March 11, 2016

Marshall Myths: “The Most Unsordid Act in History”

wc0123The phrase “the most unsordid act in history” is correctly attributed to the ever eloquent Winston Churchill, but a great deal of confusion persists about what Churchill was referring to when he bestowed this title. Sadly, those who believe that Churchill used this phrase to describe the Marshall Plan are perpetuating another Marshall myth. Tracing Churchill’s use of the phrase in his speeches reveals that it was used to describe Lend-Lease, not the Marshall Plan.

If you incorrectly attributed “the most unsordid act in history” to the Marshall Plan, don’t be too hard on yourself. A President, a prime minister, an ambassador, journalists, and countless publications have all made the same mistake.

The original misattribution of Churchill’s quote appears in the book Sketches from Life of Men I Have Known by Dean Acheson, which was published in 1960. The incorrect attribution of the quote can also be found in a February 26, 1969, oral history interview by John W. Snyder, Treasury Secretary under President Harry Truman. From these two sources the mistake of identifying the Marshall Plan as “the most unsordid act in history” has greatly multiplied and has contributed to the confusion surrounding the quote that exists today.

President_Franklin_D._Roosevelt-1941The earliest documented use of “the most unsordid act in history” appears in Churchill’s speech at the Mansion House in London on November 10, 1941. In the speech Churchill states, “The Lease-Lend Bill must be regarded without question as the most unsordid act in the whole of recorded history.” Churchill used this quote again when speaking in the House of Commons after President Franklin Roosevelt’s death, when he remarked, “At about that same time he devised the extraordinary measure of assistance called Lend-Lease, which will stand forth as the most unselfish and unsordid financial act of any country in all history.”

Both Lend-Lease and the Marshall Plan involved the provision of significant amounts of aid to foreign countries, so the past confusion about the Churchill quote is understandable. The original speeches in which the Churchill quote appeared leave no doubt that it was made in reference to Lend-Lease.

President Franklin Roosevelt signed Lend-Lease into law on March 11, 1941. The anniversary of the establishment of Lend-Lease seemed like the appropriate time to revisit Churchill’s statement calling it “the most unsordid act in history” in hopes of finally stopping its continued misattribution to the Marshall Plan.