The re­al­ist and the utopian: Churchill ver­sus Gandhi

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

As a re­li­gious paci­fist while a stu­dent at the Brethren the­o­log­i­cal sem­i­nary Chicago in 1943, I con­fess to an early in­fat­u­a­tion with Ma­hatma Gandhi. Along with a dozen other like­minded stu­dents, I marched peace­fully at the Bri­tish Con­sulate hold­ing hand­made signs read­ing “Free In­dia!” and “Free Gandhi!” My in­ter­est in Gandhi was also ex­pressed shortly af­ter Hiroshima when I ar­rived in Lon­don to work for the World’s YMCA.

Dur­ing my three years in post­war Europe, mainly in war shat­tered West Ger­many, I for­sook Gandhi for Win­ston Churchill — the two great an­tag­o­nists who for three decades fought over the fate of In­dia, the jewel on Queen Vic­to­ria’s’ crown. Both men stud­ied in Eng­land, and both had a “late Vic­to­rian” ed­u­ca­tion and shared a com­mit­ment to free­dom and democ­racy, though they dif­fered pro­foundly on how to achieve th­ese goals in a world of war and con­flict. Both men had great dreams rooted in tightly held con­vic­tions.

Yet, what does a proud cigar­chomp­ing Bri­tish pa­tri­cian have in com­mon with a small brown as­cetic man in a loin cloth?

Churchill was to the manor born. Gandhi was born into a high caste well-to-do mid­dle class Hindu fam­ily and lived in a “fine” three-story house. For decades, each man was ob­sessed with the fu­ture of In­dia. In his metic­u­lously re­searched book, Arthur Her­man ex­am­ines the strug­gle of th­ese two un­likely ti­tans, though he does not say who was the more in­flu­en­tial in de­ter­min­ing the fate of Bri­tish In­dia, much less in the tribal-re­li­gious car­nage be­tween Hin­dus and Moslems that the ripped the sub­con­ti­nent apart.

Churchill con­ceded that Gandhi was a great man, but said that he was on the wrong side of his­tory for op­pos­ing the Bri­tish of­fer of Do­min­ion or Com­mon­wealth sta­tus for In­dia and in­sist­ing on com­plete in­de­pen­dence. The sin­gle-minded Churchill once called pro­posed con­ces­sions to In­dia a “hideous act of self-mu­ti­la­tion.”

Dur­ing World War II, the In­dia ques­tion was on hold and Bri­tish­trained In­dian troops ral­lied to the call of arms. Gandhi seemed to re­al­ize that Bri­tain’s sur­vival was at stake and muted his de­mands for an In­dia free of the Bri­tish raj. De­spite his brief im­pris­on­ment by the Bri­tish he launched sev­eral hunger strikes. Af­ter the war, his full-fledged cam­paign against Bri­tain re­sumed.

In 1945, when Prime Min­is­ter Churchill, got “the boot,” as he put it, and see­ing the hand­writ­ing on the wall on the fate of In­dia, Churchill turned to Cold War is­sues. In his his­toric “Iron Cur­tain” speech in Ful­ton, Mo. on March 5, 1946, he spoke of the “de­signs of wicked men,” and urged West­ern Euro­peans to join Amer­ica in its ef­forts to re­pel the grow­ing Soviet thrust into East­ern Europe.

Re­flect­ing on the fu­ture of the post­war world, Mr. Her­man says both Gandhi and Churchill were pes­simistic. Shortly be­fore he was as­sas­si­nated in 1946, Gandhi said: “It is a ques­tion whether the vic­tors are re­ally vic­tors or vic­tims.”

Mr. Her­man adds: “Churchill had saved Eng­land from the Nazis, but he could not save it from him­self.”

Prime Min­is­ter Harold Macmil­lan, Churchill’s long time pro­tege, had, per­haps, the most op­ti­mistic view of de­cline of the Bri­tish em­pire. He presided over the newly formed Com­mon­wealth, a con­fer­ence of Bri­ton and its for­mer colonies in Asia and Africa. Of Gandhi, Macmil­lan said, he was not, in Mr. Her­man’s words, “a sedi­tious fakir,” but part of what Macmil­lan called the “wind of change.”

