British author, historian Diana Preston says she doesn’t believe Churchill orchestrated Bengal famine, but was ‘undoubtedly slow to respond to its seriousness’



New Delhi :Journalist Madhusree Mukherjee in her book, Churchill’s Secret War, reveals that then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s decisions between 1940 and 1944 “directly and inevitably led to the deaths of some three million Indians”. She argues how “instead of sending emergency food shipments Churchill used the wheat and ships at his disposal to build stockpiles for feeding post-War Britain and Europe. British author and historian Diana Preston, too, believes that Churchill was “an anachronistic imperialist and certainly no friend to India”. She, however, doesn’t believe Churchill deliberately orchestrated the Bengal famine, though he was “undoubtedly slow to respond to its seriousness”. Preston adds, “It took considerable pressure from British Viceroy Lord Wavell, British Parliament and the Indian, British and American press to persuade him to act. When he did and asked Roosevelt for the loan of American merchant ships to import a million tonnes of wheat to India from Australia, Roosevelt refused for fear of damaging the transport of supplies to American forces in the Pacific.”

In an interview with The Sunday Guardian, Preston, who has just come out with the book, Eight Days at Yalta: How Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin Shaped the Post-War World, explains why US President George W. Bush compared the Yalta Agreement with the 1938 Munich Agreement, how Stalin stumped the other two during those momentous eight days, and why France and China were snubbed by the Big Three. Excerpts:

Q: In 2005, then US President George W. Bush compared the Yalta Agreement to the 1938 Munich Agreement and the Nazi Germany-Soviet pact of a year later and suggested Yalta had left Europe “divided and unstable”. Do you agree that the Western leaders compromised a lot at Yalta?

A: Beyond wanting to end the war quickly, Roosevelt and Churchill had somewhat different objectives at Yalta. Roosevelt wanted to persuade Stalin to enter the war against Japan and to win his support for his ideas for a United Nations Organisation. Churchill was determined to protect a weakened Britain’s position as a world power and
as an anachronistic imperialist—to hang on to Britain’s Empire. Roosevelt and Churchill achieved these aims at Yalta. Where they failed was to obtain the freedom of the peoples of Eastern Europe, newly-liberated from the Nazis. They arrived at Yalta aiming to reach arrangements for free and fair elections in those countries, especially Poland for which Britain had gone to war in 1939 after the Nazis invaded it. However, Stalin, determined to secure a buffer zone of vassal states around the Soviet Union’s borders, blocked them at every turn. In the end, Roosevelt and Churchill had to be content with vainglorious tripartite declarations promising democratic freedoms for all. Soon after Yalta, Stalin broke these commitments which the other two had no way of enforcing on him and what Churchill called “The Iron Curtain” descended on Eastern Europe, cutting it off from the rest of Europe for nearly half a century.

Q: Do you think the terms Stalin won for his agreement to enter the war against Japan were too generous, providing Soviet Communism with a foothold in East Asia, and on the Korean Peninsula in particular?

A: Roosevelt believed Soviet entry into the war against Japan was essential to save the lives of a million young American soldiers who would otherwise be killed in an invasion of the Japanese home islands. Without the knowledge or consent of his Chinese Nationalist ally Chiang Kai-shek, Roosevelt readily agreed to Stalin’s demands for territorial and other concessions at China’s expense. The Soviet Union’s consequent entry into the conflict gave it a foothold in the Korean peninsula, which ultimately led to the Korean War and to the country’s partition which continues today. The irony is that Roosevelt should have placed more credence in the Manhattan Atom Project which of course produced a devastating weapon in time for it to be dropped on Japan and end the war without any need of Soviet help.

Q: You write in detail about personalities of the Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin, including their drinking and smoking habits. They were similar in many ways but also starkly different. Can you please tell us more about them?

A: The personalities and characteristics of “The Big Three” as the press called them, fascinated me. Roosevelt and Churchill were from wealthy, patrician backgrounds. Stalin, in contrast, came from a deprived background, enduring a childhood dominated by a drunken, violent father. Roosevelt and Churchill came to power through democratic means and were always concerned about what the electorate was thinking. Once Stalin achieved power, he retained it through a reign of political terror. As for drinking, Roosevelt prided himself on his ability to mix cocktails. Alcohol was essential to Churchill who surprised his colleagues by how much he consumed. Stalin drank himself but particularly enjoyed insisting his Soviet colleagues consumed large amounts of alcohol to loosen their tongues and test their loyalty. Roosevelt was a chain smoker. Churchill used his cigars as part of his image. Stalin used his pipe similarly, but also enjoyed American cigarettes. The conference rooms at Yalta must have been a toxic haze of blue-grey smoke.

Q: The three were leaders with strong likes and dislikes. How difficult was for them to work together?

A: What made it difficult for the three leaders to work together had less to do with their personalities than with their differing priorities. Roosevelt’s were the United Nations and bringing the Soviet Union into the war with Japan, Churchill’s were about protecting Britain’s world status and preserving the British Empire. Stalin wanted above all to protect ‘mother Russia’ by establishing a ring of satellite states around the Soviet Union and to extract as much as he could in reparations from a defeated Germany. What made it particularly hard for the two Western leaders to work together was that before the conference they failed to agree a common negotiating position—the reason for this was Roosevelt’s determination to assure Stalin that the US and the UK were not ganging up against him. During the conference, to reinforce the point Roosevelt made frequent sallies against Churchill which Stalin enjoyed. Stalin, however, knew from his agents that the two Western leaders were keeping things from him, such as the existence of the atomic bomb project. Neither Roosevelt nor Churchill knew whether they could trust Stalin, although surprisingly both seemed to find him personally engaging. As for Stalin, he trusted neither Roosevelt nor in particular Churchill and had the palaces where they were residing “bugged” so he could eavesdrop on their conversations.

Q: Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin agreed that France and de Gaulle should not be represented at Yalta. Even China’s Nationalist government wasn’t invited. Why?

A: De Gaulle was excluded from Yalta by the instant and unanimous agreement of “The Big Three” none of whom liked or trusted him, believing he claimed a status for France and himself which his country’s performance in the war did not justify. Chiang Kai-shek, leader of Nationalist China and a close US ally, was not invited either. Roosevelt had become disillusioned with the Chinese Nationalist armies’ battle performance and the widespread corruption which swallowed up much of the millions of dollars which the US pumped into their war efforts.

Q: In hindsight, who do you think played the diplomatic card most efficiently and how?

A: Although Roosevelt and Churchill succeeded in their primary objectives other than on Eastern Europe at Yalta, they could have played their hands a little better. For example, Roosevelt could have tried to exert pressure on Stalin in regard to Poland by threatening to withdraw US aid—the lend-Lease programme—from the Soviet Union. Of the three leaders Stalin played his undoubtedly stronger hand the most effectively. As he boasted to his notorious security chief Lavrentii Beria, during the Yalta negotiations he conceded nothing that mattered to him and achieved everything he wanted.