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The Most Powerful Scientist Ever: Winston Churchill's Personal Technocrat

A physicist ended up wielding a great deal of power during Churchill's political career, affecting policy on matters well outside the purview of science


Editor's Note: Winston Churchill remains perhaps the most admired statesman of modern times. Yet the politician who spearheaded the Allies' fight against the Nazis demonstrated a profound disdain for the well-being of denizens of Britain's largest colony, and his government's policy of neglect led directly to a famine in South Asia in the 1940s that killed millions.

Former Scientific American editor Madhusree Mukerjee has just published a historical investigation of Churchill's policies in India, Churchill's Secret War: The British Empire and Ravaging of India During World War II . Mukerjee, a native of Kolkota and a former nuclear physicist, writes in the following edited excerpt about another physicist, one of Churchill's closest advisers, who was entrusted with devising a technocratic justification for the British prime minister's policies, including some of the decisions that led to widespread famine on the sub-continent.

***

To watch over the care and feeding of Britons, Winston Churchill recruited a trusted old friend, the physicist Frederick Alexander Lindemann. Known as the Prof to admirers (because of his academic credentials and his brilliance) and as Baron Berlin to detractors (thanks to his German accent and aristocratic tastes), Lindeman was responsible for the government's scientific decisions. He also headed a Statistics Division, or S branch, with whose help he scrutinized the performance of the regular ministries and prioritized the logistical machinery of warfare. Lindemann attended meetings of the War Cabinet, accompanied the prime minister on conferences abroad, and sent him an average of one missive a day. He saw Churchill almost daily for the duration of the war and wielded more influence than any other civilian adviser.

On most matters Lindemann's and Churchill's opinions converged; and when they did not, the scientist worked ceaselessly to change his friend's mind. "He spoke sotto voce , but with complete self-assurance, as though stating facts that must be obvious to every schoolboy," related Roy Harrod, an S branch employee who later became one of Britain's premier economists. All those who disagreed with his views Lindemann dismissed as "perfect fools." To create the ten lines of text for the prime minister's benefit that summarized weeks of S branch research, he wielded the final scalpel, taking out "redundant words, unnecessary sentences, inessential parts of the argument and many qualifications," according to Donald MacDougall, Lindemann's right-hand man at the S branch. "At first this last type of shortening worried me—and my colleagues—quite a bit," MacDougall confessed in a memoir. Soon, however, the S branch staff realized that the Prof was merely anticipating the prime minister's wishes. "The normal machinery of government churned up certain proposals, which finally came to the Prime Minister; it was our duty to counter-brief him on what we knew to be the lines of his own thinking," wrote Harrod. In other words, the mission of the S branch was to provide rationales for whichever course the prime minister, as interpreted by the Prof, wished to follow.

Other department heads were at first furious that the Prof had access to their figures and used these to criticize their performances and overrule their decisions even as they were prohibited from seeing the S branch's calculations and so could not defend themselves. But soon they "began to realize that, like it or not, the Prof was the man whom Churchill trusted most, and that not all their refutations, aspersions, innuendos or attempts at exposure would shift Churchill from his undeviating loyalty to the Prof by one hair's breadth," wrote Harrod. So it was that the Prof would pronounce judgment on the best use of shipping space, the profligacy of the army, the inadequacy of British supplies, the optimal size of the mustard gas stockpile, the necessity of bombing German houses—and, when the time came, the pointlessness of sending famine relief to Bengal.

Theirs was an unlikely friendship. Churchill was a self-described "Beefeater" who relished multicourse meals washed down with whisky, whereas Lindemann was a vegetarian, teetotaler, and nonsmoker who lived on salads, egg whites, olive oil, and a specific variety of cheese. Churchill cared, if fitfully, about the troubles of the poor, but Lindemann made no secret of his contempt for social and intellectual inferiors and, according to an acquaintance, "looked upon poverty as a fault." His accent tended to arouse suspicion in wartime Britain. Yet the mutual loyalty of the two friends was total. "Love me, love my dog, and if you don't love my dog you damn well can't love me," muttered a furious Churchill in 1941, after a member of the House of Commons had raised questions about the Prof's influence.

