Review: Bucknell University’s Panel on “Churchill, Hero or Colonialist?”

Review: Bucknell University’s Panel on “Churchill, Hero or Colonialist?”


Con­grat­u­la­tions to Buck­nell University’s Pro­gram for Amer­i­can Lead­er­ship. In Feb­ru­ary, they pre­sent­ed a bal­anced and respect­ful pan­el-debate address­ing Churchill’s lega­cy on empire. This is not eas­i­ly done—as we know from recent expe­ri­ence. With Bucknell’s per­mis­sion, the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project post­ed the entire ses­sion ver­ba­tim: click here and fol­low the video prompts. The video appears with the fol­low­ing intro­duc­tion but with­out edi­to­r­i­al com­ment. The review below is my own opin­ion, not nec­es­sar­i­ly that of Hills­dale or Buck­nell. The video is well worth watch­ing, and draw­ing your own conclusions.

Introduction: The Bucknell Program…

…for Amer­i­can Lead­er­ship is a series of sem­i­nars and pan­el dis­cus­sions at Buck­nell Uni­ver­si­ty in Lewis­burg, Penn­syl­va­nia. In Feb­ru­ary 2022, the Pro­gram invit­ed Hills­dale Pres­i­dent Lar­ry P. Arnn to its exam­i­na­tion of Churchill’s Lega­cy. Dr. Arnn co-edit­ed with Mar­tin Gilbert the six final vol­umes of The Churchill Doc­u­ments. He is the author of Churchill’s Tri­al: Win­ston Churchill and the Sal­va­tion of Free Gov­ern­ment (2015) and teach­es the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill courses.

BucknellJoin­ing Dr. Arnn were Dr. Sean McMeekin, Fran­cis Flournoy Pro­fes­sor of Euro­pean His­to­ry and Cul­ture at Bard Col­lege in Annan­dale-on-Hud­son, New York, author of Stalin’s War: A New His­to­ry of World War II; and Dr. Mad­hursee Muk­er­jee, author of Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Rav­aging of India dur­ing World War II.

The Buck­nell Pro­gram cel­e­brates free speech and does not shy from con­tro­ver­sial top­ics. Recent dis­cus­sions include Allen Guel­zo on “Lin­coln and Get­tys­burg”; Jennnifer Sil­va on “Class, Pol­i­tics and Iden­ti­ty in Fly­over Amer­i­ca”; and Ron Dreher and Andrew Sul­li­van on “Amer­i­can Reli­gious and Sex­u­al Iden­ti­ties: Coex­is­tence or Cold Civ­il War?

In an age where Churchill is often sub­ject to one-sided dis­cus­sions by pan­elists who agree with each oth­er, Buck­nell deserves great cred­it for seek­ing bal­ance on a fraught sub­ject. Like­wise all three pan­elists, who man­age to dis­agree with­out ran­cor, and to acknowl­edge each other’s points of view. The Churchill Project applauds the Buck­nell pro­gram, and warm­ly rec­om­mends this dis­cus­sion to the atten­tion of its readers.

Review and opinion

Dr. Arnn’s pre­sen­ta­tion was “ever­green” because it could be made as eas­i­ly to Bar­ney Char­ter School stu­dents or the Oxford Union or dyed-in-the-wool Churchillians. In keep­ing with the respect­ful tone of the pan­elists, he end­ed on a high note, ask­ing Dr. Muk­er­jee about the weath­er in India (warm) com­pared to Michi­gan (freez­ing).

He offered a pow­er­ful defense of Churchill, whose opin­ion of peo­ple was nev­er based on their col­or. He not­ed Churchill’s regret when India renounced Domin­ion Sta­tus and became a repub­lic in 1950. (It remained, and still is, in the Com­mon­wealth.) He referred to Churchill’s long record of striv­ing for the rights of colo­nial peo­ples. He quot­ed a clas­sic speech: “If the British Empire and its Com­mon­wealth last for a thou­sand years…” Even then, in 1940, Churchill was see­ing the tran­si­tion to a Com­mon­wealth of Nations. It is an error to say he didn’t see that coming.

