January 2011

Note: This is the first in a projected series of articles on the hidden history of the origins of WWII. For an introduction to the series, see "Chamberlain, Hitler's Spy and Enabler," the brief headnote to my Hitler-Chamberlain blog at: http://hitlerandchamberlain.blogspot.com/

-- Ronald Bleier,

Churchill's Chamberlain: The Unnecessary War 1

By Ronald Bleier

In the “Preface” to The Gathering Storm, volume I of his World War II memoirs, Winston Churchill writes that when President Roosevelt asked for suggestions about what the war should be called, he replied that it should be called “the Unnecessary War. There never was a war more easy to stop.

Churchill doesn't explain in his brief "Preface" how war could have been prevented, but two thirds of his memoir is taken up with Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's conduct in office in the crucial years 1937-1940. During that time Churchill was the most high profile critic of the prime minister's appeasement policies, marked by Britain's extraordinary and devastating security concessions to Hitler. Churchill was particularly outraged by what he saw as the prime minister's purposeful obstruction of British rearmament in the face of the manifest threat from Germany. Churchill's book may be read as a record of his frustration and its sum and substance amounts to an indictment of Chamberlain.

Churchill’s view of Chamberlain was complicated in part because he was forced to apply to the prime minister for a place in government—a position he was accorded only after war broke out. Churchill also may have repressed the full measure of his disapproval on a number of grounds. Perhaps his main constraint, one that continues to exercise a strong check on writers even into the current century, is that it would seem an outrage to suggest any kind of equivalence or cooperation between the monstrousness of an Adolf Hitler and the British prime minister. In addition, Churchill no doubt had to consider the sensibilities of the family, friends and supporters of the man who died of the cancer that forced him to retire from government only eight years earlier in 1940. Doubtless it is due to the nature of such considerations that Churchill is careful to insert mitigating remarks, including references to Chamberlain’s decency and courage—sometimes even in the middle of a denunciatory passage.

Yet it was not merely for the sake of politically correct balance that Churchill insisted on acknowledging Chamberlain's extraordinary abilities as a politician and administrator. Churchill writes that when Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, stepped down on May 28, 1937: "There was no doubt who his successor should be. Mr. Neville Chamberlain had, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, not only done the main work of the Government for five years past, but was the ablest and most forceful Minister, with high abilities and an historic name… I had described him a year earlier as the "packhorse in our great affairs."(p. 198)2

But only a page or so later, in his "comparative appreciation" of Baldwin and Chamberlain, Churchill includes several hints pointing to his predecessor's limitations.

Neville Chamberlain …was alert, businesslike, opinionated and self-confident in a very high degree. Unlike Baldwin, he conceived himself able to comprehend the whole field of Europe, and indeed the world. Instead of [Baldwin's] vague but nonetheless deep-seated intuition, we now had a narrow, sharp-edged efficiency within the limits of the policy in which he believed. Both as Chancellor of the Exchequer and as Prime Minister he kept the tightest and most rigid control upon military expenditure. He was throughout this period the masterful opponent of all emergency measures… He had formed decided judgments about all the political figures of the day, both at home and abroad, and felt himself capable of dealing with them. His all pervading hope was to go down in history as the great Peacemaker, and for this he was prepared to strive continually the teeth of facts and face great risks for himself and his country.(pp. 199-200) (my emphasis)

Churchill wrote these lines not long after Britain had only narrowly escaped falling under the control of Adolf Hitler, a man arguably bent on destroying as much of civilization as he could take down with him. Thus for Churchill and his supporters it was extremely troubling to have Chamberlain, month after month and year after year, stand in the way of the most crucial and clearly necessary defense expenditures as well as such emergency measures as conscription and establishing a ministry of supply. Chamberlain blocked the creation of such a ministry until a few months before war broke out despite the nation's desperate need for a coordinating authority empowered to put labor and industry on a war footing.

More subtle, or perhaps not so subtle, is the way Churchill undermines perhaps the most effective rationalization, even today, for Chamberlain's policy choices, namely that he believed himself to be a peacemaker, someone determined to take risks for peace. When Churchill writes that Chamberlain pursued peace in the teeth of facts he suggests critical questions that few have addressed. What were the facts that Chamberlain ignored or brushed aside? Do such facts raise questions about his loyalty to Britain's sovereignty and its democratic traditions?

