The Prime Minister and the Prof with Malcolm Gladwell | S2/E5: Revisionist History Podcast

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The Prime Minister and the Prof with Malcolm Gladwell

Episode 5| Season 2| Revisionist History
Length: 34 min | Released: 7/12/2017

Malcolm Gladwell: What was your mother’s experience in the famine? So your, your family is from, is from Bengal?

Madhusree Mukerjee: Yeah, my, um, mother was about 12 years old and she was living in the city. She saw, uh, all of the starvation on the pavements, all of the people coming into the city from the villages because there was absolutely nothing left in the villages. And I had this question that no one seemed to have answered which was, “Why is it that no relief was sent?”

MG: Madhusree Mukerjee, a writer and historian whose work I came across not long ago.

I wanted you to read a passage from your book. Can you just read the first paragraph? I, I thought it was this, as a way of communicating to people what a famine is.

MM: In Sapurapota village of the 17th union of the Panskura Thana, a Muslim weaver was unable to support his family and, crazed with hunger, wandered away. His wife believed that he had drowned himself in the flooded Kasai River. Being unable to feed her two young sons for several days, she could no longer endure their suffering. She dropped the smaller boy torn from her womb, the sparkle of her eye, into the Kasai’s frothing waters.

MG: My name is Malcolm Gladwell. You’re listing to Revisionist History; my podcast about things overlooked and misunderstood. This episode is about a famine that took place in India in 1943.

Famines are the immediate result of things like droughts and crop failures, acts of nature, but their cause is invariably human — wars, misguided policies. Right now, as I’m recording this, Venezuela is facing a malnutrition crisis. A country with vast oil wealth in one of the most fertile corners of the world doesn’t have enough food. Humans cause that, not nature. So what was the human cause of the Bengal famine of 1943? I think it was a friendship.

But that’s a much more complicated story that begins on the other side of the world.

Unknown: It is my great privilege to welcome Sir Charles back to our community and to present him to the audience in Cambridge tonight.

CP Snow: Mister President, Dean Price, ladies and gentleman, I’m very pleased and very honored to be here this evening.

MG: It’s 1960, Harvard University. One of England’s great postwar intellectuals, a scientist named CP Snow, is giving the Godkin lecture at the Sanders Theater.

CP Coming to Harvard, I felt as I felt before that, in many ways, this is the most splendid university I ever set foot in. And I don’t feel the faintly apologetic quiver that I get at some American institutions, which I can only admire as a distant spectator and one for which I feel, sometimes happily, that I have no responsibility.

MG: Snow was a physicist by training, a high ranking scientist in the British government during the Second World War, then a bestselling novelist. Back when the Nazis thought they were going to win the war, they made a list of 2800 people they were going to hand over to the Gestapo the minute they invaded England; Snow was on the list. In the intervening years, Snow’s reputation has grown. The Sanders Theater was packed. His lecture was so long it had to be broken up over three days and was broadcast live on television. But he does something unexpected, he devotes fully half of his speech to one person, someone whom I’m guessing few Americans had ever heard of, Frederick A Lindemann. Born April 15, 1886; died July 3, 1957, otherwise known as Lord Cherwell.

CP: Sir Lindemann was, by any odds, a very remarkable and a very strange man. He was a real heavy weight of personality.

MG: Remember, Snow is a novelist, a student of character.

CP: Lindemann was quite un-English. I always thought, if you met him in middle age, you would’ve thought he was the kind of central European businessman that one used to meet in the more expensive hotels in Italy. He was heavy featured, pallid, always very correctly dressed, he spoke German at least as well as he did English and, indeed, under his English, there was a tone of German. If you could hear him at all because he was, he always mumbled in an extraordinarily constricted fashion.

MG: Snow is obsessed with Lindemann. That’s the first thing that comes across in the lecture. Frederick Lindemann was the kind of man who obsessed people. People talked about Lindemann, gossiped about him, gave speeches about him. I got obsessed with him last summer and by the time my Lindemania was over, I’d read six books about him, six. And I think I just scratched the surface.