Dr. McMeekin con­cen­trates on the Sec­ond World War, as his excel­lent new book attests. Cred­itably, he admit­ted that Churchill’s colo­nial poli­cies were some­what out­side his range of study. We could debate whether Churchill saw the Dar­d­anelles oper­a­tion as the only way to win the Great War. Churchill did sup­port the Finns in their los­ing war with Stal­in. But war is always an array of bad options, and at times Churchill mut­ed his views to get or keep Stal­in on side. Like­wise he strove to pro­tect Baltic gold, and the embassies of Esto­nia, Latvia and Lithua­nia in the Com­mon­wealth. Whether McMeekin is right that Churchill’s “south­ern strate­gies” would have short­ened the Sec­ond World War is worth a pan­el in its own right. He also con­tributed impor­tant remarks dur­ing the Q&A ses­sion (below).

The case against

Dr. Muk­er­jee after a slow start got going with a long litany of accu­sa­tions about how Britain denud­ed India of wealth and pros­per­i­ty, reduc­ing it from the world’s #4 GDP to what she described as pover­ty sta­tus. Lis­ten­ers must won­der how a coun­try stripped of £45 tril­lion by the British could also have repro­duced “like rab­bits,” as she claims Churchill said. Dr. Tirthankar Roy has the facts on all this in his book, How British Rule Changed India’s Econ­o­my.  The Raj, he wrote, was a net gain eco­nom­i­cal­ly. After the war, Indi­ans knew the British had to leave. “But they did not think that the British were the root of India’s problem.”

Nor did she men­tion that the Raj had vir­tu­al­ly elim­i­nat­ed famines after 1897, until the Japan­ese inva­sion and a hur­ri­cane in 1943. Churchill did, as she says, write of the 1897 famine about the loss of “super­flu­ous mil­lions.” But he was writ­ing of what “a philoso­pher” might think, not him­self. As Arthur Her­man explained, this was “pure Win­wood Reade,” which young Win­ston had just read (Gand­hi & Churchill, ch. 5). WSC did write that he “felt much moved” by the patri­ot­ic song “Great White Moth­er” (My Ear­ly Life). But in no way can this be con­strued as a racist image of Indi­ans. She asserts that Hitler referred to Rus­sia as “our India.” What he meant by that has many inter­pre­ta­tions oth­er than see­ing Rus­sia as a slave state. Most like­ly he was refer­ring to it as a source of grain and oil for the Nazis to exploit.

When she comes to the Ben­gal Famine, Muk­er­jee offered sta­tis­tics which Tirthankar Roy and Zareer Masani have refut­ed. It is odd that among the caus­es of the famine she doesn’t even list the hur­ri­cane, the first cause of rice short­ages. Did RAF air­craft actu­al­ly “strafe crowds” of pro-Con­gress demon­stra­tors? She also makes a mis­take Leo Amery made, con­flat­ing Churchill’s cracks about sep­a­ratist Hin­dus as refer­ring to the entire Indi­an people.

The Q&A session

The Buck­nell Q&A ses­sion was of mixed qual­i­ty, but per­haps the form itself is at fault. As Dr. Arnn quipped, it’s impos­si­ble to prove any­thing in a pan­el dis­cus­sion. Here Dr. McMeekin made valu­able inter­ven­tions and real­ly came into his own as a his­to­ri­an. He asked whether U.S. pres­sure did any­thing to change British pol­i­cy or ease the famine? Good ques­tion! The answers is: noth­ing. Not only did U.S. views on India have no effect on pol­i­cy. But Pres­i­dent Roo­sevelt (con­tra Dr. Muk­er­jee) denied ship­ments of Amer­i­can grain to Ben­gal when Churchill appealed to him for help.

Dr. McMeekin also per­cep­tive­ly showed that war pol­i­cy deci­sions record­ed in cab­i­net are quite dif­fer­ent than some pass­ing wise­crack about Con­gress Par­ty politi­cians as report­ed by Leo Amery. He even got Dr. Muk­er­jee to admit that most of the worst Churchill remarks she quotes are from Amery’s Diaries—pub­lished half a cen­tu­ry lat­er. She often replied to chal­lenges by say­ing, “read my book.” Dr. Arnn not­ed that many his­to­ri­ans have, and wrote lengthy rebut­tals. Not least of these was Arthur Her­man on the Hills­dale Churchill web­site.

