Friday, 30 August 2013

Blessed are the peacemakers

It’s not 1938, Ed Miliband is not Chamberlain, Cameron is not Churchill, Assad is not the danger to Britain that Hitler was, and the Munich Conference is not any kind of decent analogy for the events of this week. But considering the current popular and political resistance to military action against the mass-murdering Syrian regime, and wondering how it will be perceived in future years, I think it’s worth remembering just how popular appeasement was in 1938 - remembering just how many people thought it fine and good and worth celebrating.

The following snippets are from Lynne Olson’s book, Troublesome Young Men, an account of the anti-appeasement Tory rebels who eventually brought Churchill to power. From Chapter Eight:
Most Britons greeted the news with an almost hysterical outpouring of relief and thanksgiving. The newspaper coverage, lavish in its praise of Chamberlain, helped orchestrate the jubilant mood. In two-inch type, the single word “PEACE!” was emblazoned across the front page of the Daily Express. Of the prime minister, The Times declared: “No conqueror returning from a victory on the battlefield had come adorned with nobler laurels.” Lord Castlerosse, the portly socialite gossip columnist for the Sunday Express, exulted: “Thanks to Chamberlain, thousands of young men will live. I shall live.”


When Chamberlain’s plane returned from Munich on the afternoon of September 30, a delirious crowd of several thousand people stood in a driving rainstorm at Heston Airport, waving newspapers and Union Jacks, waiting to greet the man they considered the saviour of the world. The crowds went wild when the prime minister, carrying his signature umbrella, emerged from the plane. The dozens of policemen on horseback had a difficult time holding back the surging mass; everyone, it seemed, wanted to shake Chamberlain’s hand.

From Heston, Chamberlain was whisked away by car to Buckingham Palace, where King George and Queen Elizabeth waited to offer their congratulations. Through the car’s rain-streaked windows, Chamberlain looked out at thousands of cheering, flag-waving Britons lining the streets, some of whom, in their exuberance, leaped onto the running boards of the car and banged on the windows. At the palace another huge throng waited, and when Chamberlain and his wife stepped out onto the palace balcony with the smiling king and queen, there was an earsplitting ovation. It was an unprecedented event, the first time a ruling monarch had allowed a commoner to be acknowledged from the balcony of Buckingham Palace. According to Tory MP Edward Grigg, it was also “the biggest constitutional blunder that has ever been made by any sovereign this century.” By appearing on the balcony with Chamberlain, George VI was publicly associating himself with the prime minister’s policy, a violation of the political impartiality required of a sovereign in a constitutional monarchy.

But few people were thinking of such issues that day. Continuing his triumphal procession, Chamberlain returned at last to Downing Street, which was jammed by hundreds of people who had been waiting in the rain for hours. Across the street from the prime minister’s residence, Orme Sargent, an assistant foreign affairs undersecretary and a strong opponent of appeasement, watched the crowd from a first-floor balcony of the Foreign Office. Turning to a colleague, he acidly observed: “You might think that we had won a major victory instead of betraying a minor country.”

From Chapter Nine:
For weeks after Munich it was impossible to escape from Neville Chamberlain. Everywhere one went in Britain, it seemed, there were reminders of the prime minister and his historic journey. Toy shops featured booted Chamberlain dolls, holding a rod and reel in one hand and a little sign saying PEACEMAKER in the other. Candy stores sold sugar umbrellas, while florists displayed Chamberlain’s picture framed by flowers and bearing the inscription WE ARE PROUD OF YOU. Companies took out large newspaper advertisements lauding the prime minister, and the poet laureate, John Masefield, wrote a poem comparing him to the tragic Greek hero Priam and declaring that he had been “divinely led.”

Ten Downing Street meanwhile was flooded with letters, telegrams, flowers, umbrellas, toys, trinkets, and other items celebrating Chamberlain’s achievement. He put many of these articles on display in a large showcase, which he loved to show off to visitors. When Kenneth Clark and his wife came to lunch one day, Chamberlain proudly led them to the showcase, explaining that the articles “were sent to me in gratitude for the Munich agreement.”

As John Colville noted in his diary, Munich fed the prime minister’s vanity as well as his arrogance. With Chamberlain “almost canonised” because of Munich, it was “small wonder,” Violet Bonham Carter dryly remarked, “that he began to see himself as a Messiah sent down from heaven...”

The events of 1938 are seen in a very different light now. I wonder how will 29 August 2013 be remembered?

Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels Who Brought Churchill To Power And Helped Save England is copyright © 2007 by Lynne Olson.

