Posted on October 31, 2021

The Case Against Winston Churchill

Peter Baker, New York Times, October 26, 2021

During a protest over the killing of George Floyd last year, demonstrators in London targeted the famed statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square. Underneath his name someone had spray-painted the words “was a racist.” To guard against further damage, the government temporarily boarded up the statue, drawing a rebuke from Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a self-styled Churchill acolyte, who declared that “we cannot now try to edit or censor our past.”

In his new book, “Churchill’s Shadow,” Geoffrey Wheatcroft takes a literary spray can to the iconic World War II leader, attempting metaphorically at least to recast the many memorials and books devoted to Sir Winston over the years. Churchill, in this telling, was not just a racist but a hypocrite, a dissembler, a narcissist, an opportunist, an imperialist, a drunk, a strategic bungler, a tax dodger, a neglectful father, a credit-hogging author, a terrible judge of character and, most of all, a masterful mythmaker.

On both sides of the Atlantic, we are living in an era when history is being re-examined, a time when monuments are coming down and illusions about onetime heroes are being shattered. When I was a correspondent in Richmond a quarter-century ago, it would have struck me as unthinkable that the statue of Robert E. Lee on the city’s Monument Avenue would be removed, but the old general has been taken away, as have his Confederate brethren. Now even the likes of Lincoln, Washington and, yes, Churchill are under scrutiny if not attack.


Churchill revisionism, of course, is almost as much of a cottage industry as Churchill hagiography. Books with titles like “Churchill: A Study in Failure” have appeared regularly for more than a half-century, all the way through “The Churchill Myths” last year. Nigel Hamilton just finished a three-volume series on Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated partly to the notion that the American president had to stop Churchill from bungling the fight against Nazi Germany.


The bill of particulars is long, if familiar — Churchill’s disastrous Gallipoli campaign in World War I, his fervor for maintaining Britain’s overseas empire, his misguided efforts during World War II to fight in Africa and the Mediterranean rather than invade France, his deadly lack of interest in the famine in Bengal, his support for carpet-bombing German cities and his cynical deals with Stalin, among others. And of course there was Churchill’s racism, animated by theories about “higher-grade races,” which in his mind did not include Africans, whom he referred to by the N-word; Chinese, whom he called “pigtails”; or Indians, whom he dismissed as “baboos.”


He is especially disdainful of supercilious Americans who created their own Churchill cult without truly understanding who he was. {snip}

Only when the likes of Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani and Ted Cruz invoke Churchill does Wheatcroft come to his defense: “In his long life Churchill had done and said many foolish, sometimes disastrous and even ignoble things, but he had profound respect for constitutional government and elected legislatures, not least Congress where he had been so loudly cheered. Nothing he had ever done deserved Trump, Giuliani and Cruz.”