EDITOR’S NOTE: This week we will be re-posting choice Q&As from the past year. We start with this still-timely interview with nat-sec reporter Tom Ricks, which originally posted on May 25th, 2017. Enjoy.
BY JONATHAN VALANIA Under the darkening skies of the late 1930s, liberal democracy was on the ropes and fascism and totalitarianism was on the rise, reason and common sense were overwhelmed by racist entreaties, economic misery and nationalist fury, press freedoms were under attack and the facts had become a matter of opinion. Sound familiar? Two less than distinguished men rose to the occasion: a tarnished, boozy politician named Winston Churchill and a sickly, failed novelist named George Orwell. Although they did not know each other, Churchill and Orwell would lay down the intellectual and political framework — in soaring oration and sonorous prose — that turned back the rising tide of illiberalism.
In the process, both would become great men, not just men for their season, but men for all seasons — including the the post-factual age we call the here and now. Which is what prompted Pulitzer prize-winning national security reporter Tom Ricks to make them the dual subjects of his latest book, Churchill & Orwell: The Fight For Freedom. Ricks is currently a contributing writer to Foreign Policy and a security advisor to the Center for the New American Security think tank, prior to that he logged in 25 years as a distinguished Nat Sec reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. He’s authored six books, including 2006’s Fiasco, his jaundiced eyewitness account of the Iraq War, which went to number one on the New York Times bestseller list. In advance of his appearance at the Free Library tonight, we got Ricks on the horn to discuss how the writings, orations and actions of Churchill and Orwell impacted the then and how and why they continue to speak to the now.
DISCUSSED: H.L. Mencken, Joseph Stalin, Martin Luther King, T.S. Eliot, Leon Trotsky, General Franco, the Spanish Civil War, Hitler, Mussolini, tuberculosis, booze, Wikileaks, fake news, the Battle Of Britain, alternative facts, Trump, illiberalism, climate change denialism, Lech Walesa, the Invasion Of Iraq, Alger Hiss, Andrei Sakharov, the Katyn Massacre, Letter From A Birmingham Jail, the Second Boer War, John Lennon, Neville Chamberlain, Edward Snowden, The Mitford Sisters, Keith Richards, Vladimir Lenin, Vladimir Putin, Julian Assange, Animal Farm, 1984, and the sun setting on the English Empire.
PHAWKER: Thank you for taking the time to do this. I really love the book and thought it was incredibly timely, which is actually where I want to start. What prompted you to write this book in this time? Clearly you recognized some contemporary resonance.
TOM RICKS: Yeah, well, I was beginning to feel uneasy about three or four years ago about how people talked about free speech. Both on the left and the right it seemed to be less appreciated than in the past. People seemed more accepting of limitations on free speech. And at the same time I was going back and reading 20th century journalists, partly just to look back for my own entertainment and curiosity at who stood up, who’s worth reading now. I started with H.L. Mencken and found him absolutely anachronistic. Then I went to S.J. Perelman and didn’t find him funny at all. I found E.B. White had pretty good prose, but really wasn’t speaking to our times. I found Hemingway irrelevant. And then I picked up Orwell, and his prose style seemed so fresh and so contemporary that it made me stop and think. And the realization came to me as I was writing the book that I think he really invented the modern op-ed style of opinion, which is based on straightforward, clear writing. The statement of an observation of facts. The explication of those facts and then conclusions from those facts, which is the basic 650 or 700 word op-ed piece.
PHAWKER: It’s not only free speech that’s endangered, we’re living in the time when liberal democracy seems to be on the run. There’s a passage here on page 45 where you write that “many people, especially the young and engaged, thought that liberal capitalist democracy was tired and failing. They felt that the only two ways forward were fascism or communism, beckoning from Berlin, Rome, and Moscow, ending the Western way of life.” How does that speak to now?
