“People Sleep Peacefully in Their Beds at Night Only Because Rough Men Stand Ready to Do Violence on Their Behalf,” George Orwell Quote or No Quote?

I’m on a roll, Buzzkillers. Not only do we have a new Chief Operating Officer here at the Institute, but I have had more intense consultations with listeners in the past few weeks than ever before. Last week, Buzzkiller Ben West, messaged me on Facebook asking about the famous quote often attributed to George Orwell:

“People sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”

The quote also fits in well with the dark wit of some of John Le Carré’s spy, and spy-master, characters. And there’s a reason for that, which I’ll explain later. Naturally, Winston Churchill gets credit for this, and the quote has a Cold War ring to it, similar to his Iron Curtain speech. Finally, Rudyard Kipling gets the nod from many people when trotting out this quote. 

Well, apart from the Churchill attribution, the other ones are accurate, but only to a certain extent. And the way the quote has evolved through the decades tells a lot about how bon mots of wisdom and warning get crafted and transmitted in cultures.

Thanks to the work of Garson O’Toole, the famous Quote Investigator, and other experts listed in the blog post for this episode, here’s a chronological look at what happened, and how the quote came to be “Orwell-ized.”

Let’s start with Kipling. The basic ideas behind this quote started with him.

Parts of Kipling’s 1890 poem entitled “Tommy” (referring to “Tommy Atkins,” the British slang for a common soldier) were about the all-too-common late-Victorian habit of making fun of common soldiers. In working-class lingo, Kipling wrote that people were:

O makin’ mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep.

Fifty-ish years later, George Orwell wrote an essay that referred to this Kipling poem. There, Orwell wrote:

A humanitarian is always a hypocrite, and Kipling’s understanding of this is perhaps the central secret of his power to create telling phrases. It would be difficult to hit off the one-eyed pacifism of the English in fewer words than in the phrase, ‘making mock of uniforms that guard you while you sleep’.


He sees clearly that men can only be highly civilized while other men, inevitably less civilized, are there to guard and feed them.

(Collected Essays of George Orwell, 1942.)

Although he used the concept in other pieces during World War II, what I just quoted is as close as Orwell got to the wording of the quote we’re looking at today.

Then, in 1963, John Le Carré’s novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, included the central character, “Control” (for those in the know about Le Carré’s work). In one particularly reflective moment, Control justified Cold War spying by saying to a colleague:

Thus we do disagreeable things, but we are defensive. That, I think, is still fair. We do disagreeable things so that ordinary people here and elsewhere can sleep safely in their beds at night. (p. 19)

It’s not clear whether Le Carré’s “Control” was deliberately invoking Kipling. But it’s highly probable that the Orwell version of the Kipling idea was well known enough that Le Carré could slide it into his character’s dialog easily, and be relatively confident his readers would know and understand the provenance.

As far as the experts can determine, the phrase was next uttered in the US Congress in 1967. Representative L. Mendel Rivers from South Carolina said:

I wish some way could be found to get into the heads of those who carry out pacifist and so-called anti-Vietnam demonstrations the truth of George Orwell’s words about pacifism in our time:

“One can only abjure violence because others are prepared to endure violence on their behalf.”

But the crucial attribution was made by right-wing columnist, Richard Grenier. In 1993, he wrote:

When the country is in danger, the military’s mission is to wreak destruction upon the enemy. It’s a harsh and bloody business, but that’s what the military’s for. As George Orwell pointed out, people sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.

This is a paraphrase of the two quotations I gave from Orwell earlier, and Grenier didn’t put it in quotation marks so he probably meant it as a summation of Orwell’s thoughts. 

From there, the Grenier version of the quote was repeated in the National Review in 1997. And then, that famous (and, in my Buzzkill opinion, too-highly-regarded) George Will used the Grenier version in his newspaper column in 1998. Will wrote:

Remember George Orwell’s unminced words: “We sleep safely in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.” (Chicago Sun-Times, 21 Nov 1998)

Ironically, Orwell’s ideas had indeed been minced by various people up to and including Grenier. But once George Will says it, it’s more or less set in stone, especially by those who consider him some sort of sage. So, to “quote” Groucho Marx (or was it Mark Twain, or maybe Yogi Berra?), from there we were off to the races. The quote was used again and again during the War on Terror in the early 21st century (when it was also wrongly attributed to Churchill), and it’s been with us as accepted wisdom ever since and repeated ad nauseum.

My conclusion, therefore, is the same as Garson O’Toole’s: the concept was certainly Orwell’s, but the phrasing was Richard Grenier’s. Is this pedantry, or is the distinction between the two important? 

It is important, Buzzkillers, not so much because Orwell’s words got Grenier-ized, but that, through Grenier (and, more likely, through George Will repeating Grenier’s version), it has become accepted as wisdom. Even in his original conception, Orwell didn’t provide any evidence for the truth of this idea. He didn’t weigh the relative contribution that diplomats, politicians, and even public opinion have made to the maintenance of peace (whenever, that is, peace has been maintained). In short, he over-emphasized the contribution of spies, rough operatives, and soldiers to the overall picture.

That’s what people like, I’m afraid – the simple answer. And that’s certainly what people like George Will do when they codify a sentiment by attributing it to someone they think was far-seeing, like Churchill or Orwell.

But my final thought is “be like Buzzkiller Ben West – recommend a topic to me.” You never know, it might become the next show! After all, people only sleep peacefully at night because Buzzkillers are out there, ready to do the rough work of busting myths and taking names on their behalf.

Talk to you next time.

Buzzkill Bookshelf

Fifty Essential Essays Paperback – September 14, 2014