ONE OF THE TOP items on President Biden’s agenda is fighting racism. So upon entering the White House on Wednesday he removed – again – the bust of the racist British Prime Minister Winston Churchill from the Oval Office. President Barack Obama had put away the bust from the room but Donald trump, his successor, brought it back.
Told about Biden’s action, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he had no quarrel with the new American president decorating his “private office … as he wishes.”
But when Obama had removed the bust from the Oval Office, Johnson, then mayor of London, was furious. He fumed that the black Obama’s action had shown “the part-Kenyan president’s ancestral dislike of the British empire.”
Johnson’s conciliatory gesture toward the 46th American president may reflect, in part, the Britts’ desperate need for good trade relations with the United States after their foolish breakup with the European Union. The Conservative British prime minister was wrong, however, to assume that Obama disliked Churchill because of Churchill’s or Britain’s legacy of imperialism, which doubtless was brutal and dehumanizing. Many people in the East – and now in the West – despise Churchill mainly for his rabidly racist views of non-white people and societies. He called them “barbaric nations” and “savages” whom he considered “a menace to civilized nations” in the West.
Churchill ardently believed in Social Darwinism, superiority of white races, and argued over and over that they have the inherent right to subjugate, dispossess and persecute non-whites. Intriguingly, Churchill considered Jews a white people and as British colonial secretary in the 1920s, he defended, strongly, the expulsion of Palestinians from the lands belonging to them for centuries by Jewish refugees from Europe. Churchill thought of brown-skinned Palestinians as some kind of beasts who had no right to challenge their dispossession by fairer-skinned European Jews.
“I do not admit,” he explained, “that the dog in the manger has the final right to the manger, though he may have lain there for a very long time.”
The British leader who led his nation to victory in World War II held the same view about Anglo-Saxons uprooting dark-skinned people from the United States and Australia and occupying their land. “I do not admit,” he said. “that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been to those people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race or at any rate a more worldly-wise race, to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.”
Churchill’s view of non-whites being subhuman made him disregard the usefulness of their lives. A glaring example it was his role during the 1943 famine in the Indian region of Bengal, where I grew up and made my debut as a journalist. In other times when a food shortage had occurred in Bengal or any other part of British India, rice, and sometimes wheat, was rushed in from elsewhere to feed people. But in 1943 Britain was fighting a bitter war with Germany and, ignoring the Indian administration’s warnings about the approaching famine in Bengal, Prime Minister Churchill decided to divert food supplies for Bengal to British and other troops in Europe. The result was mass starvation of Bengalees, millions of whom perished from it. William F. Buckley Jr. called it a slaughter of “genocidal proportions.”
Finest Hour is a quarterly publication put out by the International Churchill Society. In an editorial (Nov. 18, 2008) entitled “Media lying over Churchill’s crimes,” an editor of the journal, Gideon Poyla, wrote: “Churchill is our hero because of his leadership in World War 2, but his immense crimes, notably the WW2 Bengali Holocaust, the 1943-45 Bengal Famine in which Churchill murdered 6-7 million Indians, have been deleted from history by an extraordinary Anglo-American denial.”
Reliable estimates have put the death toll from the famine at about 3 million.
In India, Churchill was the most hated British prime minister in history. He earned that infamy with his racist contempt for Indians (He called Mahatma Gandhi “a half-naked fekir,” or beggar), which he gushed out off and on and which was reflected in his disdainful rejection of Indians’ repeated pleadings and demands for autonomy or independence. As World War II began, many Indian, realizing that they won’t get their independence from the Churchill government, prayed for Hitler’s victory, which they hoped would dissolve the British empire and liberate them from British colonial rule and racist domination.
The Allied victory over Nazi Germany was a pyrrhic one for Britain. The war wrecked the British economy and military power so much so that within two years the Britts – who were never impressed by Gandhi’s non-violent mantra or tactic – were forced to concede the independence of India and Pakistan, which was followed in quick succession by the independence of other British colonies around the world.
Today even many Britts see Churchill as among the most notoriously racist leaders in their history. Last June protests over the killing of African-American George Floyd by a white American police officer spread to Britain. Soon the Churchill statue at London’s Parliament Square was found spray-painted with the words: “Was a Racist.” Sadiq Khan, then London mayor, got the statue boarded up to protect it from protesters’ rage. Undaunted, some of them wrote in big black letters on one of the walls around it: “Watch out! Racist Inside!”
America is going through a revolution to stamp out racism from its social fabric and has done away with statues, busts and pictures of most of its confederate heroes who used to defend racism. It’s crazy to try to have an arch-racist from abroad enshrined in the American political pantheon. Well, Trump was craziest of American presidents.
- Mustafa Malik, the host and editor of this blog, is an international affairs commentator in Washington.