Americans Will Always Do the Right Thing — After Exhausting All the Alternatives

Winston Churchill? Abba Eban? An Irishman? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: While watching a cable news channel I heard a commentator present a quotation that he credited to Winston Churchill. When I searched the web I found many different versions:

(1) Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing…after they have exhausted all other possibilities.
(2) The Americans can always be trusted to do the right thing, once all other possibilities have been exhausted.
(3) You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.
(4) The Americans will always do the right thing… after they’ve exhausted all the alternatives.

No citations were given. The quotation books I consulted did not list this saying under Churchill. Is this statement really from Churchill?

Quote Investigator: Probably not. The earliest evidence located by QI of a variant of this saying was employed by Abba Eban who was an Israeli politician and diplomat. In March 1967 Eban visited Japan, and the New York Times reported on a remark that he made: 1

Commenting that the passage of time offered the best hope of an end to the problems of Israel and her neighbors, he said: “Men and nations behave wisely when they have exhausted all other resources.”

Note that the above version of the saying did not highlight a specific nation and used the word “resources”. In June 1967 Eban revisited this theme with a comment that was closer to the modern version of the saying. Once again he used the generic referent “nations”: 2

… he said he was hopeful a new system of interstate relationships might come to pass because “nations do behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives.”

Also in June 1967 Eban delivered a speech at the United Nations which included an instance of the expression as recorded in a Canadian periodical: 3

The question is whether there is any reason to believe that such a new era may yet come to pass. If I am sanguine on this point, it is because of a conviction that men and nations do behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives. Surely the other alternatives of war and belligerency have now been exhausted.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The first instance located by QI that referred to “Americans” instead of “nations” appeared in the transcript of a U.S. Congressional Hearing in 1970. The remark was ascribed to an unidentified “Irishman” and not to Winston Churchill: 4

And indeed, we often know how to do things by the philosophy that was expounded by another Irishman I know. He said that you can depend on Americans to do the right thing when they have exhausted every other possibility.

Eban continued to employ the saying in the talks he delivered in later years. In 1979 he spoke before a World Trade Club in Cincinnati and included a version of the remark: 5

But Mr. Eban finished with hope in his thoughts, however slim he may believe it to be. “My experience teaches me this,” he said, “Men and nations do act wisely when they have exhausted all the other possibilities.”

By July 1980 the remark was being ascribed to the prominent statesman Winston Churchill. A journal based in London called “Mine and Quarry” of the Minerals Engineering Society reported on a speech given by a U.S. Governor at the “International Coal Show” in Chicago: 6

In his keynote address Governor James R. Thompson of Illinois quoted with evident approval Sir Winston Churchill as saying, “You can depend upon the Americans to do the right thing. But only after they have exhausted every other possibility.”

Also in July 1980 a version of the saying was assigned to Winston Churchill in the pages of the Harvard Business School Bulletin. The Bulletin reported on the 1980 International Dinner of the Harvard Business School Club of Greater New York which included an award ceremony for the annual “Business Statesman”: 7

In accepting the award Mr. Garvin quoted Winston Churchill, who once remarked: “The United States can always be relied upon to do the right thing — having first exhausted all possible alternatives.” Expanding on that thought, Mr. Garvin said: “As a generalization about this country, that is too harsh, but applied to our current energy situation. I think it has merit.”

In 1985 a variant of the remark was used during a U.S. Senate Hearing by the Secretary of Agriculture. The subphrase “tried everything else” was used instead of “exhausted every other possibility” or “exhausted all possible alternatives”. The words were attributed to Churchill: 8

Winston Churchill once said, “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing after they have tried everything else.” [Laughter.]

The important reference work “The Yale Book of Quotations” credited a version of this quotation to Abba Eban with a 1967 citation. The words were not attached to Winston Churchill. 9

Historian and top Churchill quotation expert Richard Langworth explored this saying and was unable to find any instances of the phrase in Churchill’s writings or in the memoirs of his colleagues as noted in “Churchill by Himself: The Definitive Collection of Quotations”. 10 Langworth also indicated, however, that he thought the words were compatible with the sentiments that Churchill sometimes felt.

In conclusion, based on current evidence the variant of this saying referring to nations in general should be ascribed to Abba Eban. The version referring to Americans specifically apparently evolved from the general remark, and its authorship is unknown. Churchill died in 1965, and the evidence connecting him to the saying is late and very weak.

(In Memoriam: Special thanks to my brother Stephen who asked about this saying because a friend of his included it in an email.)

(Also, thanks to Professor Jonathan Lighter who sent a query about this quote to a mailing list and expressed skepticism about the Churchill attribution. Great thanks to Professor Charles Doyle and the University of Georgia library system for help verifying citations on paper.)

Notes:

  1. 1967 March 19, New York Times, “Japan Welcomes Eban Warmly; Her Industry Impresses Israeli” by Robert Trumbull, Page 14, New York. (ProQuest)
  2. 1967 June 07, The Evening Times [Trenton Evening Times], U.N. Waits Formal Answers, [Associated Press], Start Page 1, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Trenton, New Jersey. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1967 June 16, Canadian Jewish Chronicle Review, Abba Eban at the United Nations: Not Backward to Belligerence But Forward to Peace, [UN address by Abba Eban on June 6, 1967], Page 9, Montreal, Canada. (Google News Archive)
  4. 1970, U.S House of Representatives: Ninety-First Congress: Second Session, Housing and Urban Development Legislation, Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Housing of the Committee on Banking and Currency, Part 2, [Testimony from Bernard F. Hillenbrand, Executive Director, National Association of Counties: June 8, 1970], Quote Page 471, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. (HathTrust) link  link
  5. 1979 January, Cincinnati Magazine, Page 15, Emmis Communications, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Google Books full view) link
  6. 1980 July/August, Mine and Quarry: Official Journal of the Minerals Engineering Society, “British prominent at America’s big coalmining event”, Start Page 23, Quote Page 27, Volume 9, Number 7/8, Published by Ashire Publishing Limited, London. (Verified on paper. Many thanks to Charles Doyle)
  7. 1980 July/August, Harvard Business School Bulletin [HBS Bulletin], The New York Club’s International Dinner, Start Page 91, Quote Page 92, [The speaker of the quotation was Clifton C. Garvin, Jr.], Harvard University: Graduate School of Business Administration, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper. Many thanks to Charles Doyle)
  8. 1985, Reauthorization of the Agriculture and Food Act of 1981, Hearings Before the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, United States Senate, Ninety-Ninth Congress, First Session, Part 1, [Statement of John R. Block, Secretary of U.S. Department of Agriculture on March 7, 1985], Start Page 49, Quote Page 57, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. (HathTrust) link  link
  9. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section Abba Eban, Page 225, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  10. 2008, Churchill by Himself: The Definitive Collection of Quotations, Edited by Richard Langworth, Page 124, PublicAffairs, New York. (Verified)