CP: About him, there hung a kind of atmosphere of indefinable malaise. You felt that he didn’t understand his own life well and he wasn’t very good at coping with the major things. I mean, he was venomous, he was harsh-tongued, he had a malicious, sadistic sense of humor but, nevertheless, you felt that, somehow, he was lost. And I said he is a figure that made a novelist’s fingers itch.

MG: Lindemann was born in Germany. His father was a wealthy German engineer; his mother was an American heiress. Like CP Snow, he was also a physicist and got his PhD in Berlin, just before the First World War, at a time when Germany was the center of the world in physics. His thesis adviser compared his mind to that of Isaac Newton. He was a captivating conversationalist, a champion tennis player. He dressed like a 19th-century count. He was a generalist who knew more than most specialists. He could demolish anyone in an argument. Once, after Lindemann had taken a post at Oxford, Albert Einstein came to a faculty dinner and afterwards, all the young physicists gathered around Einstein, as you would expect them to, and their first question was, “What do you think of Lindemann?” That was what they wanted to know.

Another night at dinner, Einstein talked about some mathematical proposition for which he’d never been able to come up with a proof. The next day, Lindemann casually mentioned that he had the answer; he figured it out in his bathtub. You can see why everyone was so obsessed with him.

George Thompson: He impressed us immensely because he was very much a man of the world.

MG: This is a friend of his, George Thompson.

GT: He was a striking person to look at, tall, slim, dark. The unkind people said he looked like Mephistopheles. I think this is not that quite flattering. But I think he was the most exciting person to talk physics to that I have ever talked to.

MG: Even Lindemann’s valet sung his praises when he was interviewed by the BBC.

Lindemann’s valet: In the 32 years valeting with him, never once seen anything slightly, even remotely, suggesting impropriety. During one occasion when he was showing some films to a lady and he was perspiring, he even walked behind the curtain to mop his brow.

MG: But Lindemann was also profoundly eccentric. He played tennis with his shirt buttoned to the neck, long sleeves fastened at the wrist, thick, black ribbed socks and white boots. People who wore shorts disgusted him. Lindemann’s family was eccentric as well. He had a brother named Sepi who lived in style on the Riviera with two Rolls Royces. One was white and driven by a black man, the other was black and chauffeured by an albino. I’m not making that up. In his lecture, CP Snow spends an unusual amount of time just talking about Lindemann’s diet.

CP: He was the most cranky of all vegetarians. He wasn’t only a vegetarian, but he would only eat very minute fractions of what you might regard as a vegetarian diet. He lived mainly on cheese, the whites of eggs, the yolks being, apparently, too “animal,” olive oil, and rice.

[Audience’s Laughter]

MG: During the Second World War, there was hardly a drop of olive oil in England and Lindemann got his brother Charles, who was serving in the British Embassy in Washington, to put a case of olive oil in a diplomatic pouch at regular intervals to be flown back to London. At one point, when the war is getting intense, his brother doesn’t send him enough oil. Lindemann goes ballistic, “Tell Charles I can only suppose that he attaches no value to what I’m trying to do in the war effort, that he would as soon have me go to bed, and that is what I shall have to do unless he sends me more olive oil.” Europe is burning and that’s what’s on his mind.

Lindemann was thin-skinned, defensive. He’d never admit when he was wrong, he’d never change his mind once it was made up. He thought he was an expert on everything, even when he wasn’t. His friend Roy Harrod once wrote of him, “He would not shrink from using an argument which he knew to be wrong if, by so doing, he could tie up one of his professional opponents.” That was his friend saying that.

CP Snow remembers one New Year’s Day with Lindemann in Oxford. The British Crown had just published its Honors list; people who are being recognized with knighthoods and ladyships.

CP: I remarked, innocently enough, that the English Honors list must give much more pain than pleasure because obvious to the people who were left out were much greater in number than the people who were in and, and Lindemann’s face lit up. He’d got a very somber, heavy face with very sad, brown eyes. Well, these brown eyes sparkled with savage glee and he said, “Of course it is. It wouldn’t be any use getting an award if one didn’t think of all the people who were miserable because they hadn’t managed it.”


