EPISODE 5-The Prime Minister and the Prof – How does friendship influence political power?
This episode talks about something I knew nothing about: the origins of the horrible Bengal Famine of 1943 in India. It asks the question: Can a leader’s best friend be your worst enemy?
Gladwell alleges that the causes of the famine have to do with a close friendship between Sir Winston Churchill and a mysterious man who you probably never heard of named Frederick Lindeman.
Fredrick Lindeman was a colorful, eccentric and brilliant man who can be described as a cross between the physicist Carl Norden and The Most Interesting Man in the World (from those wonderful Dos Equis commercials). Lindeman was also fastidious, petty, and fiercely defensive of his close friends.
Many tend to think of Churchill as a great man of fortitude, foresight and forthrightness. Churchill is lionized in the closing moments of Dunkirk, was the object of a recent biopic and is credited with leading Britain to victory in World War II.
I can’t resist telling over one Churchill story:
At a presumably posh, upper-crust dinner a well-to-do Lady, aghast at Churchill’s demeanor during dinner declared: “Mr. Churchill! You are Drunk!”
Churchill Replied: “Dear lady, Yes, I am drunk. But see here: you are fat. Come tomorrow morning, I will no longer be intoxicated whereas you will still be fat!”
Despite your previous notions of Sir Winston Churchill, this podcast may change your mind. It changed mine. Churchill is more complicated than I realized. The greater the person and their influence, the greater the impact of their victories and failures. Do not ignore his victories but don’t ignore his failures either.
Churchill and Lindeman were not just friends, they were BFF’s. They had a kind of ying-yang relationship; Felix Unger and Oscar Madison. Lindeman was awarded a position in the British government and seemed to act as a surrogate for Churchill, finding a way to carry out Churchill’s wishes and justifying his views.
Some of Gladwell’s assertions in this podcast seem like a stretch but his main conclusions about the Famine of 1943 sound grounded. They come from the book “Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II” by Madhusree Mukerjee. Mukerjee depicts Churchill as bitter, smug and hateful towards India and its people.
The famine was the end result of several awful events. Japan took hold of Burma, the British responded by destroying any supplies helpful to Japan, then a terrible cyclone decimated the new rice crop and killed 30,000 Indians. All this led to a shortage of food so British bought up heaps of rice for their soldiers, driving up the price of food and a soon famine was created.
3,000,000 lives were claimed by this man-made calamity. India begged Britain for wheat and relief. The Paymaster General at the time, the man who could send supplies and save the lives of millions was none other than Lindeman. Lindeman flatly responded that Britain could not spare food or ships. At one point Lindeman coarsely blamed the famine that his own country precipitated on India’s overcrowding.
Gladwell acknowledges Lindeman’s profound prejudices but points to his dogged loyalty to Churchill as the true motives behind his denial of food for India. In the 1940’s, India was still a colony of Britain and during the war, exported food, raw materials and manpower to Britain to aid in the war effort. According to Mukejuree, Churchill hated India; he hated Gandhi and his efforts for India, resented how the empire depended on India for help and was altogether malevolent and bigoted towards Indian people in general.
Lindeman’s claims about being unable to help India were lies. Shipping archives from World War II reveal that Britain had stockpiles of surplus wheat and plenty of boats to spare. By the end of 1943 several boats, sometimes full of wheat passed India as men women and children died in the streets.
In his previous episode, Gladwell commented about history being told from a biased perspective. Churchill wrote a memoir entitled “The Second World War”. It is six volumes long and considered to be authoritative. Is there any mention of the famine of 1943? Yes, in a document found in an appendix. This devastating event was not even a footnote, but an item buried in an appendix somewhere in a six volume tome.
I have to ask: Why is the death of 3,000,000 people less than a footnote in Churchill’s version of history?
I learned more about Churchill from what he omitted rather than what he included in those six books of his.