Could Churchill have had in mind, for example, among much else, Chamberlain's activist intervention at Munich making possible Hitler's elimination of Czechoslovakia as a sovereign state? Churchill did everything he could to prevent such an event but alas, he was not in government at the time and he was outmaneuvered by Chamberlain. Churchill recognized, as did Hitler's generals, and as doubtless did Chamberlain, that Czechoslovakia stood as a powerful bastion preventing Hitler's expansion and his ability to make war west or east. All Chamberlain had to do was to make one firm, well-timed speech in favor of continued Czech sovereignty and Hitler might actually have been toppled, and history changed. Churchill understood this and he understood that Chamberlain did as well.

Given Churchill's strong views what are we to make of his apparent effort to shield Chamberlain from harsh criticism when he writes, at the end of his first chapter that his purpose is to "show how easily the tragedy of the Second World War could have been prevented"? In this passage, Churchill takes care to emphasize the "weakness of the virtuous" in their struggle with "the malice of the wicked." (p. 16)

Churchill's stress on the "weakness of the virtuous," might seem to be at odds with his marked critique of Chamberlain's "appeasement" policies. The disconnect may perhaps be explained by the defensive tone he takes in his "Preface," apparently concerned that his book will be criticized for its overly harsh judgments. His rule, he says, is never to criticize "any measure of war or policy after the event unless I had before expressed publicly or formally my opinion or warning about it." Moreover, he insists that rather than indulging in unduly harsh criticism, he has done quite the opposite: "Indeed in the afterlight I have softened many of the severities of contemporary controversy." Nor should anyone "look down on those honorable, well-meaning men whose actions are chronicled in these pages without searching his own heart…" (xiii-xiv)

But Churchill's characterization of His Majesty's Government as virtuous but weak is not convincing. His memoir is not a portrait of a weak prime minister. Quite the contrary. Churchill's book provides evidence in the form of example after example of a determined and clever Chamberlain managing to force damaging and devastating policies on his people--every one of which without exception can be seen to have been intended to support Hitler's plans for unprovoked aggression.


An American Initiative

A remarkable episode during Chamberlain's tenure that seems to have become public information only when Churchill included the story in his memoir, prompts the author to one of his most bitter condemnations of Chamberlain's attempts to appease Hitler. The incident is exemplary both of Chamberlain's cool ruthlessness and his focused determination to stand in the way of anything that could interfere with Hitler's success.

Churchill recounts that in January 1938, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, alarmed by the "deterioration of the international situation," secretly wrote to Chamberlain seeking his approval for a conference in Washington. FDR hoped to invite the important European powers-Britain, France, Germany and Italy-"to discuss the chances of a general settlement." (p. 228) Such a conference was intended to reduce European tensions by injecting the stabilizing power of the United States into the mix of European politics with the intention of making it more difficult for Hitler to build the momentum for war.

Seizing the opportunity of Foreign Minister Anthony Eden's absence on a brief winter holiday in France, Chamberlain took it upon himself to reject FDR's plan. Remarkably, the excuse he used amounted to a veritable slap in the face of the American leader. Chamberlain wrote that he hoped that President Roosevelt would consider not going forward with his proposal, because Britain was in the midst of efforts to reach agreements with both Germany and in particular at the moment with Italy. He wished to offer Italy legal (de jure) recognition of its occupation of Abyssinia (now known as Ethiopia), which Italy had attacked in 1935.

This was such an egregious and damaging explanation for Chamberlain's rebuff that FDR felt compelled to respond that he was "gravely concerned" that the British government would accord recognition to the Italian position in Abyssinia. It would send the wrong signal to the dictators and to the rest of the world. It would also "have a most harmful effect on Japanese policy in the Far East and upon American public opinion." (pp. 226-227)

Upon news of these communications, Anthony Eden rushed back to London and attempted to limit the damage, but there was little he could do in the immediate case. Writing years later, it was plain to Churchill that it was this episode that convinced the Foreign Secretary that his views and the prime minister's were so far apart that he could no longer remain in government. (Since the aborted FDR plan had to be kept secret, Anthony Eden waited about a month for a suitable pretext before he tendered his resignation in February 1938.)

