FINEST HOUR 142, SPRING 2009
Myth: “Churchill Caused the 1943-45 Bengal Famine”
Fact: The Blame Rests with the Japanese
Finest Hour bestows our 2008 Utter Excess Award on MWC (“Media with Conscience”) in Vancouver for Gideon Polya’s charming editorial, “Media Lying over Churchill’s Crimes“: “Churchill is our hero because of his leadership in World War II,” but his immense crimes, notably the WW2 Bengali Holocaust, the 1943-45 Bengal Famine in which Churchill murdered 6-7 million Indians, have been deleted from history by extraordinary Anglo-American and Zionist Holocaust Denial.”
Polya cites a long list of Churchill “crimes,” including all the old chestnuts (poison-gassing the Iraqis, warmongering before WW1, Gallipoli, bombing German cities, etc.); and some new ones: “Churchill actively sought the entry of Japan into World War II.” That one reminds us of Churchill’s observation that he had never heard the opposite of the truth stated with greater precision. We have dealt with most of these before (over and over)—so let’s consider the new flagship accusation.
Gideon Polya dismisses all who disagree with him, including Sir Martin Gilbert, as Zionist propagandists. Since it’s always a good idea to question the accused, we asked Sir Martin. “Churchill was not responsible for the Bengal Famine,” he replied. “I have been searching for evidence for years: none has turned up. The 1944 Document volume of the official biography [Hillsdale College Press] will resolve this issue finally.”
We next turned to Arthur Herman’s Gandhi & Churchill (FH 138: 51-52). There is much on the Bengal Famine (512 et. seq.). Secretary of State for India Leo Amery, Herman writes,
at first took a lofty Malthusian view of the crisis, arguing that India was “overpopulated” and that the best strategy was to do nothing. But by early summer even Amery was concerned and urged the War Cabinet to Gandhi’s fast his mood about India had progressively darkened. [He was] resolutely opposed to any food shipments. Ships were desperately needed for the landings in Italy….Besides, Churchill felt it would do no good. Famine or no famine, Indians will “breed like rabbits.” Amery prevailed on him to send some relief, albeit only a quarter what was needed. A quarter of what was needed may also have been all that was possible by ship; but Churchill was also hoping for more aid from India itself.
Mr. Herman elaborated in a note to FH:
The idea that Churchill was in any way “responsible” or “caused” the Bengal famine is of course absurd. The real cause was the fall of Burma to the Japanese, which cut off India’s main supply of rice imports when domestic sources fell short. It is true that Churchill opposed diverting food supplies and transports from other theaters to India to cover the shortfall: this was wartime. Some of his angry remarks to Amery don’t read very nicely in retrospect. However, anyone who has been through the relevant documents reprinted in The [India] Transfer of Power volumes knows the facts: Churchill was concerned about the humanitarian catastrophe taking place there, and he pushed for whatever famine relief efforts India itself could provide; they simply weren’t adequate. Something like three million people died in Bengal and other parts of southern India as a result. We might even say that Churchill indirectly broke the Bengal famine by appointing as Viceroy Field Marshal Wavell, who mobilized the military to transport food and aid to the stricken regions (something that hadn’t occurred to anyone, apparently).
If the famine had occurred in peacetime, Herman added “it would have been dealt with effectively and quickly by the Raj, as so often in the past. At worst, Churchill’s failure was not sending more aid—in the midst of fighting a war for survival. World War II, of course, is what Churchill’s slanderers avoid considering.”
Martin Gilbert added:
The Japanese were already inside India at Kohima and Imphal. Gandhi’s Quit India movement, and Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army then fighting alongside the Japanese, provided the incentive for a full-scale Japanese invasion. The RAF and the Army were fully stretched. We know what terrors the Japanese wreaked on non-Japanese natives in Korea, the Philippines, and Malaya. If the RAF planes supporting India’s defence were pulled off for a famine airlift, far more than three million would have died. The blame for insufficient famine relief lies with those who prevented those planes from being used: the Japanese.
Despite Churchill’s expressions about Gandhi, clearly he did attempt to alleviate the famine. As William Manchester wrote, Churchill “always had second and third thoughts, and they usually improved as he went along.”
So what have we left besides the lie about “deliberate, sustained, remorseless starving to death of 6-7 million Indians”? As a wrap, “Media With Conscience” offers every critical quote it can find by Churchill on Indians. Thirteen years ago at our 1995 conference, one of these was recited by William F. Buckley, Jr.:
Working his way through disputatious bureaucracy from separatists in New Delhi he exclaimed, to his secretary, “I hate Indians.” I don’t doubt that the famous gleam came to his eyes when he said this, with mischievous glee—an offense, in modern convention, of genocidal magnitude.
And sure enough, here is that remark, represented just as Buckley described it. Polya’s piece is a prize-winning example of the myopic determination to find guilt where there is none. Yes, WSC had a blind spot about Gandhi—despite his positive initiatives to Gandhi in 1935, Nehru in 1953. Churchill was human and made mistakes; He remains admirable, in part because he gave all his papers to an archive where carpers can pore over them. And fifty years of poring has not significantly changed the verdict of history about him.
The best summation of this non-article is the line by Jack Nicholson in the charming film As Good as it Gets: “Sell crazy someplace else We’re all stocked up here.” RML