Was Winston Churchill a racist? Does it matter?

Was the great British leader, who helped keep his citizens’ spirits up during Word War II and who was warning the rest of Western civilization about Nazi Germany and its atrocities years before it became public knowledge…was he, could he have been a racist?

In the course of searching through the Internet, researching facts and topics to write about, I’ve subscribed to Quora.com. This site works in an interesting way: People like you and I submit a question…and, if either a marketing intern or Kat Li at Quora determines that it could gather many popular responses (“I have a bias for topical content that has mass appeal,” says Li), then it’s featured (or “shared”) on the website.

There’s some interesting things there…when you subscribe you get an email every few days with the latest trending topics.

LIke this one…Was Winston Churchill a racist? Hmmmmm….

Andy Lee Chaisiri, Writer. Artist. History fan.
Was Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of Britain, a racist? Let’s have the man speak for himself:

I do not agree that the dog in a manger has the final right to the manger even though he may have lain there for a very long time. I do not admit that right. I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.

-Churchill addressing the Peel Commission (1937) on why Britain is justified in deciding the fate of Palestine

I am strongly in favour of using poisonous gas against uncivilised tribes 

-Churchill on how Britain should deal with the Iraqi revolution against British rule in 1920

Gandhi-ism and everything it stands for will have to be grappled with and crushed

-Churchill, on the independence movement in India, 1930

“It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer of the type well-known in the East, now posing as a fakir, striding half naked up the steps of the Viceregal palace to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor.”

-Comment on Gandhi’s meeting with the British Viceroy of India, addressing the Council of the West Essex Unionist Association (23 February 1931); as quoted in “Mr Churchill on India” in The Times (24 February 1931)

I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.

-Entry dated to September 1942 on a conversation held with Churchill in Leo Amery : Diaries. 

I hope it would be bitter and bloody!

-Churchill, upon hearing news of conflict between the Muslim League and Indian Congress, July 1940

If food is scarce, why isn’t Gandhi dead yet?

-Churchill’s witty retort to British Secretary of State for India Leo Amery’s telegram for food stock to relieve the famine of Bengal in 1943 (4 million peopled starved to death.)

Relief would do no good, Indians breed like rabbits and will outstrip any available food supply

-Leo Amery records Churchill’s stance on why famine relief was refused to India, 1944


Was Churchill’s thinking merely a ‘product of his time’? Let’s look at how others ‘of his time’ viewed him:

On the subject of India, Winston is not quite sane… I didn’t see much difference between his outlook and Hitler’s

-Leo Amery, British Secretary of State for India

“History will be kind to me for I intend to write it”

-Winston Churchill

Such a witty guy.

On the other hand, as this gentleman points out:
Tim Scott, Software Developer, Entrepreneur

Sure, he was a racist in today’s terms.  He was probably  a racist in his day’s terms as well. He was a throwback to generation prior.But there’s something we oughtn’t forget. Churchill has his favorable place in history because he led the allies out of the war.  But that’s not what’s most admirable about him. Rather it’s that he, nearly alone, battled for the better part of a decade to avert the worst manifestation of racism the world has ever known. Had the world listened to him, the holocaust would have been averted.

The pacifist ideology that gripped Europe in the 1930s and led to the war certainly rings much sweeter in our ears today than Churhill’s hateful utterances.  But do we care more for causes or effects?

Or these thoughts:
Anon User
It’s one of the worst tendencies of moralists to delude themselves and everyone else that the triumph of ideals is the result of their inevitability due to their high moral quality, as though human beings have somehow become better people.  Our ideals are the result of luxury, afforded by the titanically high standard of living brought to us by large-scale capitalism.  To judge the past harshly for not having been so wealthy, well-traveled and well-educated about the world as to be able to afford our degree of idealism is hypocrisy on a monumental scale.  Abraham Lincoln once said,”I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in anyway the social and political equality of the white and black races – that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”(4th Debate with Stephen Douglas, September 18, 1858)

Lincoln was wrong.  But he shouldn’t be judged on any standards but those of his own time.  And neither should Churchill.

The point is: were his views racist? Yes.

I’m not going to attempt to justify his views, and I don’t believe that anyone should, because there is no justification that would make sense in today’s world. That’s not to say that whether it was today’s or yesterday’s world should matter–racism is racism.

But views change. Let me point out a few beliefs that have been proven wrong over the many years, as the race of man has developed socially and intellectually:

  • When Christopher Columbus arrived in what he wrongly believed to be India and the Orient in 1492, he thought the native people to be savages. This was in all likelihood true for all of the early “discoverers” of the North American continent. Was this correct? No, of course not. A race of man that has different cultures and beliefs only makes them just that–different.
  • Thomas Jefferson was one of the creators of the structure of the United States government. He wrote the Declaration of Independence, in which it states right at the start of the second paragraph: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal….” Yet, Jefferson owned slaves. It’s said that he believed–as many did at that time–they were not human beings, but property–like cattle or livestock. Was this correct? Again–no, of course not. Such notions are ridiculous. Even the poorest, least intelligent, severely mentally handicapped person is not livestock, but a human being.
  • Abraham Lincoln, in the Quora answer shown above, makes references that sound downright bigoted in comparison to the Lincoln we’ve been taught. However, in 1855–three years earlier–he wrote a litter to his personal friend and slave owner Horace Speed, from Kentucky:

You know I dislike slavery; and you fully admit the abstract wrong of it. … I also acknowledge your rights and my obligations, under the constitution, in regard to your slaves. I confess I hate to see the poor creatures hunted down, and caught, and carried back to their stripes, and unrewarded toils; but I bite my lip and keep quiet. In 1841 you and I had together a tedious low-water trip, on a Steam Boat from Louisville to St. Louis. You may remember, as I well do, that from Louisville to the mouth of the Ohio, there were, on board, ten or a dozen slaves, shackled together with irons. That sight was a continued torment to me; and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio, or any other slave-border. It is hardly fair for you to assume, that I have no interest in a thing which has, and continually exercises, the power of making me miserable. You ought rather to appreciate how much the great body of the Northern people do crucify their feelings, in order to maintain their loyalty to the Constitution and the Union. . . How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.”

The position of the abolition of slavery was a very hot topic with the landowners in the South. In the debates with his rival Stephen Douglas, Lincoln tried to downplay his feelings on abolitionism, even as they went against his own personal ones.

You can espouse bigoted and racist remarks all day long. While this is hardly an ideal social stance, perhaps it’s more what your actions say about you, as noted above with Lincoln (again from Quora:)

It is certainly true that Churchill’s attitudes are racist by today’s standards, but they were also more extreme than many of his contemporaries, who said so, and I acknowledge this even though I am an admirer.
He sometimes overcame his attitudes for one or another reason – when the Royal Navy refused to promote one man to high rank because of his lower class accent and another because he was Indian, he overruled them vehemently, and sharply rebuked his great friend Anthony Eden for remarks and actions regarding rescuing Balkan Jewish refugees. He respected the Japanese after covering them as a correspondent in the Russo-Japanese War. The first great wave of non-white immigration to Britain came during his second term as Prime Minister.

Racism and bigotry is undesirable in all its forms, and ultimately is based on ignorance and fear. As we grow less ignorant and less fearful of others who don’t resemble us, may we remember these previous lessons, so we cannot make these same mistakes ever again.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”…George Santayana


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