Mr. Ivison: May we proclaim Trump no Churchill without slurring the latter?

Mr. Ivison: May we proclaim Trump no Churchill without slurring the latter?

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.

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