Richard M. Langworth: Obama, Churchill and Torture

Roundup: Talking About History

[Langworth, a former bookseller, is (according to Wiki), the author of"A Connoisseur's Guide to the Books of Sir Winston Churchill and Winston Churchill by Himself. Langworth served as the President of The Churchill Centre in Washington, DC (1988-99) and has been Chairman of the Centre's Board of Trustees since 2000. He has been editor of the Churchill journal Finest Hour from 1982 to date. In 1998 he was created a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) by HM The Queen for his services to Anglo-American understanding. 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 relation to interrogating enemy combatants. 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.

Sullivan likely picked this up in a three-year-old article about Camp 020’s chief interrogator, Col. Robin “Tin Eye” Stephens. In “The Truth that Tin Eye Saw,” by Ben Macintyre (London Times Online, 10 February 2006), Stephens is identified as an MI5 officer who extracted confessions out of Nazis: “a bristling, xenophobic martinet; in appearance, with his glinting monocle and cigarette holder, he looked exactly like the caricature Gestapo interrogator.” Stephens was terrifying, Macintyre wrote:

Suspects often left the interrogation cells legless with fear after an all-night grilling….he deployed threats, drugs, drink and deceit. But he never once resorted to violence….This was no squishy liberal: the eye was made of tin, and the rest of him out of tungsten. (Indeed, he was disappointed that only sixteen spies were executed during the war.) His motives were strictly practical. “Never strike a man. It is unintelligent, for the spy will give an answer to please, an answer to escape punishment. And having given a false answer, all else depends upon the false premise.”

Nowhere does Macintyre mention or quote Churchill. Incidentally, Stephens was cleared of a charge of “disgraceful conduct of a cruel kind” and told he was free to apply to rejoin his former employers at MI5.

The CIA argues that “enhanced interrogation” works, John McCain says it does not. Whomever is right, the “Tin Eye” Stephens story is not the whole story. According to recent research the British did use such methods: in the “London Cage,” a POW camp in the heart of London, “where SS and Gestapo captives were subject to beatings, sleep deprivation and starvation.”*

Churchill spoke frequently about torture, mostly enemy treatment of civilians. I thank Larry Kryske for this example, from Churchill’s World War I memoir, The World Crisis, vol. 1, page 11: “When all was over, Torture and Cannibalism were the only two expedients that the civilized, scientific, Christian States had been able to deny themselves: and these were of doubtful utility.” (His general sentiment is clear enough, though combined with “cannibalism,” this seems likely to refer to practices of invading armies.) 

In World War II, when he had plenary authority, it is hard to imagine Churchill being unaware of activities at places like the “London Cage.” His daughter once told me, “He would have done anything to win the war, and I daresay he had to do some pretty rough things—but they didn’t unman him.” 

If Churchill is on record specifically about “enhanced interrogation,” his words have yet to surface. The nearest I could come to his sentiments on torture technique refers not to terrorists or enemy combatants but to prison inmates. In 1938, responding to a constituent who urged him to help end the use of the “cat o’nine tails” in prisons, Churchill wrote: “the use of instruments of torture can never be regarded by any decent person as synonymous with justice.”**

If that line appeals to Mr. Obama, he can certainly use it with confidence.

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