspapers with bits clipped out would be passed on to other guests in the house and the family. And then they’d come in with mail, and he would sit in the bed and dictate answers to his mail. They’d sit beside him. He would go down for breakfast, or they’d bring it up to him. He worked during that, sometimes. Then he’d come back upstairs if he did go down, and he’d take a bath. And he loved to take a bath. He had a thermometer in the bath to get the temperature right. And he had bath toys sometimes. Bath was fun. And the secretary would sit outside the door with her back to the wall near the door, and he would dictate while he took a bath. And she would either take down in shorthand, or they had something called a silent typewriter, which meant they had a rubber instead of a hard plastic platens so it didn’t crack so hard. And they would type away.

HH: I read a charming thing about The Portal this week, one of this longtime assistants, who his last name was Portal…

LA: Charles Portal.

HH: And he referred to him simply as The Portal.

LA: Yeah.

HH: That’s wonderful.

LA: Yeah. Yeah, and he was incredibly productive. And he dictated his books, and he wrote a lot of them, and they’re good. I comfort myself that he didn’t really write and complete any major books during the wars, but you know, and when he was in high public office, his publication schedule was lighter. But he wrote those speeches, too. And then he did this thing that used to annoy the daylights out of Neville Chamberlain. He would write these papers for the cabinet about issues that were up. And they would come to people the day before a cabinet meeting, and they’re brilliant and dispositive, and very closely reasoned. And nobody else was really turning out stuff like that, or it was hard to keep up with him. And Chamberlain would be upset, because it jangled his scheduled. And Chamberlain believed with Churchill that, like they were together in the ministry in the government in the 1920s, and Chamberlain believed that a deal with Churchill was never a deal, because they would settle something, and then Churchill would think of a better way and raise the whole thing up again.

— – – — –

HH: Before we press on to the Battle of Britain, Larry Arnn, this week, next week, actually, Kathleen Sebelius will appear before the House of Representatives to answer hard questions. And there’s some fear that she won’t be up to it. The President, of course, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Obamacare website, is avoiding questions. Churchill relished questions. He was obliged to answer them. And I wonder if you can inform our audience how he approached question time and its place in the House.

LA: Well, first of all, the House of Commons is a great debating confrontation. Churchill was a defender, you know, because they rebuilt it after it was bombed out, of its conformation and its size. He wanted the two main parties to face each other across an aisle. And when you walked in and bowed to the Speaker, you had to turn one way or the other. It was a big choice every day. And so, and Churchill believed that the British Constitution operated in the House of Commons, that the debate in the House of Commons was the beating heart of the British nation as a political entity. He believed that the liberties of the British people were protected by that. It’s actually true that Churchill didn’t broadcast very many of his great speeches, because he thought giving them in the House where he was magnificent was the big thing. And he would sometimes rebroadcast them, but his friends would complain that he sounded dull on the radio compared to the way he sounded in the House. And so of course, when he was a minister in the government, any minister, and especially the prime minister every week, has to answer questions. They have question time. And these questions are lodged in advance, in general, and Churchill made very careful preparation. And the first step was to get the facts. And of course, if you think about it, that means that the House of Commons, in Churchill’s opinion, has a kind of separation of powers in it, although it picks the executive branch, and the executive branch sits in it. The purpose of the House of Commons, and especially the opposition, is to ask questions and make the government justify itself, and backbench MP’s, that is members of the same party who are not ministers in the government. They, too, ask difficult questions, and it’s a tradition that they do. They still do today. And their prospects are advancement are affected sometimes by that.

HH: Sure.

LA: Sometimes positively, and sometimes negative, because sometimes, they’re so annoying, it’s better to get them inside. And Churchill was like that when he was a backbencher. And so this activity of debating, and both about what to do, about what the law should say, and about answering the questions…and see, one reason Churchill was against socialism and against all forms of bureaucratic government, because you know, in the Congress of the United States and in the House of Commons, the government is really moved out of the great legislative halls. And now, it takes place in, if it takes place in the representative branches at all, and much of it doesn’t, it takes place in the committee rooms…

HH: Right.