MG: Here’s what another friend said of him, “He was lacking in the bond of human sympathy for every chance a person who was not brought into a personal relationship with him.” I think that’s the crucial fact about Lindemann. One time he’s asked for his definition of morality and he answers, “I define a moral action as one that brings advantage to my friends.”

Frederick Lindemann was a man who put his friends first, to the exclusion of all other moral considerations. Now, why does that matter? Why would CP Snow devote three days to this man whom few people in the audience had ever heard of? Because of who Frederick Lindemann’s best friend was. The man who defined a moral action as “One that brings advantage to my friends,” was best friends with Winston Churchill.

Winston Churchill: We are the masters of our fate, that the task which has been set us is not above our strength, that its pangs and toils are not beyond our endurance.

MG: I’m guessing you think of Churchill as a hero, the man who bravely led the fight against Adolf Hitler. But once I learned about his friend, I don’t know. Churchill will never be the same for me.

CP: People have often speculated on why this friendship. I mean, an extremely cranky, non-smoking, non-drinking vegetarian doesn’t sound the obvious soulmate for…


CP: For Sir Winston. I can only answer that, that to give any sensible suggestion, you would have to know both men not only well, but as well as they knew each other. One can make guesses, but why any friendship?

MG: Lindemann and Churchill met each other in 1921 at a dinner in London; it was arranged by the Duke and Duchess of Westminster. Lindemann would always say that only two people in the world were smarter than he was — Einstein, of course, and Churchill; and Churchill felt the same way. If you read some of the letters Churchill writes Lindemann, they’re almost worshipful.

The psychologist Daniel Wagner has this beautiful concept called transactive memory, which is the observation that we don’t just store information in our minds or in specific places, we store memories and understanding in the minds of the people we love. You don’t need to remember your child’s emotional relationship to her teacher because you know your wife will. You don’t have to remember how to work the remote because you know your daughter will. That’s transactive memory; little bits of ourselves reside in other people’s minds. You know when one-half of a long marriage dies and the surviving partner says that some part of them has died along with their spouse? Wagner has a heartbreaking riff about how that is actually true. When your partner dies, everything that you have stored in your partner’s brain dies along with them.

Churchill is in a transactive relationship with Lindemann. Think about it. Churchill is a man of the big picture, a visionary; he has a deep, intuitive understanding of human psychology and history but he struggles with depression. He has mood swings, he’s impulsive, he’s a gambler, he has no head for figures. Throughout his life, he’s always losing huge amounts of money on foolish investments. In 1935, Churchill spent the modern equivalent of $62,000 on champagne in one year. Within a month of becoming Prime Minister, he was broke, literally broke. Here we have a man of volatile temperament with no way to bring order to his life, so who does he become best friends with? Frederick Lindemann, someone disciplined, almost fanatically consistent, someone who ate the same three things every meal of every day, someone so naturally at home in the world of numbers that, even as a child, he would read newspapers and recite back reams and reams of statistics from memory.

When Churchill becomes Prime Minister in 1940, just after the war breaks out, he takes Lindemann with him, first, as scientific adviser, then he gets him a job in the War Cabinet as the Paymaster General. And Lindemann becomes a kind of gatekeeper to Churchill’s mind. Over the course of the war, he writes Churchill 2,000 memos, basically one a day, double spaced, large print, no more than a page or two, reducing some complicated question to its essence. Lindemann travels with Churchill to international conferences, he dines with him. Lindemann never drinks unless he’s eating with Churchill, who’s a big drinker, then he drinks. He goes to Churchill’s country house on the weekends. People spot them at 3:00 in the morning sitting by the fire reading the newspaper together. One time in parliament, another MP criticizes Lindemann and Churchill goes crazy. He says, “Love Me, love my dog. And if you don’t love my dog, you damn well can’t love me,” and that’s high praise. Because remember, to an Englishman of that generation, the only living creature you’re allowed to show affection for is your dog.

