Professing one’s love for Winston Churchill, the British prime minister during World War II, is shorthand in U.S. politics for:
“I think killing Nazis was good.” Churchill is a pugnacious old man with a cigar in his mouth, more an inspirational poster — “Never Give In” — than a real human being, with all our human flaws.
Still, it was nonetheless a little strange to hear Bernie Sanders, the social democrat campaigning to be the presidential nominee of the Democrat Party, describing the symbol of giving-it-your-all as one of his two “heroes” at the last debate.
“Winston Churchill’s politics were not my politics,” Sanders began. “He was kind of a conservative guy in many respects,” having been the head of the Conservative Party, “But nobody can deny that as a wartime leader, he rallied the British people when they stood virtually alone against the Nazi juggernaut and rallied them and eventually won.”
Along with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the former U.S. president who also killed Nazis, “These are two leaders that I admire very much.”
That the Vermont senator did not name Hugo Chavez or Karl Marx, or even U.S. socialist leader Eugene Debs, is not surprising: Sanders is on the radical left only in relation to the center-right politics of the United States in 2016. Naming Churchill, in this center-right country, is playing it safe, akin to — and another way of — coming out against Adolf Hitler.
But if, as Sanders contends, the former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is a vile war criminal responsible for an illegal bombing campaign in Cambodia that aided the rise of the genocidal Khmer Rouge (“Not my kind of guy,” the senator said), then he should be made aware:
Winston Churchill, too, was responsible for many crimes as a wartime leader, beyond just what he himself described as the Allies’ “terror bombing” of German civilians in Dresden.
“I am strongly in favor of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes,” Churchill declared in a 1919 memo, referring to the unlucky people of occupied India.
Using chemical weapons “would spread a lively terror,” said Churchil — ever the humanitarian, he maintained that the “moral effect” of terrorizing the “natives” would ulimately reduce the loss of life, or so he claimed to believe.
As a young man, he gladly took part in “a lot of jilly little wars against barbarous peoples”; as a white supremacist, he believed these peoples had a “propensity to kill” those attempting to steal their land, thus justifying the civilized white man’s efforts to kill them.
As Secretary of State for War in the summer of 1919, Churchill would in fact authorize the use of toxic gas, planning and executing “a sustained chemical attack on northern Russia,” according to The Guardian, in an attempt to terrorize the Bolshevik government into collapse.
Despite his confidence in the humaneness of the weapon — “Why is it not fair for a British artilleryman to fire a shell which makes the said native sneeze?” — contemporary accounts suggest it was devastatingly lethal. Historian Gles Milton, the author of a book on the matter, noted in an interview with The Telegraph that “one soldier said that all 50 of his comrades were wiped out. It’s difficult to know how many fatalities there were but they dropped thousands of these things on various villages.”
Just as carpet bombing Cambodia did not aid the cause of moderation, dropping toxic gas all over revolutionary Russia did no favors to those revolutionaries who preferred the direct democracy of the soviets to the top-down, and decidedly more austere Stalinism that unsurprisingly prevailed with the help of a bloody civil war fueled by imperialism that left millions of people dead.
At the debate, Sanders said it was “rather amazing” that his rival, Hillary Clinton, would accept the advice of a man like Henry Kissinger, cast today as a rotund and cuddly figure but in fact “one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country,” with the blood of tens of thousands of people on his hands.
“I am proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend,” said Bernie, and bully for him. But if Kissinger’s crimes still matter, so should Winston’s.
Bernie may have just been fishing for a name that wouldn’t peg him as a no-good commie, falling back on an anti-communist that most are unaware was also a criminal white supremacist. But just as Hillary could use better advisers, Bernie should be reminded that he can find much better heroes.