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.

The British invaded Norwegian territorial waters on April 8, 1940, in order to push ships carrying iron ore into international waters. That was a clear violation of neutrality. The German attack on Scandinavia began the next day. And again, had I wanted to discuss neutrality in general, I could have cited the Molotov-Ribbentrop carve-up of the Baltic States, which preceded the Soviet invasion of Finland. (Incidentally, Churchill himself declared war on Finland, in order to gratify Stalin, in December of 1941.)

In 1990 a Cambridge, Massachusetts, speech-research group named Sensimetrics tested twenty of the BBC broadcasts sold on long-playing records under Churchill's name. The voice patterns were different in three speeches: the "Fight on the Beaches" speech, the "Finest Hour" speech, and the "Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat" speech. Ten years later Norman Shelley's son found an LP of his father delivering the "Fight on the Beaches" oration, which was verified by a professional sound engineer and also by the presence of Shelley's own voice at the end of the recording. There is now only a dispute about when, and how often, Shelley (who did also play Winnie-the-Pooh for the BBC) acted as His Master's Voice.

I should not want to quarrel with those who argue that alcohol and rhetoric can be advantageously mixed, and I hope I did not say anything to offend those who believe otherwise. However, some of Churchill's worst speeches were delivered from the bottle's mouth, and some of his best could not, as we now have reason to know, have been delivered at all without the deputizing of an impersonator. His later histories both suffer from defects and, as with the case of the Katyn massacre, contain unpardonable and self-interested revisions of the truth. As to longevity, an entirely pickled Queen Mother has just died at the age of 101.

Finally, I confess myself quite caught out by the relentless detective work of Mark Hiza. I am confident that had I written that Churchill asked his people for the last full measure of devotion, or that he bestrode the narrow world like a colossus, another sleuth would have found me out just as skillfully.


Amy Bloom ("Conservative Men in Conservative Dresses," April Atlantic) says she doesn't "want to demonize or pathologize any sexual preference or behavior that doesn't hurt anyone." But cross-dressing does hurt people! It hurts the women who were lied to, and who are abandoned when they cannot respond sexually to their cross-dressing mates. It hurts children of the divorce, many of whom will never understand why Dad left. Both Mom and Dad will keep Dad's secret, assuming that it is something the children should never know.

Research from East Tennessee State University indicates that the women involved with cross-dressing partners are usually first-born children, and tend to be more liberal and more highly educated than average. They are, as Bloom points out, not lacking in self-esteem. In fact, it is their strong self-esteem that allows them to accept relationships with their cross-dressing mates. This may, however, become a threat to the cross-dresser, posing a contradiction—the need for a woman strong enough to accept his cross-dressing, but one sensitive to his sexual needs.

Cathy Connellan
Sterling Heights, Mich.

As a married heterosexual crossdresser, I must take issue with Ray Blanchard's heated (to use Amy Bloom's characterization) assertion "Of course it's not relaxing. Heels and makeup and a wig and a corset? It's preposterous." For me, wearing these and other associated habiliments is indeed relaxing, if not physically then psychologically, and I know from their personal attestations that other cross-dressers agree. Blanchard would be surprised at how truly comfortable a properly fitted and laced corset is!

For the record, and contrary to Bloom's composite portrait, my wife is a professional with a master's degree, and in the thirty years I have been a registered voter, I cannot remember once voting for a Republican.

Jamie Roberts
Lightfoot, Va.

Virgil's Prose?

I was surprised to see a reference to the "prose" of Virgil's Aeneid in a magazine as literate and sophisticated as this ("An Ireland of Legend," March Atlantic). Though the general reader may consider it a technical point, the distinction between prose and poetry is worth affirming. As the Oxford English Dictionary makes clear, the former refers to the "ordinary form of written or spoken language, without metrical structure," the latter to a "composition in verse or metrical language." The point of difference is meter, a system of linguistic measurement arising from natural structures within the native language. We need not know the technical term for the metrical system of Virgil's Aeneid—dactylic hexameter—to realize that the epic is composed of regularly measured lines, or that it most assuredly is not in an "ordinary form" of language.