CP: The row occurred in 1942 and it occurred over strategic bombing.

MG: The heart of Snow’s lecture is about an argument that took place at the highest reaches of British government. The question was what was the best use of the royal air force against the Germans?

CP: And it was quite right that the leaders of the West should been looking for anything which would play a serious part in the war.

MG: One school of thought says, “Let’s use our bombers to support military activities, protecting ships against German U-boats, destroying German factories.” The other school of thought argues that bombing ought to serve a bigger, strategic purpose. In other words, “Let’s use bombing to break the will of the German people, let’s make their lives so miserable that they give up.”

The UK’s military leadership was fanatical about the virtues of strategic bombing but Churchill was on the fence. So what did he do? He turned to Lindemann, of course, and asked Lindemann to do a formal study of strategic bombing’s effectiveness. That’s the sort of analytical question Churchill had always turned over to his best friend. And Lindemann says, “Let’s look at the English cities of Hull and Birmingham, both of which were bombed heavily by the Germans.” He analyzes the data then writes one of his famous memos to Churchill. I’m quoting now from Lindemann’s memo, “Investigation seems to show that having one’s house demolished is most dangerous to morale. People seem to mind it more than having their friends or even relatives killed. At Hull, signs of strain were evident though only one-tenth of the homes were demolished. On the above figures, we can do as much harm to each of the 58 principal German towns. There seems little doubt that this would break the spirit of the German people.”

Strategic bombing is about making an all-out assault on the homes and the lives of German civilians; not soldiers, innocent people. There’s a moment in Snow’s speech when he stops because he can’t believe, with the benefit of 15 years hindsight, that he was part of a government that thought that this was the right thing to do.

CP: What our descendants will think of us, I don’t know. Will they think, as Roger Williams said of some Indians, that we were wolves with the minds of men? Will they think we resigned our humanity?

MG: But you won’t find any of those kinds of considerations in Lindemann’s memo to Churchill. It’s very matter of fact; it’s all about what the data says except for one thing. That’s not what the data says.

The Birmingham-Hull study reached the exact opposite conclusion that Lindemann did. It said that, and I’m quoting, “In neither town was there any evidence of panic resulting from either a series of raids or from a single raid.” Lindemann also makes estimates on how many German homes the British could destroy. Other experts in the government, critics of strategic bombing, point out immediately that Lindemann’s numbers are ridiculous, five or six times too high, based on obvious errors. Doesn’t matter. Remember what one of Lindemann’s friends said? “He would not shrink from using an argument which he knew to be wrong if, by so doing, he could tie up one of his professional opponents.” Lindemann wanted strategic bombing, so Churchill went ahead and ordered the bombing of German cities.

CP: No one had ever thought how these bomber forces were really to be used. It was just an act of faith, this was a, this was a way to fight a war. And I think it’s fair to say that Lindemann was, with his usual extreme intensity, as committed to this faith as any man in England.

MG: So what happened? Most historians agree that strategic bombing was a disaster. 160,000 US and English airmen and hundreds of thousands of German civilians were killed in those bombing campaigns. Many of Europe’s most beautiful cities were destroyed and German morale didn’t crack; the Germans fought to the bitter end. After the war, the Nobel Prize winning physicist Patrick Blackett wrote a devastating essay where he said that the war could have been won six months or even a year earlier, if only the British had used their bombers more intelligently.

There should have been a proper debate about strategic bombing in the British War Cabinet, numbers should’ve been scrutinized, hard questions should’ve been asked. But how can you have a real debate against Churchill’s best friend? Friendship comes first. That’s the thing that makes friendships so powerful and beautiful, except when your friend is feeding you falsehoods and your loyalty to him means that you can’t see them.

MM: Cherwell was a loner; he had no one in his life he loved except, I think, Churchill.

