George Orwell? Richard Grenier? Rudyard Kipling? Winston Churchill? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: The brilliant writer George Orwell authored two of the most powerful and acclaimed political books of the last century: 1984 and Animal Farm. The saying that interests me is usually attributed to him, and there are two popular versions:
We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.
People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf
I think these words are consistent with the sentiments Orwell expressed in essays, but I have read conflicting comments about whether these words are correctly ascribed to him. Would you trace the source of these statements?
Quote Investigator: A few years ago the noted science fiction author William Gibson also expressed an interest in identifying the origin of this saying. QI believes it can be traced back to a sentence in a column in the Washington Times newspaper written by the film critic and essayist Richard Grenier in 1993 [RGGO]:
As George Orwell pointed out, people sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.
This citation was mentioned in a forum post at the website of Gibson by an individual using the handle Caplewood who suggested that “Grenier made it up” [WGCW].
It is important to note that Grenier did not use quotation marks around the statement of the view that he ascribed to Orwell. QI agrees with Caplewood and hypothesizes that Grenier was using his own words to present a summary of Orwell’s viewpoint. Later commentators placed the statement into quotation marks and introduced various modifications to the passage.
Previous researchers have located phrases in the works of Orwell and others that contain parts of the idea expressed in the aphorism under investigation. Here are selected citations in chronological order.
In 1890 the poem “Tommy” by Rudyard Kipling was published as part of a collection of verses with a military theme. The name Tommy Atkins or simply Tommy has historically been used to represent the generic soldier in the British Army. Kipling’s poem depicts and criticizes the ingratitude of the civilian population for the service provided by the common soldier.
The poem refers to soldiers guarding civilians while they sleep, and that imagery is part of the misattributed quotation being explored. Orwell was aware of this verse and he commended the sentiment expressed when he discussed the work in an essay. The term “red-coats” refers to a military uniform and by extension a member of the military [RKBT]:
I went into a public-’ouse to get a pint o’beer,
The publican ‘e up an’ sez, “We serve no red-coats here.”
The girls be’ind the bar they laughed an’ giggled fit to die,
O makin’ mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep
Is cheaper than them uniforms, an’ they’re starvation cheap;
An’ hustlin’ drunken sodgers when they’re goin’ large a bit
Is five times better business than paradin’ in full kit.
In 1942 Orwell published an essay about Rudyard Kipling in which he referred to a phrase in the poem “Tommy” [RFGO]:
A humanitarian is always a hypocrite, and Kipling’s understanding of this is perhaps the central secret of his power to create telling phrases. It would be difficult to hit off the one-eyed pacifism of the English in fewer words than in the phrase, ‘making mock of uniforms that guard you while you sleep’.
In the same essay Orwell made a statement about Kipling that thematically overlapped the later misattributed phrase. Orwell referred to “less civilized” men whereas Grenier referred to “rough men” [RFGO] [YQGO]:
He sees clearly that men can only be highly civilized while other men, inevitably less civilized, are there to guard and feed them.
In 1945 Orwell wrote an essay titled “Notes on Nationalism” containing a sentence about pacifists that embodied one of the ideas in the misattributed statement. Both Orwell and Grenier used the phrase “on their behalf” revealing a semantic and syntactic overlap [SJGO] [NNGO]:
I list below five types of nationalist, and against each I append a fact which it is impossible for that type of nationalist to accept, even in his secret thoughts:
IRISH NATIONALIST: Eire can only remain independent because of British protection.
TROTSKYIST: The Stalin regime is accepted by the Russian masses.
PACIFIST. Those who “abjure” violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf.
All of these facts are grossly obvious if one’s emotions do not happen to be involved: …
Orwell’s sentiment was recalled and invoked two decades later in 1967 by a member of Congress who was criticizing anti-war protestors. The quotation below from Representative L. Mendel Rivers was imprecise but similar to the one above from Orwell [MRGO]:
I wish some way could be found to get into the heads of those who carry out pacifist and so-called anti-Vietnam demonstrations the truth of George Orwell’s words about pacifism in our time:
“One can only abjure violence because others are prepared to endure violence on their behalf.”
In 1981 Richard Grenier published a review of the film “Breaker Morant” titled “The Uniforms That Guard Us” in Commentary magazine. The article discussed Orwell and Kipling, and it included two of the quotations listed above. Grenier also used the phrase “rough men” when describing an attitude advanced by the movie [RGBM]:
It burns with a white rage against societies as a whole, from military leaders and chiefs of state to (more common in our time) comfortable civilians in easy chairs, who send rough men out to serve their interests brutally, murderously (what is war?), and then—when circumstances change and in the exquisite safety and fastidiousness of their living rooms they suddenly find these rough men’s actions repugnant—disown them.
In April 1993 the columnist Richard Grenier published a newspaper article containing the text that QI believes became the source of the quotation that was later attributed to Orwell. Here is a longer excerpt [RGGO] [RGIO]:
When the country is in danger, the military’s mission is to wreak destruction upon the enemy. It’s a harsh and bloody business, but that’s what the military’s for. As George Orwell pointed out, people sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.
There were no quotation marks in this passage because Grenier was not quoting Orwell. Instead he was presenting a compact statement of the stance that he assigned to Orwell. Grenier’s 1981 essay prefigured this 1993 statement.
