If most of the moral outrage performed on Fox News is patently absurdly overwrought and insincere, the unhappiness expressed about the removal of the bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office in the Obama White House, temporarily or permanently, is a notable exception. Bustgate bubbled up, ‘erupted’ is too strong a word, because of a July 26th column written by the dour neoconservative Charles Krauthammer and a July 27th response by Dan Pfeiffer that the bust was still in residence outside the treaty room.
In all probability, Krauthammer and his fellow neo-conservatives are genuinely offended by that change in physical location. Rather than a popular symbol of fortitude in adversity, the neo-conservatives venerate Churchill as a model political leader. That’s precisely what ought to offend the rest of us.
The unhappy truth is that the actual historical Winston Churchill was a monster. Decisions that he made during the Second World War rank among the most brutal in that extraordinarily brutal conflict.
Consider the decision to allow millions Bengalis to perish in a famine that was not only preventable but made inevitable by Churchill’s government. In a panic after the loss of British colonies in Malaysia, Singapore and Burma to the Japanese, and fearing the loss of India, his government ordered the removal of Bengal’s staple rice supplies and then later refused to allow the U.S. or Canada to ship wheat to the feed the starving Bengalis. If the Japanese were going to seize the Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire, so the thinking appears to have been, then let them first occupy a starving province. The result of that horrific calculation was the Great Bengal Famine of 1943, in which at least 3.5 million died needlessly.
Or consider the decision to conduct air strikes against German cities. Rather than attempt to target military and industrial targets in Germany like the U.S. Seventh Air Force, Churchill’s government ordered the Royal Air Force to target population centers with incendiary bombing raids. The result was the needless deaths of between 600,000 and 900,000 German non-combatants. We know that the darling of the neo-conservatives considered doing worse, because there is a nasty wartime memo in which he orders the mass production of anthrax bombs.
Or consider the decision to divert the British Army from the primary task of defeating the German Army in the Balkans for weeks to help Greek royalists defeat Greek communists in a struggle for control of that country. How many perished in the concentration camps because their liberation was delayed while Churchill was busy fighting over the postwar geopolitical spoils?
Or consider the decision to use British troops to reestablish French colonial rule in Indochina the end of the Second World War. Ever the imperialist, Churchill intended that not only would Britain hold onto its colonies but so too would still enfeebled France. The butcher’s bill, after the decades of warfare and the defeats of both France and the United States, was the death of 2.5 million Vietnamese and Laotians.
There is more to the list of charges against Churchill but a body count in the millions ought to be sufficient to justify the removal of his bust from the Oval Office.
So what is that neo-conservatives find so attractive about a foreign leader responsible for so much needless death and suffering? Part of the answer is that the majority of the victims were not white. Like the object of veneration, the neo-conservatives tend to be rather more partial to the welfare and freedom of some peoples than to others. Another part of the answer is that they are unwilling to venerate the American leader who gave us victory in the Second World War. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a liberal.
Perhaps most important for the neo-conservatives is that Churchill got away with his crimes. Not only did he escape a war crimes trial by being on the winning side but he spun a narrative successfully casting himself not as a villain but as a hero. Unshackled by the sort of conventional morality that requires sacrificing near term political advantage because of concern for long term negative consequences, Churchill represents the sort of thinking that resulted in our decades long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and now threatens to drag us into a similar nightmare in Syria. That Churchill’s wartime foreign policy focused on events in the Middle East and largely ignored threats in East Asia would also make him a model for contemporary American neo-conservatives. What the neo-conservatives fail to grasp is that their cigar smoking aristocratic icon is best understood not as a model to be emulated but as a warning against the sort of irresponsible leadership that sometimes afflicts great powers.