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.
Joining 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.
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)