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The Most Unsordid Act in History ?

Iraq's chief civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer said it, in evidence before the senate appropriations committee on Sept 22, 2003. Charles Krause, distinguished foreign correspondent of the "NewsHour," said it in a special report about the Marshall Plan airing on PBS in 1997. John W. Snyder, secretary of the treasury in the Truman Administration, said it in 1969. Former British Prime Minister John Major said it in 2002. It has been said countless times in essays, articles, and speeches, and has appeared in the Harvard Magazine (2000), the Washington Post (2003), the Guardian editorial page (2003), the U.S. Department of Defense's DefenseLINK (1997) and on various U.S. Embassy official websites. Even the president of the United States said it in 1997, in his commencement address at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point. And on every single occasion, the person saying it was wrong.

It was said most recently by Paul Krugman in his widely syndicated New York Times column on September 30, which provoked a refutation in, among other places, Donald Luskin's poorandstupid.com website. Krugman issued a correction in the New York Times on October 3. What Krugman and all of the others said was that Winston Churchill described the Marshall Plan as the "most unsordid act in history." Clearly Churchill thought highly of the Marshall Plan, and spoke warmly of it -- he said: "General Marshall's decision was on the highest level of statesmanship" -- but there is no evidence that he ever described it as "unsordid." This famous quote, when used in reference to the Marshall Plan, is simply wrong.

Churchill did, of course, use the phrase, but he did so with reference to Lend-Lease, the program that signaled large-scale public American involvement in the Second World War and without which, it can be argued, the blitzed and beleaguered British would not have been able to continue fighting. He used the phrase (or versions of it) most famously twice; first on November 10 1941 in a speech at the Mansion House in London in which he also said somewhat prophetically that "should the United States become involved in war with Japan the British declaration will follow within the hour." On that occasion Churchill said:

Then came the majestic policy of the President and Congress of the United States in passing the Lease-Lend Bill, under which, in two successive enactments, about £3,000,000,000 was dedicated to the cause of world freedom, without -- mark this, because it is unique -- without the setting up of any account in money. Never again let us hear the taunt that money is the ruling power in the hearts and thoughts of the American democracy. The Lease-Lend Bill must be regarded without question as the most unsordid act in the whole of recorded history.

Five years later, in his famous eulogy for Roosevelt delivered in the House of Commons, he said, "At about that same time he devised the extraordinary measure of assistance called Lend-Lease, which will stand forth as the most unselfish and unsordid financial act of any country in all history." Churchill himself later cited it in a slightly different form - "the most unsordid act in the history of any nation" - in his Nobel Prize winning history of the Second World War. The well-crafted phrase caught on, despite its slightly schizophrenic nature -- was it the most unsordid act, period, or the most unsordid financial act? -- and by 1969 it was sufficiently synonymous with Lend-Lease for it to be the principal part of the title of Warren F Kimball's classic and much-cited book on that subject.

And yet already confusion was creeping in. In 1969 -- the same year as Kimball's book -- Truman's treasury secretary, John Wesley Snyder, a man who presumably had a high level of knowledge of Lend-Lease and who was present when the Marshall Plan was signed into law, would put the quote in the wrong context in an oral history interview for the Truman Library, an interview that was subsequently edited by Snyder himself. Over the next four decades, the mistake would be repeated again and again by academics, journalists, pundits, politicians and even, as we have seen, by the 42nd President of the United States, William Jefferson Clinton, and by the Bush Administration's top man in Baghdad, Ambassador Paul Bremer. And as all of these figures who spoke or wrote the words take the heat for their mistake, so too must an unseen battalion of researchers, copy-editors, fact-checkers and speech-writers, all of whom have allowed this error to remain in the public domain for at least 40 years despite the sometimes vast resources at their disposal.

Who is to blame? The homepage of the Churchill Centre at Winstonchurchill.org pins the blame on the 1960 book Sketches from Life by Dean Acheson, but since this site incorrectly traces the original phrase to Churchill's 1945 Commons speech rather than his 1941 Mansion House speech, it is clear that even here there is doubt and confusion. Acheson may or may not be the first person to make the mistake in print, but there is no way to tell if he had heard it from another source. Acheson, however, was clearly not the last person to make the mistake and since the debate is currently raging in the blogsphere - albeit more from a desire for partisan political capital than from a touching concern for absolute historical accuracy - this seems like a good time to consider the lessons of the quote that never was.

All of us who are interested in history, whether professional historians or not, need to develop a healthy level of skepticism when we read history. As James Loewen might say, we need to be alert to the lies our teachers told us, even when they were quite certain that they were telling us the truth, perhaps especially so when they were certain. We also need to be relentless in our pursuit of accuracy when we are writing history. We need to return to the great defining principal of Renaissance humanism as practiced by scholars like Erasmus and always strive to return ad fontes, back to the sources.

Tiresome though it is, we need to check and double check our sources, especially for phrases and ideas that we have used numerous times, and which have taken on a kind of sheen of veracity whether deserved or not. Everybody knows that Churchill said that the Marshall Plan was the "most unsordid act in history," right? Just open up another window and do a Google Search and see what you get -- hundreds and hundreds of hits for Churchill saying that about the Marshall Plan. Hundreds and hundreds of hits for people getting it wrong. Some of these hits are on Internet essay mills -- the bane of many a professor's life -- but many of them are from articles and essays in journals and newspapers of the highest quality. Let this much repeated mistake inspire us all to go back to our notes, check the page numbers, and reread the original. With hard work, and great care, and perhaps a little luck, we will not join the long list of those who have been made to look foolish by History.