Letters to the editor

Hitchens on Churchill

I was eager to see how Christopher Hitchens would handle the flood of new books re-evaluating Winston Churchill's role in World War II ("The Medals of His Defeats," April Atlantic), but my reading ground to a halt right on the first page, at the paragraph that poses questions about who was first to act. Let's look at the three cases cited:

"Against which nation was the first British naval attack directed?" Why, against Germany, of course, since the naval war began with the Royal Navy's campaign to destroy German commerce raiders like the Graf Spee, in 1939, and to contain the U-boats. Severe sea battles against the German navy occurred off the Norwegian coast in early April of 1940. Hitchens's answer is "Against a non-mobilized French fleet ... in North Africa." Hmm.

"Which air force was the first to bomb civilians, and in whose capital city?" The answer given is "The RAF, striking the suburbs of Berlin." That is perhaps the most egregious reply of the three. Did not the war open with the ruthless Luftwaffe bombing of the cities and civilians of Poland, especially Warsaw, even before the British Parliament had declared war?

Finally, "Which belligerent nation was the first to violate the neutrality of Europe's noncombatant nations?" "The British, by a military occupation of Norway"—wrong again. German forces landed on Norwegian soil before the Anglo-French expedition, though by just a few days. Germany had already invaded Denmark before the Allied landing in Norway. I suppose we are not allowed to include Stalin's invasion of Finland, on November 30, 1939, because Russia was not a "belligerent nation." At least not until it invaded. Again, hmm.

I am not saying that Hitchens himself is making these false claims; indeed, he cautiously opens the paragraph by referring to "events that one thinks cannot really be true," as if suspecting already that some of the authors are bent on a "trash Churchill" vendetta. But if this sort of misinformation gets widely circulated, it will make the task of assessing Churchill's strengths and weaknesses—his role in history, warts and all—more difficult than it actually is.

Paul Kennedy
Dilworth Professor of History
Yale University
New Haven, Conn.

I was amused by Christopher Hitchens's statement that Churchill's "declining years in retirement were a protracted, distended humiliation of celebrity-seeking and gross overindulgence." It is worth remembering that this was the period during which Churchill wrote the acclaimed The Second World War, in six volumes, and A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, in four volumes. We all know that Winston liked his brandy, but to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln's comment on being told that General Grant had a tendency to tipple, "Perhaps we should find out what brand he drank, and order a barrel!"

Ellicott McConnell
Easton, Md.

Christopher Hitchens mentions the Norman Shelley canard, and Churchill's alleged drunkenness.

On June 4, 1940, Churchill delivered his "We shall fight on the beaches ..." speech to the House of Commons. Afterward the Prime Minister went to the BBC studio at Shepherd's Bush to deliver the same address, which would be beamed to the Commonwealth nations and the United States. Unfortunately, the transcription apparatus broke down at the BBC. Although it went out live, the BBC did not have an oral recording. They asked Churchill to come back and deliver it again. Churchill refused. So Norman Shelley, the voice of Winnie-the-Pooh on the BBC, who was known for his clever mimicking of Churchill, delivered—unbeknownst to Churchill—the address. The Shelley rendition was for excerpts in later news and for records to be played at bond rallies and patriotic events.

As to the drinking charge, Lord Moran, Churchill's physician, in his not very sympathetic biography, said flatly that he never saw any evidence of Churchill's drunkenness.

The typical alcoholic conceals his intake. Churchill, however, would brag of his drinking. But he claimed more than he consumed. He would constantly top off his own glass of whiskey or brandy with more soda water from the siphon bottle—while replenishing the glasses of his guests with spirits. I must say that many people have come to tell me how Churchill seemed tipsy at a reception before dinner and then later delivered a masterly address. The reason is that Churchill could not control his lisp and stutter in conversation. The result was a "slathering" of words. In his speeches, which he carefully prepared, he could control his lisp and stutter.

Finally, despite the duties of high parliamentary office, Churchill produced more published words than Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and John Steinbeck combined. That in itself belies the drunkenness charge. In addition, no one with a drinking problem could live past the age of ninety, as Churchill did.

James C. Humes
Ryals Professor of Language and Leadership
University of Southern Colorado
Pueblo, Colo.

Norman Shelley did not broadcast Churchill's speeches. The BBC has gone into this in tremendous detail and has discovered that the original recordings were mislabeled.

Andrew Roberts
London, England

Norman Shelley's ridiculous notion that he delivered Churchill's wartime speeches over the BBC, fanned assiduously by David Irving, has for years been laid to rest by eyewitness testimony. What Shelley recorded, after the war, was an obscure, unpublished Churchill speech, the origin of which has eluded even the Churchill Archives. Amusingly, Hitchens even gets the lie wrong: Shelley's role in The Children's Hour was Dennis the Dachshund, not Winnie-the-Pooh. Poor Shelley can't win.

Richard M. Langworth
The Churchill Center
Hopkinton, N.H.

I found it interesting that your April issue contained both an article on plagiarism, by Richard A. Posner, and an example of the point Posner was making. Christopher Hitchens includes a paragraph comparing Churchill and Lincoln that ends with the sentence "In his contradictions he contained multitudes." That's nicely lifted from Walt Whitman ("Song of Myself"), and I'm left wondering if Hitchens assumed that his readers would recognize the line (and appreciate the Lincoln-to-Whitman-to-Churchill literary double play). Whether used intentionally or not, it made for a brilliant ending to the paragraph, allowing it to "glitter with stolen gold," in Posner's words.

Mark Hiza
Exeter, N.H.

Christopher Hitchens replies:

Paul Kennedy is obviously not accusing me of not knowing the date of the outbreak of war. It goes without saying that any meeting between British and German naval vessels was by definition hostile any time after September 3, 1939, and of course there were several exchanges of fire in that time. However, there was nothing like a premeditated fleet action, coordinated across a wide area, until the simultaneous bombardment of the French at both ends of the Mediterranean, which Churchill considered to be a hinge event in a way that the other engagements were not. My purpose in pointing this out was to challenge the received opinion, so I don't mind restating it.

Professor Kennedy again mistakes my purpose in asking which air force struck first at whose capital. In the context I was clearly asking this as between London and Berlin during World War II. If I had wanted to ask which capital was the first to be bombed (since Professor Kennedy himself says that the bombing of Warsaw was before the declaration of war), I would have chosen Madrid, bombed by the Nazis at a time when Churchill was still on their side in Spain.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What Crazy Tech Idea Could Become Real?

"There could be great intelligence enhancements, like infinite memory."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


A Time-Lapse of Alaska's Northern Lights

The beauty of aurora borealis, as seen from America's last frontier


What Do You Wish You Learned in College?

Ivy League academics reveal their undergrad regrets


Famous Movies, Reimagined

From Apocalypse Now to The Lord of the Rings, this clever video puts a new spin on Hollywood's greatest hits.


What Is a City?

Cities are like nothing else on Earth.


CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.


More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In