10 Reasons Churchill Was More Man Than Myth
By all accounts Winston Churchill was an incredible man and worthy of his place in history. Churchill was voted the “Best Briton of All Time” in a far-reaching poll conducted by the BBC in 2002, besting the likes of William Shakespeare and Princess Diana. The people are hardly alone in their admiration of Churchill. Here at RealClearHistory, there have been no less than two glowing hagiographies of Churchill in the past month (here and here). Historians on both the left and the right have widely admired the man (though of late his views on empire and race have fallen into disfavor with scholars).
All of the wonderful things written about Churchill are no doubt true. He was nothing less than the 20th century’s Otto von Bismarck: a man, a statesman, a gentleman who could understand theory but also put it into practice, who stood athwart history and yelled not to stop, but to reform both slowly and radically. Yet, as a libertarian and also a citizen, I find it troubling when society at large venerates men - individuals - and forgets about the rules and the agreed-upon procedures to follow such rules. Hero worship is, if not done carefully, a potent cultural complement to the political and economic decay of the rule of law. So, in the spirit of contrarianism and liberty, here are 10 reasons why you should think of Churchill as a mere man, and not as a myth.
10. Famine in Bengal, 1943-44. The most brutal of Churchill’s mistakes is also the one that is least likely his fault, a result largely due to the academy’s leftward push over the past three or four decades. A famine struck the Presidency of Bengal, an integral part of the British Empire, at the height of World War II in India. Bengal was being heavily bombed by the Japanese and Tokyo’s air raids were going almost completely unchallenged. The British military also began to employ scorched earth tactics in Bengal due to the belief that a major Japanese invasion was imminent. The wartime economy only made matters worse, as goods were directed elsewhere throughout the empire and done so based on political and military decisions rather than by supply and demand pricing. Unrest was on the rise. The tipping point came when cyclone season, an annual event, came around and devastated what few remaining crops had survived a recent fungal outbreak. The outbreak, which has been compared to the more famous Irish Potato Famine, had wiped out most of Bengal’s crops. Two to three million people starved to death. Churchill’s response? To sarcastically ask his subordinates “why Gandhi hadn’t died yet” if there was a famine. “It was wartime,” you say to yourself, but imagine FDR joking about two to three million African-Americans, or the Japanese “internees” he imprisoned throughout the country during the war, starving to death.
9. Dresden bombing, 1945. This one is relatively straightforward. Dresden is largely viewed as a war crime today, as the Allied bombed indiscriminately. Churchill knew about the bombings, and gave his explicit approval, although some biographers maintain that he did so with reservations.
8. Mau Mau rebellion, 1952-56. Wartime violence can at least be understood, if not forgiven, but Churchill’s record after World War II was pretty brutal, too. The British Empire, which Churchill had been a lifelong proponent of, was in decline and its colonies were demanding more from London. The “more” aspect is key. Some in the colonies wanted more representation in London, some wanted more autonomy to go along with continued membership in the Empire, and yet others wanted complete independence from the United Kingdom. Churchill’s response to an understandable situation was not to listen or to bargain, but to crush any and all dissent. The Mau Mau rebellion, which took place in British Kenya, was the hallmark of British postwar policy in Africa and Asia. Massacres, perpetrated by both sides, occurred throughout the four-year rebellion, and the British military used aircraft to bomb Mau Mau-held territory. The uprising was eventually subdued, but the brutality of British tactics further undermined London’s already tenuous grasp on Kenya. The Mau Mau rebellion also brought to an end any hope for a global British confederation to emerge from the ashes of the sunset-less empire.
7. Appeasing Hitler, 1931-36. Churchill is well known for harping on Neville Chamberlain and his appeasement policy of the late 1930s and early 1940s, but what is less well known is the praise Churchill heaped upon Hitler throughout most of the 1930s. Churchill hoped that British appeasement would entice Hitler to side with the liberal democratic West and work with London to counter Bolshevism, which Churchill viewed as a more dangerous enemy to liberal democracy than fascism. Throughout the 1930s, Churchill praised Franco and Mussolini (a “Roman genius”), too, and encouraged the League of Nations to ignore Japan’s brutal occupation of Manchuria, arguing that the Japanese were facing a dire Bolshevik threat from both Russia and China. Churchill’s attitude soured on Hitler and the other fascists beginning in 1936, when Germany reoccupied the Rhineland.
