In the Mandarin Oriental Hotel at the edge of Hyde Park in London in late July 2012, Mitt Romney raised $2 million over drinks. His remarks were wistful. “As I drive past the sculpture of Winston Churchill,” he said, “it tugs at the heart strings to remember the kind of example” that he set. “And I’m looking forward to the bust of Winston Churchill in the Oval Office again,” he declared.
The bust in question, sculpted by Jacob Epstein, was given to George W. Bush on July 16, 2001 by British ambassador Christopher Meyer. When Obama came to office, the bust was moved from the Oval Office to the Residency (where Obama showed it to Prime Minister David Cameron in 2010). Romney’s team suggested that Obama had returned the bust to the British embassy in 2009, but it now turns out that this is not true. There is indeed a second bust at the residence of the current ambassador, Sir Peter Westmacott.
The context for this debate around Churchill was sparked by an anonymous Romney advisor who told the London Telegraph, “We are part of an Anglo-Saxon heritage, and he [Romney] feels that the special relationship is special.” The assumption is that Obama is not part of this heritage and his rejection of Churchill somehow made him suspect.
The idea that Obama has a dangerous hidden agenda comes out plainly in Dinesh D’Souza’s new film 2016: Obama’s America. Picking up from his 2010 book, The Roots of Obama’s Rage, D’Souza reaches into the deep well of conspiracy and paranoia to make Obama the Manchurian President. Obama, for D’Souza, is neither a liberal, nor a socialist. Worse than that, Obama is literally a child of his father. Barack Obama, Sr. (1936-1982) came to Hawaii as a student from Kenya, married Ann Dunham, and they gave birth to their only child, Barack “Barry” Obama. Obama, Jr. was born in 1961, and saw his father until early 1964 (when his parents divorced) and then again briefly in 1971. Their contact was limited, and Senior’s influence was negligible.
What the Father was, the Son becomes: that is D’Souza’s method. In July 1965, in the heyday of the Third World Project, Obama Senior published an essay in the East Africa Journal called “Problems Facing Our Socialism.” It is standard fare for a government economist of his caliber, particularly in his avowal of self-reliant growth for his country (Kenya) and anxiety over too close association with either the Atlantic bloc (laissez faire, in his terms) or the Warsaw Pact (“Marxian socialism”). Every country wants to be independent, he argues, so non-alignment with the superpowers is the natural bent of most new nation-states. The problem is how to break out of dependence. But there are limits “because of our lack of basic resources and skilled manpower, yet one can choose to develop by the bootstraps rather than become a pawn of some foreign power such as Sékou Touré did” (the reference is to Ahmed Sékou Touré’s policy of linking Guinea’s development to the USSR). Obama Senior wants no association with Moscow, neither with Washington nor London. He wants Kenya to rule itself.
D’Souza misses the plot of the essay. He paints Obama Senior as a radical Third World nationalist. This is superficial. Obama Senior was certainly a Kenyan nationalist, one who was eager for a fair bargain for the Kenyan people, but he was not Africa’s Castro.
There is an elegiac scene in Obama’s Dreams From My Father (1995), where he meets a Kenyan waiter during his visit to Nairobi in 1988. The waiter remembers independence, writes Obama, but he has now learned “that the same people who controlled the land before independence still control the same land, that he still cannot eat in the restaurants or stay in the hotels that the white man has built.” Trying to fight off “bottomless poverty,” the waiter has two options, either violent rage or else, the more hopeful, to recognize that “changes have come, the old ways life broken, and you must find a way as fast as you can to feed your belly and stop the white man from laughing at you.” Obama’s own hope is in the second road, and it is a modest one that is now a commonplace hope among intellectuals of the formerly colonized world (this is the view of India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, for example).
Let The Bengalis Starve.
If Obama is to be castigated as an anti-colonial radical, it is seemingly acceptable among US conservatives to embrace an “Anglo-Saxon heritage” and Churchill. Those who know anything of India’s anti-colonial fight recognize that the villain of the piece was Churchill. His words from May 1943 should be embroidered into a tapestry to hang near the mirrors of every Indian household, to remind us of his perfidy, “I hate Indians,” he said, “They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”
The context for this outburst was straightforward. A famine stalked the land in Bengal. This had been produced by the removal of vast quantities of foodstuff to feed the British population and the troops in West Asia and North Africa as well as to build up a stockpile in case of the imminent collapse of Nazi Germany. Even at the height of the famine, Churchill blocked the diversion of ships of grain from Australia to Calcutta. As Madhusree Mukherjee writes in her important study of the famine, Churchill’s Secret War (2010), “The sole sacrifice that ordinary Britons were asked to make in response to the shipping crisis of 1943 was to eat multigrain bread.” Meanwhile, in Bengal, between 1 and 5.4 million people died. At the War Cabinet meetings if anyone raised the question of the Bengal famine, Churchill would fulminate about “British workmen in rags struggling to pay rich Indian mill-owners.” As Field Marshall Wavell put it, Churchill “hates India and everything to do with it.”
Dismayed by the lack of dialogue with the British, Gandhi and the Congress had begun the Quit India movement in 1942 and then gone to jail. There, Gandhi began one of his many fasts. Churchill revealed in the Mahatma’s near death, “we should be rid of a bad man and an enemy of the Empire,” he thundered. When asked to make some compromise with the nationalists, Churchill said that this “was not the time to crawl before a miserable little old man who had always been our enemy.” Two years later, in 1945, Churchill told his private secretary that “the Hindus are a foul race,” and that he wished Air Chief Marshall Arthur “Bomber” Harris could “send some of his surplus bombers to destroy them.”
This is Romney’s hero. The colonialist to the very end.
A long forgotten Republican Party, buried underneath a fiery wrath against modern society, would not have been as wistful as Romney. In 1943, J. J. Singh, the leader of the India League of America, did the rounds of Congress, telling the representatives about the famine and British malice. The Leftist journalist I. F. Stone approved of Singh’s work, as did Karl Mundt, a Republican congressman from South Dakota. Mundt bemoaned the “malevolent bias” of the Churchill government toward India. But nothing came of their efforts. There is no Mundt in the Republican Party today (Mundt urged the US to join UNESCO, which is anathema to the GOP these days – although he also urged that Communists be under special registration, something today’s GOP urges for all those deemed to be “outsiders”). Singh’s task was to “establish the principle of equality of relief for Europe and Asia.” This was not allowed. Racism, the bedrock of Churchill’s values, would not permit it.
Vijay Prashad covered OWS for CounterPunch last year. He is the author of the lead essay in the AK volume (“The Concerns Everyone”) and is the author of Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (AK) and Uncle Swami (New Press).
A shorter version of this essay first appeared in India Abroad.