Transcript of the talk
Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Tom Ricks says the writings of Winston Churchill and George Orwell still resonate today. Ricks also discusses the generals serving in the Trump administration.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. President Trump has given generals prominent roles in his administration – James Mattis, secretary of defense; John Kelly, secretary of Homeland Security, H.R. McMaster, national security adviser and Michael Flynn, the national security adviser who was forced out after 24 days.
My guest Tom Ricks has covered these men and is going to talk with us about them. Ricks is a former Pentagon correspondent for The Washington Post. He’s written five books about the military and America’s wars. His best-seller about the Iraq War, titled “Fiasco,” kind of became the title of the war itself. Now Ricks writes the blog The Best Defense for Foreign Policy magazine.
He also has a new book called “Churchill And Orwell: The Fight For Freedom.” It’s a dual biography of Winston Churchill, who led England through World War II, and George Orwell, who’s best known for his dystopian novels “Animal Farm” and “1984.” The theme that unites these two men is standing up against totalitarianism, Hitler and fascism, Stalin and communism. Ricks says their writings have a lot of resonance today. In fact, “1984,” Orwell’s novel about a totalitarian state whose Ministry of Truth has on its wall the slogan ignorance is strength became a best-seller after President Trump’s inauguration.
Tom Ricks, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Why did you want to write a dual biography of Churchill and Orwell?
TOM RICKS: Partly because I wanted to figure out why I enjoyed these two people so much. They’re so different, yet they both meant a lot to me. They’re both kind of heroes of mine. And also, as I was working on it, the more our world today seemed to me like the 1930s, which is the crucial period for both these guys. When they both say, wait a second, you can’t put politics ahead of the facts. You have to tell the truth, even if it’s uncomfortable, even if it bothers your political allies.
GROSS: So both Churchill and Orwell were writers, and they both actually started as war correspondents. I was wondering if you could read an excerpt from each of their writings, an excerpt that means a lot to you.
RICKS: There’s a passage in the book in which I quote Orwell at length. And I think it’s my favorite passage in the whole book because it speaks so much to today as well as to Orwell’s own time. He went to Spain, the civil war in the 1930s. And he was a committed socialist, very much a leftist. And so he was naturally skeptical of the right, of the fascist, the nationalist side.
But he came away shocked to find that both the left and the right were not telling the truth about what was going on there. And this really determines him that his role in life is to tell the truth, to perceive the facts and act on the facts according to his principles. And it’s striking because I think it resonates with today.
Here’s the passage, his conclusion from Spain. (Reading) I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting and complete silence where hundreds of men have 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 those lies and eager intellectuals building superstructures over events that had never happened. I saw, in fact, history being written, not in terms of what happened, but of what ought to have happened according to various party lines.
GROSS: Yeah. Well, that really resonates with “1984” in which he writes whatever the party holds to be truth is truth.
RICKS: Yeah. And he’s saying, no, that we have to preserve the ability of the individual to think for him or herself, to express him or herself and to keep records of history, of what happens independent of other authority, independent of the state or of the corporation.
GROSS: How is that resonating with you today?
RICKS: It resonates with me enormously because I think in this country, we have especially recently started putting ideology over facts. And on this I blame both the left and the right. The left and the right both have a responsibility to tell the truth.
I don’t expect it of politicians. I do expect it of the media, that even when it’s uncomfortable, even when it’s not supporting your account, your view, your narrative, that the responsibility of journalists and honest intellectuals is to present the facts, to first observe the facts and not to suppress facts that disagree with your own personal views.
GROSS: So we’ve been talking about Orwell. Let’s talk about Churchill a little bit. He was a writer, too. He wrote memoirs. He had early in his career been a war correspondent. And, of course, he made very stirring speeches that helped get the British through World War II.
So when you look at his speeches and his writing, what do you think are his most important contributions in terms of moving people or making them – you’re strengthening them through words?
RICKS: Churchill was a politician, but you’re right, he made his living by writing. He wrote and published 15 million words in his lifetime. That’s a river of words. That’s an avalanche of words, never ending for decades upon decades. But of all the words that Churchill wrote or uttered, the most important ones are the speeches he gave in 1940, which is really the crucial period in his life and I think the crucial period in Western history over the last couple of centuries.
1940, England is at war with Germany. America is not yet in the war. Holland, Belgium, Denmark and France have fallen much more quickly than anybody expected. And so there are a couple of speeches that Churchill gives during that period that I just take to heart, and I love. And I have read again and again. He becomes prime minister early in May.
And at the end of May, the British have this disastrous situation in France and Belgium where their troops are being thrown back up against the sea. The French are moving toward surrender, and the Nazis have just rolled over the allies. And several hundred thousand British and French troops are pinned up against the beaches of the English Channel around Dunkirk, Belgium.
And they managed to get out most of the troops, but almost none of the guns, tanks, trucks and heavy weaponry that’s left on the beaches. And England has its back to the wall. It’s alone in Europe facing the Nazis. It’s not clear that it really can fight. And Churchill’s in a very difficult political position. He’s not trusted by his own party. And the Labor Party regards him as a little bit of an imperialist rogue who can’t be completely trusted, but he stands up and he says, this is what we’re going to do now. (Reading) We shall fight in France. We shall fight on the seas and oceans. We shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be.
And then he describes something that’s quite striking. He talks about where the fight will be. And he describes a fighting retreat from the ocean up to the mountains, almost envisioning how a German invasion might go. And this is probably the most famous words that Churchill ever uttered. (Reading) We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields and in the streets. We shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender. And even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, in our empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British fleet, would carry on the struggle until in God’s good time the new world with all its power and might steps forth to the rescue and liberation of the old.
And there you have, in Churchill’s dramatic rhetoric, his basic war plan. We will fight. We will not give up. And eventually, we hope the Americans will come in and tip the balance so we can win this war against Germany. That is his war plan. He basically wants to find a way to get the Americans to come in because then he knows he will win.
GROSS: Well, you’ve quoted Churchill. Let me quote you (laughter). You write in your book (reading) in wartime, people will believe the worst if they are not told the truth or something close to it, perhaps mixed with a vision of the way forward. When a politician offers nothing but empty and deceptive rhetoric, he is implicitly conceding something very close to defeat.
I’m interested in what inspired you to say that and how that relates to what you just read from Churchill.