War Does Not Determine Who Is Right — Only Who Is Left

Bertrand Russell? Frank P. Hobgood? Jessie Woodrow Wilson Sayre? Reader’s Digest? Montreal Star? Andrew Carnegie? Winston Churchill? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A piquant slogan has been used by pacifists and peace activists for decades. Here are two variants:

  • War does not determine who is right — only who is left.
  • The atom bomb will never determine who is right — only who is left.

The first saying is often attributed to the philosopher and social thinker Bertrand Russell, but I have never seen a precise reference to support this connection. Would you please examine this expression?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Bertrand Russell wrote or spoke this adage.

The earliest citation located by QI appeared without attribution in “The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix” of Saskatchewan, Canada in August 1931 within an article containing miscellaneous expressions under the title “The Daily Starbeams”. Emphasis added to excepts by QI: 1

“War does not determine who is right.” It only determines who is left.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The notion that the results of warfare might diverge from justness based on moral and ethical evaluations has a very long history. For example, a book advocating a vegetarian diet titled “On the Conduct of Man to Inferior Animals” was released in 1819. This work contained a precursor that partially matched the statement being studied. The statement did not use right/left wordplay; instead, it emphasized the primacy of ferocity in military conflicts. This precursor and others are being shown in this article because QI conjectures that the modern saying evolved from statements of this type. 2

War does not decide the justice of any question. It only determines which party is the most ferocious and savage. Virtuous but weak nations, have been reduced to the greatest subjection, without even a charge of offence or injury.

In 1875 a journal called “The Arbitrator” which espoused pacifism printed an article titled “Why a Working Man Should Not Enlist”. The ninth item presented on the list of reasons was the following precursor expression: 3

Because war does not decide who is right or who is wrong but simply who is strongest.

Great thanks to researcher Suzanne Watkins who located the two citations given above.

In 1889 the “Cleveland Plain Dealer” of Cleveland, Ohio printed a precursor quip displaying right/left wordplay, but war was not the topic. Thus, the semantic thrust was different: 4

The man who is right is seldom left.

In 1896 a partially matching precursor appeared in “The Boston Post” of Massachusetts. This saying emphasized the centrality of strength in military conflicts: 5

War is simply the survival of the tiger and lion in man. It settles everything on the plane of physical force. War does not decide what is right, but what is strongest. It never decides a moral principle.

In 1904 an intriguing precursor was printed in “The Washington Post”. The quip used right/left wordplay and the word “might” which suggested a domain of force and warfare: 6

“Might isn’t always right,” observed the Wise Guy. “Well, it’s mighty seldom left,” murmured the Simple Mug.

In 1907 the well-known wealthy industrialist Andrew Carnegie delivered a speech at the “National Arbitration and Peace Congress”. His address included a partially matching statement containing a right/wrong dichotomy and incorporating wordplay based on the rhyme might/right: 7

Leaving out of sight material interests, the savagery of war, from a moral and religious point of view, cries aloud to civilized man and rouses him to the firm resolve that it shall disgrace our civilization no longer. War never settles who is right but who is wrong. Might, not right, conquers.

In 1909 a collection of lectures delivered at the Yale Divinity School was published. One sermon included a partially matching statement that paired right/mightiest: 8

It means the sense of justice being born among nations, for war never decides who is right, but only who is mightiest. This desire that justice be done is almost surest sign of the age of the coming of the nations under the Christian spirit.

In 1911 “The New York Times” printed a remark from Andrew Carnegie that was more concise than his comment from 1907 listed above. Syntactically, it was similar to the saying under investigation, but it used the right/might wordplay and not the right/left wordplay. Carnegie disclaimed credit for the adage and ascribed it to an anonymous “they”: 9

They will say: ‘The nation that declines to arbitrate with its broadest nations and drives another nation to the arbitrament of war is a criminal, because war never decides who is right, but merely who has the might.’

In 1914 a newspaper in Winston-Salem, North Carolina printed a saying attributed to Thomas Jefferson using the right/wrong dichotomy. However, QI has located no substantive support for this ascription: 10

War never decides any question of right or wrong.—Thomas Jefferson.

In 1915 “The Cincinnati Enquirer” published a poem with right/left wordplay that provided an embellishment to the simple line in the 1889 citation. The poem was contained in a widely-distributed column called “Bits of Byplay” by Luke McLuke: 11


We think this thought is rather bright,
And not of wit bereft;
You’ll find the fellow who is right
Is mighty seldom left.

In 1916 an opinion piece by Julius S. Berg published in a Pennsylvania newspaper employed an instance of the right/might adage: 12

I am a peace man, and I defy the war dogs to discredit any of the following statements:
1. War can never enrich a country.
2. War does not decide right; it only decides might.

