Churchill’s Cherwell and the 1943 Famines

Scientific American has a detailed historical look at the role of Lord Cherwell who served as Winston Churchill’s Personal Technocrat. The article says the analysis of security for Britain had a humanitarian flaw — a disregard for people of their former Colonies and the importance of trade routes — that caused unnecessary famine.

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.

Cherwell was born in Germany in the late 1800s as Frederick Alexander Lindemann. He gained respect from his strong work ethic, broad intelligence, innovation, and sharp data analysis. However, he also seems to have been insecure about his intelligence. This is perhaps what led to his most notable mistakes such as believing in a model of humanity with structured high and low status.

“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.”

That perspective is probably not what most people think of when they hear the name Cherwell or read the stories of a brilliant scientist known as the most fervent anti-Nazi, Hitler-hating, advisor to Churchill.

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