Facing a second day of fierce blowback over revelations that he deliberately misled the public about the risks of the novel coronavirus, President Trump on Thursday reached for a historical analogy to explain himself.
“As the British government advised the British people in the face of World War II, ‘Keep calm and carry on.’ That’s what I did,” Trump told a crowd of supporters in Freeland, Mich.
While some critics took Trump to task for comparing his decision to misinform the public about a virus that has now killed at least 188,000 Americans to the British government’s battle with the Nazis, others noted that he was the latest to fall for a common myth.
Those uber-popular “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters? They were never actually used during World War II. In fact, critics noted, that message contrasted noticeably with many of Winston Churchill’s famed speeches, which urged Britons to fight to the death — not to carry on as if life were normal.
Jon Meacham, the author of “Franklin and Winston,” a history of Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s friendship, suggested a Churchill quote that might be more apt to Trump’s situation: “The British people can face any misfortune w/ fortitude & buoyancy as long as they are convinced that those in charge of their affairs are not deceiving them, or are not dwelling in a fool’s paradise.”
Trump has long idolized Churchill and his administration has often sought to link the president to the former British prime minister, as in June when White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany compared Trump’s order to forcibly clear protesters from a Washington church for a photo op to Churchill inspecting London bomb damage during World War II.
The president did so again on Thursday. “When Hitler was bombing London, Churchill, a great leader, would oftentimes go to a roof in London and speak. And he always spoke with calmness. He said, ‘We have to show calmness,’” Trump said.
Journalists and historians quickly called that account into question on Thursday, noting that while Churchill did regularly take to the rooftops to watch bombing raids, he never conducted a public speech there. And the speeches he did give were often jarringly grim in their realism.
Many pointed to arguably Churchill’s most famous wartime speech, when he told Britain’s House of Commons in May 1940, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat,” before warning that, “We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.”
Just as dubious is Trump’s claim that the British government’s message to its people during the war was to “Keep Calm and Carry On.”
Although the phrase is now ubiquitous on posters, coffee mugs and T-shirts, the wartime British public never heard it, according to a British government history of the slogan.
The phrase was one of three created by a nascent Ministry of Information in 1939, along with the more ponderous “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution; Will Bring Us Victory” and “Freedom is in Peril; Defend it with all Your Might.”
Although millions of “Keep Calm” posters were printed with the signature stylized crown and red and white colors, they were never distributed. As Henry Irving, a historian at Leeds Beckett University, wrote in the official history, the campaign fell victim to political infighting and internal criticism.
One official complained that the slogan was “too commonplace to be inspiring,” Irving found, and argued that “it may even annoy people that we should seem to doubt the steadiness of their nerves.”
When Britain faced a severe paper shortage in early 1940, virtually all the posters were pulped. Only a few stray samples survived — one of which was discovered in 2000 by the owners of Barter Books in Alnwick, a town in northeastern Britain. The owners framed it and hung it on the wall, where it proved so popular that they began to reprint and sell it.
“The history of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ is peculiar and complicated and, like so many examples of the best history (and the best science), doesn’t quite confirm our settled notions or convenient assumptions,” Simon Eliot, a University of London professor, wrote in another history of the phrase.