- Historic Sites
Churchill Talks To America
FOR SEVEN DECADES OUR EBULLIENT COUSIN INSTRUCTED US ON EVERYTHING: THE BOERS, PROHIBITION, HITLER, CHARLIE CHAPLIN’S FEET, AND THE COMMON CAUSE OF THE ENGLISH-SPEAKING PEOPLES
December 1973 | Volume 25, Issue 1
In dealing with Rockefeller ( Collier’s , July 11, 1936) Churchill observed that the billionaire’s Puritan ancestors had been making money ever since they fought Charles i “for the right to acquire wealth in their own way.” Admitting he had heard that Rockefeller, with his benefactions, “puts through a deal with the Baptist God, and buys salvation with parcels of stock,” he countered: “Had the young Baptist attempted to mix Christian principles with business practice he would have been bankrupt in a few months.” Churchill believed the good in Rockefeller outweighed the bad, citing his innovations in selling (creating new wants for new products) and the fact that he was first to endow scientific research on the grand scale, making long-range experimentation possible. In any case the magnitude of Rockefeller’s deeds, good and bad, won him a place in Churchill’s pantheon.
The years and events surrounding the repeal of American Prohibition gave Churchill a topic he could discuss with great conviction. On a visit, he reported in Collier’s (August 13, 1932), some Americans took him to a speakeasy—“I went, of course, in my capacity of a Social Investigator.” He enjoyed the “charm, grace, good will, courtesy” of the relaxed gathering; the musicians even played “God Save the King.”
But—“What a place to eat a dinner! … bad cooking, bad service, bawling jazz bands, funereal lighting, hustle and disturbance! … And here was this large gathering of Americans putting up with all the discomfort, ugliness and craziness of their surroundings for the sake of beingable to do what every man and woman in Europe has never been denied.”
He stoutly approved of the spirit behind the patrons’ lawbreaking: “All their insurgent impulses were enlisted in the enterprise.” And he gave the prohibitionists shot and shell, linking their evil efforts with Mohammed, “whose followers sought to overwhelm the Western world in blood and fire,” with Buddhist asceticism and its “eternal nothingness,” and with Lenin, who also favored the temperance cause.
In the United States, Prohibition “was imposed upon a reluctant nation by a sinister combination of bigotry and graft,” Churchill declared, “and the hideous spawn of organized crime sprang up and flourished in its shadow.” He was on the national wavelength; Prohibition was repealed the following year.
Churchill could barely comprehend the presence of certain foods in the American diet. He wrote in Collier’s (August 5, 1933) that while Americans’ emphasis upon fruit, vegetables, and cereals was doubtless healthful, “I am a beef-eater, and I always expect my wife to provide me with butcher’s meat once a day when I am at home.”
He dourly noted “a dangerous, yet almost universal, habit of the American people” in “the drinking of immense quantities of iced water. … The bleak beverage is provided on every possible occasion.” Worse yet, he found, was the almost invariable custom of starting the meal with a large slice of melon or grapefruit: “Dessert, in my view, should be eaten at the end of the meal, not at the beginning.”
On the credit side he found American coffee “admirable, and a welcome contrast to the anemic or sticky liquid which judicious Americans rightly resent in English provincial towns.” He regarded blue point oysters “a serious undertaking,” shad roe and terrapin “entertaining.” Soft-shell crabs and corn on the cob were “by no means unpalatable, but should not be eaten too often.” He did not say why.
Churchill was a close and fascinated student of American history, and in Scribner’s magazine (December, 1930) he undertook to predict what would have happened if Confederate General Robert E. Lee had won the Battle of Gettysburg. Churchill had Lee sign a defensive and offensive treaty with the by then fired-up British and cut the heart out of the northern cause by abolishing slavery. A peace was signed, the South remained apart, and the slaves remained free. The North, glowering across the border at a reinvigorated South, became increasingly desperate. Both sides rearmed.
But finally a great covenant of the “English-speaking Association” was made, embracing both North and South with Britain in a transatlantic league with common citizenship. Through the good offices of this mighty agency World War I was avoided and peace came to the world. Into the fantasy Churchill wove, once more, the shiny thread of his perennial dream.
In 1932 he wrote an article in Popular Mechanics heralding the nuclear age more than a decade before it arrived:
Nuclear energy is incomparably greater than the molecular energy we use today. The coal a man can get in a day can easily do five hundred times as much work as the man himself. Nuclear energy is at least one million times more powerful still. … What is lacking is the match to set the bonfire alight, or it may be the detonator to cause the dynamite to explode.
The discovery and control of such sources of power would cause changes in human affairs incomparably greater than those produced by the steam engine. Schemes of cosmic magnitude would become feasible.