11:03 AM CDT on Sunday, August 22, 2010 One of the great ironies of 20th century history is how the greatest figure on the world stage could have simultaneously been so right and so wrong.
The paradox of Winston Churchillâ€™s leadership was displayed for all to see during World War II. At once, he served as the greatest advocate for freedom and the greatest apologist for empire. How did he square this circle?
Thatâ€™s the question Richard Toye sets out to answer in Churchillâ€™s Empire: The World that Made Him and the World He Made . The book marks the first attempt to account for Churchillâ€™s lifelong relationship with the Empire.
And a complicated relationship it was. Churchill held conventional views on race for a man of his class and time. Most famously, this led him to oppose efforts to free India from imperial rule. In particular, he expressed his disdain for Hindus, whose sheer numbers saved them â€œfrom the doom that is their due.â€ Nor did Gandhi escape his rhetorical wrath. Churchill described him as a â€œseditious Middle Temple lawyerâ€ and a â€œhalf-naked fakir.â€ This represents the ugliest side of Churchillâ€™s defense of colonialism.
The less offensive elements of his argument came from his genuine belief that British rule meant good things for those the British ruled. Commerce, courts, education, health care â€” these were the blessings that were inherited by those governed by the British Empire, in Churchillâ€™s view. To him, this presented quite a bargain for people who might otherwise experience little hope or few rights. This combination of distrust of colonized people and faith in colonial rule led him to see the Empire as a positive force on the whole (though he often condemned imperial excesses and abuses). As a result, when discussion of granting dominion status to India occurred in the House of Commons, Churchill became â€œalmost demented with fury.â€
The winds of war would soon begin to topple the architecture of the British Empire. Ironically, perhaps no one did more to push it over than Churchill himself.
In his finest hour, Churchill took over at 10 Downing St. and confronted the Nazi menace squarely. The new prime minister led the British into battle with not only his military, but with his words. Six days after his first speech to the Commons as prime minister, Churchill spoke on the radio about the French collapse. He spoke of the need to fight on â€œin a solemn hour for the life of our country, of our Empire, of our Allies, and, above all, of the cause of Freedom.â€ The theme of freedom would occur frequently throughout his wartime addresses that were heard around the world.
And it produced an unexpected result. As an African nationalist later wrote, â€œAll the fair brave words spoken about freedom that had been broadcast to the four corners of the earth took seed and grew where they had not been intended.â€ Indeed, years later, another person, Nelson Mandela recalled that as a young man in South Africa he would â€œhuddle round an old radioâ€ to hear Churchill speak of freedom.
In addition to Churchillâ€™s soaring prose about freedom, his close alliance with the United States carried a price he did not wish to pay. At the first summit meeting of the â€œBig Three,â€ Roosevelt hinted that the end of the war would likely mean the end of empire. Privately, Churchill fumed: â€œWhy should we apologize? We showed the world a model of Colonial development.â€
But to the Americans, fighting for freedom necessarily meant imperialism must also die. Thus, Churchillâ€™s powerful words inspired colonial populations to demand freedom; and his powerful ally in Washington would insist the British grant it. In essence, Churchillâ€™s words and his alliance with the United States won the war but cost him an empire.
With this important book, Richard Toye has mined a previously unexplored quarry of Churchill history. The book, like the man, is complex and compelling.