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Winston Churchill's Perverse Place in the American Imagination

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill circa 1942. (Steven Buyanksy / Flickr)

One of the only nice things to ever result from America’s propensity for insane, seemingly pointless acts of defiance is that we wriggled free from the grasp of the British royal family. This glorious emancipation from the Commonwealth is perhaps more an aesthetic than a substantive concern. The American Revolution is surely the only revolt against British colonial rule in which the rebelling force comes across in any world history textbook as far more unreasonable and churlish than the redcoats ranged against them. And having gone to war to avoid paying taxes for the defense of their own nation, it is our founding fathers who are stained by the great shame of slaveholding, while the British were emancipating those black soldiers who joined them.

Nevertheless. For a people who have far outmatched John Bull’s capacity for unreasoning hostility and international violence, Americans should consider themselves lucky to be free from anything so humiliating as a lingering subservience to the Queen. After all, as any defender of American liberty would tell you, any such submission would be not merely uncharacteristic of the national spirit, but fatal. From the Alamo to the USS Maine to Vietnam, we thrive on a bloody, almost suicidal disregard for fellow countries, alternative political systems and basic facts. We are not a people meant to compete in the Commonwealth Games, or to pay homage to a Governor General; our leaders can barely attend the United Nations without foaming at the mouth, and that body is still situated in the continental U.S. 

So what is the deal with Winston Churchill in the American imagination? Like the inexplicable popularity of royal weddings, the British bulldog’s portly frame casts a long shadow across the Atlantic. It’s hard to imagine another historical ally of the United States who’s earned a similar reverence in pop culture or cachet among tired political speechwriters hoping to bring an audience to its feet. And while I would never, ever disparage the efforts of Gary Oldman, who earned an Academy Award for his turn as the British prime minister in last year’s “Darkest Hour,” it is a bit mystifying as to why such a thoroughly English figure would be of such compelling interest to Americans in 2018.

Ridiculous crypto-fascist William F. Buckley, who saw nothing wrong with speaking like Thurston Howell III, was fond of saying conservatives were liberals who had been mugged by reality. But what then are we to make of the reality of Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill? And who is the less deceived here?

Perhaps it is the identities of those trumpeting—and deprecating—Churchill’s example that provide some clues as to the attraction. As seen in Rudy Giuliani’s endless, spurious self-mythologizing on 9/11, Rick Santorum’s warning of a new “gathering storm” of nefarious brown people, or George W. Bush’s citation of a speech that was never actually delivered, the war-time prime minister has become an indispensable reference in the annals of Yankee politico schlock—one that evinces the kind of worldliness a speaker might just as easily acquire visiting a Heathrow airport Burger King.

Indeed, for someone so dead, Old Winston sure is present in the minds of today’s politicians. Just look at Donald Trump’s scowling, po-faced official portrait—a conscious nod to Churchill. Or listen to Hillary Clinton’s recent admonishment of the British Tories, who, having failed to censure Hungarian leader Viktor Orban’s fascist shadowboxing, have apparently come “a long way since the days of Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill.

But something curious happened last week following a far more benign invocation of Winston’s name, which nevertheless got at some sideways truths about the nature of our imperialist mindset and love affair with all things Churchillian. It started, as so many controversies do, on Twitter:

Astronaut Scott Kelly’s sardonic response to the disgrace of Supreme Court Justice and alleged sexual abuser Brett Kavanaugh certainly seemed laudable enough. Yet Twitter users responded angrily, not to the topical content of the tweet, but to the provenance of the quote with Winston Churchill—one of the most vicious mass murderers of the 20th century.

Even stranger for a Twitter user, Kelly apologized for the quotation, completing the circuit through which conservative rage could now flow, disgusted as they invariably are by any such effrontery. And electrifying it was, inflaming the passions of everyone from Little Englanders like Piers Morgan, to twerpy campus shouters like Ben Shapiro, to the white nationalist sympathizers at the Daily Caller. As with so many of the right’s tempests in teapots, the incident beat that same, dull note: look how foolish the sensitive, regressive left is, barking at something so inoffensive and fundamental to all that makes us great.