MG: Madhusree Mukerjee, she’s the voice you heard at the beginning of this episode talking about a famine in India. She’s a historian who wrote a book a few years ago called Churchill’s Secret War. It’s about what happened in the Indian province of Bengal during the war. The Cherwell she’s referring to is Frederick Lindemann. In 1941, Churchill gave him a peerage, Lord Cherwell. Mukerjee prefers to call him by his formal name.

When I got obsessed with Lindemann, Mukerjee’s book was the last one I read and maybe the most important. If you think of CP Snow’s lecture as chapter one in the Frederick Lindemann-Winston Churchill love story, Mukerjee’s book is the final, depressing chapter.

MM: It was clearly the only person he ever loved in his life; there was no one else.

MG: India was still a British colony during the war, governed by a Viceroy sent from England. Like all British colonial possessions, India was a major part of the war effort. They exported food for the allies, they sent hundreds of thousands of soldiers to fight the Germans.

MM: And the entire industrial production, the entire cloth production, wool, silk, timber, you name it; it was being used for the war.

MG: In wartime, countries operate right at the brink and in late 1942, there’s a kind of perfect storm in India’s northeastern corner that pushes the region over the edge. First of all, the Japanese capture Burma, which sits on India’s northeastern border. India used to import rice from Burma; now they can’t.

The British are terrified that Japan will invade India and so they order a scorched earth policy all along the northeastern border and coast. They destroy stocks of rice, boats, bicycles, anything they think that might help the Japanese if they invade. Then there’s a cyclone, 20-foot storm surge, kills 30,000 people. The new rice crop is devastated, the government panics. They don’t know how they’re gonna feed their troops. So they go into all the towns and start buying up rice. The price soars; speculators step in and start hoarding rice. That’s exactly how famines start.

MM: What you have is, by the end of 1942, you have the Viceroy of India making fervent pleas to the war cabinet in London for imports of wheat.

MG: The pleas go to Lindemann, he’s Paymaster General in the War Cabinet, which means he’s basically the government’s logistics man, the one responsible for making sure there are enough food and supplies for England and its allies. Lindemann says, “No. We’re in the middle of a war, we can’t spare the food. And even if we could, we have no way of getting the food to India. We’re tapped out.”

MM: Throughout the spring of 1943, the Viceroy is saying, “We absolutely need this, we absolutely need this food.” And Cherwell is saying, “We can’t spare the ships, we can’t spare the ships.”

MG: But Mukerjee wonders is that true? Was Lindemann telling another lie? She then does something no historian had ever done before — she digs into the British shipping archive from the war, which had just been declassified, files that literally hadn’t been opened in 60 years, and she finds out that the British had lots of food in 1943, huge stockpiles. So much that the Americans, who were the source of a lot of that food, got suspicious that the British were hoarding surplus wheat to sell when the war was over.

And what about the UK’s supposed shortage of boats? Mukerjee says, “There was one at the beginning of 1943 when German submarines were still wreaking havoc in the Atlantic, but not by the end of that year.”

The US starts sending over so many ships that, by late 1943 when the famine in Bengal is at its height, there’s actually a surplus of boats on the allied side. In fact, in 1943, the British actually start shipping wheat from Australia up through the Indian Ocean, just not to India.

MM: There’d be 18 ships loading with wheat and wheat flour over, uh, in September and October, and not one of them were going to India. And some of them were actually going to a stockpile that was being built up in the Middle East for feeding, um, Europe after liberation.

MG: British ships full of grain are sailing right past India on the way to the Middle East to be stored for some future, hypothetical need. They might even stop and refuel in Mumbai, but nothing leaves the ship.

MM: So you have a situation in which India is starving, there are corpses on the streets of Calcutta.

MG: So why? Why is Lindemann refusing to help? It doesn’t even make illogical sense. Indian soldiers, hundreds of thousands of them, are fighting the Germans in the Middle East and Africa. When other countries like Canada and the United States offered to send food to India, the British say, “We don’t want it.” They turn down help. Lindemann seems completely unmoved by India’s plight. “In my view, the Indians have got themselves into a mess very largely through their own fault,” he writes in the middle of the famine. Their own fault. Then he goes on, “This shortage of food is likely to be endemic in a country where the population is always increased until only bare subsistence is possible.” Basically, they have too many babies.

