There was a time when I was in a literature class in college where the professor laid out his grading philosophy. He said something along the lines of, “When I’m grading your paper, I don’t have to agree with the argument that you’re making. I just need to see that you’re able to support it with evidence from the text.”
And I think that’s a really good way to go about life. I don’t agree with every argument I see, but I try to evaluate it based on the evidence it gives.
So, let’s take a look at “In Winston Churchill, Hollywood rewards a mass murderer,” by Shashi Tharoor, published March 10th by the Washington Post. I recommend reading it in whole before continuing with this article.
Written ostensibly in response to the fact that Gary Oldman won an Oscar for portraying Winston Churchill in the film, Darkest Hour, this article is flawed from the title on. Before we even dive into the body of the article, I feel the need to point out that neither portraying someone in a movie or winning an award for that portrayal honors the person who was portrayed.
However, if I am mistaken, here’s a list of works that have honored Adolf Hitler that Tharoor might like to go protest.
In fact, his argument has nothing to with Gary Oldman or with Darkest Hour. Instead, he wants to prove to you that Winston Churchill was a bad person. As he says in the piece, “[w]ords, in the end, are all that Churchill admirers can point to. His actions are another matter altogether.”
His thesis, while never explicitly stated, appears to be something along the lines of “Winston Churchill is not a good man, but rather a mass murderer, a warmonger, and a racist.”
The funny thing is that most of the sources Tharoor links to partially or wholly refute parts of his argument.
His first link builds the case that unlike Eisenhower, Churchill “push[ed] for an early, negotiated settlement to the Cold War . . . characterized by a penchant for diplomacy via personal relationships,” which doesn’t sound much like a warmonger.
His second link provides a glowing review of a biography of Churchill, which is quoted as calling the man “the greatest human being ever to occupy 10 Downing Street.”
The third link is used to source a quote, one which calls Churchill most famous speech “sublime nonsense.” Funnily enough, the quote was used in an article which uses that same quote to warn against the dangers of historical revisionist pieces, like the one Tharoor is writing. It goes on to credit Churchill with “sav[ing] the Western world,” and argues that is a point which is generally agreed upon.
The fourth link is used as the source of the idea that “Churchill declared himself in favor of ‘terror bombing.” This appears to be a misquote of the passage, which reads “Churchill wrote that he wanted ‘absolutely devastating, exterminating attacks by very heavy bombers from this country upon the Nazi homeland.’ In another letter, he called it ‘terror bombing.’”
Other sources suggest that Churchill “was critical” of terror bombing, and quote Churchill’s rather haunting response to footage of one such attack. “Are we beasts?” Churchill asked. “Are we taking this too far?”
The fifth link is alleged to support the claim that Churchill was “in favor of bombing Irish protesters, suggesting in 1920 that airplanes should use ‘machine-gun fire or bombs’ to scatter them.” What is present via the link, and that Tharoor conveniently leaves out, is that the “protestors” in question were members of Sin Fein, who were training fighters participating in the Irish War of Independence and were thus valid military targets, and that the next part of the quote was “using of course no more force than is necessary to scatter and stampede them.”
The sixth link is used to support the claim that “Churchill acted as a war criminal,” related to his use of chemical weapons during the Russian Civil War. This article appears to be full of errors, failing to mention that the vast majority of shipped chemical weapons were not used and that while the effects of the gas in question were quite unpleasant, they were nonlethal. It’s also worth pointing out that the Geneva Protocol, which banned chemical weapons use was not signed until 1925, around six years after the gassings took place.
The seventh link is used as a source for the quote “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against the uncivilised tribes; it would spread a lively terror.” Other sources reveal the full quote to be “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes. The moral effect should be so good that the loss of life should be reduced to a minimum. It is not necessary to use only the most deadly gasses: gasses can be used which cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively terror and yet would leave no serious permanent effects on most of those affected.”