 By 1942, Lindemann had the title of paymaster-general and had also achieved a peerage; he was now known as Lord Cherwell. His reputation was such that lines of verse inspired by The Pirates of Penzance were passed around ministerial offices:

{PO}My secretariat scrutinizes memoranda topical,

Elucidating fallacies in detail microscopical;

I plumb the depths of strategy, I analyze ballistics;

Reform the whole of industry, or fabricate statistics;

My acumen's infallible, my logic irrefutable,

My slightest proposition axiomatic, indisputable;

And so in matters vegetable, animal and mineral,

I am the very model of a good Paymaster-General. {/PO}

Lord Cherwell repaid his friend's patronage by adopting his causes as his own—and nowhere was this synergy more evident than in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral. One of the prime minister's abiding concerns was that the British people should get enough meat. "Have you done justice to rabbit production?" he asked in one of numerous memos on the topic. Another time he inquired if a ship returning from the Middle East might swing by Argentina to pick up some beef. The Prof did not touch flesh, but when it came to feeding Britain he became "an extreme anti-vegetarian." No one "fought harder to keep up the war-time ration of good red meat for the British people," attested MacDougall.

***

At the S branch, Lord Cherwell's most trusted assistant, Donald MacDougall, became concerned that imports of food and raw materials were not arriving fast enough. (Roy Harrod, the more experienced economist, had left by that time.) MacDougall was convinced that if the United Kingdom did not get more shipping for civilian needs, stocks of food would "quite possibly fall to dangerously low levels before very long." He figured that stocks could, however, be adequately protected by cutting the number of ships serving the Indian Ocean area down to 60 percent and bringing the rest over to the Atlantic to serve the import program. "I told Prof he would never get away with such a dramatic reduction and had better suggest 80," MacDougall related in his memoir. "He replied that, on the contrary, he would put in 40–50, which would be argued up by the military to my figure of 60, which he believed."

Thus was born one of Churchill's most far-reaching decisions. On January 2, 1943, the Prof informed the prime minister that the United Kingdom's imports would increase by a million tons if the ninety monthly sailings to the east were cut to fifty during January, February, and March; and by 1.25 million tons if the cut were to forty sailings. Moreover, the "gain would be increased to 3½ millions if the cut were prolonged up to the end of June." (A more nuanced calculation, taking into account the delay in transferring ships from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic, would find that the last cut actually yielded 2 million tons of imports.) Failing such strong action, "factories will have to close down for lack of materials, with all the political repercussions this involves," Cherwell asserted. Although the first option seemed enough to meet the United Kingdom's needs, the memo did not state that; nor did it mention any negative consequences of such cuts. Accordingly, Churchill circled the most drastic, last option, marked it "A," and wrote on the memo "We must go for A." Thanks to the Prof, MacDougall's suggestion to cut Indian Ocean shipping down to 60 percent ended up as an even deeper cut, to 44 percent—and for twice as long.

Ships that went to the Indian Ocean generally made loops, going from port to port within the region before heading back to the United Kingdom or the United States. Combined with the imperative to supply troops in North Africa, the shipping cut meant that very few vessels would be available on the run between Australia and India. The shipping cut "must portend violent changes and perhaps cataclysms in the seaborne trade of large numbers of countries," the Ministry of War Transport warned the prime minister.

As ships gradually left the Indian Ocean, the cessation of trade deranged the economies of the colonies on its rim. They were already reeling from wartime inflation and scarcity, and the "menace of famine suddenly loomed up like a hydra-headed monster with a hundred clamoring mouths," related C.B.A. Behrens in the official history of wartime British shipping. Desperate appeals began pouring into colonial offices. Several British possessions bordering the Indian Ocean, such as Kenya, Tanganyika, and British Somaliland, suffered famine that year. Historians attribute the calamities to a combination of drought, wartime inflation, acquisition of grain for the armed forces, and hoarding by Indian traders. That all the famines, including the one in Bengal, occurred in 1943 suggests, however, that the shipping cut also played a role. "In the Indian Ocean area the burden of paying for victory, shifted from place to place to ease the weight, finally came to rest," summarized Behrens.