TOM RICKS: I think it does very much, which is this time of ours is kind of similar internationally to the 1930’s in that, as I wrote in the book, democracy, and especially liberal capitalist democracy, seemed to be faltering and did not seem to speak to the people. In America, to the white working-class, especially. I have to say, related to that, is the sense that facts don’t matter. People can make up their own facts. I think my favorite passage in the whole book is at the end of the chapter on Spain when I quote Orwell talking about how he came back in England, read the newspapers, and saw battles described that had never happened. Heroic acts of soldiers that had never occurred. Just absurd representation by both the left and the right of the facts of the matter, which would have set him on his lifelong course to always put the facts before party. To always insist that you cannot suppress information because it supports your ideological position to do so.
PHAWKER: That’s actually getting to a point I wanted to raise about your description of 1984, you write that Orwell asserts that “collecting the facts is a revolutionary act insisting you have the right to do so is the most subversive action possible.” Again, this has a very contemporary resonance in light of Trump’s war on the facts and observable reality. Your old stomping ground, the Washington Post, felt the need to put the motto, “Democracy dies in darkness” on their front page every day.
TOM RICKS: I gotta’ tell you, I hate that motto.
PHAWKER: [Laughs] Oh, really?
TOM RICKS: Yeah, it should be, “Democracy thrives in light.” Or, “Sunshine in the best disinfectant.” It’s such a dark, morose…I just don’t like it. I understand the sentiment, where they’re coming from, but you were leading to a question and I kind of interrupted you..
PHAWKER: I wanted to get you to speak to this notion of this post-factual age some insist that we are now in and how this lines up with what Orwell was railing against in 1984, and for his whole life, really, and how that stacks up against Trump’s vicious war on the press and the non-partisan reporting of objective reality.
TOM RICKS: Well, I think there’s always been a struggle in this country, and in others, about facts. Look, we have people who claim that the Civil War was not about slavery, against all academic evidence, as well as some of the Confederate states’ constitutions showing us that it was. We still have people that claim that the Earth is not warming. Now, you can argue about why it’s warming. But I think it’s indisputable that the Earth is warming up, right now. I think that’s always been the case. There’s always a struggle, especially when you have extremist administrations.
Right now we have the most reactionary president, probably in American history. And I say that because he exists in reaction to what has preceded him. He’s not just right-wing, he’s extreme right-wing, and he will not be pinned down to facts. He’ll say one thing today, and another thing tomorrow, and even if they’re completely opposite, he’ll believe them to be equally true because he said them. And if you read 1984, that’s the absolute definition of authoritarian government, when it insists that it can decide what the truth is and what the past is. And so there’s this long tradition of people opposing that by saying, “What are the facts of the matter?” I think Orwell was quite visionary in seeing that that was the best way to respond to Stalinism. And you see people like Sakharov and Walesa, and other dissidents in Eastern Europe and Russia, who respond by just saying, “Let’s collect the facts.” And the Soviet government recognizes that as a revolutionary, subversive activity.
And that’s why I take the next step and say take a look at Martin Luther King and his wonderful Letter From A Birmingham Jail. It says, “Here I sit in jail. What are the facts of the matter?” The fact of the matter is, Birmingham is the most segregated city in America. The negro is subjected to official violence to enforce that segregation. And then he says, “What are the acts to be drawn from this?” That’s very much Churchill, very much Orwell, and very much in the Western intellectual tradition of insisting on the facts, observing the facts, and applying your principles to them. Then, from that, producing a course of action.
But in order to do that, and this is something that people tend to forget about Orwell and Churchill, you have to be willing to blow the whistle on your own ideological side. That’s something that Churchill and Orwell, these two very different people, have in common. Churchill in the 1930s breaks with the conservative party over the rearmament of Germany. Beginning in 1933, he gets up, and, speech after speech, he says, “What are the facts of the matter?” And the facts of the matter are that Germany is rearming. The British Conservative party, led by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, doesn’t want to hear that. They push him into the wilderness. They basically make it clear that he cannot be in the government, even though he’s a conservative. And, in fact, he’s kept out of government until World War II begins.
Likewise, Orwell comes back from Spain and says, “Look, the fact of the matter is that both the left and the right are lying about what’s going on there. The left didn’t want to hear that. And he never became a right winger – it’s sort of a myth that he became a conservative – he’s not. He remains a socialist all his life and he remains dedicated to individual liberty in a very insistent way. But, he says, when the left is wrong, ‘I’m going to say so.’ And that cost him a lot of friends on the left.
