This is a reply to a July petition to rename Winston Churchill High School, Bethesda, Maryland. Founded in 1964 as Potomac High School, its name was changed the following year to mark Sir Winston’s passing. It is a distinguished school whose alumni include two sons of the late Jack Kemp, both of whom pursued their famous father’s sport. Jeffrey Allan Kemp (’77) was an NFL quarterback; his brother Jimmy Kemp (’89) played in the CFL and is president of the Jack Kemp Foundation. State Senator Cheryl Kagan (’79) serves in the Maryland legislature. This letter went to Dr. Jack Smith, Superintendent, Montgomery County Public Schools. After gathering 1500+ signatures there has been little news of the petition. Updates from local residents are welcome. RML
Dear Superintendent Smith: I write in opposition to the petition to rename Winston Churchill High School. A hard copy of this is in the mail, but this digital version offers links which may be of interest.
The Hillsdale College Churchill Project has a digital reference to all of Winston Churchill’s 20 million published words—books, articles, speeches, private papers—and 60 million words about him in biographies, documents and memoirs. They prove that he is not guilty of the charges in the petition reported by Caitlyn Peetz in Bethesda Magazine. I would be glad to participate with your committee or students by email or Zoom if they wish to examine this question further.
The petition on India
The petition argues that Churchill “stole grain from India to feed soldiers in World War II.” Nothing of the kind occurred. Indian grain did feed soldiers (most of them Indian), but it did not come from famine areas. In 1943, Churchill ordered the new Viceroy, General Wavell: “Every effort must be made, even by the diversion of shipping urgently needed for war purposes, to deal with local shortages, [preventing] the hoarding of grain for a better market.” He also urged Wavell to ease the strife between Hindus and Muslims: “No form of democratic Government can flourish in India while so many millions are by their birth excluded from those fundamental rights of equality between man and man, upon which all healthy human societies must stand.” (Italics mine.)
In the midst of a world war, Churchill scoured every grain source from Iraq to Australia, which helped bring an end to the 1943-44 famine. Arthur Herman, Pulitzer nominee for Gandhi and Churchill, wrote: “Absent Churchill, the Bengal Famine would have been worse.” Attached is a chapter from my book, Winston Churchill, Myth and Reality, which explains Churchill’s actions in detail. I would be glad to send you a copy of the book for the school library.
The petition mentions a popular Churchill “quote”—which has only one source, and no other occurrences. Supposedly Churchill said Indians and their religion were “beastly.” This is actually hearsay, from the diaries of Leo Amery, Secretary of State for India. Amery was a good and decent man, but excitable and fiery. His own diaries are not lacking in racist language. In one sentence he used more racial pejoratives than Churchill used in his life. They include the most repulsive term for black people. There is not one instance in our records of Churchill using that word.
Whatever he said, Churchill was referring not to the Indian peoples but to Delhi nationalists, with whom Amery was negotiating. Why did Churchill use the term “beastly,” if indeed he did? The Indian historian Dr. Tirthankar Roy explains. In 1942:
…everything he said about Indians and the Empire was related to the Indian nationalist movement. Negotiating with Indian nationalists during the war could be pointless and dangerous because the moderate nationalists were demoralized by dissensions and the radical nationalists wanted the Axis powers to win on the Eastern Front. No prime minister would be willing to fight a war and negotiate with the nationalists at the same time.
The petition claims Churchill ordered Kenyans into camps “where they were subject to severe torture, malnutrition, beatings.” Churchill gave no such order. The Kenya Mau-Mau uprising had more native opponents than supporters. Both it and the local government indulged in atrocities, though the Mau-Mau’s were worse. There are only two instances where Churchill mentioned the Kenya uprising in Cabinet. In one he expressed concern over loss of life. In the second he warned against “mass executions.” Jomo Kenyatta, father of modern Kenya, said: “Mau-Mau was a disease which had been eradicated, and must never be remembered again.”
The petition says Churchill “defended the use of concentration camps in South Africa.” There is no evidence, unless this refers to POW camps in the Boer War. (Churchill himself was incarcerated in one.) From age 25 (when he argued for black rights with his Boer captor in Pretoria), to age 80 (when he denied South Africa’s perennial demand to annex native-run protectorates), Churchill constantly supported native rights in South Africa. Perhaps this is why Nelson Mandela, before addressing a Joint Session in 1994, asked me for a copy of Churchill’s last speech to Congress.
For the rights of all
Dr. Smith, I have spent forty years studying Churchill and defending his good name. He had 90 years to make political and strategic mistakes, and they were sometimes big ones. But assaults on his character and sense of justice are unjustified.
In his time, Churchill expressed support for the rights of peoples of all colors, despite the prevailing prejudices. His defenders sometimes offer the excuse that he was “just a man of his time.” “Everybody,” they say, “was racist then.” Given the truth, this is a disservice. Again and again, Churchill’s views proved far in advance of his time. As a result, the establishment of his day often regarded him as a dangerous radical.
Your high school deserves to keep his name. I note that one of the alternatives proposed is the name of Frederick Douglass. His statue, along with Churchill’s, is on our Hillsdale campus. A few days ago, a statue of Douglass in Rochester, New York, was ripped from its pedestal and hurled into a gully. In the onward march of ignorance, it appears no hero is safe.
Respectfully, Richard Langworth