Why Churchill Matters

Why Churchill Matters

(Image: Henry Holt and Co.)

“Churchill's Empire: The World That Made Him And The World He Made”
Richard Toye
Henry Holt, New York (2010) $32

What is the point of revisiting Winston Churchill's somewhat unsavory career as an imperial praetorian? How about just leaving him on his pedestal (whether he belongs there or not) and moving on to the pressing issues of today – finding a pretext to obliterate Iran; awaiting civil war in Iraq; preparing for the fallout, both radioactive and political, of a nuclear conflagration between India and Pakistan? A new biography by the promising young British historian Richard Toye offers compelling reasons why Churchill remains relevant to a world of international jihad.

Churchill was a late-Victorian imperialist who lived to govern Great Britain in the atomic age. Probably the two key elements to understanding Churchill are that he loved war and that he never swerved from his belief in the rightness of the Empire, even as he succumbed to its inevitable piecemeal disappearance. His decisions and writings and speeches, in and out of government for almost seven decades, resonate to this day in the war-torn third world.

Churchill was born to rule. He learned the arts of rule in the classrooms and playing fields of Harrow and Sandhurst. He served a memorable tour in India, which was a tame place in his young manhood, and then he moved on to various seething outposts of the Empire, both as a soldier and as a journalist. His superior officers encouraged him to wear these two hats because his dispatches invariably reflected well on the Army and its good works on behalf of the great unwashed. He domesticated these civilizing missions as “jolly little wars.” They satisfied his youthful craving for adventure, but not his determination to make his mark, and soon he found his way into electoral politics where he spent the rest of his life.

The outbreak of World War I catapulted Churchill into the position of his dreams – first lord of the Admiralty. This put him in charge of the Royal Navy, which, owing to a quadrilateral whose corners were London, Halifax, Bermuda and Gibraltar, enabled Britain to dominate a very substantial chunk of the planet.

Churchill's perch at the Admiralty led him to the first major upset of his career: Gallipoli. Churchill was not esteemed by many for his military genius and Gallipoli was the proof of its absence – British troops were pulverized by Turkish artillery in a foiled amphibious landing. Churchill managed to evade culpability for the tragedy for a while, but eventually he had to leave the Admiralty under a cloud. He found work for a while at the Front, then he returned to government as minister of munitions.

In the wake of the Great War, the British acquired considerable territory from the defeated Ottoman Empire, including Mesopotamia. Having survived the disgrace of Gallipoli, Churchill rose through the ranks of the War Office in Lloyd George's Liberal government. In 1920, Churchill helped to make a fateful decision the consequences of which George W. Bush would have done well to ponder. Churchill had the help of T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) and Gertrude Bell, archeologist, explorer, diplomat and, perhaps most importantly, MI6's reigning presence in the Middle East. They cobbled together lands populated by Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds to create an inherently unstable new state, Iraq. In fairness, Churchill and Lawrence were troubled by the wisdom of forcing together peoples who had been at each other's throats almost since the beginning of time, but they were overruled by their superiors. Nevertheless, it is Churchill who is most closely identified with the creation of Iraq; in the words of Miss Bell (as she was generally known by everyone except her many lovers), Churchill played “a crucial role in giving birth to the Middle East we live with today.”

Churchill's immediate problem was holding his new creation together as the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds went at each other. He deplored expending British lives in “these thankless deserts.” Instead, he advocated air power and “exploring work with gas bombs, especially mustard gas, which would inflict punishment on recalcitrant natives without inflicting grave injury upon them.” Not only did George approve Churchill's proposal for chemical warfare but, as Toye writes, “Just as horrifying, if not more so, were the casualties inflicted by machine guns and bombing.” Churchill lamented the practice of British soldiers to “fire willfully on women and children,” but he did not use his power to stop the carnage. Were he alive today, he would probably call it “collateral damage.”

Britain ruled Iraq with a puppet monarch and a garrison of troops to keep order until the end of World War II, after which the tragic nation eventually wound up under the thumb of Saddam Hussein. Churchill's own ideas for keeping the peace in Iraq suggests that he might have found a soul mate in Saddam, who also held Iraq together with crushing force until W. invaded the country and upset the balance of power – or, perhaps more correctly, the balance of terror. The British experience predicts that, with the departure of American troops, the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds will once again soon find their way to each other's throats.

Toye has little to say about the years for which Churchill's admirers would like us to remember him: the 1930s, when he was the most prominent British politician to appreciate the menace of Nazism and to oppose his own prime minister's policy of appeasement (Churchill had abandoned the Liberals in favor of the Conservatives), and his leadership of Britain during the war – a war that bled Britain of its blood and treasure to such a degree that it could no longer hold its Empire together against the torrents of nationalism, communism and religious fanaticism. But the British did not let go easily.

The Tories were swept out of office when the war ended and Churchill loudly led them in opposition while the Labour government of Clement Atlee disposed of Palestine and the jewel in Britain's imperial crown – India.

After having denounced Labour's plan for Indian independence as “Operation Scuttle,” he eventually accepted the inevitable and, with uncharacteristic generosity of spirit, wrote to Atlee that the Conservatives would not oppose his plan, which entailed the partition of the Indian subcontinent into a Hindu South (India proper) and a Muslim North (the new state of Pakistan), in the hope that this would put an end to the fierce religious wars that marked the territory. Thanks to nuclear technology and, conceivably, espionage and the meddling of third powers, the Hindus and Muslims now possess the means to give greater import to their theological differences.