***

In London on July 30, 1943, the War Cabinet's shipping committee considered a request for grain from the Viceroy of India, Lord Linlithgow. An India Office representative stated that "famine conditions" were appearing in Bengal and in parts of the south, and relayed the opinion of General Claude Auchinlek, Commander-in-Chief in India, that the country might not be usable as a base until the food problem was solved. [But the Prof] questioned the role that "the import of cereals should or could play," as evident from a memo he prepared for the prime minister the day before the War Cabinet took up the problem. Despite India's urgent demands during the previous winter, he wrote, "the emergency vanished." (The India Office was now reporting the outbreak of famine, but Cherwell perceived no link between current events and the earlier crisis.) On top of that, the Indian harvest was massive. "Yet we are told that failure to provide half a million tons of cereals will result in a reduction of national output, refusal to export food [to Ceylon], famine conditions, civil disturbance and subversive activity among the troops in the Indian army." Imports were being regarded as a means of extracting stocks from hoarders, Cherwell complained. "This seems a roundabout way of tackling the problem. In any event, it is a little hard that the U.K., which has already suffered a greater drop in the standard of life than India, should be mulcted because the Government of India cannot arrange its affairs in an orderly manner."

One draft of this memo ended with the sentiment that, since shipping would be needed to feed Italian civilians if the Allied invasion caused Italy's fascist government to collapse, expending it on famine relief in India "scarcely seems justified unless the Ministry of War Transport cannot find any other use for it." The sentence was eventually changed to a straightforward recommendation against sending grain.

***

On November 10, 1943 the Secretary of State for India, Leopold Amery, used a report on Bengal by Field Marshal Wavell, appointed as Viceroy of India to replace Linlithgow, to schedule a third War Cabinet discussion on relief. Bengal's winter harvest of rice would not reach the market until January 1944, Amery advised. For the Government of India to have a "fighting chance" of procuring all the grain it needed from nervous cultivators, it would require another 50,000 tons of wheat by the end of December and a promise of the same quantity for each of the following twelve months. Leathers having already asserted that providing such quantities were out of the question, Amery concentrated on getting at least 50,000 tons for each of December, January, and February.

The day before the meeting, the Prof wrote to the prime minister. "The quantities suggested are very small as compared with India's total consumption of over 4 million tons a month," he began as usual. (Given Wilson's September memo, he had to know that the argument was specious.) Such imports might have the effect of thwarting hoarders, but surely enough had been done toward that end. "Strong propaganda designed to discourage hoarding can be based upon the shipments we have already decided to make." He continued: "This shortage of food is likely to be endemic in a country where the population is always increased until only bare subsistence is possible. In such circumstances small local shortages or crop failures must cause acute distress. After the war India can spend her huge hoards of sterling on buying food and thus increase the population still more, but so long as the war lasts her high birth-rate may impose a heavy strain on this country which does not view with Asiatic detachment the pressure of a growing population on limited supplies of food."

Cherwell's argument was based on the famous proposition by the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, who in 1798 postulated that humans multiply faster than their means of sustenance, which meant that "premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race." Those peoples whose lack of sexual restraint caused them to reproduce recklessly were especially prone to what he called "positive checks" on their population. These unhappy constraints included war, disease, vice, and "the last, the most dreadful resource of nature"—famine. Malthus's doctrine inspired no less than Charles Darwin, whose magnum opus On the Origins of Species is subtitled The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life . Because "more individuals are produced than can possibly survive, there must in every case be a struggle for existence," Darwin wrote. "It is the doctrine of Malthus applied with manifold force to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms."

The entwined worldview of Malthus and Darwin provided an explanation, beguiling to Victorian elites, not only for the evolution of species but also for the ordering of society. The "evolutionist will not hesitate to affirm that the nation with the highest ideals would succeed," mused Savrola, a romantic hero that Churchill had created in the late 1890s, during his sojourn in India. Conversely, an excess of compassion could perpetuate the debilitating characteristics of defeated peoples, imperiling the greater good. An 1881 report by the Government of India on preceding famines concluded that the poorest Indians were the worst affected by such calamities, and if relief measures were to prevent their deaths they would continue to breed, making the survivors even more penurious. Death might even come as deliverance to those that nature had chosen to discard. Churchill had corroborated Malthus's perspective, writing of an 1898 Indian plague: "[A] philosopher may watch unmoved the destruction of some of those superfluous millions, whose life must of necessity be destitute of pleasure."