Lord Byron once wrote of a jilted lover, “Thou false to him, thou fiend to me!” It’s not a bad description of Winston Churchill in this situation. Given the thorough-going exaggeration of his merits, parroted by his many sycophants over the years, it shouldn’t be a surprise that his biggest defenders lack much in the way of any understanding of the man’s actual record—nor do they care about the senseless terror he enacted upon those unlucky enough find themselves his victims.

Senselessness is an important theme, looking at Churchill’s life. His WWI plan for a naval assault against the Ottoman Empire threw as many ANZAC troops as possible against the shores of Turkey, a disaster that cost his side over 300,000 lives. It also foreshadowed his contributions to World War II, specifically the invasion of Italy—an inexplicably bloody backwater theater. While Churchill promised Italy to be the “soft underbelly of Europe,” as the War Nerd pointed out years ago, there was nothing soft about ascending the rocky steps of Monte Cassino under withering defensive action.

Not that Churchill was truly animated by a hatred of the right enemies, even during his putative glory days during World War II. Like all bullies, Churchill despised and shivved anyone weaker than him, while sucking up to any potentate more vicious and iron-hearted. He was never interested in a fair fight, with anybody, a tendency he took to mystifying extremes in his war planning. And nowhere was this more clear than in his prewar sympathies toward the worst fascists imaginable.

How do we know Churchill admired Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler? Well, he wrote about it at length. As he infamously observed, “in the conflict between Fascism and Bolshevism, there was no doubt where my sympathies and convictions lay.” So admiring were the letters he exchanged with Il Duce that they inspired speculation he might be susceptible to mid-war blackmail. As recounted by Jacobin, as late as 1935, Churchill complimented Hitler’s “courage [and] perseverance,” at a time when Germany was beginning to rearm in contravention of the Versailles Treaty.

The subsequent myth-making undertaken by Churchill—of him, alone, as the sole man standing up to fascism in the dark interwar period—is not merely a lie, hatched later to launder his image. It obscures his sympathies to the same forces who would later kill so many of his constituents, to say nothing of the tens of millions slaughtered across the continent and during the Holocaust. And Churchill’s retroactive reimagining of his role as such a defender of all things decent, against the indefensible policies of Neville Chamberlain, ignores another salient point. The appeasement of Hitler was deeply popular with a British public terrified of another conflict capable of wiping out an entire generation, while Chamberlain’s successful delay of combat in Europe provided crucial time for Britain to rearm and eventually win the war.

Taken in this light, the constant, immodest comparisons of an egocentric warmonger like John McCain to Churchill are more apt than perhaps those making them even realize. Indeed, the butchers of fascist Europe were still cutting their teeth while Churchill was showing them how it was done: In Ireland, where Churchill dispatched the death squad known as the “Black and Tans” to brutalize restive civilians; in Palestine, where he did much the same to recalcitrant Arabs; in Iraq, where he urged the use of poison gas on the population; in Iran, whose democratic leader he successfully plotted to overthrow with American connivance; and, to most devastating effect, in India and Bangladesh, where in 1943 he helped starve 3 million to death, blaming this “beastly people” for “breeding like rabbits.”  

Churchill’s depravity does not end there. Take his insane plot to invade the USSR after WWII, in “Operation Unthinkable,” his vast personal debts and compulsive drinking, as well as his bizarre inaction against the death camps of the Nazi Holocaust. What is incontrovertible is that, following his leadership in WWII, the British public quickly unseated him as prime minister. And so he should have remained in his dotage, a malignant figure best forgotten.

Still, the myth of Churchill’s greatness persists despite this track record of ignominy, and the reasons why are damning. In his retroactive telling, as a man of consequence, far-sighted and wise, he achieved the ultimate aim of every rotten and amoral politician. The lust and jealousy to hold a similarly grand position of power, with the fate of whole world revolving around their individual struggle, is an urge that has united figures as supposedly disparate as Donald Trump and Barack Obama. It is this selfish and solipsistic conception of politics—one that treats any struggle as a board game upon which personal success will be staked—that is the great delusion of America’s sclerotic leadership.

But it should take careful note of Churchill’s example. Such glory only comes so long as your side wins.

 

Dan O'Sullivan
Dan O'Sullivan is a freelance writer. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, the Daily Beast, Deadspin, Jacobin, and…
Dan O'Sullivan

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