LA: …where the members of the legislature are broken down into committees to oversee parts of the bureaucracy. And of course, very extensive rule making dwarfing the amount of law passing goes on in these agencies. Churchill didn’t like that, because he wanted things to be argued and debated in public, and he wanted them not to be so many of them so that the people couldn’t follow.

HH: Right.

LA: And you know, today, it’s all just so, you know, and you talk about Sebelius going to testify, well, that would be a weekly thing in the life of Churchill.

HH: And that’s why yesterday, or actually two days ago, I talked to Fred Upton, member of Congress from near Hillsdale College, about were they planning the question time for Sebelius, because they always seem not to follow through. They don’t know how to aggressively engage or pose the killer questions. But I think Churchill relished it, as opposed to filibustering his way through it.

LA: Yeah, and you know, there are very famous, that’s right, and you know, I believe in current politics that one party is better than the other at that. The Democrats are better, I think, at using the power of the House to inquire and make scandal. And of course, they have the press mostly on their side, and that helps them. But what Churchill, and you know, some of Churchill’s most famous faux pas are about, you know, he was the secretary of state, undersecretary of the state for the colonies early in his career, and Chinese laborers were being ported into South Africa. And the question is, were they being subjected to conditions of slavery? And Churchill was for ameliorating their conditions. But he did say once that the use of the term slavery about this situation would be a terminological inexactitude. And of course, that was shouted to him for years, when you know…

HH: Just…(laughing)

LA: It was just a little too deaf and complicated. And you know, when you go through that, you get better.

HH: You get better.

LA: …or you get out.

HH: Oh, you get better, or you get out. That’s well said. Now he had to do that through the Battle of Britain, where we left off last week and we pick up this week. He continued to meet with the House of Commons when bombs were falling on London. What were those occasions like?

LA: Well, you know, by the way, I’m just reading, or rereading, mostly, I hadn’t read it all, but I read most of it, a very good book by Paul Addison called Churchill On The Home Front. And I disagree with him about some things, but he’s a very skillful man and a good man, I understand, although I don’t know him. And his passages about this are really good, and I just read them last night. Mr. Joel Miller, our editor, I’m still working. And he describes what really happened was Churchill became above reproach, and he was puzzled by it. He couldn’t figure out why he was so popular, because everything was going wrong, and he meant to deliver results. But what he didn’t see, or where he really did see, too, was he was the one who had warned about this, and he was the one who had the energy and eloquence to take it on. And people didn’t blame him. They blamed Chamberlain and the others. And so he faced in 1943 his first serious vote of no confidence. And that’s where the opposition puts down a motion, and if it passes, the government falls. And to do that in a war is a very big thing. And they couldn’t do it until the United States was in the war and it looked like the Allies were going to win. Before that, you couldn’t do that, because you can’t be killing the government. Hitler might be about to do it.

HH: Right. Yeah.

LA: And they, and several guys came in with the argument that Churchill was doing too much, and that he had to give up some of his jobs. And he had very craftily, because he had learned in the First World War, he took responsibility, he argued and he thought, and I believe it’s true, for this attack on the Dardanelles, but he didn’t really have the authority to see it through. And that’s why it went wrong, he thought.

—- – – — –

HH: So in 1943, his opponents attempt to bring him down, and they lodge a motion of no confidence. What happens?

