Tariq Ali’s book, Winston Churchill: His Times, His Crimes, is an excellent counter to the bizarrely inaccurate propaganda about Winston Churchill that is the norm. But to enjoy this book, you have to also be looking for a general roving people’s history of the 20th century and assorted topics that interest Tariq Ali, including a certain belief in both communism and warmaking (and a disregard for nonviolent action from an author who has promoted peace rallies), because most of the book is not directly about Winston Churchill. (Perhaps for the parts actually mentioning Churchill you could get an electronic version and do a search for his name.)
Churchill was a proud, unrepentant, lifelong supporter of racism, colonialism, genocide, militarism, chemical weapons, nuclear weapons, and general cruelty, and he was shamelessly arrogant about all of it. He was a vicious opponent of just about any use of or expansion of democracy, from extending the vote to women on forward. He was widely hated, often booed and protested, and sometimes violently attacked, in England in his day, never mind much of the rest of the world, for his rightwing abuse of working people, including striking mine workers against whom he deployed the military, as much as for his warmongering.
Churchill, as documented by Ali, grew up loving the British Empire in whose demise he would play a major role. He thought Afghan valleys needed to be “purged from the pernicious vermin that infest them” (meaning humans). He wanted chemical weapons used against “lesser races.” His subordinates set up horrific concentration camps in Kenya. He detested Jews, and in the 1920s sounded almost indistinguishable from Hitler, but later believed that Jews were superior enough to Palestinians that the latter should have no more rights than stray dogs. He played a role in the creation of the famine in Bengal, without the slightest concern for human life. But he was as fond of using military violence in more limited ways against British, and especially Irish, protesters as against the more distantly colonized.
Churchill carefully maneuvered the British government into World War I, fighting off various opportunities to avoid it or to end it. This story (on pages 91-94, and 139 of Ali) is certainly little known, even as many accept that WWI could have easily been avoided while imagining that its continuation in WWII could not have been (despite Churchill claiming it could have been). Churchill was chiefly responsible for the deadly disaster of Gallipoli, as well as a disastrous effort to smother at birth what he would quickly and henceforth see as his top enemy, the Soviet Union, against which he also wanted to use, and did use, poison gas. Churchill helped carve up the Middle East, creating nations and disasters in places like Iraq.
Churchill was a supporter of the rise of fascism, a big fan of Mussolini, impressed by Hitler, a major backer of Franco even after the war, and a supporter of using fascists in various parts of the world after the war. He was similarly a supporter of rising militarism in Japan as a bulwark against the Soviet Union. But once he’d decided on WWII, he was as diligent about avoiding peace as he had been with WWI. (Needless to say, most Westerners today believe he was correct in that latter instance, that this one-note musician had finally found the historic symphony in which he was needed. That this is a mistake is a longer discussion.)
Churchill attacked and destroyed the resistance to Nazism in Greece and sought to make Greece a British colony, creating a civil war that killed some 600,000. Churchill cheered for the dropping of nuclear weapons on Japan, opposed the dismantling of the British Empire every step of the way, supported the destruction of North Korea, and was the leading force behind the U.S. coup in Iran in 1953 that is generating blowback to this day.
All of the above is well-documented by Ali and most of it by others and much of it fairly well known, and yet Churchill is presented to us in the infotainment machine of our computers and televisions as the quintessential defender of democracy and goodness.
There are even a few more points that I was surprised not to find in Ali’s book.
Churchill was a big supporter of eugenics and sterilization. I’d have liked to read that chapter.
Then there’s the matter of getting the United States into WWI. The Lusitania was attacked by Germany without warning, during WWI, we’re told in U.S. text books, despite Germany literally having published warnings in New York newspapers and newspapers around the United States. These warnings were printed right next to ads for sailing on the Lusitania and were signed by the German embassy. Newspapers wrote articles about the warnings. The Cunard company was asked about the warnings. The former captain of the Lusitania had already quit — reportedly due to the stress of sailing through what Germany had publicly declared a war zone. Meanwhile Winston Churchill wrote to the President of Britain’s Board of Trade, “It is most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores in the hope especially of embroiling the United States with Germany.” It was under his command that the usual British military protection was not provided to the Lusitania, despite Cunard having stated that it was counting on that protection. That the Lusitania was carrying weapons and troops to aid the British in the war against Germany was asserted by Germany and by other observers, and was true. Sinking the Lusitania was a horrible act of mass-murder, but it wasn’t a surprise assault by evil against pure goodness, and it was made possible by the failure of Churchill’s navy to be where it was supposed to be.