PHAWKER: That brings me to the next question. What made you pair Churchill and Orwell together in the first place?
TOM RICKS: I think, to begin with, they’re both heroes of mine. I think they’re the most important people of the 20th century. And, one day, I happily realized that they were both war correspondents, as I was. I thought, “Isn’t that great? The two greatest men of the 20th century, in their youth, were war correspondents.” Then, as I said, as I was going through this tour of 20th century journalism, it struck me that the only one who really seems to be of our time as much of his own is Orwell. I think he really is the greatest journalist of the 20th century for that reason.
PHAWKER: I had to chuckle some of the excesses of the British Empire, the white male privilege – like the moveable feast of booze that Churchill took with him down to South Africa to cover the Boer War.
TOM RICKS: It’s stunning to me. One of my favorite passages is when he’s having breakfast at the British embassy in Cairo during the war and he asks the ambassador’s wife for a carafe of white wine. She says, “At breakfast?” And he says, “Madam, I’ve already had two whiskey sodas.”
PHAWKER: [Laughing] But by the same token, George Orwell, his whole life was struggling with tuberculosis and goes to…where does he go? Does he go to Northern Africa to get away from the smog of London and rest his lungs?
TOM RICKS: Well, he goes to Morocco after his lungs begin bleeding.
PHAWKER: And he goes there to heal his bleeding lungs, but he’s smoking like a chimney the whole time.
TOM RICKS: Exactly, yeah. He really had no regard for his own personal well-being. I think it really resonates that he came home one day and his wife had left dinner for him and the cat and, by mistake, he ate the cat’s dinner.
PHAWKER: I think it’s really fascinating that he was willing to go so immersive into all aspects of society at that point. That he would go to Burma and he would be the policeman. He would be the imperialist, and he would come back and he would be the beggar and the bum, the hobo, in England and Paris.
TOM RICKS: You may be misreading Burma a little bit. I don’t think he went to Burma as a writer to observe. I think he went to Burma because he wanted to see what power felt like. I think he’d been on the wrong side of power his entire life. First his father, then at schools. He’d been the poor, charity scholarship boy at school. He’d been beaten for it because sometimes he didn’t do his work well enough. I think he really just had a sense of, “Okay, let’s see what power’s like.” And he saw that, ‘yes power does corrupt, even I am corrupted by it. I gotta get away from it.’ He has a wonderful essay “Shooting An Elephant,” in which he concludes that being a colonial power destroys the colonialist every bit as much as it destroys those he colonizes.
PHAWKER: Getting back to how all of this speaks to the here and now, there’s also a passage in the book where you talk about this Lord Londonderry fellow who advocates, not just for appeasement of Hitler, but for aligning with the Germans in the fight against communism. Now, that really sounds like an echo of Trump’s campaign talking point that we should align with the Russians to defeat terrorism, which I believe was Putin’s idea in the first place. Can you speak to that?
TOM RICKS: I think it’s just the nature of anti-democratic elements. They will recognize like minds and sympathize with them. So you see, in the 1930s, the British Aristocracy with the exception of Churchill, was very comfortable with the Germans. The Mitford sisters, Chamberlain and other British officials going to pay homage to Hitler with Mussolini on pilgrimages to his office to meet him in Germany. It’s always them going to Hitler, never Hitler going to England. They always come back and say, “He’s a man we can trust. He’s a man we can deal with.”
If you look at Trump’s face, his emotion, his personality in play when he meets with foreign leaders – beginning again, the democratic leaders like Angela Merkel he seems unhappy with and acts as if they’re adversaries, but the autocrats like Erdogan of Turkey and the Russian visitors, he seems very comfortable with. These are people who he thinks he understands and who understand him. I think they’re playing him for a chump. That’s exactly what Hitler did with Chamberlain. This is another reason you need to stick by unpopular positions. The correct position will almost always be unpopular at the beginning. I have to constantly remind people that eventually Trump and a good number of people around him are going to end up in jail under the charges of obstruction of justice, maybe perjury, and fraud. Don’t compromise with them. Don’t enable them. Block them at every step you can because they are wrong about what this country is and they don’t understand how our country works, or what makes our country great, especially the U.S. Constitution.