LA: Yeah, and I’ve got the year wrong. It was 1942. Pearl Harbor was December 7, 1941, right? They, Churchill had organized the government so that he was minister of Defense as well as prime minister, and that meant that the war stuff had to go through him, all of it. And he was very good at that, and he kept up touch with everything that way. And he, they came and they said you know, there have been so many disasters and things gone wrong that he’s doing too much, and so he has to give up one of his jobs. And a man named Roger Keyes, an admiral from the First World War, whom Churchill had promoted and they were friends, and a great war hero, came to the debate, a member of Parliament, wearing his uniform, and so, you know, to support the vote of no confidence. And he allowed in his speech that Churchill was simply vital to the government and the survival of the nation, and he had to remain as prime minister. And then Churchill said in the debate that they could have one of his jobs, all of his jobs, but not one of them. If they took one of his jobs away, he would resign the rest. And then Keyes stood up and said well, I withdraw my support for the motion. And it collapsed. And so it was like that. And you know, if you want to see, by the way, how Churchill dealt with difficulty, maybe we’ll put some of these things up on the website. Churchill gave a beautiful speech after Dunkirk, you know, which was in a way a massive victory, because they got the army off, and it was a tremendous story, because people went in little boats to help them get off. And as I mentioned last week, my wife’s father was one of the people who got off at the very end.

HH: Yeah.

LA: And so that was a huge, you know, thing. And on the other hand, Churchill began his speech by declaring that it was a defeat. You don’t win wars by withdrawals and retreats. And things like that, Churchill was a candid man. And one of the reasons people had confidence in him is they were finding out the worst news from him.

HH: That is remarkable, and it was a year of bad news. The Battle of Britain, we remember as a great victory. But it must not have felt that way on the streets of London, even when the success had been achieved. Moreover, it was a long, long time until, between the Battle of Britain and December 7th, 1941, when victory was assured by the entry of the war. And he kept them together.

LA: He did, and he, you know, about the Battle of Britain, he had a remarkable reaction. First of all, he was out amongst them, and was often cheered, sometimes booed. And he would stop and ask them what was going on, and he was working hard to make sure people have enough food and things like that. He thought…but his reaction to all of that was this is a better kind of war than the kind in the First World War, because at home, in the First World War, people were not touched much, except they were losing massive numbers of family members fighting in miserable conditions at Passchendaele, is what he mentioned, which is the worst of the terrible trench battles that went on for months and cost hundreds of thousands. He said this is more like the British. We’re all in the front line, and we’re going to be good at that. And then he thought, I’ve got to keep the people fed, just like I have to keep the army fed, because they’re on the front line.

HH: And this is, thus began the Battle of the Atlantic, where he was desperate for assistance from the new world. And he began his wooing of Roosevelt, which we can start with a minute now and then talk afterwards, because I think it’s a great example of the statesman at work, and plying the man that he needed to come into the war with words over the period of a year and a half.

LA: He started writing to Roosevelt immediately when he became prime minister, and addressed him as a former naval person. Roosevelt, of course, had had an office in the United States Navy. And so they had that in common. And Churchill began to write to him immediately, as in the months leading up to the war, Churchill had pressed the Chamberlain government repeatedly to open relations with the United States and get them involved in this situation. And Chamberlain didn’t do a good job of that. And Churchill was critical of that. And he thought, you know, in a few days into his premiership, he was shaving one morning, and this story survives, and his son was in the room. And Churchill looked over at him and said I know how we’re going to win. And Randolph said how? And he said I shall drag the Americans in.

— – – – –

HH: Dr. Arnn, those dark periods from May of 1940 through December of ’41, when Britain was alone and Churchill was the guy holding it together, it’s almost impossible to communicate the amount he had to do. You mentioned in the last segment, feed the people, arm the people, rally the people, woo the United States, keep the dominions together, and meanwhile hurl invective at Churchill. It’s actually superhuman.

LA: Well, he did just work wonders. One of his secretaries, a lady named Kathleen Hill, when he became prime minister, was found collapsed in the hallway after about six days on the job. And she had simply fallen over. And somebody put her on a sofa, and she slept a long time, and she got up and went back to work. And it wasn’t just him. It was everybody around him, you know, in the period when he was first lord the second time. They developed a saying in the admiralty where he was that the, we work for six days, and the seventh day is the first Lord’s day. You know, he was an incredibly productive man. And he was also, you know, I described last time, I think, about the fateful cabinet and war cabinet meetings on May 28th, 1940.

