Sunday, February 27, 2005

Getting Winston's Legacy Wrong

The Ideas section in Sunday's Boston Globe contains a story entitled "The Lion in Wartime". It covers the opening of a new museum dedicated to Winston Churchill and attached to his wartime shelter near the prime minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street. The tagline in the Globe story states "A new museum prompts debate over the use (and abuse) of Churchill's name in the war on terror".

The Globe story focuses mostly on alleged abuse of Churchill's rhetoric.
"Historians have largely praised the museum -- and there seems to be a broad consensus that Churchill's most prominent American admirer [President Bush] today is dangerously misreading the lessons of his leadership."
This is complete hogwash. The Globe's broad consensus quotes two historians. First, Terry Charman says "there is a danger in quoting him out of context, and in a sense it would even betray the meaning of Churchill's life. Churchill's words were weighed carefully, finely tuned to the realities of his time." The second historian is David Cannadine who says "but in drawing on Churchill's huge verbal repertoire, there is no sense of perspective. When Bush uses the words in the context of ratcheting up to fear in America, it is irresponsible."

While Churchill did use words carefully and expertly, the essence of his greatness as the British leader during the second world war was the steadfastness of his position, regardless of its popularity. His early perception and constant warning was that Europe would inevitably confront Nazi Germany, and therefore would be wise to confront Germany before the Nazi’s rapid rearmament made the confrontation disastrous for all involved. This position was wildly unpopular with the pacifist and pro-appeasement sentiments in Britain, and resulted in Churchill’s political exile, his being labeled a war-monger, and his banning from the BBC, the only live media of the time.

In effect Churchill for years advocated the use of force in a form strikingly similar to Bush's post-9/11 doctrine of preventative war. By the time Churchill came to power in May of 1940 the war and the Nazi offensive were on and it was to far too late to execute the policies he had advocated. In the Nazi offensive of May 1940 western Europe was rapidly overrun and Britain was saved from the same fate only through the miracle of Dunkirk and its island geography.

Interestingly, neither the Globe nor the historians cite any actual examples of President Bush using Churchill's rhetoric out of context. While ready and willing to criticize the president in generalities, the author is unable to get a significant date and fact right. He describes a 40 ft. long interactive lifeline of Churchill as pointing:
" his triumphant leadership in World War II, his stunning defeat at the polls a year later, and his death in 1965."
That is about half right. Churchill was voted out of office not in 1946, but in July of 1945, during the Potsdam “Big Three” conference. Germany was defeated at this point but Japan was not.

Hardly “a year later”.

This difference is quite relevant, and detrimental to the article's thesis. Churchill advocated a much more confrontational position with respect to the Soviet Union than his successor. He was replaced by the less knowledgeable Clement Atlee at the Potsdam conference. Atlee negotiated with Stalin and US president Truman, who himself had been in office only 3 months. Thus the west was represented by two heads of government who lacked continuity from the experience of several previous "Big 3" conferences during the war, and had an inadequate appreciation of Stalin’s capability for treachery and betrayal.

In his final volume on the war, "Triumph and Tragedy" Churchill writes of the conference:
"There were many other matters on which it was right to confront the Soviet government, and also the Poles, who, gulping down immense chunks of German territory, had obviously become their ardent puppets. All this negotiation was cut in twain and brought to an untimely conclusion by the result of the [British] general election. To say this is not to blame the ministers of the new government, who were forced to go over [to the Potsdam conference] without any serious preparation, and who naturally were unacquainted with the ideas and plans I had in view, namely, to have a showdown at the end of the conference, and, if necessary, to have a public break rather than allow anything beyond the Oder and the Eastern Niesse to be ceded to Poland.

However, the real time to deal with these issues was, as has been explained in earlier chapters, when the fronts of the mighty allies faced each other in the field, and before the Americans, and to a lesser extent the British, made their vast retirement on a 400 mile front to a depth in some places of 120 miles, thus giving the heart and a great mass of Germany over to the Russians. At that time I desired to have the matter settled before we had made this tremendous retirement and while the Allied armies were still in being. The American view was that we were committed to a definite line of occupation, and I held strongly that this line of occupation could only be taken up when we were satisfied that the whole front, from north to south, was being settled in accordance with the desires and spirit in which our engagements had been made. However, it was impossible to gather Americans support for this, and the Russians, pushing the Poles in front of them, wended on, driving the Germans before them and depopulating large areas of Germany, whose food supplies they had seized, while chasing a multitude of mouths into the overcrowded British and American zones. Even at Potsdam the matter might perhaps have been recovered, but for the destruction of the British national government and my removal from the scene at the time when I still had much influence and power rendered it impossible for satisfactory solutions to be reached.”
"Triumphant leadership" as the author claims? Yes, but not without an aspect of profound tragedy -- hence the title of Winnie's last volume. While gratuitously attacking president Bush for quoting Churchill out of context, it is the Boston Globe and the author of this piece, Charles M. Sennott, who get their facts and the context wrong.

Could this be liberal bias? Oh please stop being so paranoid!

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