In his memo to Churchill, Lord Cherwell suggested that the Bengal famine arose from crop failure and high birthrate. He omitted to mention that the calamity also derived from India's role of supplier to the Allied war effort; that the colony was not being permitted to spend its sterling reserves or to employ its own ships in importing sufficient food; and that by his Malthusian logic Britain should have been the first to starve—but was being sustained by food imports that were six times larger than the one-and-a-half-million tons that the Government of India had requested for the coming year. The memo did raise the prospect that harm would be inflicted on long-suffering Britons if help were extended to over-fecund Indians.

***

In a 1960 lecture at Harvard on Cherwell's wartime influence, physicist and writer C. P. Snow would say of Churchill's chief adviser: "He was formidable, he was savage." Snow complained that Cherwell's advocacy of area bombing of German civilian houses had prevailed over the objections of other physicists. The Prof's close relationship with Churchill had given him "more direct power than any scientist in history," Snow argued, and power so unchecked was harmful.

Cherwell believed that a small circle of the intelligent and the aristocratic should run the world. "Those who succeed in getting what everyone wants must be the ablest," he asserted. The Prof regarded the masses as "very stupid," considered Australians to be inferior to Britons, advocated "harshness" toward homosexuals, and thought criminals should be treated cruelly because "the amount of pleasure derived by other people from the knowledge that a malefactor is being punished far exceeds in sum total the amount of pain inflicted on a malefactor by his punishment."

Inferior as the British working class was in Cherwell's view, he nonetheless ranked it far above the black and brown subjects in the colonies. A measure of his racism can be found in his assertion that "20 percent of white people and 80 percent of coloured were immune" to mustard gas. The figures are clearly incorrect, because biology admits of no such chasm between the races, but they are in keeping with early-twentieth-century notions of eugenics.

Eugenic ideas also feature in a lecture that Lord Cherwell (then known as Professor Lindemann) had delivered more than once, probably in the early 1930s. He had detailed a science-based solution to a challenge that occupied many an intellect of the time: preserving for eternity the hegemony of the superior classes. Any attempt "to force upon Nature an equality she has never admitted" was bound to lead to bloody strife, the scientist asserted in a draft of this talk. Instead of subscribing to what he called "the fetish of equality," he recommended that human differences be accepted and indeed enhanced by means of science. It was no longer necessary, he wrote, to wait for "the haphazard process of natural selection to ensure that the slow and heavy mind gravitates to the lowest form of activity." New technologies such as surgery, mind control, and drug and hormone manipulations would one day allow humans to be fine-tuned for specific tasks. Society could create "gladiators or philosophers, athletes or artists, satyrs or monks" at will—indeed, it could manufacture "men with a passion and perhaps even aptitude for any desired vocation." At the lower end of the race and class spectrum, one could remove from "helots" (the Greek word for slaves) the ability to suffer or to feel ambition.

"Somebody must perform dull, dreary tasks, tend machines, count units in repetition work; is it not incumbent on us, if we have the means, to produce individuals without a distaste for such work, types that are as happy in their monotonous occupation as a cow chewing the cud?" Lindemann asked. Science could yield a race of humans blessed with "the mental make-up of the worker bee." This subclass would do all the unpleasant work and not once think of revolution or of voting rights: "Placid content rules in the bee-hive or ant-heap." The outcome would be a perfectly peaceable and stable society, "led by supermen and served by helots."

Because many people would evince an "illogical disgust" of such alterations to the nature of the human species, one might have to make do with great apes for such tasks instead of humans, the Prof conceded. It would of course be "somewhat more difficult to make an efficient bricklayer out of a gorilla than out of a bushman," but at least no one would demand votes on behalf of an ape. As for the "unlimited number of half-witted children born of mentally defective parents," sterilization could and should ensure that society be freed of that burden. "Philosophers have failed to agree on any definition of what is good and what should be our aim is a matter of individual opinion," the professor summarized. "But unless we desire to see our civilisation perish, to see it disappear as the great eastern cultures of the Nile and Mesopotamia did, unless we wish to prepare [for] new dark ages such as followed the crumbling of the Roman empire, the fundamental cause of present day unrest will have to be removed." To consolidate the rule of supermen—to perpetuate the British Empire—one need only remove the ability of slaves to see themselves as slaves.



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