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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

The imperial treadmill

Books | Gandhi and Churchill were both great men with enormous blind spots

Issue: "2008 Daniel of the Year," Dec. 13, 2008

Winston Churchill, an almost unstoppable force with a faith in power. Mahatma Gandhi, an almost immovable object with a faith in nonviolent resistance. In Gandhi & Churchill (Random House, 2008), history professor turned splendid storyteller Arthur Herman engagingly interweaves the tales of these two men who encountered sensational success and frequent failure, but always came back for more of each.

Strikingly, both Gandhi and Churchill had concern for the poor that left them opposed from different directions to the rising tide of the early 20th century, Marxism. Gandhi wanted small-scale enterprise, with each Indian each day spinning khadi (homespun cloth). Churchill was a classical liberal, which made him a conservative through much of his political career in opposition to Labour Party socialism: "Socialism seeks to pull down wealth, Liberalism seeks to raise up poverty. . . . Socialism would kill enterprise, liberalism would rescue enterprise from the trammels of privilege and preference."

Churchill in 1921, though, displayed the same weakness that afflicted Woodrow Wilson in 1919: the tendency to redraw the maps of nations whose cultures and histories he did not understand. One reason U.S. forces are at war in the land surrounding Baghdad now is that Churchill, then serving as Britain's colonial secretary, decided to lump disparate ethnic groups into one made-up country, Iraq.

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Churchill also handed the guardianship of Mecca to the Saudi clan and thus allowed it to advertise its radically reactionary Wahhab to millions of Muslim pilgrims. His ignorance did produce comedic moments. When he was at the Cairo train station and about to leave Egypt in 1921, a mob of 15,000 Arabs angered by British support for an eventual Jewish homeland in Egypt screamed at him, "Death to the Jews." Churchill understood no Arabic: He smiled and waved back, thinking they were seeing him off.

Churchill's arrogant confidence sometimes produced dire results. He pushed for huge cuts in the Royal Navy during the 1920s, arguing that Germany would not be a naval threat for decades and that "war with Japan is not a possibility which any reasonable government need take into account." But it was that same bulldog tendency that made all the difference from 1940 to 1942 when the German threat by land, sea, and air was greatest.

Gandhi also found that ground-level facts were stubborn things. He wrote open letters to Hitler from 1938 through 1941, praising his bravery and patriotism and predicting that future generations of Germany would "honor Herr Hitler as a genius." He thought that peaceful protests by German Jews would turn their "winter of despair" into "a summer of hope." When the British imprisoned Gandhi, they put him in a suite with room for a secretary: Hitler would have tortured and killed him.

Gandhi didn't realize that what worked well against Brits with a Christian cultural background and guilt over imperialism would not move those who favored only the survival of "the fittest." Herman shows that both Churchill and Gandhi had macro vision and micro myopia. They fathered success in war and nation-building but their own children were disasters: Two of Churchill's three were alcoholics and his other suffered a nervous breakdown and eventually committed suicide; Gandhi generally neglected his children, the oldest of whom also became an alcoholic.

Churchill had a despondent old age, and the last year of Gandhi's life, before his assassination early in 1948, was filled with torment. "Makes me hang my head in shame," Gandhi said, as what Churchill had predicted-that a precipitous pullout of British troops from India would leave Hindus and Muslims killing each other-came to pass. When the British on June 3, 1947 (with Churchill out of power), announced that Gandhi was getting his way and they were leaving in 74 days, hundreds of thousands of Indians died in fratricidal attacks. U.S. leaders should take that record seriously as they consider the timing of an American departure from Iraq.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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