“Yes, he is a son of a bitch, but he is our son of a bitch”.
This line goes way back to WWII. It has been attributed to:
- Franklin Roosevelt on US General George S. Patton.
- Winston Churchill on the man Patton loved to dislike (and vice versa), British General Bernard “Monty” Montgomery.
- Either or both of them on Charles De Gaulle. Take your pick.
Variations go back further than that. It is claimed that Acheson said this about Tito; And that Dulles said it about Somoza, the son of the son of a bitch of Roosevelt.
Speaking of brutal Nicaraguan dictator Somoza, Harry Truman is supposed to have said “He’s a bastard, but he’s our bastard.” This quote is attributed to Truman, FDR, and Nixon. This is a broad chronological range, because there were actually three Somozas: Anastasio Somoza Garcia, who fathered Luis Somoza Debayle and Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the Somoza dynasty that ruled Nicaragua from the mid 1930s through the late 1970s.
The Marines invaded Nicaragua in 1912 and stayed until 1933, fighting but never defeating the revolutionary Augusto Sandino. They created the Nicaraguan National Guard and installed Anastasio Somoza Garcia in power. Then Sandino, who had signed a truce and put down his arms, was assassinated by Somoza. In 1935, General Smedley Butler, who led the Marines into Nicaragua, said:
“[I was] a high class muscle man for big business, for Wall Street and for the banks. In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism – I helped purify Nicaragua for [an] international banking house.”
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt put it another way:
“Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”
Corruption, torture, and wholesale murder of dissidents continued for 45 years under two generations of Somozas, for after Somoza Garcia was gunned down in the streets in 1956, his son Anastasio Somoza Debayle took control. The Somozas plundered Nicaragua and became millionaires. The younger Somoza, “the vampire dictator,” made $12 million a year buying the blood of his people and selling it abroad at a 300% mark-up, but his biggest single rip-off occurred in 1972 after an earthquake killed and wounded hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans: Somoza had his National Guard seize $30 million in international relief supplies and sold them to the highest bidder. Near the end of his reign, he aerially bombed his own capital to stay in power, but he was overthrown in 1979 by a rebel group who called themselves the Sandinistas, after the revolutionary hero his father had slain.
Time Magazine printed the following in its 15 November 1948 issue:
In 1939 [Anastasio Somoza] got himself elected for eight more years. And he went to Washington. To prime President Roosevelt for the visit, Sumner Welles sent him a long solemn memorandum about Somoza and Nicaragua. According to a story told around Washington, Roosevelt read the memo right through, wisecracked: “As a Nicaraguan might say, he’s a sonofabitch but he’s ours.”
The basic “punchline” had been floating around Washington since well before 1939. For example, after the Chicago Convention, Gen. Hugh Johnson, who had worked hard with Barney Baruch to stop Roosevelt, was asked what he thought of his nomination. Johnson replied by recalling a story of a county convention of Democrats in which the wrong man had been chosen. Driving home from the meeting, two politicians were comparing notes. Both had opposed the successful candidate. One said to the other, “Damn it all! We should never have let them put Blank over. He’s a So and So!” The other man sighed and said nothing for a long time. Then he cheered up. “After all,” he observed. “Blank isn’t so bad. He’s our So and So.”
A short piece written on the death of Senator James Watson [Indiana], the “last Republican majority leader in the Senate before the Roosevelt era,” includes this telling:
Senator Watson used to tell a story of Uncle Joe which shall be our contribution to the stock of reminiscences about Jim Watson. One day in the House the Speaker spoke about a party man as a deserving appointee for some vacant post. “But you couldn’t recommend him,” said young Watson. “He’s a so-and-so.” “Yes, he may be,” said Uncle Joe, “but, my boy, he’s *our*
so-and so, isn’t he?”
“he’s a so-and-so, but he’s our so-and-so” bears some resemblance to a popular anecdote said to have involved U.S. Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (Pennsylvania; 1792-1868) and cited well into the 20th century:
Speaking of the probable contests for seats in the next Congress, the Boston Herald says: “The republicans are not over scrupulous, when in power, as to the management of contested cases. In fact, their morality was well illustrated by the characteristic remark of Thad. Stevens, when it was said that both claimants of a disputed seat were ‘d—–d rascals,’ ‘I don’t
doubt it,’ said the grim old ‘whip,’ ‘but what I want to know is, which is our d—–d rascal?’
“He’s a damned rascal,” said Thad. Stevens bluntly on a similar occasion,
“but as he’s *our* damned rascal we must put him in.”
An anecdote involving “[he may be a _____,] but he’s our _____” (and similar) was already pretty familiar to office-holders, political pundits, and Washington wags by the time FDR started his first term. That it had been brought out again in 1934 and applied to FDR’s nomination in 1932 (consequently making FDR “our son of a bitch”) must have gotten some additional notice in Washington and at the White House.
It’s a little hard to know whether FDR ever really used the line in the late ’30s or whether someone else just recycled the anecdote, attributing the line to the President in reference to some Latin American dictator. There is a common knowledge legend that the then director of the CIA had said of the dictator Marcos before the 1986 revolution “He may be a son of a bitch but at least he’s our son of a bitch.” There is a whole lot of other dictators about whom the same quote had been attributed! Batista, Pinochet, Fujimori, Mobutu, the Shah of Iran, Savimbi, Suharto, Trujillo and even Botha have been lumped into this expression.