Andrew Ciotola
Stadler Center for Poetry
Bucknell University
Lewisburg, Pa.

Jacki Lyden replies:

Mea culpa.

Burning Question

Cullen Murphy's "Delete, Baby, Delete" (May Atlantic) gave as an example of effective deletion the burning of a handwritten manuscript of Thomas Carlyle in 1835. The story I recall reading somewhere, perhaps in your pages, about Carlyle's burnt manuscript has it done by his own servant, not by John Stuart Mill's maid. Also, the deletion failed. It left intact Carlyle's memory bank. After the destruction of the written word (according to my account, which makes Murphy's point better than his account), Carlyle simply sat down and rewrote the entire volume from memory, word for word. An effective deletion in this case would have involved burning not only the manuscript but Carlyle.

Jim Lein
Minot, N.D.

Cullen Murphy replies:

No, it was Mill's maid. But Jim Lein's point about memory is apt.

A General Rule

In language, long-standing tradition signals legitimacy. If so, Word Court "Judge" Barbara Wallraff (March Atlantic) is mistaken to rule that the title "General" is reserved for the military. In many southern states (south of Boston, anyway) it has long been proper to address an attorney general as "General." In the Supreme Court of the United States—a higher court than Word Court—the U.S. Attorney General, the U.S. Solicitor General, and state attorneys general are addressed as "General" by the justices.

It is therefore both legitimate and appropriate for Secretary Fleischer to refer to "General Ashcroft."

Wayne E. Uhl
Carmel, Ind.

Barbara Wallraff replies:

I called Nina Totenberg, National Public Radio's legal-affairs correspondent, to ask if she agrees with Wayne Uhl. "He's generally right," she told me. "I've always heard the Supreme Court justices call the Attorney General of the United States 'General.' I don't normally hear them call the Solicitor General 'General'—they don't usually call him anything; he's there all the time. When state attorneys general argue cases before the Court, if the justices are going to address them as anything, they usually call them 'General.'" With respect to jurist generals, then, Word Court stands overruled, and thanks to Wayne Uhl for bringing this to our attention.

It remains true, nonetheless, that most civilians with the word "general" in their job titles are not properly addressed as "General." The letter Uhl refers to asked about "civilian generals" of all sorts: "Surgeon, Solicitor, Comptroller, Director, and so forth," as its author put it. The Office of the Surgeon General tells me that the appropriate courtesy title is either "Dr." or "Vice Admiral" (because the Surgeon General heads up a uniformed corps of the Department of Health and Human Services)—never "General." And according to a spokesperson for the Comptroller General of the United States, the right title to use for the incumbent, David M. Walker, is plain old "Mr."


Marshall Jon Fisher ("Tennis on the Green," May Atlantic) writes, "I approve of tennis's transformation thirty years ago from an upper-class diversion to an inclusive public sport." In 1983 I suggested as much to Pauline Betz, the great champion of the 1940s, and she quickly quashed my notion of exclusivity. She and the other great champions all grew up playing on public courts. Of twenty-six world champions I interviewed for my book, Once a Champion, only Boston's Sarah Palfrey had a privileged background.

If you were to tell Don Budge, Alice Marble, Louise Brough, Jack Kramer, and Gardner Mulloy, all of whom played before World War II and in its aftermath, that the game they played so well was an upper-class diversion, you'd be ducking tennis balls whizzing at your noggin.

Stan Hart
West Tisbury, Mass.

Marshall Jon Fisher replies:

Stan Hart is absolutely right. I should have written "over the past hundred years" instead of "thirty years ago." I hope that Don Budge et al. are not subscribers.

Advice & Consent

Regarding "Slow Squeeze, by Michael Kelly (The Agenda, May Atlantic): As a person involved in the B-52 activities during 1968, I would like to correct a misleading statement that the bombing campaign ended on October 31, 1968. I believe that Michael Kelly meant to say "Bombing north of the DMZ in North Vietnam ended on October 31, 1968." Certainly considerable bombing occurred in that theater of operation until well into the 1970s.

Paul LeMenager
Bethlehem, Pa.