The eighth link is used to suggest that Churchill “ordered large-scale bombing of Mesopotamia,” but both that article and this one suggest some ambiguity as to whose strategy that actually was.
The ninth link is used as a source for the quote, “Pashtuns ‘needed to recognise the superiority of [the British] race.’” Infuriatingly, this is a misquote. The quote in the article reads “Such action was vital, Churchill argued, because the Pashtuns “recognise superiority of race,” which seems to have the opposite meaning in context.
The tenth link supports a quote about the brutality of the British in Pakistan, and implies that he was behind it, but fails to mention that Churchill was a war correspondent at the time, and described the violence as “horrible and revolting.”
The eleventh link is related to crimes committed to Britain’s activities in Kenya, but fails to mention Churchill, and also points out that “[t]he colonial secretary, Alan Lennox-Boyd, repeatedly lied to the House of Commons.” You can’t stop what you don’t know is happening.
The twelfth link is about Kenya again but includes quotes, such as the one about using gas on ‘uncivilized’ people that I’ve debunked elsewhere.
The thirteenth link is once again the twelfth link. See above.
The fourteenth link is the sixth link again. See above.
The fifteenth link is the first one that seems to hold any water, even if it does come from a questionable source. It was, in fact, hypocritical of Churchill to sign the Atlantic Charter, which promoted self-determination for all peoples and then reject India’s movement towards self-determination.
The sixteenth link is hidden behind a paywall. The quote appears to be genuine, though it’s worth noting that Tharoor’s previous sentence isn’t supported by the quote. There’s a bit of a leap in logic.
The seventeenth link is something of a misquote. Tharoor writes that “Leopold Amery, confessed that he could see very little difference between Churchill’s attitude and Adolf Hitler’s.” The actual quote reads, “Leo Amery, Secretary of State for India, exploded at him, comparing his attitudes to Hitler’s.” While the difference is subtle, Tharoor’s version is a much harsher critique not justified by his source.
While it is not a link, Tharoor states that “some 4 million Bengalis starved to death in a 1943 famine.” The scholarly consensus is that this number is 2.1 million, or half Tharoor’s number.1 Tharoor wants to pin this on Churchill, the Wikipedia page on the famine lists at least six other relevant factors: inefficient agricultural practices, over-population, debt bondage and land grabbing, a crop-destroying cyclone, storm surges, flooding, and rice-crop disease. That’s not even including the various factors related to World War II. Tharoor also fails to mention the fact that the exact causes are still a matter of scholarly debate.
The eighteenth link is used to support the idea that “Greek protesters on the streets of Athens . . . were mowed down on Churchill’s orders,” which isn’t a claim that can’t clearly be found in the article that is linked. Protestors were shot, but it doesn’t appear to have been on Churchill’s explicit orders, and the first shots appear to have been fired by Greeks working with the British. The article states that “Churchill arrived in the Greek capital in a failed bid to make peace.”
I find it hard to condemn this piece in strong enough terms.
This is an awful piece of journalism. While I understand that it is an opinion piece, it holds no regards for the facts. At least twice, Shashi Tharoor misquotes his sources. When he’s not misquoting sources, he is presenting an extremely biased case based on misleading sources. At times, he uses good sources but fails to include the evidence contained within those that would undermine parts of his case. Instead of striving for a nuanced, factually-correct view, Tharoor seems determined to build a strong case, even if it involves regularly misleading his readers.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m not trying to make the case that Churchill was a saint, but I do believe that our evaluation of the man should be based on all relevant facts, not just the ones that support a particular position.
And to be honest, I’m not really upset with Shashi Tharoor. Clearly, he has an ax to grind with Winston Churchill.
But I am really disappointed in the Washington Post. The editors there apparently failed to apply even a modicum of fact-checking to this piece, despite the fact that almost everything in it is misleading or false. That’s just bad journalism.
- Some estimates do go as high as 3.8 million, though that’s still 200,000 less than Tharoor’s number.