Then there’s the matter of getting the United States into WWII. Even if you believe that the most righteous action ever taken by anyone, it’s worth knowing that it involved the concerted creation and use of forged documents and lies, such as the phony map of Nazi plans to carve up South America or the phony Nazi plan to eliminate religion from the world. The map at least was a British propaganda creation fed to FDR. On August 12, 1941, Roosevelt met secretly with Churchill in Newfoundland and drew up the Atlantic Charter, which set out the war aims for a war that the United States was not yet officially in. Churchill asked Roosevelt to join the war immediately, but he declined. Following this secret meeting, on August 18th, Churchill met with his cabinet back at 10 Downing Street in London. Churchill told his cabinet, according to the minutes: “The [U.S.] President had said he would wage war but not declare it, and that he would become more and more provocative. If the Germans did not like it, they could attack American forces. Everything was to be done to force an ‘incident’ that could lead to war.” (Cited by Congresswoman Jeanette Rankin in Congressional Record, December 7, 1942.) British propagandists had also argued since at least 1938 for using Japan to bring the United States into the war. At the Atlantic Conference on August 12, 1941, Roosevelt assured Churchill that the United States would bring economic pressure to bear on Japan. Within a week, in fact, the Economic Defense Board began economic sanctions. On September 3, 1941, the U.S. State Department sent Japan a demand that it accept the principle of “nondisturbance of the status quo in the Pacific,” meaning cease turning European colonies into Japanese colonies. By September 1941 the Japanese press was outraged that the United States had begun shipping oil right past Japan to reach Russia. Japan, its newspapers said, was dying a slow death from “economic war.” In September, 1941, Roosevelt announced a “shoot on sight” policy toward any German or Italian ships in U.S. waters.
Churchill blockaded Germany prior to WWII with the explicit goal of starving people to death — an act denounced by U.S. President Herbert Hoover, and an act that prevented Germany from expelling who knows how many of the Jews and other victims of its later death camps — refugees Churchill refused to evacuate in large numbers and when they arrived in small numbers locked them up.
Churchill was also instrumental in normalizing the bombing of civilian targets. On March 16, 1940, German bombs killed one British civilian. On April 12, 1940, Germany blamed Britain for bombing a railroad line in Schleswig-Holstein, far from any war zone; Britain denied it. On April 22, 1940, Britain bombed Oslo, Norway. On April 25, 1940, Britain bombed the German town of Heide. Germany threated to bomb British civilians if British bombings of civilian areas continued. On May 10, 1940, Germany invaded Belgium, France, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. On May 14, 1940, Germany bombed Dutch civilians in Rotterdam. On May 15, 1940, and during the following days, Britain bombed German civilians in Gelsenkirchen, Hamburg, Bremen, Cologne, Essen, Duisburg, Düsseldorf, and Hanover. Churchill said, “We must expect this country to be hit in return.” Also on May 15, Churchill ordered the rounding up and imprisoning behind barbed wire of “enemy aliens and suspect persons,” most of whom were recently arrived Jewish refugees. On May 30, 1940, the British cabinet debated whether to continue war or make peace, and decided to continue the war. The bombings of civilians escalated from there, and escalated dramatically after the United States entered the war. The United States and Britain leveled German cities. The United States burned Japanese cities; residents were “scorched and boiled and baked to death” in the words of U.S. General Curtis LeMay.
Then there’s the matter of what Churchill proposed upon the end of WWII. Immediately upon German surrender, Winston Churchill proposed using Nazi troops together with allied troops to attack the Soviet Union, the nation that had just done the bulk of the work of defeating the Nazis. This was not an off-the-cuff proposal. The U.S. and British had sought and achieved partial German surrenders, had kept German troops armed and ready, and had debriefed German commanders on lessons learned from their failure against the Russians. Attacking the Russians sooner rather than later was a view advocated by General George Patton, and by Hitler’s replacement Admiral Karl Donitz, not to mention Allen Dulles and the OSS. Dulles made a separate peace with Germany in Italy to cut out the Russians, and began sabotaging democracy in Europe immediately and empowering former Nazis in Germany, as well as importing them into the U.S. military to focus on war against Russia. When U.S. and Soviet troops first met in Germany, they hadn’t been told they were at war with each other yet. But in the mind of Winston Churchill they were. Unable to launch a hot war, he and Truman and others launched a cold one.
There’s no need to ask how this monster of a man became a saint of the Rules Based Order. Anything can be made believed through endless repetition and omission. The question to ask is why. And I think the answer is fairly straightforward. The foundational myth of all myths of U.S. exceptionalism is WWII, its glorious righteous heroic goodness. But this is a problem for adherents of the Republican Political Party who don’t want to worship FDR or Truman. Hence Churchill. You can love Trump or Biden AND CHURCHILL. He was built into the fictional being he is at the time of the Falklands War and Thatcher and Reagan. His myth was added to during the 2003-begun phase of the war on Iraq. Now with peace practically unmentionable in Washington D.C. he coasts into the future with little danger of the actual historical record interfering.