Churchill and His Complicated Legacy

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Over the summer, RealClearHistory Editor Samuel Chi embarked on a two-week tour of the British Isles and France. He filed a few dispatches via the transatlantic telegraph cable, which we just received now.

Part I: Guernsey - British Land Under German Boots

Part II: Cobh - Titanic and 'The Saddest Place in Ireland

Part III: Belfast - Rising From Ashes of 'The Troubles'

Part IV: Scapa Flow - Where Britannia Ruled the Waves

Part V: Scotland - No Country for Englishmen

LONDON - After 13 days at sea, the MS Caribbean Princess returned to Southampton, offloading its 3,000-plus passengers as they went on their merry way in Europe or returned to North America. We took this opportunity to spend a few days in London, once upon a time the epicenter of world power and commerce.

Since this was the first trip to London for our 8-year-old daughter, whose prior exposure to the British capital was mostly through "Mary Poppins," we did the obligatory tourist stuff - The Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace and the British Museum. But on a blazing hot summer afternoon (as London was sweltering in 90-degree heat most of July), I snuck down into the Churchill War Rooms in the basement of the Treasury building at Whitehall.

The War Rooms underwent extensive renovations and expansion in 2003 and was renamed in 2010. Preserved with much of its original features after its opening on Aug. 27, 1939 - one week before Britain declared war on Nazi Germany - the War Rooms provides a vivid visual experience of being in the nerve center of western resistance to Hitler's war machine. Giant maps, telephone switchboards, meeting rooms and even Churchill's private study are faithfully restored to what they would've been like some 70 years ago.

The major addition to the War Rooms in the 2003 renovation is a 9,000 square-foot interactive biographical museum that details Churchill's life from privileged childhood to world statesman. While the exhibits are not completely hagiographical in nature, it nevertheless follows a British-centric narrative that also shapes the American view of this 20th century giant.

To be sure, Churchill's contribution to the destruction of Nazism cannot be underestimated. Without his steely resolve in Britain's darkest hour, the whole of Europe might be under German boots to this day (some might argue it still worked out that way, but that's a topic for another day). Maybe not entirely unwittingly, he sacrificed the British Empire for the greater good of civilization.

But a fair appraisal of Churchill's legacy must also take into account of his unapologetic racism - a major factor that led to the destruction of his beloved empire.

Churchill was a product of his times, when Kipling's "White Man's Burden" served as an exhortation to the greatest empire the world had ever seen, for which the sun never sets. Churchill's own extensive oratory and writing records reflected this: While he waxed poetic about the cause of freedom, his rhetoric never applied to the barbarians of the Subcontinent or Dark Continent.

In the mid-20th century, that racism would exact a great cost.

First, Churchill's dismissive view of the Japanese military capabilities led to the swift and utter British collapse in southeast Asia. The most stunning example was the fall of Singapore, where a poorly reinforced garrison surrendered a fortress to a Japanese force less than half its size. Britain lost all of its possessions east of India less than a year after Pearl Harbor and, even after regaining them at the end of the war, could not keep its grip on them for long after British impotence was exposed to the natives. Even Australia became much more pro-U.S. than pro-British with the knowledge that it was American power that kept the southern nation mostly out of harm's way.

Churchill was equally dismissive of his purported Chinese allies. He viewed China's wartime leader Chiang Kai-shek as a dunce and had to be persuaded by Roosevelt to convene a summit meeting in Cairo, where he was nevertheless charmed by Chiang's American-educated and English-speaking wife. Britain offered little in way of material support even as Chinese forces battled the Japanese to reclaim the British colony of Burma. Churchill fought hardest for the retention of British concessions in China, most of all Hong Kong.

But Churchill saved his worst bile for Mahatma Gandhi and his people. “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion," Churchill famously exclaimed. He was virulently opposed to any form of Indian autonomy and his animosity toward Gandhi was ghastly personal. His policies as prime minister had a direct impact on the Bengal famine of 1943 that killed an estimated 3 million people, but instead he faulted the governed for "breeding like rabbits." His high-handed treatment in fact steeled Indian resolve that instead of self-rule, it sought and won full-blown independence two years after the end of World War II.

The exhibits at the War Rooms ignore much of Churchill's dark side, except a whitewashed version of his anti-Indian views, and it's understandable to a degree. The displays are a reminder of the greatness of the British wartime leader and what he and his charges did when they stood alone resisting Hitler and his appetite for conquest. That Churchill saw before most as to what kind of existential threat Nazism and later communism posed for freedom and democracy will leave his name unbesmirched in spite of his shortcomings. 

But Churchill's legacy is just like most other titans of history, whose personal flaws made them human. History has rendered a kinder verdict on Churchill's life than from Pat Buchanan, and rightly so. Acknowledging the foibles - even the ugly ones - of our most cherished leaders nevertheless serves an important purpose: It reminds us they're not gods.

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