Mr. Her­man’s ac­count is re­plete with sto­ries un­der­scor­ing the gulf be­tween Churchill’s ro­bust re­al­ism and Gandhi’s as­cetic utopi­anism. On one oc­ca­sion when Churchill was in the gar­den at Chartwell, his an­ces­tral es­tate, he told his grand­son, Win­ston Spencer, a fa­ble that seemed to re­flect his ap­praisal of the hu­man con­di­tion: “A dog looks up to a man, a cat looks down on a man, but a pig will look you in the eye and see his equal.”

Gandhi was vain­glo­ri­ous, a man of con­tra­dic­tions — saint, rab­ble rouser and vi­sion­ary. He didn’t un­der­stand his­tory or him­self. But he con­trib­uted might­ily to the pres­sures for in­de­pen­dence. Churchill was a po­lit­i­cal re­al­ist, a man of stolid con­sis­tency com­mit­ted to the preser­va­tion of the Bri­tish Em­pire.

From his early years In­dia and South Africa (1896-1900) as ju­nior of­fi­cer in the Bri­tish im­pe­rial forces Churchill was pro­foundly con­vinced that im­pe­rial Bri­tain was an es­sen­tial force for or­der and civ­i­lized rule that served the se­cu­rity and eco­nomic in­ter­ests of ruler and ruled.

Mr. Her­man con­cludes that “the world re­fused to be re­shaped in ei­ther Churchill’s or Gandhi’s im­age” and that th­ese un­likely ti­tans “fought each other for the sake not only of an em­pire but the fu­ture of hu­man­ity . . . Their story is the great un­told para­ble of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury.”

Mr. Her­man’s well writ­ten story is exquisitely de­tailed, more in a jour­nal­is­tic than schol­arly mode, and will ap­peal to his­tory buffs and gen­eral read­ers. But the story line is some­times smoth­ered in de­tail. Vir­tu­ally all of his end notes cite sec­ondary sources — books, news­pa­pers, jour­nals, etc. He cites few archives or in­ter­views. This is first­class jour­nal­ism, not the schol­ar­ship of po­lit­i­cal his­to­ries.

The book has hun­dreds of lit­tle sto­ries within the larger story. But it not un­til the very end that Mr. Her­man makes his fi­nal ap­praisal of Gandhi and Churchill. His pen­chant for de­tail may be seen in the 25-page ac­count of the as­sas­si­na­tion of Gandhi and its im­me­di­ate af­ter­math. He notes that tributes to the slain leader “poured in from ev­ery coun­try,” in­clud­ing the pope, the Dalai Lama, Pres­i­dent Tru­man, Chi­ang Kai-shek and Prime Min­is­ter At­tlee,.

Among the many oth­ers who ex­tolled Gandhi were three Amer­i­cans: Douglas MacArthur, Felix Frank­furter and Pearl Buck. In con­trast to this out­pour­ing, Churchill ex­pressed no re­gret. For him, says Mr. Her­man, “Gandhi’s death was just one more killing in the slaugh­ter that had been go­ing since 1946.”

Fif­teen months af­ter Gandhi had been as­sas­si­nated in 1948, I was a mem­ber of a round-the-world good­will tour. In New Delhi, I ar­ranged for group of Amer­i­can stu­dents to see Prime Min­is­ter Nehru in his res­i­dence. Wear­ing his long Nehru jacket ac­cented by a red rose he wel­comed us warmly. His daugh­ter, Indira, later to be­come prime min­is­ter, was stand­ing dis­creetly at the side of the room. As tea was served, Nehru read­ily re­sponded to our ques­tions about In­dia’s fu­ture. He was hope­ful. Then I asked him about Gandhi who had men­tored him dur­ing the in­de­pen­dence strug­gle. His re­ply was brief: “Gandhi was a great man who loved In­dia, but didn’t un­der­stand pol­i­tics.” Then he gave me an au­to­graphed copy of his new book, “The Dis­cov­ery of In­dia.”

Ernest W. Le­fever founded the Ethics and Pub­lic Pol­icy Cen­ter in 1976.

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