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What Churchill And Orwell Had In Common: Both Could Say, 'My Side Is Wrong'

According to author Tom Ricks, both George Orwell (left) and Winston Churchill paid a price for speaking up.
According to author Tom Ricks, both George Orwell (left) and Winston Churchill paid a price for speaking up.

Journalist Tom Ricks used to write about the present. His reports on the U.S. military won him two Pulitzer Prizes, and his 2006 book, Fiasco, was basically a takedown of U.S. policies in Iraq.

But Ricks says the wars following Sept. 11 wore him down; so he left daily journalism, moved to an island off the coast of Maine and wrote a history called Churchill and Orwell — as in the British prime minister and the author of 1984.

According to Ricks, both Winston Churchill and George Orwell lived through World War II and had a shared outlook on the war. "At a time not unlike today — when people were wondering whether democracy was sustainable, when a lot of people thought you needed authoritarian rule, either from the right or the left — Orwell and Churchill, from their very different perspectives, come together on a key point: We don't have to have authoritarian government."

Another key point, he says, is that they were "both willing to say, 'No, my side is wrong on this.' "

Interview Highlights

On how Churchill challenged his conservative party's position on Nazi Germany

Churchill in the 1930s breaks with his own party over the issue of Nazi Germany. ... As early as 1933, he gets up in the House of Commons and says, "They key fact is that Germany is re-arming." He was telling an ugly truth that people didn't want to hear, and especially his own party, which is settled on a policy of appeasement: We think we can contain Germany and we don't have enough military strength to confront them.

On how Orwell came to challenge the political left, which he considered himself a part of

Orwell's great transformation comes when he goes to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War ... late in 1936. Ostensibly he goes as a reporter, but almost immediately he signs up to fight for the government there, which is ... leftist. And he's shocked when he gets back to England that what he reads in the newspapers has nothing to do with what he saw in Spain. And he's also shocked [because] it's not just the conservative newspapers that are printing un-truths, it's the leftist newspapers. ...

[Orwell said,] "I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed. I saw troops who had fought bravely denounced as cowards and traitors, and others who had never seen a shot fired hailed as the heroes of imaginary victories; and I saw newspapers in London retailing these lies and eager intellectuals building [emotional] superstructures over events that had never happened."

And this is, I think, one reason that Orwell resonates so much today. Fake news is not a new thing; putting ideology over the truth is not a new thing. It always has happened in politics. And what we see with both Churchill and Orwell is they believed in facts, believed in observation and then believed in applying their principles to those facts.

On the price Churchill paid for challenging his party

Throughout the 1930s, Churchill is getting up and calling attention to [Hitler's military ambitions], and for that he is cast into the political wilderness. He's not allowed into the cabinet, even though he's a prominent member. ... Because a) they thought he was a warmonger, b) they thought he was clearly not a team player and c) they thought he was being stupid and silly. It was kind of a washed-up politician past his time. ...

Churchill was kept out of the government for years, to the point that it was almost too late. We now retrospectively know, of course, Churchill becomes prime minister and leads his country to victory. ... His own party really still doesn't back him; doesn't trust him. And there are a lot of people around him who think the smart move, again, would be to negotiate a peace with the Nazis. And he says no.

On the price Orwell paid for challenging his party

Orwell becomes more and more remote. He lives his last few years on an island in the Inner Hebrides [off the coast of Scotland] — wind-swept, rain-swept, cold. He carries a pistol because he has lost friends to the Russian spies in Spain and he's worried that they're going to attack him as well. A little paranoid? Maybe, but not too paranoid. In fact, one reason he found it difficult to get his great book Animal Farm published was a guy named Peter Smollett in the British government advised publishers not to publish it. We now know that Peter Smollett was working for the Russians.

On the journalistic values he writes about at the end of his book

These last few pages of this book are really my journalistic will and testament, what I think journalism is important for: ... "The struggle to see things as they are is perhaps the fundamental driver of Western civilization. There is a long but direct line from Aristotle and Archimedes to Locke, Hume, Mill and Darwin, and from there through Orwell and Churchill to Martin Luther King writing his 'Letter from Birmingham City Jail'. It is the agreement that objective reality exists, that people of goodwill can perceive it, and that other people will change their views when presented with the facts of the matter."

On whether he feels that society today still believes in an objective reality

No, I don't think we do. Increasingly, Americans seem to believe that you can have your own facts, you can ignore the evidence. This is not just a hit on the right; this is a hit on the left as well. And related to that, I see less support for a fundamental view of free speech as key to our society. But when I see people on the left saying it's OK to punch Nazis on the streets, I really disagree with that. ... It worries me. Free speech for the marginalized, the abused and even for the repugnant is essential.

Radio producer Barry Gordemer, radio editor Shannon Rhoades and digital producer Nicole Cohen contributed to this report.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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