A Jesuit priest writing in the Jesuit magazine America has cited Winston Churchill’s destruction of the Vichy-controlled French fleet in 1940 as an example of gratuitous violence, like abortion or capital punishment.
“Learning lessons from history, there [are] two mistakes to avoid,” writes Father Terrance Klein, who has taught at Fordham University, among other Catholic schools. “The first is ignorance of the past; the second, supposing that it was inevitable.” He cites the Battle of Mers-el-Kébir as a “good example,” going on to describe the British attack on the French fleet in Algeria on July 3, 1940, less than two weeks after France’s surrender to Nazi Germany.
According to Father Klein, “Some would argue that sorry battle was inevitable if the Axis powers in Europe were to be defeated.” But whether it did or did not seems morally inconsequential to him.
As Father Klein describes in his America article, France had fallen only on June 22, and its navy, the world’s fourth largest, was now controlled by the new pro-German Vichy regime. Now standing alone against a European continent now almost entirely Nazi controlled, Britain was inferior to Germany in ground and air power, having only naval superiority, upon which its survival depended.
Direct German control of the French fleet could dramatically alter the balance of power. The French naval minister, Admiral François Darlan, now under the collaborationist Vichy regime of Marshal Pétain, had earlier promised the British he would scuttle the fleet before ceding it to the Germans. The Vichy regime was permitted, by the Germans, authority over the southern half of France and its overseas territory, like Algeria, even while Germany expected it to perform as a strategic partner.
Unwilling to rely completely on Darlan, Churchill ordered a British fleet to neutralize the French fleet in Algeria. The distrust was wise, as Darlan was a snake who pandered to his Nazi overlords, including persecution of France’s Jews, eventually betraying even Pétain and Germany in a later self-serving deal with the Allies, after which he was mercifully assassinated. Unmentioned in Father Klein’s article, the British admiral offered that the French fleet, if unwilling to sail to or fight with Britain as an ally, could relocate to a French colony in the West Indies to wait out the war.
During hours of negotiations, the French admiral pleaded he was awaiting instructions from Vichy. The British correctly realized eventually that the French were stalling for time, apparently to allow for potential escape. An intercepted message from Admiral Darlan ordered the French fleet to “answer force with force.” He apparently also was consulting the Germans and arranging for French naval reinforcement.
By late in the day, the British were unwilling to risk further delay and opened fire, destroying much of the French fleet, and killing over 1,200 French sailors. That Britain had wreaked such destruction on the French, an ally until only weeks before, was shocking but also bracing to British public opinion and to opinion around the world. The message was clear. Britain would not follow France’s path of cooperation with a new Nazi-dominated Europe. Instead, Britain would ferociously fight on in defense of its liberty.
The battle was still grievous to France’s former ally. As Father Klein notes, Churchill later recalled “a hateful decision, the most unnatural and painful in which I have ever been concerned.” But Churchill never expressed regret. It was not controversial in Britain, nor very much in the United States. Even the recently exiled Free French leader General Charles de Gaulle, now living in Britain, despite his initial horror, largely stayed silent, grimly if quietly acknowledging the cruel necessity. De Gaulle himself would later fire on French troops loyal to Vichy, whom he saw as merely an extension of Nazi power, and not servants to legitimate France.
But Father Klein is more disturbed by Churchill’s decisive action, asking: “Was he justified in turning to a violent solution?” He notes that some have cited the exhilarating effect of Britain’s vividly illustrating there was “no violence from which Britain would shrink to preserve her liberty, not even from attacking her erstwhile ally.” Klein laments that as “painful and morally ambiguous as it was, Churchill’s choice is still repeated daily. When we find ourselves constrained, our way of life and our values threatened, and we also turn to violent solutions that we judge inevitable.”
Father Klein quotes the Old Testament Book of Habakkuk about “destruction and violence.” And he warns that “violence breeds violence,” with “those who turn to it always [believing] that a little more violence will put an end to the cycle, but they only forge the chain.”
So were Churchill and Britain only feeding the “cycle” of violence by resisting Nazi domination of Europe and much of the world? Should they instead have allowed German access to the French fleet with all its global repercussions? Without suggesting loftier alternatives, Father Klein implies so.
“When the church tells us to choose life—in the womb, in our justice systems, in the way that we solve our problems—there are those who would insist that this mustard seed will never grow,” Father Klein opines. “But who refuses to face reality? The one who wants to try a new way, or the one who chooses, one more time, one more violent act, one always promising an end to violence.”
Seemingly all acts of violence are on the same moral plain. Father Klein declares:
However else one might characterize an abortion, however one might justify it, it is surely an act of violence, unnatural to woman or child. Even less defensible is the argument that the state-sanctioned violence of the death penalty is the only sure way to protect innocent life. All can admit that both are acts of violence, ugly business, which some deem a necessity.
Father Klein implies that capital punishment is even worse than abortion, even though Roman Catholicism still affirms the state’s power to execute the guilty even while recent popes have urged alternatives whenever possible.
Rejecting all violence as equally abhorrent ignores any distinctions between self-defense and aggression, or between murdering the innocent versus punishing the guilty. Rulers in authority cannot afford such obtuse, distorted idealism. Churchill, in fighting for the life and liberty of his people, chose survival against aggressive evil.
Many religious elites increasingly share Father Klein’s seeming view that even the legitimate state may not wield the sword, despite St. Paul’s affirmation to the contrary. These religious elites typically have the luxury of protected peace and prosperity. But many, like Churchill in July 1940, must deal with starker realities.