In 1922 a thematically related expression using the contrasting words “settled” and “unsettled” appeared in a Brooklyn, New York newspaper: 13

He is right in that the war settled nothing. In fact it unsettled everything.

In August 1931 a newspaper in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada printed the first known close match for the expression as mentioned previously:

“War does not determine who is right.” It only determines who is left.

In February 1932 “The Reader’s Digest” printed the saying. However, magazines such as “The Reader’s Digest” were released one or two weeks before their cover date. Hence, the February issue was actually released in January 1932. The saying was accompanied with an acknowledgement to a Canadian newspaper: 14

War does not determine who is right — only who is left. — Montreal Star.

QI has been unable to access the archives of “The Montreal Star” which shut down in 1979. It is possible that the old newspaper pages have not yet been digitized. Some future researcher may find the phrase in the paper and determine who employed it.

On February 24, 1932 a military man named Col. Frank P. Hobgood delivered a speech at a meeting of a popular service organization, and he employed an instance of the saying. This occurred about a month after the appearance in “The Reader’s Digest”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 15

“The next war will not decide who is right but who is left,” Col. Frank P. Hobgood declared in a stirring appeal for disarmament before approximately 250 Rotarians and Rotary Anns assembled in a combined Rotary inter-city meeting and birthday party at the ballroom of the King Cotton hotel last night.

Currently, Hobgood is the first named individual who has been linked to the adage. But the expression was already in circulation before he delivered his talk. Thanks to top researcher Barry Popik who identified the February 24, 1932 citation immediately above and other valuable citations.

Two months later in April 1932 a political activist named Jessie Woodrow Wilson Sayre used a version of the saying during a speech delivered to members of the Universalist faith. Sayre was the daughter of former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. Her speech titled “Our Relationship to Peace in the World” contained an instance with the word “force” instead of “war”: 16

“You do not drift into peace, you drift into war,” said Mrs. Sayre. And after all, “force does not prove who is right; only who is left.”

In June 1932 the “El Paso Herald-Post” of El Paso, Texas printed an instance as a filler item without attribution: 17

“War does not determine who is right—only who is left,” a reader writes: “In the World war, the United States is left—holding the bag.”

In December 1932 the London periodical “The Spectator” published an instance between quotation marks which signaled that the saying was already in circulation: 18

Another argument against war is that “it doesn’t settle who’s right, but only who’s left.” That is partly true, but war does settle which side has the better organization, endurance and survival value.

In 1935 a syndicated column called “Tower of Jewels” attributed the saying to a fanciful figure: 19

Mrs. Succotash says: “War does not determine who is right—only who is left.”

In 1936 the syndicated column “Office Cat” by Junius printed an instance with a slightly different phrasing: 20

War never determines who is right, but only who is left.

In 1937 a Wisconsin newspaper printed another phrasing of the expression: 21

War may not determine who is right but it does definitely determine who is left.

In 1946 The Rotarian printed a variant that replaced “war” with “the atom bomb”: 22

THE ATOM BOMB, some grim wit has said, will never determine who is right—only who is left.

By 2001 the saying had implausibly been reassigned to Bertrand Russell within a letter to the editor published in a Nebraska newspaper. Russell had died three decades earlier in 1970: 23

I am also reminded of the insight of Bertrand Russell, “War does not determine who is right — only who is left.”

The saying has been reassigned to other famous figures. For example, in 2013 a letter written to the editor of a Winnipeg, Canada newspaper linked the words to Winston Churchill: 24

Following the Great War of 1914-18, Winston Churchill said, “War does not determine who is right — only who is left.”

In conclusion, the adage was anonymous in the earliest citation dated August 22, 1931. The next appearance occurred in “The Reader’s Digest” in February 1932 which acknowledged “The Montreal Star” newspaper. Once again, the creator was anonymous. . Later in the month of February 1932 Frank P. Hobgood helped to popularize the saying with a speech. In April 1932 Jessie Woodrow Wilson Sayre also helped to disseminate the saying. The linkage to Bertrand Russell appears to be spurious.

Update History: On October 13, 2015 the February 24, 1932 citation was added and the conclusion was partially rewritten. In addition, precursors in 1889, 1904 and 1915 were added. On October 20, 2015 the citation dated 1819 (and 1797) was added together with the citation dated 1875. On October 25, 2015 the November 20, 1922 citation was added. On April 18, 2019 the August 22, 1931 citation was added, and the conclusion was partially rewritten.

(Great thanks to James Shelley whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks the helpful librarian at the Graduate Theological Union of Berkeley, California. Additional thanks to Donna Halper who located the 2013 attribution to Churchill. Halper also pointed to expressions using the words “settled” and “unsettled”. She found an 1895 instance applied to a tax dispute and later examples applied to war. Many thanks to John Van Hook who generously searched for a citation on microfilm. Thanks also to Barry Popik for his valuable research. Many thanks to Suzanne Watkins for the 1819 and 1875 citations.)


