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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Did Obama Misquote Churchill?

In the New York Times‘ "Caucus" blog today, Kate Phillips offers a well-documented and thorough analysis of a lingering controversy: Did Winston Churchill really say about torture what President Obama says he did?

There has been considerable back-and-forth elsewhere regarding this passage in the president’s "100 days" news conference:

Obama, April 29: 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. And the reason was that Churchill understood you start taking shortcuts, and over time that corrodes what’s best in a people. It corrodes the character of a country.

The article that Obama probably was referring to, by Andrew Sullivan in The Atlantic.com, doesn’t actually quote Churchill directly, or quite the way Obama did:

Andrew Sullivan: 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.

Not "embracing" or personally condoning torture is one thing, but stating "we don’t torture" is a statement of government policy.  Phillips’ report cites historians who cite good reasons to think that Churchill personally abhorred torture. But did he say "We don’t torture," or (if Obama meant to paraphrase Churchill rather than quote him verbatim) was it an accurate statement of British policy toward prisoners during World War II?

Others have pointed to a 2005 series in the London Manchester Guardian, citing historical documents, which states that the British actually ran a London "torture center" during World War II and subjected some German prisoners to beatings, sleep deprivation and starvation. On the other hand, it’s worth noting that some of the most inflammatory charges were made by former members of the Gestapo and the SS who were themselves facing death sentences for executing British prisoners of war. And nobody we know of has come forth with evidence that Churchill ordered or even knew about any torture, if it existed at all.

Phillips concludes that Obama’s quote (or paraphrase) was probably wrong:

Kate Phillips, New York Times: It would seem, from many accounts, that Mr. Obama misspoke. It remains unclear whether Churchill ever uttered the words "we don’t torture," but no citation has surfaced among biographers or historians that we’ve seen so far.

We’ve also searched for a verifiable source for the quote, and we’ve also been unable to find any.

Proving that some historical figure didn’t say something, like proving any negative proposition, can be difficult. But so far no proof has surfaced that Churchill actually did say "we don’t torture," or any words to that effect.