Mr. Ivison is right. And wrong.
John Ivison in Canada’s National Post makes the point: “Donald Trump is no Winston Churchill, and the comparison is ludicrous.” He refers to a June 3rd statement by the President’s press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany. (She compared Trump’s appearance at St. John’s Episcopal Church across from the White House to Churchill visiting the blitzed East End in 1940.)
I think from a purely historical point of view we can all agree with him. In 1940, Churchill wrote, “There was a white glow, over-powering, sublime, which ran through our Island from end to end.” The scene in Washington the week of June 1st was anything but a white glow.
This was an egregious example, but many have deplored Trump-Churchill comparisons. I too have made my contribution. (Personally, I’d settle for Trump being more like Ronald Reagan. It is possible to implement a conservative agenda without driving the opposition into apoplexy. Remember President Reagan’s relationship with his Speaker of the House? How adroitly Reagan rid himself of Michael Deaver? When sacking subordinates, there is no need to “embalm, cremate and bury,” to use a Churchill phrase.)
Unfortunately, Mr. Ivison also found it necessary to assert that Churchill himself “was massively flawed,” a drive-by shooting in the onward march of invincible ignorance. A good journalist, he did some homework—just not enough.
Gassing the Indians
Mr. Ivison quoted journalist Murad Hemmadi for saying Churchill advocated gassing Indians rebelling against the British Raj in 1919. Ivison says “it was closer to tear gas than mustard gas.” It wasn’t “closer.” It was tear gas. Churchill specifically stated it be non-lethal. The facts are readily available. They require only elementary research.
More notably, Churchill excoriated the British general who reacted to the 1919 rebellion with the Amritsar Massacre: “Frightfulness is not a remedy known to the British pharmacopoeia.” (Amritsar” only ever refers to 1919, writes Andrew Roberts, “rather than the Indian massacre of ten times the number of people there in 1984.”)
Mr. Ivison quotes someone that “Churchill ‘signed off’ on terms at Yalta that consigned tens of millions to Soviet rule.” This is an interesting juxtaposition of charges, but Churchill is fair game for the Right as well as the Left. Whatever one’s politics, it’s an empty accusation. Terry Reardon rebutted it in Churchill Society of Canada’s reply to National Post: “Soviet troops occupied almost the whole of Eastern Europe and the only alternative for Churchill would have been to start a Third World War.” (In Moscow, 1944, Churchill did work out a “deal” keeping Greece out of Stalin’s clutches. Naturally he was roundly condemned for that, too.)
Starving the Bengalis
Indians nevertheless have grievances, Mr. Ivison continued. “Churchill was prime minister at the time of the Bengal famine in 1943, when an estimated three million people died and the sub-continent was still exporting rice to the rest of the British Empire.” Churchill’s “only possible defence was that he was pre-occupied by the war in Europe.”
True, a little matter of the Second World War did tend to distract Churchill. Mr. Ivison fails, however, to acknowledge all Churchill did to alleviate the famine. Mr. Reardon again: “The fact is that on 8 October 1943, Churchill sent an order to Lord Wavell, the Viceroy of India. [He ordered that] every effort must be made, even by the diversion of shipping urgently needed for war purposes to deal with local shortages.”
That is only part of the story. Arthur Herman, author of Gandhi and Churchill, wrote the definitive reply to the famine canard. If one discusses this, it would seem elementary to refer to a Pulitzer-nominated scholar. “Absent Churchill,” wrote Arthur Herman, “the Bengal Famine would have been worse.”
Amidst the cacophony of ignorance surrounding this Churchill myth rises the truth, via Indian historian Tirthankar Roy: Large supplies of rice were stockpiled in Bengal by grain merchants, in the hope of higher prices. “The War Cabinet did not divert enough ships from the theatres of war to Bengal or order India to divert army rations to feeding people because the Cabinet believed what the Bengalis told it: there was no shortage of food in Bengal.” (How British Rule Changed India’s Economy, 130.)
Gandhi: whilst on the subject
“Churchill considered Gandhi ‘a bad man and an enemy of the Empire,’” Ivison wrote. “He was widely blamed for the Dardanelles disaster in the First World War, which saw him demoted as First Lord of the Admiralty and consigned to the trenches on the Western Front.” He wasn’t “consigned,” he volunteered. But on the Dardanelles, no argument. Churchill himself recognized this as one of his cardinal errors. That was a big one—maybe his biggest.
