Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Langworth on Obama, Churchill & Torture

Among the most informed and soundly reasoned examinations of the questions raised by President Obama’s recent claims about Churchill and torture is that of Churchill historian Richard M. Langworth, author of the recently published Churchill by Himself: The Definitive Collection of Quotations.

Here’s part of what Langworth’s posted at his eponymous blog - - -

In his press conference of 29 April, in response to a question on the disclosure of top secret memos on the use of “enhanced interrogation methods,” Mr. Obama said:

I was struck by an article that I was reading the other day talking about the fact that the British during World War II, when London was being bombed to smithereens, had 200 or so detainees. And Churchill said, ‘We don’t torture,’ when the entire British—all of the British people—were being subjected to unimaginable risk and threat….the reason was that Churchill understood — you start taking shortcuts, over time, that corrodes what’s best in a people. It corrodes the character of a country.
While it’s nice to hear the President invoke Sir Winston, the quotation is unattributed and almost certainly incorrect.

While Churchill did express such sentiments with regard to prison inmates, he said no such thing about prisoners of war, enemy combatants or terrorists, who were in fact tortured by British interrogators during World War II.

The word “torture” appears 156 times in my digital transcript of Churchill’s 15 million published words (books, articles, speeches, papers) and 35 million words about him—but not once in the subject context. Similarly, key phrases like “character of a country” or “erodes the character” do not track.

Obama seems to have been misled by Andrew Sullivan’s recent article in The Atlantic, “Churchill vs. Cheney,” which calmly urges that Vice President Cheney be prosecuted. The British, Sullivan wrote,
captured over 500 enemy spies operating in Britain and elsewhere. Most went through Camp 020, a Victorian pile crammed with interrogators. As Britain’s very survival hung in the balance, as women and children were being killed on a daily basis and London turned into rubble, Churchill nonetheless knew that embracing torture was the equivalent of surrender to the barbarism he was fighting….
“Churchill nonetheless knew” appears suddenly and with no evidence to back it up. Sullivan makes no other reference to Churchill, or to how he divined Churchill’s views on torture. ...

The rest of Langworth’s post is here.

I hope you read the whole thing. It’s a scholarly précis properly critical of Sullivan’s at best “loose” treatment of what little data he had.


Anonymous said...

Isn't having Langworth discuss Sullivan like having Chagall review the artwork on a parent's fridge?


Anonymous said...

Obama quoted Sullivan because in Sullivan's article, he read what he wanted to read. The rhetoric fit the agenda so to hell with facts, "We don't need no stikin' facts". Steve in New Mexico