Winston Churchill, Magnanimity and the “Feeble-Minded,” Part 2

Winston Churchill, Magnanimity and the “Feeble-Minded,” Part 2

Con­tin­ued from Part 1

Youthful discretions

Churchill was born into a world in which vir­tu­al­ly all Britons, from the Sov­er­eign to a Covent Gar­den gro­cer, believed in their moral supe­ri­or­i­ty. They preached it to their chil­dren. All learned that the red por­tions of the map showed where Bri­tan­nic civ­i­liza­tion had tamed sav­agery and cured pan­demics. Churchill’s asser­tions, espe­cial­ly as a young man, were often in line with this. And yet he con­sis­tent­ly dis­played this odd streak of mag­na­nim­i­ty and lib­er­tar­i­an impulse.

It was Churchill, the aris­to­crat­ic Vic­to­ri­an, who argued that Dervish ene­my in Sudan had a “claim beyond the grave…no less good than that which any of our coun­try­men could make.” In South Africa, he assert­ed that Boer racism was intol­er­a­ble, that the Indi­an minor­i­ty deserved the same rights as all British cit­i­zens. (This was some­thing Gand­hi nev­er for­got, though Churchill did—which Gand­hi praised years lat­er, when they were oppo­nents over the India Bill.)

Fair play and magnanimity

After the Great War end­ed, this same Churchill urged that shiploads of food be sent to a starv­ing Ger­many as the wartime block­ade end­ed. Oth­er lead­ers pre­ferred to “squeeze Ger­many till the pips squeaked.” They did, and the long-term results were not good.

The Jal­lian­wala Bagh or Arm­rit­sar mas­sacre of Indi­ans in 1919 found Churchill in full cry against the per­pe­tra­tors. It was Churchill who in 1920 secured India’s sup­port in the future Hitler war, and assured inde­pen­dent India’s mil­i­tary lega­cy. Arthur Her­man in Gand­hi & Churchill writes:

For every dis­grun­tled or dis­cour­aged sub­al­tern who joined Japan’s pup­pet Indi­an Nation­al Army, a dozen KCIOs and VCOs served with dis­tinc­tion on every front in the British war effort…. And the min­is­ter of war who cre­at­ed the KCIOs in 1920 had been Win­ston Churchill…. Churchill nev­er grasped the full mag­ni­tude of what he had done, but Gand­hi near­ly did. Many times over the years he had spo­ken of brave Indi­an sol­diers who would defend their coun­try and then return home to car­ry the future bur­den of freedom.

In the 1920s, it was Churchill who argued that the coal min­ers should be com­pen­sat­ed after the 1926 Gen­er­al Strike. In the 1940s it was Churchill, not FDR, cer­tain­ly not Stal­in, who declared car­pet bomb­ing Ger­man cities moral­ly rep­re­hen­si­ble. Ten years lat­er, he denied South Africa’s demand for Basu­toland, Bechua­na­land and Swazi­land with­out the con­sent of their inhabitants.

A singular record

No states­men of stature exhib­it­ed such mag­na­nim­i­ty for so long: Not the lead­ers of the Tory or Labour par­ties; not the chief­tains of wars. Many who heard Churchill’s pro­pos­als shook their heads. Some thought him a men­tal case, a trai­tor to his class, or a good man gone soft. “I have assert­ed many times and with­out being con­tra­dict­ed,” writes his­to­ri­an Lar­ry Arnn, “that Win­ston Churchill nev­er said or implied that the rights of any per­son were con­di­tioned upon the col­or of his or her skin.”

There are count­less exam­ples of Churchill’s mag­na­nim­i­ty buck­ing what Andrew Roberts called “The Respectable Ten­den­cy.”  He rec­og­nized and cit­ed the rights of minori­ties and the oppressed long before the World Wars. He under­stood that the claim to lib­er­ty was not Britain’s alone, and that under­stand­ing welled up in his finest hour. Yet sim­i­lar views had gov­erned his polit­i­cal thought vir­tu­al­ly from the start.