In the '20s, Churchill had a hand in governing Palestine – and did so with greater temperance than he displayed in Iraq. Still, as in Iraq and India, Britain was caught up in ancient religious and racial hatreds that it no longer had the strength to contain. Britain's departure in 1948, expedited by the Irgun and the Stern gang and such horrific acts of terror as the blowing up of the King David Hotel, did not pain Churchill so much as the loss of his beloved raj. Zionists have sought to claim Churchill as one of their own, but Toye deems the evidence “unconvincing.” A more nuanced verdict might be that Churchill's ambivalence about Jews far outweighed the loathing and contempt he had for Arabs, whom he considered subhuman. It is, therefore, surprising that Churchill thought the Atlee government could have given the Arabs in Palestine “a better deal.” For a man as complex and mercurial as Churchill, he was sometimes capable of remarkable prescience: the British exit from Palestine was promptly celebrated by Arabs and Jews in the 1948 War.

Progressives might like to believe that Atlee's nominally socialist government was embarked on a high-minded venture to end British imperialism. Such was not the case. The sacrifice of India and Palestine was not driven by exalted ideology, but by politico-military reality, which was generally unkind to Atlee's imperial designs.

In 1951 the recently elected Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh, nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), which was bleeding Iran of the oil that Churchill had helped to seize back in the 1920s. Mossadegh, a secular nationalist and a firm believer in democracy, created a crisis for the Labour government by depriving it of oil that it required, among other reasons, to fuel the Royal Navy. Buying the oil from Iran at a fair price was not an option for Britain. The favored measure, engineering a coup to replace Mossadegh with a British figurehead, was not feasible because Mossadegh had expelled every British subject, including its MI6 officers who could have done the job. Atlee's government turned to the United States for help. It tried to persuade the Americans to carry out the coup on its behalf. President Truman and his Secretary of State Dean Acheson adamantly refused. Both men supported non-communist, democratic nationalists like Mossadegh, a brilliant, Swiss-educated lawyer who had great plans to raise his country from poverty by capitalizing on its oil wealth. Unfortunately for Iran, the rules of the game changed in 1952 when Dwight Eisenhower was elected to replace Truman, and Churchill was returned to Downing Street. Eisenhower agreed to the British plea for a coup even before he was inaugurated and the deed was executed – with black propaganda, carefully orchestrated riots and demonstrations and a military overthrow of Mossadegh – by the CIA's chief-of-station, Kermit Roosevelt (grandson of Theodore, who shared Churchill's penchant for jolly little wars). With Iran's oil fields secure in friendly hands and the shah securely on his throne, Kermit Roosevelt paid his respects to Churchill, whose greeting was, “Young man, if I had been but a few years younger, I would have loved to have served under your command in this great venture.”

The great venture would have its day of reckoning. In the late '70s, the forces of Islamic fundamentalism gained ever-greater momentum, driving a dying shah from the Peacock Throne and establishing a conservative theocracy. In 1979, crowds raging through the streets of Tehran stormed the United States Embassy and seized 52 hostages. The United States endured impotent humiliation until the hostages were finally released after 14 months of harsh captivity. Justice, even this primitive and arbitrary form of justice, was not fully served. The British escaped culpability for inspiring the coup against the enlightened, democratic government of Mossadegh, and conservative mullahs teach a captive nation to hate the United States to this very day.

Winston Churchill had always been a devout believer in hanging. When the Mau Mau Emergency exploded in Kenya in 1953, the government of white settlers responded by hanging blacks, no matter how tenuous their connection to Mau Mau, until their number exceeded 1,000. Toye presents no evidence that Churchill resisted either the executions or the confinement of tens of thousands of blacks in detention camps, or atrocities by the security forces that were worthy of Mau Mau itself. His principal concern seems to have been that the response to Mau Mau gave “a bad odor … to Britain in the world.” London had the authority to correct the bad odor, but the best Churchill could do was urge the settlers, in the vaguest possible way, to “negotiate” – and to assure them that they enjoyed his support. Churchill left office within two years, having accomplished nothing to resolve the Mau Mau Emergency. Toye over generously attributes this to Churchill's decrepitude and his preoccupation with cold war issues. Toye might have added Churchill's patronizing and racist view of blacks and false, nostalgic failure to grasp that Kenya had changed since his visit there in 1907. In the event, the fighting continued until 1957, but it was not until 1960 that the state of emergency was finally lifted, on Harold Macmillan's watch.

One of the most moving vignettes in “Churchill's Empire” (almost sufficient to make us feel pity for the old tyrant) describes an incident that a visitor described when he called upon Churchill not long before he left office. The prime minister was sitting in a chair, staring emptily into space. He began to talk about Anthony Eden's growing impatience as Churchill's long-time No. 2. “Those hungry eyes. Those hungry eyes,” he said. “I really should resign. One cannot expect Anthony to live forever.”

In fact, Churchill was beginning to have doubts whether Eden was the right person to succeed him, but in the end, he handed Downing Street over to his protégé. This proved to be one of the great mistakes of his long career, because within a year, Eden was charting a course that would lead him to his rendezvous with destiny at Suez. In the wake of that disaster for Britain's influence in the world, Eden was replaced by Macmillan, whose approach to Empire Toye describes as “unromantic.” What little remained of Churchill's Empire by the time Macmillan was through with it was swept away by the Labour government of Harold Wilson. In retirement, Churchill told a cousin: “[It] has all been for nothing. The Empire I believed in has gone.”

Churchill was surely correct that his Empire belonged to history. In a lifetime spent trying to extend its reach and then in fighting a rearguard action just to hang on to however much of it he could, Churchill left a great deal of damage in his wake. Toye tells the story with impeccable scholarship and elegant prose. Having laid out the facts with such objectivity, one is taken aback by some of his overly generous conclusions. The book can just as well be read as an indictment, but either way, it is likely to remain the definitive history of Winston Churchill's imperial career.