The Guilty Men

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Democracy and liberation were not top of the agenda following the Second World War.

In the summer of 1940, Britain's 'finest hour', German aircraft were over the white cliffs of Dover and the streets of London, and Hitler's panzers seemed set to invade Britain. After beating a disorderly and chaotic retreat from Dunkirk you might have expected that every available British soldier would be lined up on the south coast ready to repulse an expected invasion.

In fact Winston Churchill was ordering the British forces to amass in Egypt to protect the Suez Canal and the imperial link with India. Meanwhile Australian, New Zealand and Indian forces were ordered to the Middle East, exposing those countries to a Japanese attack. One of Churchill's supporters, Leo Amery (one of whose sons was hanged as a Nazi sympathiser for trying to recruit British PoWs to the SS), was at the India Office in 1942 when he explained, 'After all, smashing Hitler is only a means to the essential end of preserving the British Empire and all it stands for in the world.' As late as 1944 Churchill was resisting the Allied assault on France in favour of concentrating on the Mediterranean, because he saw it as key to British interests and that it could forestall Russian expansion into Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

In the build-up to the occupation of Iraq, American and British politicians and generals were trotting out quotes from Churchill and comparing the anti-war movement to those who appeased Hitler and the Nazis in the 1930s. Few bothered to point out that it was not the left who appeased Hitler but the right--including the 'Daily Mail', virtually the entire Tory Party, hack historians like Arthur Bryant, military experts like Major General JFC Fuller (Britain's leading exponent of armoured warfare), the ex Liberal prime minister Lloyd George, the Duke of Windsor (formerly King Edward VIII) and the mother of our present queen. Indeed Winston Churchill was regarded as a dangerous maverick because he recognised the danger Hitler's Germany posed to the position of Britain as a world power. (Churchill had no problem with fascism, lauding Mussolini's rule in Italy.)

When in May 1940 Churchill became prime minister he did so against vicious opposition from the Tory Party. He had to rely on maverick press barons like Lord Beaverbrook, the Labour Party and left wing journalists like Michael Foot to wage a faction fight against those who wanted to come to terms with Hitler. That included the foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, who in February 1940 passed a peace proposal to Hitler's deputy Goering through a Danish contact of the historian Arthur Bryant, and a Tory minister, Rab Butler, who in June 1940 began unofficial peace talks with Germany via the Swedish ambassador. The US ambassador in London, Joseph Kennedy (father of John F and Robert Kennedy), was open about the desirability of London making peace with Berlin.

One of the jibes that the media and establishment politicians love to make against the left is that we spend all our time fighting each other. But if you want to see a really vicious faction fight read what Churchill had to do that summer.

Michael Foot was one of the authors of a little book, 'The Guilty Men', which nailed the Tory appeasers. Booksellers refused to distribute it and it was literally sold off a barrow in London's Charing Cross Road (it then went through edition after edition). Churchill sacked various Tory ministers, shunted off Lord Halifax to be ambassador in Washington and had to force the Duke of Windsor to quit first the French Riviera (where he seemed to be happy to go into German captivity) and then Lisbon en route to becoming governor of Bermuda (where the Americans kept a close eye on his contacts with Nazi sympathisers). A future Tory prime minister, Alec Douglas Home, told dinner guests that Churchill's supporters were 'scum'.

Labour politicians

Churchill realised that British forces had been told they would return to a 'land fit for heroes' after the First World War, and such a lie couldn't be done again after the Second World War. The running of Britain itself was virtually handed over to Labour politicians and a Tory-dominated government had to lay the basis for the postwar welfare state.

My father sums up the mixed attitude of lots of people to the war he volunteered to fight in 1939. As far as he was concerned Hitler had to be stopped. Churchill, I remember him telling me more than once, was 'a bastard', but he added that 'we needed a bastard to fight Hitler'. But he was also bitter about the racism and the crude colonialism he saw in Sri Lanka (then the colony of Ceylon) when he was transferred to Asia in 1945 following Germany's surrender and before the end of the war with Japan. He understood Churchill, the ruling class and the upper echelons of the armed forces were fighting to preserve the British Empire. Like millions of others he voted, to Churchill's immense shock, to get rid of the bastard once the fighting was over.