PHAWKER: You point out in the book that even back in the 1930s assassination was a tool in the Russian foreign policy toolkit. When the secret Russian government archives are opened up after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late ’80s, it revealed that Orwell had been designated for execution in the event of his capture by Franco’s forces during the Spanish Civil War. Again, the more things change, the more they stay the same, right?
TOM RICKS: Yeah, but don’t forget that Putin is an old KGB member. And the KGB is a direct descendant of the NKVD, which was the Russian espionage association, the secret police, that targeted Orwell, unsuccessfully, but targeted many other people successfully. For example, Trotsky. Twice, they sent Spanish communists from the civil war to attack Trotsky. The first time, they failed. The second time, they succeeded and killed him in Mexico. Orwell had friends who were killed by the Russians. The Russians built a crematorium on the outskirts of Barcelona to get rid of the bodies of the Spanish leftists they killed. These were not fascists they were killing. The fascists weren’t around Barcelona. They were the anti-Stalinist leftists like the Trotskyites and the anarchists. Those were the real enemy to the Russians and those are the people they went after.
PHAWKER: A quick detour on that point. I’ve always wondered what would have happened if Trotsky had seized power instead of Stalin? How do you think the course of history may have changed? Or the course of Socialism and Communism for that matter?
TOM RICKS: My guess is that Trotsky would have winded up doing the same thing to Stalin’s people.
PHAWKER: Would he have killed millions in the Gulags?
TOM RICKS: Obviously I don’t know, but my gut feeling is probably so. Because the nature of Stalinist and Trotskyite communism is to say, “I’m right, those who oppose me are wrong and must be exterminated.” I think this derives directly from Lenin. I think Lenin had that point of view. These are all proteges of Lenin.
PHAWKER: And Lenin was adamant that it would require a ruthless dictatorship in order to impose these Marxist reforms on the Russian people.
TOM RICKS: Yeah, I just read a good book about Lenin, After Finland Station. About when he’s coming back to Russian and he really energizes things but he also immediately starts going after the Mensheviks, who were actually the more popular faction on the left at that point.
PHAWKER: I was somewhat shocked to read that T.S. Eliot turned down Animal Farm when he was an editor at Faber & Faber because it was “too Trotsky-ite.”
TOM RICKS: He also thought the pigs were right. He thought the pigs should rule because they’re smarter. I think this goes to Eliot as a wanna-be aristocrat. This is one reason I have an aside in the book about how the British never understand the Americans because they think that the Americans that go over there are representative, when in fact they’re aberrations. T.S. Eliot? Henry James? These are not representative of the American people. Someone once told me that if you really wanna’ succeed as an American at Oxford or Cambridge, the first thing you do is wear a cowboy hat. Don’t deny who you are. Don’t try to be British.
PHAWKER: By the end of World War II there was a lot of wariness about the Americans from the British. There was a fear that we would become the new imperialists, which, in fact, we did.
TOM RICKS: Well, look at both the left and the right. The right resents America at the end of World War II because we’ve not supported the British Empire. In fact, they tripped us up on Vietnam. When FDR said he thought that Vietnam should be independent, the French and the British both said, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ Think of how history would be different there. So, the Americans were explicitly anti-colonialist, which leads, at one point to the biggest breach between Churchill and Roosevelt. Churchill goes batshit when Roosevelt sends him a letter advising him on how to handle the India question. They think that maybe the Americans just don’t understand this. I think the Americans actually had a better take on how imperialism was doomed than the British did.
But at the same time, the British left come to loathe American culture. And remember, it’s the British aristocratic left. I think people have never properly understood the cultural history of postwar Britain. Philby, Burgess — the leftist communist spies inside the British establishment. They’re from aristocratic background and they are undermining America on purpose. Philby is the head of counterintelligence in the British Embassy in America. Guy Burgess is giving the Russians information on American plans in the Korean war. They’re actively working against America.