On Gandhi, the subject is nuanced, for there was more to the Gandhi-Churchill relationship than the 1935 India Act. The “bad man” quote does not apply to all of their relationship (1906-45). Also, it is hearsay—from the memoirs General Sir John Kennedy (The Business of War, 1957, 288; Kennedy was Deputy Chief of the Imperial General Staff, 1943-45.) It appears only in that book. Whether Churchill said it or not, a modicum of fairness would be to stipulate that the quote is from someone else.
Which is not to deny any of the insulting things Churchill said about Gandhi before they resumed exchanging pleasantries. It is only to suggest a more complicated relationship than one out-of-context quote suggests. In the end, they respected each other. There is abundant proof.
“Racial hierarchies and Eugenics”
Churchill, Mr. Ivison continued, “has been roundly criticized for his views on racial hierarchies and Eugenics…. His views were not exceptional in his time.” Again this is both right and wrong. Churchill briefly favored Eugenics—segregating or confining the “feeble minded” to avoid lowering the intelligence of the populace. This lasted for about eighteen months in his mid-thirties. The story is well known. “Churchill’s intentions were benign,” wrote historian Paul Addison, “but he was blundering into sensitive areas of civil liberty.” Addison was not however totally censorious: “It is rare to discover in the archives the reflections of a politician on the nature of man.”
Churchill “was born a Victorian aristocrat,” Ivision continued, “and his attitudes on race, class and Empire were entirely typical of the era.” This is wide of the mark, although it’s an excuse often trotted out by Churchill’s defenders. To describe his views as typical of his time is unlearned and wrong.
In fact, young Churchill’s attitudes toward race marked him as a dangerous radical in the minds of the British establishment. One has only to consider his wrangles with the Boers in South Africa to appreciate this. In 1900 he wrote of their “abiding fear and hatred of the movement that seeks to place the native on a level with the white man.” This was not what contemporary Englishmen expected from the scion of a ducal family.
True, Churchill spoke betimes in ungenerous terms about non-whites. “And,” says a leading scholar of them both, “you can quote Abraham Lincoln in precisely the same sense.” You can similarly quote America’s founders (who abolished slavery in two-thirds of the Union during their lifetimes). “That is not the singular feature.”
The remarkable thing…
…is not that Churchill or Lincoln had the standard view of racial questions: “The remarkable thing is that Lincoln, for the slaves, and Churchill, for the Empire, believed that people of all colors should enjoy the same rights, and that it was the mission of their country to protect those rights. Therefore, to say that Winston Churchill was ‘a man of his time,’ or that ‘everyone back then was a racist,’ is to miss the singular feature….
We spend a lot of time arguing that Churchill was remarkable. Then when something comes along that we do not like, we excuse it or explain it as typical of the age. I do not think Churchill was typical of the age on this question, if the age was racist. Another thing to remember was that Lincoln and Churchill were political men. Also they were democratic men. They needed, and thought it was right that they needed, the votes of a majority. If they lived in an age of prejudice (and every age is that) then of course they would be careful how they offended those prejudices.*
*These remarks will be quoted more fully in Part 2 of my piece on Churchill and South Africa for the Hillsdale College Churchill Project.
Lionized villain or necessary hero?
Murad Hammadi described Churchill as a “lionized villain.” This is not, he wrote, simply to throw “great men down George Orwell’s memory hole.” It is, rather, to dredge the “misdeeds and crimes” of those leaders up out of it.
What crimes, exactly? Criticism is fine, provided it’s legitimate. I’ve written much of it myself. Massively flawed? Churchill’s flaws like his virtues were on a grand scale, but the latter vastly outweighed the former.
One can’t help feeling that Mr. Ivison agrees, despite his scattershot catalogue of sins. “Some people,” he writes, “would like to promote an alternative version of history that portrays the values and events they hold dear. But the historical record should not be re-written to suit political ends.” I think that might be true! He views with alarm the possible removal of Churchill’s name from schools, or vandalizing memorials—in London his statue was recently defaced twice. He is certainly right. On balance, Winston Churchill remains a hero, and these words of John Ivison are worth remembering:
As the plaque on his likeness at Toronto City Hall proclaims: “His faith and leadership inspired free men to fight in every quarter of the globe for the triumph of justice and liberty.” My father recalled sitting around the radio with his family in Scotland listening to Churchill’s wireless addresses, and well remembered their power. Churchill was the necessary hero at the most troubled moment in modern history.
Alas we live in a time of madness, if we define madness as the absence of reason.