  1. 1931 August 22, The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, The Daily Starbeams, Quote Page 11, Column 3, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1819, On the Conduct of Man to Inferior Animals; On the Primeval State of Man; Arguments from Scripture, Reason, Fact and Experience in Favour of a Vegetable Dietby George Nicholson, Quote Page 54 and 55, Printed and Published by G. Nicholson, Stourport. Sold by Sherwood, Neely & Jones, London. (1819 date based on Worldcat; earlier edition released in 1797; the 1797 edition has not been examined by QI)(Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1875 May, The Arbitrator: A Journal Established to Promote the Principles of the Workmen’s Peace Association, Number 40, Why a Working Man Should Not Enlist, Quote Page 11, Column 1, Printed by Joseph Higginbottom, London, Published by William Randal Cremer, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1889 August 24, Cleveland Plain Dealer, In a Nutshell, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1896 July 6, The Boston Post, Social Leaks: The Rev. Mr. Bilkovsky Discusses Them at Lynn, Quote Page 8, Column 2, Boston, Massachusetts. (NewspaperArchive)
  6. 1904 August 2, The Washington Post, Tabloid Philosophy, Quote Page 6, Column 4, Washington, District of Columbia. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1907, Proceedings of the National Arbitration and Peace Congress, Held in New York on April 14 to 17, 1907, Second Session: Open Meetings, Held in Carnegie Hall on April 15, 1907, Address by Andrew Carnegie, Start Page 51, Quote Page 52, Published in New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1909, The Christian Ministry and the Social Order: Lectures Delivered in the Course in Pastoral Functions at Yale Divinity School, 1908-1909, Edited by Charles S. Macfarland, The Minister in Association with International Movements by Rev. Frederick Lynch, Start Page 269, Quote Page 279, Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut. (Google Books Full View) link
  9. 1911 January 8, The New York Times, How Carnegie Began Making Armor Plate, Quote Page 9, Column 3, New York, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 1914 November 12, The Union Republican, War, Quote Page 5, Column 3, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 1915 January 18, The Cincinnati Enquirer, Bits of Byplay by Luke McLuke, Betcha! Quote Page 6, Column 7, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)
  12. 1916 May 19, The Allentown Leader, The Time to Enlist as a Peace Man by Julius S. Berg, Quote Page 3, Column 5, Allentown, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  13. 1922 November 20, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Quote Page A4, Column 4, Brooklyn, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  14. 1932 February, Reader’s Digest, Volume 20, Patter, Start Page 107, Quote Page 108, Column 2, The Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified on paper)
  15. 1932 February 24, Greensboro Daily News, Horrors of Next War Pictured By Hobgood In Talks to Rotarians, Quote Page 16, Column 1, Greensboro, North Carolina. (GenealogyBank)
  16. 1932 April 30, The Christian Leader, The Public Meeting at Franklin, (Meeting held April 14, 1932), Start Page 546, Quote Page 572, Column 3, Universalist Publishing House, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans; thanks to the Graduate Theological Union of Berkeley, California)
  17. 1932 June 28, El Paso Herald-Post, (Untitled filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 2, El Paso, Texas. (NewspaperArchive)
  18. 1932 December 30, The Spectator, Why I Believe In War by F. Yeats-Brown, Start Page 911, Quote Page 911 and 912, (Page 9 and 10 of issue), London, England. (Online Archive of The Spectator at archive.spectator.co.uk)
  19. 1935 February 14, Riverside Daily Press, Tower of Jewels, Quote Page 20, Column 7, Riverside, California. (GenealogyBank)
  20. 1936 May 28, The Kingston Daily Freeman, Office Cat by Junius, Quote Page 10, Column 1, Kingston, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  21. 1937 November 12, Manitowoc Sun Messenger, Go-Zip: Being a recording of these things that go zipping as folks talk, Quote Page 1, Column 2, Manitowoc, Wisconsin. (NewspaperArchive)
  22. 1946 December, The Rotarian, Last Page Comment, Quote Page 64, Column 1, Published by Rotary International. (Google Books Full View) link
  23. 2001 September 24, Lincoln Journal Star, Letters to the Editor, (Threat of War: Letter from Joe Skorupa of Lincoln, Nebraska), Section B, Quote Page 05, Lincoln, Nebraska. (NewsBank Access World News)
  24. 2013 November 9, Winnipeg Free Press, Section: Letters to the Editor, Article Title: Poppies growing row on row, (Letter to the editor from Scott Insch of Winnipeg), Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. (Publication Note: Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 9, 2013, A16) (Accessed winnipegfreepress.com on October 11, 2015) link