Q&A: Churchill at the Stroke of a Pen: Jordan and the Indian Army

Q&A: Churchill at the Stroke of a Pen: Jordan and the Indian Army

Excerpt­ed from “Cre­at­ing Jor­dan with the Stroke of a Pen on a Sun­day After­noon,” Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project, August 2021.

Q: On creating Transjordan

What is the verac­i­ty of this alleged quote by Churchill, which has many ver­sions? “In his lat­er years, he liked to boast that in 1921 he cre­at­ed Tran­sjor­dan (6/7ths of the British Pales­tine Man­date, today’s King­dom of Jor­dan, ‘with the stroke of a pen, one Sun­day after­noon in Cairo.’” The source cit­ed by The New York Times is “Bor­der­lines and Bor­der­lands: Polit­i­cal Odd­i­ties at the Edge of the Nation-State,” edit­ed by Alexan­der C. Diener and Joshua Hagen, page 189.)

I ask because ver­sions of this quote are repeat­ed­ly cit­ed by anti-Churchill wal­lahs as proof for when they indict him as the cul­prit for the state of the Mid­dle East today. Their point is that Churchill cre­at­ed arti­fi­cial states to (pick your poi­son) steal oil, per­pet­u­ate British con­trol, cre­ate pro-West­ern dic­ta­tor­ships, keep the Mus­lim world in a state of con­stant unrest etc. They nev­er men­tion that Jor­dan is com­par­a­tive­ly an oasis of seren­i­ty rel­a­tive to its neigh­bours.  —A.M., Delhi

A: Unproven, but not out of character

Churchill occa­sion­al­ly rat­tled off some provoca­tive remark to tease over­sen­si­tive col­leagues or see how they react­ed. Com­ments such as “Indi­ans breed like rab­bits” or the sup­posed Tory cam­paign slo­gan “Keep Eng­land White” (both hearsay with only one source) were at best wise­cracks. Lack­ing much prove­nance, they are nev­er­the­less accept­ed by the igno­rant as for­mal procla­ma­tions of Churchill’s deeply held beliefs.

Churchill might well have let the “stroke of a pen” remark fly to a col­league. But we can find no pub­lished source rel­a­tive to Tran­sjor­dan, or the King­dom of Jor­dan. Of course, Jor­dan was a cre­ation of the 1921 Cairo Con­fer­ence, presided over by Churchill. Good accounts are in David Stafford, Obliv­ion or Glo­ry: 1921 and the Mak­ing of Win­ston Churchill (2019) and Mar­tin Gilbert, Win­ston S. Churchill, vol. 4, World in Tor­ment 1917-1922.

The quote as you state it, how­ev­er, could be a mud­dled ver­sion of what Churchill actu­al­ly said in Par­lia­ment on 24 March 1934. The venue he named was Jerusalem not Cairo:

I have no hos­til­i­ty for the Arabs. I think I made most of the set­tle­ments over four­teen years ago gov­ern­ing the Pales­tine sit­u­a­tion. The Emir Abdul­lah is in Tran­sjor­da­nia, where I put him one Sun­day after­noon at Jerusalem.

Churchill did not fan­cy “nation build­ing,” as we call it today. He had no great hope for democ­ra­cy in the Arab states he set up in 1921. His high­est hope was in what became Israel, which he first referred to as a home­land, not a state. Nev­er­the­less, he thought, the West must do what it could, to use its influ­ence for good. After all, that influ­ence is bet­ter than some of the oth­er influ­ences that occur from time to time. Sup­pose the Sovi­et Union had reor­ga­nized the Mid­dle East in 1921?

Another stroke of a pen: India’s military legacy

Some­times a chase through the Churchill canon yields unre­lat­ed but reward­ing results. In search­ing for “stroke of a pen,” I came across this pas­sage by his­to­ri­an Arthur Her­man, in his excel­lent book Gand­hi & Churchill, page 497. It refers to the Indi­an Army Office Corps, where Churchill also played a part. This will be of inter­est to you and oth­er Indi­ans labor­ing in the vine­yard in search of truth:

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, from Bur­ma and Eritrea to North Africa and Italy. And the min­is­ter of war who cre­at­ed the KCIOs in 1920 had been Win­ston Churchill. With­out real­iz­ing it, he had at the stroke of a pen secured India as part of the future Allied cause and cre­at­ed inde­pen­dent India’s mil­i­tary lega­cy. 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.”

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