The two faces of Winston Churchill

A new book on the British prime minister examines his dark side, relevant in many ways to today

Topics: Foreign policy, Washington, D.C.,

In the Sunday NYT Book Review, the always-excellent Johann Hari has a fascinating review of a new book by historian Richard Toye, Churchill’s Empire, which examines the two very different Winston Churchills.  That dichotomy is epitomized by the very divergent treatment accorded the British Prime Minister by the current U.S. President and his predecessor.  George Bush kept a large bust of Churchill in the Oval Office because — like so many right-wing, super-hawk, pseudo-tough guys — Bush fetishized Churchill for the warrior courage which Bush craved vicariously to possess but obviously lacked in himself and his own life.  In stark contrast, Barack Obama sent the bust back to Britain because “his Kenyan grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, was imprisoned without trial for two years and tortured on Churchill’s watch, for resisting Churchill’s empire.”  Hari notes that Churchill is justifiably admired for recognizing the Nazi threat earlier than most in the British establishment (and, I’d add, he also insisted upon candid and open debate over war), but Hari then details Churchill’s less-discussed, darker side as follows:



Churchill was born in 1874 into a Britain that was coloring the map imperial pink, at the cost of washing distant nations blood-red. He was told a simple story: the superior white man was conquering the primitive dark-skinned natives, and bringing them the benefits of civilization.

As soon as he could, Churchill charged off to take his part in “a lot of jolly little wars against barbarous peoples.” In the Swat valley, now part of Pakistan, he experienced, fleetingly, an instant of doubt. He realized that the local population was fighting back because of “the presence of British troops in lands the local people considered their own,” just as Britain would if she were invaded. But Churchill soon suppressed this thought, deciding instead that they were merely deranged jihadists whose violence was explained by a “strong aboriginal propensity to kill.”

He gladly took part in raids that laid waste to whole valleys, writing: “We proceeded systematically, village by village, and we destroyed the houses, filled up the wells, blew down the towers, cut down the shady trees, burned the crops and broke the reservoirs in punitive devastation.” He then sped off to help reconquer the Sudan, where he bragged that he personally shot at least three “savages.”

The young Churchill charged through imperial atrocities, defending each in turn. When the first concentration camps were built in South Africa, he said they produced “the minimum of suffering” possible. At least 115,000 people were swept into them and 14,000 died, but he wrote only of his “irritation that kaffirs should be allowed to fire on white men.” Later, he boasted of his experiences. “That was before war degenerated,” he said. “It was great fun galloping about” . . . .

[E]ven at the time, Churchill was seen as standing at the most brutal and brutish end of the British imperialist spectrum.  This was clearest in his attitude to India. When Gandhi began his campaign of peaceful resistance, Churchill raged that he “ought to be lain bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi and then trampled on by an enormous elephant with the new Viceroy seated on its back.” He later added: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”

This hatred killed. In 1943, to give just one example, a famine broke out in Bengal, caused, as the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen has proven, by British mismanagement. To the horror of many of his colleagues, Churchill raged that it was their own fault for “breeding like rabbits” and refused to offer any aid for months while hundreds of thousands died.

It’s not a coincidence that Churchill is one of the most revered figures on the American Right.  Note, too, the glaring irony that Obama’s grandfather was “imprisoned without trial for two years and tortured on Churchill’s watch, for resisting Churchill’s empire.”  And it’s well worth considering how much of the mindset described here drives our own behavior — in those same regions — now.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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