Dr. Arnn rebuffed Dr. Mukerjee’s asser­tions, such as the idea that Churchill looked upon Indi­ans as ene­mies. “There was not one morn­ing when Churchill got up think­ing of Indi­ans as ene­mies,” he replied, and repeat­ed­ly refer­ring to WSC’s pro-India state­ments in The Churchill Doc­u­ments. When Muk­er­jee said Churchill said “no” to Cana­di­an wheat for Ben­gal. Arnn asked, “Why”? He then explained that Churchill appealed to Aus­tralia, which was clos­er. Mil­lions of tons were shipped to Ben­gal that ordi­nar­i­ly would have gone else­where, includ­ing to Britain. I only wish Dr. Arnn had more time to relate Churchill’s encour­age­ment to Gand­hi after the India Act passed. But there’s only so much time.

What Churchill said

A Buck­nell ques­tion­er asked what if any­thing Churchill said to Lord Mount­bat­ten (the last British Viceroy) at the time of Indi­an inde­pen­dence. No pan­elist knew, nor could I find any­thing lat­er. What he did say at the time of par­ti­tion is sub­stan­tial enough. From Churchill by Him­self, 164-65:

The Gov­ern­ment are, appar­ent­ly, ready to leave the 400 mil­lion Indi­ans to fall into all the hor­rors of san­guinary civ­il war—civil war com­pared to which any­thing that could hap­pen in Pales­tine would be micro­scop­ic; wars of ele­phants com­pared with wars of mice. (House of Com­mons, 1 August 1946)

…there [are] choices…before the British Par­lia­ment. The first is to pro­ceed with ruth­less log­ic to quit India regard­less of what may hap­pen there.…The sec­ond is to assert the principle…that the King needs no unwill­ing sub­jects and that the British Com­mon­wealth of Nations con­tem­plates no com­pul­so­ry partnership…that those who wish to make their own lives in their own way may do so, and the gods be with them.…We must not allow British troops or British offi­cers in the Indi­an Army to become the agen­cies and instru­ments of enforc­ing caste Hin­du dom­i­na­tion upon the 90 mil­lion Mus­lims and the 60 mil­lion Untouch­ables; nor must the pres­tige or author­i­ty of the British pow­er in India, even in its sun­set, be used in par­ti­san­ship on either side of these pro­found and awful cleav­ages. (House of Com­mons, 12 Decem­ber 1946)

…the Social­ist Gov­ern­ment on gain­ing pow­er threw them­selves into the task of destroy­ing our long-built-up and splen­did struc­ture in the East with zeal and gus­to, and they cer­tain­ly have brought wide­spread ruin, mis­ery and blood­shed upon the Indi­an mass­es, to an extent no man can mea­sure, by the meth­ods with which they have han­dled the prob­lem. (Brighton, 4 Octo­ber 1947)

It is easy to label Churchill an unre­con­struct­ed impe­ri­al­ist. His own words tes­ti­fy  that his views were more enlight­ened, and tem­pered by con­cern for the whole of the Indi­an peoples.

Further reading

The main top­ic at Buck­nell was Churchill’s role in India dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, and actions, or lack there­of, of the British Raj in response to the 1943-44 Ben­gal Famine, as well as Britain’s role in India’s his­to­ry. Over the years the Churchill Project has pub­lished com­ment by var­i­ous his­to­ri­ans, whose opin­ions are on record. We respect the opin­ions of all, includ­ing our read­ers, who sent us their com­ments pro or con on these articles.

Arthur Her­man, “Absent Churchill, Bengal’s Famine Would Have Been Worse” (2017)

Zareer Masani, “Churchill and the Geno­cide Myth: Last Word on the Ben­gal Famine” (with read­er com­ment, 2021)

Andrew Roberts & Zewdi­tu Gebrey­ohanes, “Cam­bridge: ‘The Racial Con­se­quences of Mr. Churchill, A Review” (2021)

Tirthankar Roy, “The British Raj Accord­ing to Tha­roor: Some of the Truth, Part of the Time” (2020)

Abhi­jit Sarkar, “The Effects of Race and Caste on Relief in the Ben­gal Famine, 1943-44” (includ­ing read­er com­ment and debate, 2021)

The Churchill Project, “Did Churchill Exac­er­bate the Ben­gal Famine?” (2015)

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