HH: Yes.

LA: During this same time, he’s flying over to France repeatedly to talk to the French government who have a treaty obligation to Britain not to make a separate peace. And he goes over and talks to them. And it’s just a blessing that his interpreter was a very close friend named Edward Lewis Spears, who was the liaison officer between the British and the French armies in both the First and Second World Wars. And Spears was a very close friend of Churchill’s, once offered to give up his seat in Parliament, because Churchill got beat in 1922, I think it was. And anyway, they were very closer, and Spears had grown up in France. His French was excellent. And he writes two great books about these two experiences in the two world wars. And he describes at length one of the meetings where the French turn on Churchill and press him to give the rest of the British Air Force to save France. And of course, that’s the air force that in a few months would by a very narrow margin save Britain. Meanwhile, Churchill is pressing them to keep on fighting. And at one point, in one of the conversations, two things happened that juxtapose the tremendous moral situation. Churchill said what is your plan for the defense of Paris? You can consume two army corps, I think he said, of German army corps fighting street to street in Paris. And General Petain replied we’ve already given the order for the evacuation of Paris. And Churchill looked and said nations that die fighting rise up again. Those that surrender tamely are gone forever, a very grim moment. And they counter by saying you won’t give us the rest of your airplanes. And Churchill, and Spears records that the people with Churchill, knowing his nature, thought that he would surely give them at that stage, a generous man, comrade in arms, terrible moral situation. And he looked up and he said we are not to be enemies. We must be friends. And this battle is not conclusive. They have to come over and kill on our island finally to win. And then Prime Minister Reynaud, who was a pretty salty guy, he said to Churchill, how do you propose to fight them by yourselves? And Churchill replied, we haven’t thought about that all that much, except our plan will be to drown as many as possible on the way over, and choke the rest of them on the beaches.

HH: Okay, now with four minutes left this week, how bleak did it get? Even after the Battle of Britain was turned and Operation Sea Lion, the invasion of Germany, did not occur, how bleak was it when they were starving, because the U-boats were killing their food stuffs?

LA: Well, two things saved that situation, and that was different than the Battle of Britain in some ways, because you could follow it on graphs, on charts, and you could just see that the British were going to run out of stuff. And the rates were constant. For a while, they were getting worse. And you could just point the arrow indicated by the graph, and you could see that this was certain defeat. And they watched that for months. Churchill resisted rationing of food to the last minute, because he thought that was such a terrible thing, but they had to do that. And he, well, the two things that turned it around were the United States extracting a hard price, began to help more and more. They gave 50 old destroyers, but above all, they took over the defense of half the Atlantic, to Greenland, and to Iceland, actually. And that gave an enormous relief. And then the second thing is sonar got better and better, and the battle between the destroyers and the submarines turned. And if you watch that really great movie, Das Boot, the German movie…

HH: Yeah.

LA: And watch the original with the subtitles, because the other one is edited in ways that cut it back, in my opinion, too much. It has a trailer there, some words at the end, and I think, if I remember rightly, the Germans eventually suffered 90% casualties in their U-boat force. And that’s just incredible. That’s much worse than any of the air forces. And that, you know, that was a cataclysmic battle, and it was incredibly anxious, and you have to get the sense, you know, there are all these high moments in the war when things turn. And we remember those, and when people did heroic things. But this is a war that lasted five years. And of course, the staple of it is that, you know, nearly six years, and the staple of it is day after day of grinding expense and dreadful loss and possibility of defeat until December of 1941.

HH: We will go there next week, having survived the sinking of the Prince of Wales and the Bismarck and everything else. That’s the bad news and the good news. Dr. Larry Arnn will be back to talk about what happened on December 7th, 1941, in the war. Obviously, Pearl Harbor, but what happened with Great Britain and Winston Churchill on the next edition of the Hillsdale Dialogues. All of them are available at,, or go direct to

End of interview.


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