6. Supported population transfers in Europe, 1944-46. As Germany and Italy collapsed, Churchill, Stalin, and the Americans began to divide up the loot. The Allies were confronted with a Europe that was composed of nation-states that had too many different nations in them. Poland was filled with Germans, Czechs, and Russians. Hungary was filled with Poles, Germans, and Czechs. Czechoslovakia was filled with Hungarians, Poles, and Germans. One of the ideas to tackle this conundrum was to undertake massive population swaps, which were deadly and disastrous, and set the stage for chronic bouts of ethnic cleansing in Europe that continue to mar the continent to this day. Churchill forthrightly supported this policy, believing it to be the pragmatic path towards rapprochement between Moscow and London. The Germans living outside of Germany bore the brunt of Churchill’s pragmatism, as women and children with deep ties to Eastern Europe tracing back centuries were uprooted and forced to march, sometimes by foot, to a Germany they had never known.
5. Iranian coup, 1953. Like his 19th-century counterpart Otto von Bismarck, Winston Churchill’s policies have continued to shape the world long after death reaps body and soul. In 1953, the Middle East was a mess. The Persian Empire had followed the Ottoman path and collapsed. In its place, though, rose a constitutional monarchy with most of the power placed in the parliament and the prime minister. Unlike the Shah’s, the Prime Minister of Persia was determined to to hold Persia’s territory together and avoid an Ottoman fate.There would be no carving up of Persia by Great Power politics. Persia’s fate as a victim of a British coup had as much to do with a weak Britain as it did with a firebrand, democratically elected politician. That the U.K. could not carve up Persia into spheres of influence vexed Churchill, and his short-sighted support for the coup that installed Shah Pahlavi (of Jimmy Carter fame) reflected his frustration with British impotence on the world scene. Churchill’s policies in the Middle East laid the groundwork for the autocratic, coup-fearing states that have come to dominate the Middle East.
4. Syria crisis with France, 1945. Churchill’s actions in the Middle East weren’t limited to backing coups, though. In 1945, Churchill stuck his thumb in the eye of imperial France by ordering troops into French-governed Syria and marching French soldiers back to their barracks under armed escort. Churchill’s humiliation of France caused Charles De Gaulle to rethink France’s relationship with the U.K. and the U.S., and contributed to French obstinance during the Cold War.
3. “With Europe but not of it,” 1930-65. Churchill was a known proponent of a European federation, which is something like the European Union today, but with more heft for a central government. Churchill, though, while urging the continentals to federate and thus cooperate more politically, maintained that the United Kingdom could never be, in good faith, a member of the European community. Churchill was dogged in his insistence that the U.K. remain aloof from European attempts at unity, and this unfortunate strain of isolationism can be seen today in the news cycle. If Churchill had taken a more open approach to the European project, it is quite likely, given his stature, that the British would not now be mired in the embarrassing scandal known as Brexit.
2. American-Soviet summit, 1950-55. Churchill desperately wanted to host a summit with the U.S. and Soviet Union in the early 1950s, for the selfish reason of preventing British decline on the world stage. His dogged efforts to get Moscow and Washington to a table set at parity with London caused him to forgive or overlook numerous Soviet atrocities.
1. Ireland, 1895-1965. The relationship between Ireland the United Kingdom is complicated to say the least, and Churchill’s personal history with the Emerald Isle is no different. Churchill spent a good part of his childhood in Ireland, as his father was a personal secretary for Churchill’s paternal grandfather, a prominent diplomat in Disraeli’s service. Churchill is infamous in Ireland for overseeing the creation of the “Black and Tans,” a temporary police force known for breaking Irish bones as well as British law. When London held a state funeral for Churchill upon his death, the Irish Republic was the only country in the world to not televise it.
Have a great weekend!