It is a sign of these times that a statue to the man who made it possible for people around the world to protest police brutality and racism has been boarded up to protect it from these very same protesters.
Anticipating further demonstrations, authorities in London have put a barrier around the statue to Winston Churchill in Parliament Square. Why? Because, as protesters spray-painted on the statue last week, Churchill “was a racist.”
This accusation crossed the Atlantic when Aliyah Hasinah of Black Lives Matter U.K. was a guest on National Public Radio’s “1A” program. According to Hasinah, every statue to Britain’s wartime leader should be torn down because Churchill “gave Hitler his ideas” and therefore had “ideologically started” World War II.
Hasinah’s complaint centered on Churchill’s brief support of eugenics, the idea that undesirable traits could be “bred out” of the human race. Eugenics, and the racial undertones that accompanied it, sprang from Social Darwinism. Its adherents included the novelist H.G. Wells, the economist John Maynard Keynes and, on this side of the Atlantic, Theodore Roosevelt and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.
They weren’t alone. NAACP founder W.E.B. DuBois was a eugenicist. So were two of the world’s foremost campaigners for women’s reproductive rights: Marie Stopes in Britain and Margaret Sanger in the United States.
Would anyone seriously claim that Keynes or DuBois or Sanger were “ideologically” responsible for Nazism and the horrors of World War II?
Charges of racism against Churchill go beyond his brief affiliation with the eugenics movement. To quell an Arab uprising in newly acquired lands after World War I, but without the troops to do the job, Churchill — then Britain’s secretary for war and for air power — suggested that the Royal Air Force drop gas bombs on rebel towns. To this day, it is unclear how far Churchill was willing to take what he called this “experimental work.” In his own words, his aim was to use gas bombs that “would cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively terror and yet would leave no serious permanent effects on most of those afflicted.”
There is no way to justify this policy. But Churchill’s willingness to use poison gas hardly can be called “racist” when it is remembered that, as prime minister, he was fully prepared to unleash his country’s most lethal chemical weapons against the Germans, had they invaded Britain in 1940. The fact that the Nazi assault came to nothing doesn’t detract from this point.
On the other side of the ledger, when British soldiers massacred nearly 400 people during a protest at Amritsar in India in 1919, Churchill, as war secretary, sacked the commanding officer, Reginald Dyer, and, in the House of Commons, condemned the use of military force against peaceful demonstrators for what it was and still is: “terrorism.”
India also is the place where Churchill’s critics accuse him not only of racism but of genocide. In 1943-44 a terrible famine hit the state of Bengal. Official estimates put the death toll at 1.5 million men, women and children; unofficial estimates put the figure at least twice as high.
What these critics conveniently forget when attacking the British response to this catastrophe is that a world war was taking place.
The Bengal famine resulted from a combination of poor harvests in India made worse by a major cyclone the year before. Previous food shortages had been alleviated by importing rice from Burma — a recourse made impossible because the entire region was occupied by the Japanese army, which still aimed to conquer India.
Should more have been done to aid the Bengalis? Certainly. Could more have been done? That question isn’t so easily answered. Throughout World War II, the Allies were confronted with a global shortage of shipping. Nowhere was this more acute than on the Southeast Asian battlefront, a theater of war that was as overlooked then as it is forgotten now. Hunger and starvation were twin features of this conflict in far too many places. To accuse Churchill of using this disaster to commit mass murder is a grotesque distortion of history.
It is easy to cherry-pick Churchill’s words to paint him in the worst possible light. His views often were controversial — and they were public. Over the course of a very active life, he wrote 37 books, a record, according to one recent biographer, that surpasses the works of William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens — combined. Separately, his speeches fill another eight volumes. Add to that more than 700 magazine and newspaper articles.
But the fact remains that when the world was confronted with fascism, the most deadly incarnation of racism ever known, he stood against it. While he was not alone, even his political opponents recognized that he was the indispensable man. During the Munich Crisis, one Labour parliamentarian told him: “You, or God, will have to help if this country is to be saved.”
Britain and, eventually the world, was saved.
Leaders of the current protests around the world are reminding everyone that we need to remember the past as it really was. True enough. But they also ought to follow their own advice.
Kevin Matthews is a professor of modern European history at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. He is the author of “Fatal Influence: The Impact of Ireland on British Politics, 1920-1925.” He is writing a book about Winston Churchill and Ireland.