Did Winston Churchill predict the rise of al-Qaida?
The legendary British statesman is often credited with saving Britain — and even Western civilization — through his leadership during World War II. He is also praised for recognizing the inevitability of confrontation with Hitler’s Germany when the British establishment believed Germany could be appeased.
But predict al-Qaida, the Islamist terror group that didn’t form until more than two decades after his death?
In his new book “Churchill: The Prophetic Statesman,” author and former presidential speechwriter James C. Humes says Churchill did something close to that in a 1921 speech to the House of Commons.
“He witnessed a radical militant Islamic sect that he asserted was more violent than any religious sect in history, willing to die in jihad to ensure heaven — the Wahabis,” Humes, who wrote speeches for several Republican presidents, explained to The Daily Caller in an interview.
“He predicted they would inflict violence and terror on the West. His grandson, Winston Churchill II, read passages to George W. Bush in 2007, in the Oval Office. If he didn’t quite predict 9/11, he did envision the type of al-Qaida terrorist who would carry the bomb or crash into buildings.”
Humes’ new book focuses on Churchill’s predictions, particularly those that came true. So what Churchill prophecy does Humes consider Churchill’s most remarkable?
“In 1910, as Home Secretary, he sent a memorandum to the War Department that Germany would invade France through neutral Belgium, that on the 20th day the French Army would collapse and be dispersed at the Meuse River and then on the 40th day the German advance would be stopped at the Marne River,” Hume said. “He was right precisely on both days. But the War Office dismissed it as ‘folly’ from someone who never rose above a lieutenant.”
See below TheDC’s full interview with Humes about his book, what books most influenced Churchill and which of the presidents he wrote speeches for was the smartest:
Why did you write the book and what do you say to those whose first reaction is, “not another Churchill book!”
It is the only book on Churchill that features and focuses only on his predictions.
What explains Churchill’s remarkable prescience?
A knowledge of history; the courage of a soldier, unlike Gallup poll politicians or play-it-safe bureaucrats, to risk political death by asserting ugly facts.
If you go to Churchill’s country home Chartwell, you are still able to see Churchill’s library stocked with books. Was he a voracious reader? Was he able to consume books quickly?
Yes, I’ve been to Chartwell many times. His fiction was sorted by author, his biographies by subject, the countries by region. There were thousands of books, all of which, over the years, he read at least once.
What were some of Churchill’s predictions and which do you think was the most remarkable?
In 1910, as home secretary, he sent a memorandum to the War Department that Germany would invade France through neutral Belgium, that on the 20th day the French Army would collapse and be dispersed at the Meuse River and then on the 40th day the German advance would be stopped at the Marne River. He was right precisely on both days. But the War Office dismissed it as “folly’’ from someone who never rose above a lieutenant.
You suggest that Churchill was even able to foresee the type of Islamist terrorism plaguing the West today? What exactly did he see?
He witnessed a radical militant Islamic sect that he asserted was more violent than any religious sect in history, willing to die in jihad to ensure heaven — the Wahabis. He predicted they would inflict violence and terror on the West. His grandson, Winston Churchill II, read passages to George W. Bush in 2007, in the Oval Office. If he didn’t quite predict 9/11, he did envision the type of al-Qaida terrorist who would carry the bomb or crash into buildings.
He got a lot right, but did he get a lot wrong as well? What was his most notable prediction that turned out wrong?
He underestimated the success of the D-Day landing. It was a short-range calculation, not quite a prophecy. He didn’t think the Allies would reach Paris until January. They got to Paris in the summer of 1944. He lost his bet with Eisenhower.
Would you count the Dardanelles campaign as a prophecy gone wrong?
No, if it had gone as originally planned, it would have succeeded. The admiral in charge canceled the landing, although the shore was actually unguarded. When the British Marines went back the next year, the Germans had reinforced the Turkish shore with German machine guns, resulting in a massacre at Gallipoli. Parliament later exonerated Churchill in an investigation in 1917. Churchill vowed never again to share responsibility for a military operation.
You obviously were aware of many of Churchill’s predictions before you began writing the book — you wouldn’t have had the idea to write it otherwise — but was there any prediction that surprised you while researching the book?
His novel, “Savrola,” written in 1898, predicted a Hitler-like figure, an ex-German corporal who, with his street demagoguery, takes over a country, calling himself “numero uno” (fuhrer) with black uniforms. Hitler was then in diapers.
What Churchill biography would you commend as the best you’ve read?
Sir Martin Gilbert’s I-VII volumes; Paul Johnson’s short biography.
Now, you met Churchill when you were young. How did you get to meet him and did he give you any advice? The historian Paul Johnson says that when he met Churchill when he was young and asked him for advice, Churchill told him to conserve energy: “Never stand up when you can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down.”
It was arranged through the English-Speaking Union. Churchill was hosting a luncheon for Commonwealth Prime Ministers for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in May, 1953, at Mansion House, the residence of the Lord Mayor of London. It was then I met him. He told me to, “Study history; in history lie all the secrets of statecraft.”
There is a debate over whether Churchill drank heavily every day or if he merely drank water-downed drinks that made him look like he was drinking heavily. What’s your take?
His doctor, Lord Moran, in a not totally friendly biography, says Churchill was never drunk. His lisp and stutter contributed to the impression he was drinking heavily. He pretended to Moran to drink more than he actually did. While holding office, he wrote more words than Dickens and Twain combined. Drunks like Faulkner and Fitzgerald had short creative careers.
Are there books that we can point to that were particularly fundamental in shaping Churchill’s worldview?
Edward Gibbon’s “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire“; Lord Macaulay’s “The History of England.”
Finally, of the five presidents you wrote speeches for (Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Bush the first), who impressed you most as a leader? Who was the smartest? Who was the best president?
I never wrote any speeches for Eisenhower. My wife worked in the White House for him. Among other things, she drafted some messages which she later did for Vice President Nixon.
I did have the opportunity to observe him, particularly after he left office. In 1961, I was working closely with his son, John, on the Nixon campaign.
Nixon was the brightest. Ford and George H.W. hardly touched a word of any draft I wrote. Nixon would substantially re-write – draft after draft. Reagan was a better writer than his speechwriters, who were usually former journalists, who wrote for the eye of the printed page, not the ear. Reagan who had delivered thousands of speeches — which he wrote himself — cast his words for the listener, not the reading audience.
The intelligence of both Eisenhower and Reagan were underestimated by the media. Sometimes the two of them helped further the impression. Both had no ego problems. Eisenhower was deliberately opaque at times to mislead the press. Reagan liked to poke fun at himself.
Eisenhower’s presidency was called by his foes, “do-nothing.” Yes, he didn’t unbalance the budget six out of eight years and he didn’t let a single American be killed in a war. He also passed the first Civil Rights Bill.
As for Reagan, like Churchill, he understood more than the others the power of words, that speech was leadership. (The senior Bush once said to me it’s “all B.S.”)
Before Reagan, the world thought “capitalism” was a dirty word and that “socialism” was well-intentioned. Reagan called “communism” “the evil” that it was and the Iron Curtain began to crumble.
But I value Nixon as the most intelligent and visionary. He foresaw that it was better to deal with China in 1972 than it would be years down the road when we would be compelled to. He broke up the Sino-Soviet bloc by going to China.
Nixon was an introvert in an extrovert’s profession. He was clumsy in small talk and lacked the charm of an F.D.R. or Clinton. But in front of an intelligent audience, he was commanding and brilliant. Even Clinton in his private taped conversation with historian Taylor Branch thought Nixon was the most knowledgeable and astute leader he had ever met.