Rethinking Churchill, Part 2

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by
Ralph Raico

World
War I

In
1911, Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty, and now was
truly in his element. Naturally, he quickly allied himself with
the war party, and, during the crises that followed, fanned the
flames of war. When the final crisis came, in the summer of 1914,
Churchill was the only member of the cabinet who backed war from
the start, with all of his accustomed energy. Asquith, his own Prime
Minister, wrote of him: “Winston very bellicose and demanding immediate
mobilization. . . . Winston, who has got all his war paint on, is
longing for a sea fight in the early hours of the morning to result
in the sinking of the Goeben. The whole thing fills me with
sadness.”

On
the afternoon of July 28, three days before the German invasion
of Belgium, he mobilized the British Home Fleet, the greatest assemblage
of naval power in the history of the world to that time. As Sidney
Fay wrote, Churchill ordered that:

The
fleet was to proceed during the night at high speed and without
lights through the Straits of Dover from Portland to its fighting
base at Scapa Flow. Fearing to bring this order before the Cabinet,
lest it should be considered a provocative action likely to damage
the chances of peace, Mr. Churchill had only informed Mr. Asquith,
who at once gave his approval.

No
wonder that, when war with Germany broke out, Churchill, in contrast
even to the other chiefs of the war party, was all smiles, filled
with a “glowing zest.”

From
the outset of hostilities, Churchill, as head of the Admiralty,
was instrumental in establishing the hunger blockade of Germany.
This was probably the most effective weapon employed on either side
in the whole conflict. The only problem was that, according to everyone’s
interpretation of international law except Britain’s, it was illegal.
The blockade was not “close-in,” but depended on scattering mines,
and many of the goods deemed contraband for instance, food for civilians
had never been so classified before. But, throughout his career,
international law and the conventions by which men have tried to
limit the horrors of war meant nothing to Churchill. As a German
historian has dryly commented, Churchill was ready to break the
rules whenever the very existence of his country was at stake, and
“for him this was very often the case.”

The
hunger blockade had certain rather unpleasant consequences. About
750,000 German civilians succumbed to hunger and diseases caused
by malnutrition. The effect on those who survived was perhaps just
as frightful in its own way. A historian of the blockade concluded:
“the victimized youth [of World War I] were to become the most radical
adherents of National Socialism.” It was also complications arising
from the British blockade that eventually provided the pretext for
Wilson’s decision to go to war in 1917.

Whether
Churchill actually arranged for the sinking of the Lusitania
on May 7, 1915, is still unclear. A week before the disaster, he
wrote to Walter Runciman, President of the Board of Trade that it
was “most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores, in
the hopes especially of embroiling the United States with Germany.”
Many highly-placed persons in Britain and America believed that
the German sinking of the Lusitania would bring the United
States into the war.

The
most recent student of the subject is Patrick Beesly, whose Room
40 is a history of British Naval Intelligence in World War I.
Beesly’s careful account is all the more persuasive for going against
the grain of his own sentiments. He points out that the British
Admiralty was aware that German U-boat Command had informed U-boat
captains at sea of the sailings of the Lusitania, and that
the U-boat responsible for the sinking of two ships in recent days
was present in the vicinity of Queenstown, off the southern coast
of Ireland, in the path the Lusitania was scheduled to take.
There is no surviving record of any specific warning to the Lusitania.
No destroyer escort was sent to accompany the ship to port, nor
were any of the readily available destroyers instructed to hunt
for the submarine. In fact, “no effective steps were taken to protect
the Lusitania.” Beesly concludes:

unless
and until fresh information comes to light, I am reluctantly driven
to the conclusion that there was a conspiracy deliberately to put
the Lusitania at risk in the hope that even an abortive attack
on her would bring the United States into the war. Such a conspiracy
could not have been put into effect without Winston Churchill’s
express permission and approval.

In
any case, what is certain is that Churchill’s policies made the
sinking very likely. The Lusitania was a passenger liner
loaded with munitions of war; Churchill had given orders to the
captains of merchant ships, including liners, to ram German submarines
if they encountered them, and the Germans were aware of this. And,
as Churchill stressed in his memoirs of World War I, embroiling
neutral countries in hostilities with the enemy was a crucial part
of warfare: “There are many kinds of maneuvres in war, some only
of which take place on the battlefield. . . . The maneuvre which
brings an ally into the field is as serviceable as that which wins
a great battle.”

In
the midst of bloody conflict, Churchill was energy personified,
the source of one brainstorm after another. Sometimes his hunches
worked out well he was the chief promoter of the tank in World War
I sometimes not so well, as at Gallipoli. The notoriety of that
disaster, which blackened his name for years, caused him to be temporarily
dropped from the Cabinet in 1915. His reaction was typical: To one
visitor, he said, pointing to the maps on the wall: “This is what
I live for . . . Yes, I am finished in respect of all I care for
the waging of war, the defeat of the Germans.”

Between
the Wars

For
the next few years, Churchill was shuttled from one ministerial
post to another. As Minister of War of Churchill in this position
one may say what the revisionist historian Charles Tansill said
of Henry Stimson as Secretary of War: no one ever deserved the title
more Churchill promoted a crusade to crush Bolshevism in Russia.
As Colonial Secretary, he was ready to involve Britain in war with
Turkey over the Chanak incident, but the British envoy to Turkey
did not deliver Churchill’s ultimatum, and in the end cooler heads
prevailed.