I emphasize this because at the same time, British working class is falling in love with America. The generation of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones comes immediately out of this period. John Winston Lennon, named for Winston Churchill is born during The Battle of Britain. Keith Richards was actually evacuated during the war to avoid the bombing. But these people embrace American working class culture, and especially black American culture. So, at the time the aristocratic Left and the aristocratic Right are holding their nose over America, the British working class is saying, ‘this is who we wanna’ be.’ They get up and they start singing like black American farm hands. I think it’s one of the great cultural battles in history, and it’s never been adequately told.
PHAWKER: Is it true about the Tehran Summit, where Stalin is saying that he’ll have to execute 50,000 Nazi Officers, not unlike what the Russian army did with Polish army in the Katyn Massacre. Stalin will later claim, and not very convincingly, that he was kidding. Churchill was appalled. Oddly, FDR seems nonplussed.
TOM RICKS: I think he recognized he couldn’t do anything to stop it. I think he knew that Stalin was taunting them with the fact that Katyn Massacre, which neither Churchill nor Roosevelt wanted investigated and couldn’t do anything about. I think that’s really what that conversation was about. Churchill wasn’t going to stand for it and Roosevelt’s attitude was, ‘I can’t do anything about it.’ Also, Roosevelt is getting old and tired at that point and may simply have been fading out of the conversation.
PHAWKER: Churchill and Roosevelt didn’t want the Katyn Massacre to be investigated because they needed Russia to be an ally against the Germans, right?
TOM RICKS: Exactly, and they’re correct. The number one goal throughout World War II was to keep the Russians in the war.
PHAWKER: And we probably wouldn’t have beaten the Germans without them.
TOM RICKS: Yeah. I mean, the Eastern Front was a far more significant front than the West.
PHAWKER: A couple questions I wanted to ask you that are not related to the book. One is, like a lot of people’s opinion about Wikileaks and Assange and Edward Snowden, my assessments have evolved in the fullness of time. It’s become blatantly obvious that Assange is not America’s friend. He’s not even liberal democracy’s friend. The selective transparency of Wikileaks is clearly part of the information warfare arsenal of Russian intelligence. My question for you is about Snowden — is he a good guy or is he a bad guy? He’s become the Alger Hiss of the Information Age.
TOM RICKS: I’m ambivalent. I think he may have done the right thing, but I think he may have committed a crime. I’m a great believer in conscientious objection and civil disobedience, but I go back to Gandhi and Martin Luther King on this. When you commit civil disobedience, you not only break the law knowingly, you say so and you insist on being jailed for it because you believe the law is unjust. That’s why Martin Luther King said, ‘I am in jail for calling on my country to obey the law.’ That is an unjust situation. You use the fact of being jailed to support your case. The fact that Snowden ran and hid himself in the embrace of the enemy is not a good sign. I’ve been worried generally about the wild recklessness of their information releases. How many people in various third world countries have gotten in trouble because of their names appearing in Wikileaks documents? How many people have been executed or jailed? We don’t know. I’m surprised that no one’s reported on that.
PHAWKER: I’m not questioning the part about revealing that intelligence agencies had turned their incredible surveillance powers on Americans — that was whistleblowing on clear Fourth Amendment violations. But there was also a lot of classified materials that Snowden took that seemed to have no bearing on privacy, civil liberties or the NSA’s omnipresent surveillance of the American people. My question is why were all those other materials taken and then leaked to other countries?
TOM RICKS: Yeah. He may have done the right thing the wrong way. He’s not a hero of mine. I’ll say that. And Assange is much less than a hero. To me he seems like a bad actor on the international stage.
PHAWKER: Having covered the Iraq War that, in retrospect, do you see it as a historically necessary action that was deeply flawed in its execution, or was this simply a case of imperial hubris that turned into an epic boondoggle, that instead of America flexing our muscles to the world revealed the limits of American power to the world’
TOM RICKS: I’ll take B. You know my book Fiasco begins by saying that the American invasion of Iraq may have been the most prodigal act in the history of American foreign policy. By which I meant, the most unthoughtful and reckless act in the history of American foreign policy, and I stand by that.