Verdict of historians

I often quote what William Man­ches­ter wrote. Churchill, he declared,

…always had sec­ond and third thoughts, and they usu­al­ly improved as he went along. It was part of his pat­tern of response to any polit­i­cal issue that while his ear­ly reac­tions were often emo­tion­al, and even unwor­thy of him, they were usu­al­ly suc­ceed­ed by rea­son and gen­eros­i­ty. Giv­en time, he could devise imag­i­na­tive solutions.

Mar­tin Gilbert wrote about the thou­sands of doc­u­ments he exam­ined in writ­ing the Offi­cial Biog­ra­phy:

I nev­er felt that he was going to spring an unpleas­ant sur­prise on me. I might find that he was adopt­ing views with which I dis­agreed. But I always knew that there would be noth­ing to cause me to think: “How shock­ing, how appalling.”

Yet today some writ­ers pro­fess shock at Churchill’s stray, emo­tion­al, unwor­thy remark. Time and again, the full con­text of what he said pro­duces an entire­ly oppo­site impression.

On the mat­ter of Eugen­ics (Part 1), to equate Churchill’s record with “the extrem­i­ties prac­ticed to a tee by the Nazis is”—forgive me—pretty extreme.

One thought on “Winston Churchill, Magnanimity and the “Feeble-Minded,” Part 2

  1. I recent­ly came across a copy of Piers Brendon’s Win­ston Churchill: A Brief Life (1984). Would you have per­haps reviewed it, and if so where might I find that file?
    Right now I am about half way through the book. To this point it seems to be just what it claims to be, a brief account of WSC’s life, and nice­ly writ­ten. But inter­est­ing here is that it reflects your point that in Churchill’s time beliefs in what was right are not nec­es­sar­i­ly those we hold today.
    I believe that with each gen­er­a­tion we become more con­scious of human rights and take action accord­ing­ly. WSC, with his “fair play and mag­na­nim­i­ty,” demon­strat­ed that. We still have a long way to go and there have been many ter­ri­ble falls in the cen­turies along the way. On the flip side, we are increas­ing­ly encoun­ter­ing excess­es of zealotry in the name of human rights that actu­al­ly erode them. But over­all I think we are inch­ing for­ward. Thus 100 years ago, even 60 years ago when I was a young adult in the UK, there was the belief by the British in their “moral supe­ri­or­i­ty,” but that expressed today would be quite right­ly con­demned. It makes no sense to vil­i­fy, by the stan­dards we hold today, the beliefs held in good faith by past gen­er­a­tions. No mat­ter how wrong they now appear, they were sin­cere­ly thought to be for the bet­ter­ment and advance of civ­i­liza­tion. It is not log­i­cal to use today’s stan­dards to judge stan­dards of past ages. Yet today many sup­pos­ed­ly edu­cat­ed peo­ple appar­ent­ly can­not grasp that sim­ple truism.
    Well said, thank-you. I’ve emailed you two reviews of Piers Brendon’s book, which cer­tain­ly meet Emerson’s dic­tum nev­er to read any­thing that is not at least a year old. I pub­lished them back in 1984. Dr. Bren­don is an old friend, for­mer Keep­er of the Churchill Archives, and recent­ly the author of Churchill’s Bes­tiary, a charm­ing book on WSC and ani­mals, which I reviewed with plea­sure. That didn’t pre­vent Ash­ley Red­burn and me from crit­i­ciz­ing parts of his Brief Life, though it has its many good points. He is more dif­fi­dent about WSC than I am, but hon­est dif­fer­ences of opin­ion are all to the good.
    You will have to for­give me for not buy­ing into the “only a man of his time” excuse. My max­im in defense of WSC is: sur­ren­der noth­ing, lest you lose every­thing. If we try to let him off with the excuse that “every­body back then was a racist,” we do him an injus­tice. Young Win­ston made him­self very unpop­u­lar with the Edwar­dian estab­lish­ment, defend­ing the likes of blacks and Indi­ans ear­ly on, and preach­ing human rights to the Boers long after every­body else was excus­ing them. Arguably he could have fur­thered his career by just “going along.” You might like my pieces on South Africa begin­ning here. I great­ly appre­ci­ate your thought­ful com­ments.

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