Published on May 11, 2008
Gandhi & Churchill: The Epic Rivalry that Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age
Arthur Herman, Bantam, 736 pages, $30.00.
As a religious pacifist while a student at the Brethren theological seminaryin Chicagoin 1943, I confess to an early infatuation with Mahatma Gandhi.
Along with a dozen other like-minded 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 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 cigar-chomping 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 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 British-trained 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 Britain 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 in India and South Africa (1896-1900) as a 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 first-class journalism, not the scholarship of political histories.
The book has hundreds of little stories within the larger story. But it is 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 a 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.