There have been recent efforts by pundits, foreign affairs analysts and historians to cut to consign to disrepute the ideas Winston Churchill personified or to cast him as an exponent of their opposite. Why these exertions?
Let’s examine what these revisionists say.
Writing in the British Spectator in 2004, Michael Lind, an escapee from conservatism to the New America Foundation, used selective quotation and the ambiguity of terminology (“poison gas”) from a 1919 Churchill document to paint him as an advocate of using weapons of mass destruction against “uncivilized tribes.”
The purpose of Lind’s exercise was to prove that Churchill was an imperialist WMD-wielding warmonger and thus scarcely a rightful model and inspiration to devotees of destroying WMDs and constructing democracies. But this was nonsense. Consulting the full passage in that document shows the very opposite: Churchill explicitly supported the ban on such weapons while approving the use of lesser ones like tear gas.
More recently, in September 2006, Graham Allison and Dimitri Simes, writing in the National Interest, urged greater indulgence of Russia’s Vladimir Putin on the basis that Churchill would have had enough sense to form a strategic alliance with Russia in a time of major crisis like our own.
In which way is America to do that? Conceding Putin’s maleficent role in world affairs, Allison and Simes are “not suggesting that Russia be permitted to use force against its neighbors with impunity or try to recreate the Soviet Union.” But they are suggesting that America was wrong for siding “with Russia’s new neighbors in almost every single dispute they had with Moscow, treating Russian influence in the post-Soviet space as unacceptable neo-imperialism.”
Unfortunately, it is Russia that is intimidating its neighbors, not the reverse. As such, there is little scope to “side” with Russia without thereby permitting it to act with “impunity” against its neighbors. Allison and Simes are therefore saying that allowing Putin to have his way should not be our policy — merely our practice, and that Churchill would have recommended as much.
Churchill might have handled matters differently with Russia today. We cannot tell. But it is reasonably certain that he would need something pretty large — a massive unstinting Russian commitment to the war on Islamism which Allison and Simes themselves note is not likely to be forthcoming — before making a dirty agreement with them like the one that, in return for fighting Nazism to the death, conceded to Stalin much of Eastern Europe.
The latest piece of Churchill revisionism concerns his reputed philo-Semitism and its author seems to have genuinely believed that he had grounds for it. Richard Toye, author of a new Churchill biography, last March told of having exhumed an unpublished 1937 article among Churchill ‘s papers that had “apparently lain unnoticed in the Churchill archives at Cambridge since the early months of the Second World War.” The article in question contended that the Jews are partly responsible for the persecution they suffer.
Says Toye, “I nearly fell off my chair when I found the article. It appears to have been overlooked. I think a lot of people thought that the file it was in only contained copies of articles that had already been published. It was certainly quite a shock to read some of these things and it is obviously at odds with the traditional idea we have of Churchill.”
With reason — Churchill biographer Sir Martin Gilbert was quick to disclose that the article was not penned by Churchill, but by one of his part-time ghost-writers, Adam Marshall Diston, who was a supporter of British fascist Sir Oswald Mosley (though himself a British Labour Party parliamentary candidate at the time). Churchill disagreed with its contents and vetoed its publication, leading Gilbert to conclude that “Someone else’s opinions, in an unpublished article, which never appeared in print under Churchill’s name, cannot be laid at Churchill’s door.”
Just so. Churchill’s opinions of Jews and the extent of his support, at different times, for Zionism have been questioned before (for example, in Michael J. Cohen’s Churchill and the Jews), but Gilbert’s forthcoming Churchill and the Jews: A Lifelong Friendship should, ideally, put outstanding issues into perspective. In any event, Toye’s rediscovery of the unpublished article is a broken reed for his revisionist thesis.
The periodic reinvention of Churchill — Atlanticist, democrat, totalitarian foe, philo-Semite — into a WMD-enthusiast, democracy sacrificer, realpolitiker, anti-Semitic dabbler — is sometimes remarkable for its boldness, whether based on a flight of documentary fancy, manipulation or reinterpretation. The temptation to undermine (if necessary, invert) the claims on our attention that is owed to Churchillean ideas is not hard to understand. Chronic Iraq problems have given strength to opponents of muscular anti-Islamism and democracy-promotion. A disapproving focus on their Churchillean antecedents can assist an effort to discredit them. But the evidence shows that those wishing to do so had better look elsewhere for inspiration.