Finest Hour 123, Summer 2004
One of the editor’s favorite assignments is to answer the flood of inquiries about Churchill that come in regularly by email from young people all over the world. I try to respond as fully as possible (without writing their assignments for them), directing them to our website for source material. I always try to take the line suggested by Professor Paul Addison, author of Churchill on the Home Front: “Paradoxically, I think it tends to diminish Churchill to treat him as super-human.” RML
I am an eighth grader doing a biography report on Winston Churchill. The more I learn about this great man, the more I like him. However on a page of his quotes, I find something rather disturbing and shall I say un-Churchillian. I have been trying in vain to find information that can prove or disprove this quotation, on http://www.worldofquotes.com/topic/Race/index.html.
“‘I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favor of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes.’ —Winston Churchill, Secretary of State, British War Office, 1919, authorizing use of chemical weapons against Iraqis in n the first of six invasions of Iraq by agents of Anglo Iranian Oil (British Petroleum) in the last 100 years.”
This confused and saddened me. Was Churchill condoning genocide based on greed? I can’t find this anywhere else. Did he really say that? —Mallory A.S.
As often with this rather famous quotation, Churchill’s words have been altered to put him in the worst possible light. Here is the complete passage, from Companion Volume 4, Part 1 of the official biography, Winston S. Churchill, by Martin Gilbert (London, 1976):
Winston S. Churchill: departmental minute
(Churchill papers: 16/16)
12 May 1919
“I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. We have definitely adopted the position at the Peace Conference of arguing in favour of the retention of gas as a permanent method of warfare. It is sheer affectation to lacerate a man with the poisonous fragment of a bursting shell and to boggle at making his eyes water by means of lachrymatory gas.
“I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes. The moral effect should be so good that the loss of life should be reduced to a minimum. It is not necessary to use only the most deadly gasses: gasses can be used which cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively terror and yet would leave no serious permanent effects on most of those affected.”
It seems clear that by “poisoned gas” Churchill was not referring to deadly gas (chlorine, mostly) but a more benign substance (which sounds like tear gas). Remember that if “uncivilised tribes” sounds patronizing or racist today, it was not a novel idea eighty-five years ago. William Manchester warned us not to commit what he called “generational chauvinism”—judging the past by our more enlightened standards of today.
In your essay I suggest comparing the altered quotation to the complete one to show how quotations can be edited to change their meaning.
The explanation provided by the “World of Quotes” website is dubious. What “six invasions of Iraq by agents of Anglo Iranian Oil (British Petroleum) in the last 100 years”? Iraq gained independence in 1932 but British troops remained involved there, and put down several insurrections. This may be what “World of Quotes” means by “six invasions”—but the word “invasion” is an exaggeration.
Your question is very interesting and leads on to further considerations. When Osama bin Laden spoke after 9/11 of “80 years of injustice,” he was referring to the Cairo conference of 1921, headed by Churchill, which set up the various states of the Middle East.
(There followed some recommendations to articles posted on our website, www.winstonchurchill.org. We received a nice reply from Mallory, and his teacher.)