Winston Churchill? Paul S. Nadler? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: I heard this story many years ago at an economics convention. I’ve contacted the Churchill Archive and a couple of renowned Churchill scholars, and so far the answer seems to be “apocryphal,” as with so many great quotes attributed to the Great Quote Magnet. But it does fit his character. Here goes:
As Chancellor of the Exchequer in the mid-1920s, Churchill asked his chief economist what would be required to produce a good estimate of the total cost of World War I to Britain. The economist replied that it would take ten years by the best means available, whereupon Churchill promised his answer to the Prime Minister that same day. He explained: “If I give him my best guess this afternoon, it will take ten years for anyone to prove me wrong.”
Can you uncover something about this anecdote?
Quote Investigator: QI has found a few examples of stories that fit this general template. The earliest was published in Coronet magazine in 1945 and Winston Churchill was the primary character. However, the setting was World War 2 and not World War 1 [CRWC]:
During the early days of his prime ministership, Winston Churchill’s war expenditures aroused an opposition member of Parliament to demand a strict accounting of the vast sums involved. Well aware that such an accounting would be almost impossible to make within the time set, the MP sat back to wait for the fiasco. Churchill, however, blandly promised to have the figures ready the very next day, and true to his word he did. At any rate, he read off a series of figures that ran into 103,429,009 pounds, eight shillings and sixpence. The opposition was promptly silenced.
The session over, a friend asked Churchill how he had worked the miracle. “Quite simple,” Churchill confessed. “I made those figures up as I went along. It will take the opposition at least three months and a score of clerks to prove me wrong—if they care to try it!
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1984 an article titled “Banking’s Next 100 Years” by Paul S. Nadler was published in Bankers Monthly, and the author prefaced his remarks with a story suggesting that his predictions were largely guesswork.
The tale was a variant of the one above; however, Churchill was replaced by the head of an African country; and the task of estimating war expenses was replaced by the task of counting elephants [BMPN]:
… the present writer is reminded of his father’s story of the head of an African nation who was to make a major address about his nation’s economic resources the following day and thus asked his administrative aide:
“How many elephants do we have in our country?”
“It would take ten years to find and count them all,” replied the aide.
The next day, the chief executive stood up at the meeting and stated:
“One of our greatest resources is the 4,500 elephants we have in our country:”
“How did you find out so fast?” the aide asked in amazement after the talk was over.
“You said it would take ten years to find the correct number,” he replied, “so it will take them ten years to disprove my figure. And on ten years I’ll take my chances.”
In 1991 a version of the anecdote was published in an operations research journal called “OR/MS Today”. The setting was the 1920s and the main character was the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Winston Churchill. This instance was written by the individual who sent in the initial query. Here is the abbreviated text [DSWC]:
One day he called his chief economist into his office and told him, ‘The prime minister has requested our best estimate of the total cost of the Great War to the nation.’
The economist said that if he worked full time on the problem with two of his best men it would take ten years to calculate. Churchill then telephoned the prime minster and told him he would provide answers at three in the afternoon.
As Churchill replaced the receiver, the economist stammered, ‘Sir, I want to make sure that you understand what I’ve just told you.’
‘I understand perfectly,’ Churchill grinned, chomping on his cigar. ‘If I give him my best guess at three this afternoon, it will take ten years for anyone to prove me wrong.’
The article author stated that he “heard this story some years ago — at an economics convention, I think — and never learned whether there was a written source.”
In 1998 former Governor Mario Cuomo spoke at the 21 Club’s Millennium Speaker Series in New York, and he presented predictions for the 21st century. Cuomo did not tell the anecdote, but his remarks are included here because he did use a variant of the punch line [MCNY]:
His forecast: Doctors will be able to operate on patients around the world from their New York offices with the help of computers and robots. Space travel will be commonplace, and the moon will be colonized. The World Trade Organization will ultimately wield more power than the United States or any single nation. Newspapers will become obsolete. Well, three out of four ain’t bad. But Cuomo figures he can’t lose. “It’s going to take 100 years for anyone to prove me wrong,” he said.
In 1998 Paul S. Nadler retold the story in the periodical “The Secured Lender”. This time he particularized the country and changed the elephant count [SLPN]:
Forecasters can also rely on the story of the head of South Africa who asked an aide, “How many elephants do we have in our country?” The aide answered, “It would take ten years to find out.”
The next day, in a major address, the prime minister proudly announced, “and one of our major resources is the 65,000 elephants in our nation.”After the talk, the aide asked, “How did you find out so fast?”, to which the Minister replied, “If it would take ten years to find out, it would take ten years to refute my numbers, and on ten years I’ll take my chances.”
In 2009 a version of the tale was printed in the book “Customer Driven Change” by Bud Taylor [BTWC]:
Many years ago, I was at a business conference, and the keynote speaker told a story about Winston Churchill. I have not been able to confirm the story, so it may fall into the realm of legend, but it does make a point.
The story takes place after the Great War. Winston Churchill was chancellor of the Exchequer—the head financial position in Stanley Baldwin’s government. Supposedly, the prime minister called one day and asked Churchill how long it would take to estimate the total economic cost that the Great War had imposed on Britain. Churchill called in his chief economist and posed the question.
The economist tells Churchill that it would take ten years to determine a reasonable answer.
Churchill then reached for the phone, rang up the prime minister, and said that he’d be over to see him that afternoon with the answer. The chief economist was shocked until Churchill explained: “Give me your best four hours. The one thing we know for certain is that it will take at least ten years for anyone to prove us wrong.”
In conclusion, the variants of the story can be placed in three groups based on the setting and main actor: the 1920s with Churchill as Chancellor of the Exchequer, the 1940s with Churchill as Prime Minister, and an unknown time with a leader based in Africa. The details vary, for example, Churchill’s task was given to him by either a hostile member of the opposition or by Stanley Baldwin, a member of his own party.
Current evidence is inadequate to allow a verdict. It is possible that this story is wholly apocryphal and that details have been altered over time to fit different people and different periods. Alternatively, there is a core of truth to the Churchill tale, but it has been obscured by elaborations and tale-spinning.
(Great thanks to Doug Samuelson who sent in the query that inspired this exploration.)
[CRWC] 1945 March, Coronet, Volume 17, Cost Accounting [Article number 2 of 2] by Louis Hirsch, Start Page 34, Quote Page 34, Publisher David A. Smart, Esquire, Inc., Chicago, Illinois. (Verified on paper)
[BMPN] 1984 January 15, Bankers Monthly, Volume 101, Banking’s Next 100 Years by Paul S. Nadler, Start Page 13, Quote Page 13 and 14, Publisher Faulkner & Gray, Inc., New York. (Verified with photocopies; Great thanks to the local and remote librarians)
[DSWC] 1991 April, “OR/MS Today”, Oracle: Churchill’s Theorem by Doug Samuelson, Start Page 80, Quote Page 80, Publisher INFORMS: The Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences. (Verified with scans; Great thanks to author Doug Samuelson)
[MCNY] 1998 April 24, New York Daily News, “Moomba Rumba: The Big 3 Bash It Out” by Larry Sutton and Marcus Baram, New York. (Online archive of New York Daily News at articles.nydailynews.com; Accessed September 3, 2012) link
[SLPN] 1998 November/December, The Secured Lender, Volume 54, Issue 6, “Looking a century ahead” by Paul S. Nadler, Start Page 10, End Page 14, Published by Commercial Finance Association, New York. (ProQuest: ABI/INFORM Complete)
[BTWC] 2009, Customer Driven Change by Bud Taylor, Page 124-125, Brown Books Publishing Group, Dallas, Texas. (Google Books preview) link