WASHINGTON — In history’s constant reassessment of heroes, Thomas Jefferson is America’s hardest case. How could the author of the Declaration of Independence also be the slave master of Monticello, a theorist of Black inequality, a vicious and partisan schemer, and an apologist for the bloody excesses of the French Revolution? Do we praise him for his principles or damn him for hypocrisy? Should Jefferson be elevated or erased?
A similar debate has emerged on both sides of the pond about Winston Churchill, stimulated by a revisionist biography by Geoffrey Wheatcroft titled “Churchill’s Shadow.” Wheatcroft portrays Churchill as the sum of his misjudgments and the embodiment of imperial bigotry. This case is probably more familiar in Britain, where Churchill has always been viewed as a partisan figure, and hostile reassessments began many years before the subject himself was dead.
A historical presence as large as Churchill is bound to be seen from a variety of angles. Americans tend to imagine him padding around naked in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s White House and plotting with the United States to save the liberty of the world. Many in India see the man who derided their patriotism, dismissed Mahatma Gandhi as a “seditious fakir” and failed to prevent the Bengal famine of 1943. Wheatcroft puts every baked and half-baked leftist criticism in one place.
It isn’t possible to consider each of the charges here. My best advice is to read the book alongside Andrew Roberts’ invaluable “Churchill: Walking With Destiny” and judge for yourself. To me, the charge that the author of Gallipoli and Narvik could display terrible military judgment is baked. The charge that he maliciously caused the Bengal famine — in the sense that Joseph Stalin caused the Ukrainian famine — seems half-baked. The charge that he had a blind spot about India the size of a subcontinent is baked. (“I am quite satisfied with my views on India,” he said, “and I don’t want them disturbed by any bloody Indians.”)
But the main accusation against Churchill — like the main accusation against Jefferson — is racism. Did Churchill’s imperialism postulate that the Britons were among the “higher-grade races”? And did this contribute to his disdain for Indians and others? The answer to both questions is yes — with the recognition that such attitudes were not far removed from those of American imperialists in the 1890s who assumed the “White man’s burden” in the Philippines. (Theodore Roosevelt was also a firm believer in racial hierarchy.)
Is that enough to condemn Churchill to the lowest levels of historical hell? Only if context doesn’t matter.
At the most basic level, a book such as Wheatcroft’s demonstrates the smallness of his frame compared with the largeness of his subject. The author comes off as a snide journalist fishing with a tiny ideological net.
Churchill took his first commission under the reign of Queen Victoria, exploited the connections of his mother’s lovers to put himself into the midst of combat, participated in the cavalry charge at Omdurman, crossed the Malakand Pass and escaped from a Boer prison to safety across 300 miles of enemy territory. He was a cabinet minister by age 33; worked to pass unemployment compensation, health insurance and state pensions for orphans and widows; and championed prison reform.
He helped in the early development of aviation, founded the Royal Naval Air Service, was involved in the creation of the tank, prepared the British Navy in World War I and showed personal courage in the trenches of France. He helped birth the Jewish state, determined the shape of the modern Middle East over dinner with T.E. Lawrence and helped move the Irish Free State through Parliament. He was a master of the English language, with a deep attachment to individual rights and representative government, who hated unfairness and bullying and could show great humor and magnanimity.
Then, two extraordinary achievements. From 1935 to 1940, as a failed and isolated politician, Churchill was utterly, repeatedly right about the dual threat of German aggression and British pacifism. And from 1940 to 1945, he stood alone, and then with the United States, to (yes) save the liberty of the world.
This is a historical case in which “other than that” doesn’t work. You cannot justifiably say: He was a racist — other than saving Western civilization from an endless night of racist tyranny. The second clause must matter. It must matter to be resoundingly right on the salvation of free government.
In light of this, Wheatcroft seems like a single Lilliputian attempting to tie down Gulliver with a single thread. As with Jefferson, the thread will not hold. Such historical figures are more than bit players in our own morality play. “Real development is not leaving things behind, as on a road,” G.K. Chesterton said, “but drawing life from them, like a root.”