November 30 would have been Winston Churchill’s 143rd Birthday. That is a fact. If Winston Churchill stood for anything at all, Winston Churchill stood for the primacy of facts. Facts in our decision making. Facts in our apprehension of history. Facts as the force behind our ethical and moral choices.
“You must look at facts,” Churchill wrote in 1925, “because they look at you.”
I found myself fixating on “facts” this year as I celebrated Winston Churchill’s birthday in Portland, Oreogon, of all places, delivering an extended toast — this toast, in fact — at a blacktie birthday dinner for 150 hosted by the Chartwell Society of Oregon. Churchill admiration associations, I have come to discover, proliferate all across our vast, divided nation. Corners of the country that I have never before seen beckon to me in the name of Winston Churchill, and in his name I accept these opportunities to see America while thinking aloud about history’s greatest half-American Englishman.
More facts: Before he was Prime Minister, before he was a politician even, Winston Churchill was a journalist. From the age of 22 he pursued facts professionally as a war correspondent; the highest paid journalist in Great Britain by the time he was 24. Again and again Churchill uncovered the facts about the encounters that he covered and wrote them up without fear or favor.
In 1898, reporting on the reconquest of the Sudan by an Anglo-Egyptian force led by General Sir Herbert Kitchener, Churchill also wound up participating in the final cavalry charge in British military history during the Battle of Omdurman. This was thrilling stuff. In writing about it, however, Churchill criticized the action’s purported hero, General Kitchener, for barbaric mistreatment of the enemy wounded and dead on that battlefield. His superiors were not amused but Churchill was outraged and said so in print.
A year later, in South Africa covering the Boer War, Churchill was captured by the Boers and then escaped, returning to England a great war hero. He nevertheless acknowledged the Boers to be exceptionally fine fighters. “The individual Boer,” he wrote “mounted in suitable country is worth from three to five regular British soldiers. Are the gentlemen of England out fox hunting?”
During World War I, as First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill was appalled by the senseless slaughter of trench warfare. He advocated ceaselessly for an alternative and developed one himself finally involving a naval end run of the Dardanelles straits through Turkey. His plan, however, was undermined by inaction, inefficiency and outright mendacity from reticent government ministers and military colleagues, especially by the same General Kitchener whom Churchill had so offended with his writings about the facts at Omdurman. The mission at Gallipoli was ultimately a disaster, in no small part sabotaged by Kitchener and the Army. It was Churchill, though, who was scapegoated for it.
Forced to resign as First Lord, Churchill responded by volunteering for service in the trenches on the Western Front. This really was an astonishing choice but Churchill wanted to touch the action, to justify his own actions with deeds, with facts, not further empty talk. And so he did. And somehow he survived, to write about it.
“When all was over,” he acidly observed about World War I, “torture and Cannibalism were the only two expedients the civilized, Scientific, Christian states had been able to deny themselves: and these were of doubtful utility.”
“Facts are better than dreams,” Churchill insisted on the day he took office as PM on May 10, 1940. This was England’s darkest hour. I don’t have to tell you. Hitler was at the doorstep. Europe was all but conquered, and the English Channel seemed an inadequate moat for preserving the ancient castle of Great Britain.
For almost all of the preceding decade, England’s leaders had lied to the British people or pursued policies that evaded facts regarding Germany and its remilitarization. In one sense this was done in the name of something noble: peace. Very few in England wanted to face facts after the First World War. The carnage of that war left them desperate for peace. Prime Ministers Stanley Baldwin and then Neville Chamberlain told the British people what they wanted to hear.
Winston Churchill did not.
Churchill recognized what Adolph Hitler was. His apprehension of Hitler’s evil was not based on instinct, solely, or on intuition. Churchill studied Hitler’s words and his actions and refused to look away, as those in power all around him did, explaining away, apologizing for, and appeasing Germany’s leader.
Churchill saw only the facts. As early as 1935, he wrote in the Strand magazine how, “side by side with the training grounds of Germany’s new armies and Germany’s great aerodromes, concentration camps pock-mark the German soil. In these, thousands of Germans are coerced and cowed into submission to the irresistible power of the Totalitarian State.” Churchill also called out “the brutal vigor of the persecution of the Jews… whose only crime was that their parents had brought them into the world.”
Churchill developed his own network of sources to mine the facts about Germany’s rearmament. He demanded concrete numbers and got them, at home and abroad, from officials and unofficials. Marshalling these facts, he attacked the government’s policies. In time it became apparent that Churchill had better information than the government did. His focus on facts and not idealized or politicized wishes regarding Germany’s intent made him England’s most reliable voice during the run-up to war in the 1930s.
Churchill pursued armed strength for Great Britain not as a means to war but as a guarantor for peace. “I could not see how better you can prevent war than by confronting an aggressor with the prospect of such a vast concentration of force, moral and material, that even the most reckless, even the most infuriated leader, would not attempt to challenge those great forces,” he maintained.
Threats and provocation did not not interest Churchill. Peace -- through strength -- was his only goal.
As Prime Minister, Churchill consumed facts, continually demanding “Action This Day” in a flood of memoranda to his staff that literally were stamped with that label. “Give it to me on one sheet of paper,” was Churchill’s constant refrain, demanding both facts and concision.
He even employed his own scientific fact consultant throughout the war, an Oxford Don named Frederic Lindemann, whom Churchill dubbed “Prof.” “Prof” Lindemann proffered advice on a wide range of issues backed up by his own unique statistical analyses. Churchill never regarded statistics as a tool to be manipulated in support of an existing policy or point of view. When Prof’s statistics refuted one of Churchill’s positions, Churchill generally deferred to them.
Facts sustained democracies. Falsified facts sustained dictators. This was Churchill’s steadfast belief. In the aftermath of World War II, Churchill perceived fully the totalitarian state that Joseph Stalin intended for Eastern Europe. Again he was in the minority. The world, again, yearned for peace, not truth. Churchill’s speech at Fulton, Missouri in 1946, declaring that, “an Iron Curtain has descended across Europe,” is viewed today as a monumental moment of clarity. This was so only in retrospect. In its day the speech received jeers and worse. Churchill was attacked as a war monger, jeopardizing the peace that England, America and Russia had built together. Churchill collected the facts and called out Russia for what she was, a voracious dictatorship. He is still right.
Churchill devoured the daily newspapers and fact-checked what he read continuously. I have a letter at Chartwell Booksellers, my Churchillian bookshop in New York City, addressed in 1950 to Walter Layton, editor-in-chief of the News Chronicle. I find its attention to detail a perfect snapshot of Churchill’s appetite for facts.
"My dear Layton,” Churchill wrote, “I was surprised to see in the News Chronicle ... the enclosed picture of a cheering crowd published without any caption, and placed immediately over the result of the first ‘Gallup Election Poll,' with the headline ‘Tory lead dramatically narrowed.' Anyone would suppose that the picture was related to the headline ... Enquiry however shows that the picture appeared in the Glasgow Herald in 1948 on the occasion of the announcement of the Paisley bye-election.
"As this is certainly not in accordance with the usual principles of British journalism, I bring it to your notice and shall be glad to hear from you before I make the matter public.”
Attention, discretion -- in pursuit of truth. These were the principles that drove Churchill’s entire career.
“United wishes and good will cannot overcome brute facts,’ Churchill wrote in his War Memoirs. Today, he might have added that disunited wishes and ill will cannot overcome brute facts either. “Truth is incontrovertible,” Churchill insisted. “Panic may resent it. Ignorance may deride it. Malice may distort it. But there it is.”