The Second World War was not a war against fascism. British troops entered Greece in 1944, after the Resistance had liberated the country, only to rearm the fascist militias the Germans had created in order to turn them on the Resistance!

A year earlier, after the Italian king had dismissed Mussolini, the British and Americans tried desperately to retain what was a fascist regime shorn of Il Duce and headed by Marshal Badoglio, the man who had used poison gas (chemical weapons) on a mass scale in order to conquer Ethiopia. The US president, Franklin Roosevelt, writing in 1942 at the time of American landings in Morocco and Algeria, described himself as the fascist butcher's 'sincere friend' and assured him that 'he had nothing to fear from the United States'.

In Vietnam in August 1945 Britain used their former enemies, Japanese soldiers, against the left wing and nationalist resistance in an attempt to reforge French colonial rule (thus creating a 30-year war which killed millions). And while Russia played the crucial role in defeating Nazi Germany we should not forget that in 1939 Stalin signed a pact with Hitler dividing Poland up between them and allowing Russia to seize the Baltic states and a tranche of Romania. Until German troops invaded Russia in June 1941 Stalin supplied Hitler with vital supplies for his war effort. The US, Russia and Britain rushed to secure Nazi war criminals who could work on their respective atomic and missile weapon programmes or who could be redeployed to spy on their former allies.

Britain at war

Neither was it a war for democracy. In 1939, when King George VI declared Britain was at war with Germany, he also announced that the entire Indian subcontinent was also at war. There was no pretence at democratic consultation by the king-emperor. While Indian troops fought in the Middle East and against Italy, and stopped the Japanese invasion of the subcontinent, British troops, tanks and planes were employed against independence supporters in India itself.

In Iraq and Egypt British troops were used to topple in the most humiliating way governments which they perceived to be pro-German, which helped to create an enormous Arab nationalist backlash in the 1950s.

British troops were used not just to reimpose colonial rule in Vietnam but in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) and in Malaya in a vicious war against the Communist-led resistance movement which had fought the Japanese.

The Americans, Russians and British sat down and divided up Europe and much of Asia with no concern for the wishes of the population. Formally the US and Britain stood shoulder to shoulder. In reality every drop of US aid on which Britain depended was paid for by the handing over of British military and economic assets, the dismantling of the British trade zone linked to sterling and, in the final flourish, the takeover by the Americans of the vital oilfields in Arabia (Washington literally outbribed the Saudi royal family).

The massive opposition in Greece and Italy to the conquest of Iraq today flows in part from the memory of how the US and Britain fought a war against the Resistance in the former, and rigged elections to exclude the left which had liberated the great cities of northern and central Italy in the latter.

The war crimes of Nazi Germany remain unmatched. But amid talk of waging war to remove weapons of mass destruction we should remember that the US used the atomic bomb on two Japanese cities knowing that Tokyo had decided to surrender and that the Russian invasion of the country rendered resistance impossible. The Americans dropped the bomb as an assertion of their power in the face of Russian military success.

Churchill and Air Marshal Harris (both responsible for bombing Kurdish civilian targets in northern Iraq in the 1920s) understood Britain was incapable of precision aerial bombing and chose instead to unleash terror raids on civilian residential areas in German cities.

All of the various powers were fighting the war in order to shape the second half of the 20th century. The new world order that emerged saw a repartition of the world with the US reigning as top dog and Russia becoming a superpower. The guns were never silenced from the day the Second World War ended. In Algeria, Greece, Indonesia and Vietnam the first in a series of squalid and bloody wars were under way.

In 1945 the US proclaimed this was the American Century. Hard as it may seem today, Washington seemed to offer a better, more democratic alternative to the old colonial powers. Thirty years later Vietnam had exposed the reality of the new US imperialism. The New American Century starts with no such hopes and with the reality of US imperialism being shown all too clearly on the streets of Baghdad. But 1945 inaugurated a new era of anti-imperialist resistance and 2003 can be another such milestone.