Now, remember, Lindemann’s a physicist by training who rides around in a chauffeur driven limousine and plays tennis in full dress. If he’s thought about India once in his life before the war, I’d be stunned. Yet, here he is with a fully worked out ideology about Britain’s moral obligations to one of its most important allies. It’s tempting to put this down to another of his idiosyncratic prejudices. He also didn’t like Jews all that much and black people, according to a friend, filled him with a physical revulsion which he was unable to control. But I’m not sure that we’re seeing Lindemann here; I think we’re seeing Churchill.

Churchill is the one with an issue about India. He’s obsessed with India. In the years leading up to the war, Gandhi is building his independence movement within India and Churchill hates Gandhi. Churchill is furious about the fact that Britain has to buy raw materials from India, meaning that the master is running up a debt with its supposed subject.

The British cabinet minister in London who’s responsible for India is a man named Leopold Amery. He’s the one begging for food for India. Amery keeps a diary of his interactions with Churchill. At one point, he says, “Churchill goes on a rant about Indians and India,” and Amery tells him, “You sound like Hitler.” At another point, he writes of Churchill, “I am by no means sure that whether, on this subject of India, he is really quite sane.”

So why was Lindemann so adamant that England could not help India? Because Churchill was adamant that England could not help India and Lindemann was a loyal friend.

MM: Cherwell would send Churchill these minutes, they had to be no longer than 10 lines long, and they would recommend a course of action. And to design these minutes, he actually left out a lot of qualifications, uh, the bad things that could happen if you did such and such. For instance, in the shipping cut, the Ministry of War Transport had warned that there’d be violent cataclysms in the economies of the Indian Ocean area. None of these concerns ever made it into a Cherwell memo. He actually simply laid out a rationale for doing whatever he and Churchill wanted to be done.

MG: Why don’t we spend more time thinking about friends of politicians? I’ll never understand it. We go through lengthy election seasons where we endlessly scrutinize all the people running for public office. We look at the candidates, their beliefs, their background, the clothes they wear, we look at them. But then, after the election is over, we realize we didn’t just elect that candidate because no one governs alone. Eventually, leaders get overwhelmed. At a certain point, they’re gonna call their closest friend at 2:00 in the morning and say, “What do I do?” So when you’re voting for someone, you’re also voting for that friend who gets called at 2:00 in the morning. That’s what’s strange about elections; friends should be scrutinized. The friends should all have to debate each other, but they don’t. Friends get a pass.

In his lecture, CP Snow called this “court politics.”

CP: The Lindemann-Churchill relation is the most fascinating example of court politics that we’re likely to see.

MG: People called Lindemann “The Prof.” Sometimes that was said with affection, sometimes with bewilderment.

CP: I still can hear a friend of mine, a man who’s normally very tough and very intelligent, on a black, London wartime night as we talked about the bombing policy saying, “The Prime Minister and Prof have decided. Who are we to say them nay?”

MG: The best guess of how many died in the Bengal famine of 1943 is three million people. Three million. After the war, the British government held a formal inquiry into what happened, but the investigation was forbidden to consider, and I’m quoting, “Her Majesty’s government’s decision in regard to shipping of imports.” In other words, they were asked to investigate the cause of the famine without investigating the cause of the famine.

MM: Churchill’s six volume history of the war was kind of a primary reference for historians of at least a generation. He made no mention of the famine; it just sort of got one mention in an appendix.

MG: In six volumes there’s one mention in an appendix of the famine?

MM: In a document that makes it into the appendix, yes. There’s no mention of it. In fact, what he says instead is that, uh, “India was carried through the struggle on the shoulders of our small island.”

MG: No one in London was interested in telling the real story of what happened and Churchill and Lindemann had no interest in talking about it either. They decided to keep it all between friends.