Paul Ryan has lots of company using one of the most frequently repeated Churchill quotes about America: “The Americans can always be trusted to do the right thing, once all other possibilities have been exhausted.” The only problem is, the quote may be spurious.
That’s the tentative hypothesis of Richard Langworth, who is the most meticulous fact-checker of all things Churchill. (We’ve mentioned his excellent Churchill quotation book here before, and if you don’t have a copy, you should.) Richard includes the quote in his book, but notes in the book:
Circa 1944. Unattributed and included tentatively. Certainly he would never have said it publicly; he was much too careful about slips like that. It cannot be found in any memoirs of his colleagues. I have let it stand as a likely remark, for he certainly had those sentiments from time to time in World War II.
In his recent blog post about the quote, Richard adds this:
This is one of the very few Churchill quotes in my book that I could not find among his 15 million published words and 35 million about him. I have been told that it came from Sir John Colville’s memoirs, but I can’t find it there, nor did Sir John mention it to me in our conversations. If proven apocryphal it will go to my appendix of inaccurate quotations, entitled, “Red Herrings.” In the meantime, it sticks: Congressman Paul Ryan recently used it (slightly inaccurately) in a speech at Claremont Institute.
It’s a great line (and fairly apposite at the moment). Here’s another Churchill remark along those lines which we do know is genuine:
“Their national psychology is such that the bigger the Idea the more wholeheartedly and obstinately do they throw themselves into making it a success. It is an admirable characteristic, providing the Idea is good.”
—The Second World War, vol. V, Closing the Ring (London: Cassell, 1952), 494.