In his paragraph summarizing the damage Chamberlain had done to British security, Churchill musters the full range of his literary powers to heap opprobrium on the crucial actor. Of the doomed Washington conference Churchill writes

no event could have been more likely to stave off, or even prevent war than the arrival of the United States in the circle of European hates and fears. To Britain it was a matter almost of life and death. No one can measure in retrospect its effect upon the course of events in Austria and later at Munich. We must regard its rejection-for such it was-as the last frail chance to save the world from tyranny otherwise than by war. That Mr. Chamberlain, with his limited outlook and inexperience of the European scene, should have possessed the self-sufficiency to wave away the proffered hand stretched out across the Atlantic leaves one breathless with amazement. The lack of all sense of proportion, and even of self preservation, which this episode reveals in an upright, competent, well meaning man, charged with the destinies of our country and all who depended upon it is appalling. One cannot today even reconstruct the state of mind which would render such gestures possible.
(p. 229)

It's a paragraph that doesn't stale; one can read again and again the depth of Churchill's anguish, his astonishment and his difficulty explaining in any innocent way the "appalling… lack of all sense of proportion and even self preservation" that led Chamberlain to have so coolly rebuffed the proposed American intervention. When Churchill writes that he cannot reconstruct Chamberlain's state of mind, he suggests the possibility of Chamberlain's disloyalty. Why else would the prime minister, acting behind the back of his foreign minister, torpedo such a clear initiative for peace, were it not his intention to support Hitler?

An indication of Churchill's frustration and even despair at the forces that were moving his country towards subordination to the dictators and specifically his own powerlessness in the face of Chamberlain's ability to get his way, comes in November 1938 about a month and a half after the Munich accords were signed. Churchill begins with a disclaimer and continues with his acknowledgement of the prime minister's ability to prevent a firm stand against Hitler.

No one impugns his motives. No one doubts his conviction and courage. Besides all this, he has the power to do what he thinks best. Those who take a different view, both of the principles of our foreign policy and of the facts and probabilities with which our has to deal, are bound to recognize that we have no power at all to prevent him…from taking the course in which he sincerely believes. (299)

In the immediate post Munich debate in early October 1938 Churchill had emphasized that Britain was unprepared for war. Nevertheless, he added, as bad as the situation now was, "at least we should gain a breathing space…to repair the worst of our neglects," alluding to his expectation that the country would use the time gained whilst Britain was not yet at war to embark on a crash program of rearmament. The difficulty, said Churchill, was that Britain was " hideously unprepared for war[since she] had allowed herself to be far surpassed by the strength of the German Air Force. All our vulnerable points were unprotected. Barely a hundred anti-aircraft guns could be found for the defence of the largest city and center of population in the world; and these were largely in the hands of untrained men. (293)

But less than two months later Churchill could see that Chamberlain had no intention of putting Britain on a war footing or of alerting the country to the oncoming danger. In November 1938 Churchill wrote confidentially to his friend and like- minded Parliamentary colleague, Duff Cooper: "Chamberlain has now got away with everything. Munich is dead ,4 the unpreparedness is forgotten, and there is to be no real, earnest new effort to arm the nation. Even the breathing space, purchased at hideous cost, is to be wasted… " (p. 297)

Chamberlain has now got away with everything. In his frustration at the political situation together with his desire to apologize to his friend for a misunderstanding, Churchill seems to go beyond convention and imply that that the prime minister was pursuing policies that he understood were directly at odds with the security and independence of the country that he was charged with defending. Churchill was clear that it didn't have to be this way. A different leader, a different policy could have changed history and prevented an unnecessary war.

The End

1A later and different version by Clement Leibovitz and Alvin Finkel entitled: In Our Time: The Chamberlain-Hitler Collusion (1997) is available from Amazon and other booksellers. arrow

2Winston Churchill, The Second World War: Vol 1,The Gathering Storm (1948). Numbers in parenthesis reference page numbers in the paperback edition. arrow

3Some may argue that the Polish guarantee of March 1939 and the British declaration of war of September 3, 1939 were two examples of Chamberlain's attempt to block Hitler's aggression. However, as will be argued in subsequent articles, both cases, when examined particularly, reveal that they prove no exception to Chamberlain's unwavering determination to support Hitler. arrow

4By "Munich is dead," Churchill evidently meant that instead of heightened prospects for peace that the Munich Accords were advertised as insuring, there were already clear indications that Hitler's remarkable victory there had served only to stimulate his plans for aggression. arrow


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