Michael Gerson doesn’t like Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s new book on Churchill:
The charge that he maliciously caused the Bengal famine – in the sense that Joseph Stalin caused the Ukrainian famine – seems half-baked.
Gerson’s complaint against the book is that he thinks the author is “a snide journalist fishing with a tiny ideological net” and he claims that Wheatcroft supposedly cannot do justice to the subject. This is an unfair cheap shot at the author, and it suggests that Gerson is frustrated that he doesn’t have a serious defense for the ugliest parts of Churchill’s record. It is convenient that Gerson decides that “isn’t possible to consider each of the charges here,” because if he had to consider the charge of Churchill’s responsibility for the 1943 Bengal famine he would not be able to mount much of a defense. At best, Churchill was guilty of horrible neglect that led to the preventable deaths of millions of people living under the rule of the government he led. The evidence strongly supports the contention that the reality was far worse than simple neglect. He did not just “fail” to “prevent” the famine. In his history of famine, Mass Starvation, Alex de Waal comments on the causes of the Bengal famine:
It is also now well established that the colonial government in London bears the greater responsibility for causing the famine [bold mine-DL] by requisitioning food reserves and stopping all waterborne means of transport, including fishing boats, for fear that these might be useful to the Japanese army which was advancing through Burma, and for failing to enact standard relief measures when the famine was underway. Prime Minister Churchill insisted that food supplies to Britain itself should in no way be jeopardized by providing famine relief to a British imperial possession. Churchill’s offensive views of the Indian people undoubtedly played a role in this, the most lethal of British crimes during the war.
Madhusree Mukerjee, author of Churchill’s Secret War, explained Churchill’s responsibility like this:
On August 4, 1943, Winston Churchill made one of his most important but least known decisions: he declined to send wheat to India, then a British colony, thereby condemning hundreds of thousands, or possibly millions, of people to death by starvation. The inhabitants of Bengal, an eastern province of India where famine was raging, were of little value to the war effort and in any case they were “breeding like rabbits,” he explained at subsequent War Cabinet meetings (as recorded by Leopold Amery, the Secretary of State for India).
Did Churchill “maliciously” cause the famine? I don’t think we can know if he made the decisions he made out of malice, but he clearly made them out of indifference to Indian lives. If the best defense Churchill admirers can muster is that “at least it wasn’t the Holodomor,” perhaps they should reflect on why they feel the need to make excuses for a mass atrocity. In her history of India’s role in WWII, The Raj at War, Yasmin Khan described the thinking that led to the famine:
Some people’s lives were not seen as worthy of preserving. The state was geared in every way to the war and prioritised this at all costs. Human negligence and failure to prioritise other human lives as equal was the root cause. Certain lives were not seen as worthy of mourning, or as fully valid as others, and the lives of the people of Bengal had been sacrificed towards the greater global aim of winning the war. The lives of the famine victims were a cost of the Second World War, but these casualties were not counted as such.
Read the rest of the article at Eunomia
Daniel Larison is a weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.