In 1997 a piece by the National Review columnist Kate O’Beirne included a saying attributed to Orwell. The words were identical to those used by Grenier; however, quotation marks were placed around the key sentence [KBGO]:
George Orwell displayed more understanding of the reality of combat in one sentence: “People sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”
In February 1998 a version of the saying appeared in a book review in a Michigan newspaper, but the writer did not provide an attribution [DFPW]:
It’s been said that we “civilized” types can sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready to do violence on our behalf.
In November 1998 the well-known pundit George Will included a version of the adage in his syndicated newspaper column. The phrasing he used differed from that employed by Grenier, but the meaning was quite similar. Will enclosed the crucial sentence in quotation marks [GWGO]:
Remember George Orwell’s unminced words: “We sleep safely in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.”
In 1999 the expression returned to Orwell’s home country appearing in The Sunday Times in London. The writer Andrew Roberts used it in an opinion column [STGO]:
We have forgotten George Orwell’s chilling truth: “People sleep peacefully in their beds only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”
In 2004 the New York Times writer Roger Cohen placed a version of the saying in his column, but he used the phrase “often attributed” to signal an uncertain provenance [RCGO]:
They might care to use a quotation often attributed to George Orwell: “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”
In more recent years the saying has sometimes been connected to the statesmen Winston Churchill. Here is an example from 2006 [PKWC]:
While it may be apocryphal, Winston Churchill is often quoted as having said (supposedly paraphrasing Orwell) “We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.”
In conclusion, QI believes that this saying was introduced by Richard Grenier who was attempting to provide a pithy representation of an idea he ascribed to George Orwell. Later writers and speakers turned his phrase into a quotation and directly attached it to Orwell. Over time variants were constructed with modified phrasing.
Orwell did make statements that shared points of similarity with the saying, but none closely match it. It is conceivable that a closer match exists, but multiple researchers have attempted to find the saying in Orwell’s corpus and none have succeeded at this time.
(Many thanks to Dan Sayers and Andy Stewart whose email inquiries provided the impetus for the construction of this question and the pursuit of this investigation.)
[RGGO] 1993 April 6, The Washington Times, Perils of Passive Sex by Richard Grenier, Page F3, Washington, D.C. (NewsBank)
[WGCW] William Gibson Message Board, Message from Caplewood with timestamp: July 17, 2009 10:47 AM. (Accessed williamgibsonboard.com on 2011 November 5) link
[RKBT] 1890, Departmental Ditties, Barrack-Room Ballads, and Other Verses by Rudyard Kipling, Tommy, Page 60, United States Book Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link
[RKGO] ebooks@adelaide, [University of Adelaide, Australia], Collected Essays of George Orwell, Rudyard Kipling (1942). (Accessed ebooks.adelaide.edu.au on 2011 November 5; Essay is available under Australian copyright law) link link
[YQGO] 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section George Orwell, Page 569, Yale University Press, New Haven. [A note in this reference mentions the misattributed words and Orwell's actual words] (Verified on paper)
[SJGO] 1953, Such, Such Were the Joys by George Orwell, [Reprint of essay Notes on Nationalism], Start Page 73, Quote Page 95, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York. (Verified on paper)
[NNGO] ebooks@adelaide, [University of Adelaide, Australia], Collected Essays of George Orwell, Notes on Nationalism (1945). (Accessed ebooks.adelaide.edu.au on 2011 November 5; Essay is available under Australian copyright law) link link
[MRGO] 1967 May 28, Cleveland Plain Dealer, “Rivers: Escalate and Win” by L. Mendel Rivers, Section AA, Start Page AA-1, Quote Page 3-AA, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank) [The original text in the newspaper image contained "pacificism" instead of "pacifism"; apparently a misspelling]
[RGBM] 1981 May, Commentary, “The Uniforms That Guard Us” by Richard Grenier, Start Page 73, Quote Page 76, Volume 71, Number 5, American Jewish Committee, New York. (Verified on paper)
[RGIO] 1993 May 3, Insight on the News, “Carrying victimization a step further” by Richard Grenier, Page 21, News World Communications, Inc., New York. (Gale Academic OneFile) [The April 6, 1993 article with quotation by Richard Grenier was reprinted here]
[KBGO] 1997 July 14, National Review, “Ground Zero: The Gender Wars in the Military” by Kate O’Beirne, Page 49, National Review, Inc., New York. (Gale Academic OneFile)
[DFPW] 1998 February 22, The Flint Journal, Gritty, Disturbing Tale of Police Work Packs a Wallop, Book Review by David Forsmark, Section Books, Page F3 Flint, Michigan. (NewsBank)
[STGO] 1999 January 17, The Sunday Times, “Forces surrender to the compensation culture; Comment” by Andrew Roberts, Page 11, London, England. (Gale Academic OneFile)
[RCGO] 2004 December 5, New York Times, An Obsession the World Doesn’t Share by Roger Cohen, Start Page WK1, Quote Page WK6, New York. (ProQuest)
[PKWC] 2006 September 11, National Review Online website, The Real Jack Bauers by Peter Kirsanow, National Review. (Accessed nationalreview.com 2011 November 7) link