In
1924, Churchill rejoined the Conservatives and was made Chancellor
of the Exchequer. His father, in the same office, was noted for
having been puzzled by the decimals: what were “those damned dots”?
Winston’s most famous act was to return Britain to the gold standard
at the unrealistic pre-war parity, thus severely damaging the export
trade and ruining the good name of gold, as was pointed out by Murray
N. Rothbard. Hardly anyone today would disagree with the judgment
of A.J.P. Taylor: Churchill “did not grasp the economic arguments
one way or the other. What determined him was again a devotion to
British greatness. The pound would once more ‘look the dollar in
the face’; the days of Queen Victoria would be restored.”

So
far Churchill had been engaged in politics for 30 years, with not
much to show for it except a certain notoriety. His great claim
to fame in the modern mythology begins with his hard line against
Hitler in the 1930s. But it is important to realize that Churchill
had maintained a hard line against Weimar Germany, as well. He denounced
all calls for Allied disarmament, even before Hitler came to power.
Like other Allied leaders, Churchill was living a protracted fantasy:
that Germany would submit forever to what it viewed as the shackles
of Versailles. In the end, what Britain and France refused to grant
to a democratic Germany they were forced to concede to Hitler. Moreover,
if most did not bother to listen when Churchill fulminated on the
impending German threat, they had good reason. He had tried to whip
up hysteria too often before: for a crusade against Bolshevik Russia,
during the General Strike of 1926, on the mortal dangers of Indian
independence, in the abdication crisis. Why pay any heed to his
latest delusion?

Churchill
had been a strong Zionist practically from the start, holding that
Zionism would deflect European Jews from social revolution to partnership
with European imperialism in the Arab world. Now, in 1936, he forged
links with the informal London pressure group known as The Focus,
whose purpose was to open the eyes of the British public to the
one great menace, Nazi Germany. “The great bulk of its finance came
from rich British Jews such as Sir Robert Mond (a director of several
chemical firms) and Sir Robert Waley-Cohn, the managing director
of Shell, the latter contributing 50,000.” The Focus was to be
useful in expanding Churchill’s network of contacts and in pushing
for his entry into the Cabinet.

Though
a Conservative MP, Churchill began berating the Conservative governments,
first Baldwin’s and then Chamberlain’s, for their alleged blindness
to the Nazi threat. He vastly exaggerated the extent of German rearmament,
formidable as it was, and distorted its purpose by harping on German
production of heavy-bombers. This was never a German priority, and
Churchill’s fabrications were meant to demonstrate a German design
to attack Britain, which was never Hitler’s intention. At this time,
Churchill busily promoted the Grand Alliance that was to include
Britain, France, Russia, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. Since the Poles,
having nearly been conquered by the Red Army in 1920, rejected any
coalition with the Soviet Union, and since the Soviets’ only access
to Germany was through Poland, Churchill’s plan was worthless.

Ironically
considering that it was a pillar of his future fame his drumbeating
about the German danger was yet another position on which Churchill
reneged. In the fall of 1937, he stated:

Three
or four years ago I was myself a loud alarmist. . . . In spite of
the risks which wait on prophecy, I declare my belief that a major
war is not imminent, and I still believe that there is a good chance
of no major war taking place in our lifetime. . . . I will not pretend
that, if I had to choose between Communism and Nazism, I would choose
Communism.

For
all the claptrap about Churchill’s “far-sightedness” during the
30s in opposing the “appeasers,” in the end the policy of the Chamberlain
government to rearm as quickly as possible, while testing the chances
for peace with Germany was more realistic than Churchill’s.

The
common mythology is so far from historical truth that even an ardent
Churchill sympathizer, Gordon Craig, feels obliged to write:

The
time is long past when it was possible to see the protracted debate
over British foreign policy in the 1930s as a struggle between Churchill,
an angel of light, fighting against the velleities of uncomprehending
and feeble men in high places. It is reasonably well-known today
that Churchill was often ill-informed, that his claims about German
strength were exaggerated and his prescriptions impractical, that
his emphasis on air power was misplaced.

Moreover,
as a British historian has recently noted: “For the record, it is
worth recalling that in the 1930s Churchill did not oppose the appeasement
of either Italy or Japan.” It is also worth recalling that it was
the pre-Churchill British governments that furnished the material
with which Churchill was able to win the Battle of Britain. Clive
Ponting has observed:

the
Baldwin and Chamberlain Governments . . . had ensured that Britain
was the first country in the world to deploy a fully integrated
system of air defence based on radar detection of incoming aircraft
and ground control of fighters . . . Churchill’s contribution
had been to pour scorn on radar when he was in opposition in the
1930s.

Ralph
Raico is professor of history at Buffalo State College and a senior
scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

Due
to space limitations, the 169 detailed footnotes – which thoroughly
document all assertions in Professor Raico’s paperRaico’s paper
– are not included. They are, of course, included in the printed
version of the paper, published in The Costs of War,
available from the Mises Institute.

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