The still of Conrad Veidt surrounded by plaster statues of Chamberlain is from the Powell and Pressburger film Contraband, via the blog in so many words...


SnoopyTheGoon said...

Yep. Great post indeed. And yes, that date - a great one for stoppers, a poor one for humanity and a much worse one for dying Syrians.

Patrick Porter said...

Hi Kellie,

I disagree a bit about the appeasement debate in the 1930's, and about what it means generally for policy.

You are clearly right that many people celebrated appeasement, and some appeasers took on a rather undignified self-regard, that its ranks included Nazi sympathisers, 'moral equivalent' neutralists, and folk who were downright foolish, and that appeasers in power ruthlessly cracked down on dissent.

But appeasement was supported by a very broad church of people with different philosophies and agendas.

As well as the more reprehensible faction, there was also a more sober, prudent and measured case to be made for the strategy.

Quite simply, Britain had an unusually weak hand in the mid to late 1930's. It had just emerged from a terrible Depression. With scarce resources, it faced several potential future enemies of which the Reich was one. Stalinism was both brutal and expansionist. Japanese imperialism was on the march, rapaciously, in China. Italian imperialism was also in play.

In this increasingly dangerous environment, the actual logic and series of linked policies of London I think were defensible. Though I hope I would never have celebrated or worshiped its architects!

I define appeasement as Norman Ripsman does, as asymmetric, sustained diplomatic concessions designed to avoid war, at least in the short term. Some appeasers hoped that this would prevent war outright. But others believed it was the best way to buy time. Time was a vital commodity, as Britain was also rearming (something sometimes forgotten in the debate), and Neville Chamberlain indeed was accused of being a warmonger for arguing for rearmament I think in 1936!

The government calculated that it needed time to rearm gradually, without dislocating its fragile economy.

Its main military strength, its stretched navy, could not hope to defend everywhere at once - and the Royal Navy feared its power being split in a war in East Asia, the Mediterranean and Europe.

Its army was mostly a light imperial constabulary that had been hollowed out by spending cuts in the Depression era. Britain's relatively small major warfighting units could not, without more time, hope to fare well in a continental commitment. Indeed, Britain's weakness in land power was one factor that made any kind of Anglo-Soviet rapprochment difficult, as Stalin recognised that in an Eastern campaign, the Soviet Union would bear the main brunt of the Nazi onslaught.

And, crucially, Britain needed time to make the most far-reaching investment of the time, in air defence and extended radar. This was highly time-sensitive.

Patrick Porter said...

Its worth bearing in mind just how much the 'stoppers' of the time opposed rearmament, including large swathes of the Labour Party, so some credit at least should go to those, like Chamberlain, who were willing to invest in arms in the shadow of the disastrous Great War, the strength of pacifist sentiment, and also the sway of leftist pro-Soviet opinion, or those who feared that new weapons would be turned on the Soviet Union.

So appeasement was not simply a matter of feeding the Hitler crocodile at Munich in a vain idealistic attempt for peace. It also involved a more hard-headed delaying strategy to build up strength, either to deter or to counter a resurgent Nazi Germany.

Looking at the diplomatic picture, it could be argued that Britain should have worked harder for a coalition with France and the Soviet Union to deter or respond to a German bid for hegemony. But in the absence of having a credible land force to commit to a continental war, getting Stalin to tilt away from Germany surely would have also involved appeasement, the appeasement of the Soviet Union which was also eyeing Poland. Making morally compromised concessions to dictators was hard to avoid in that era, as the course of World War Two and the big conferences between the allied powers also demonstrated. Of course, that may have been a lesser evil, but still pretty obscene, as Poland's experience of Soviet control after the war shows. And from the perspective of the 1930's, its forgiveable that many people were more scared of Stalinism that Hitlerism - after all, Stalin's track record in government up to that point was more murderous than Hitler's.

Another possible counter-argument is that Britain and France should have launched a preventive war. But this too was fraught with problems. Pardon the self-plagiarism, but as I once wrote:

'Preempting rather than responding to Hitler would have meant initiating war without domestic consent or international support. War in 1938 would have sacrificed the participation of empire states like Australia, Canada and South Africa who were not prepared to bleed for Czechoslovakia. And anticipatory war would probably have been denied the economic and material support of the United States that would prove so critical. The rapid depletion of dollar and gold reserves and a balance of payments crisis was bad enough for Britain as things stood. It would take outright Nazi aggression, and resistance in the Battle of Britain, to provide the impetus for an end to American neutrality. Acting as aggressor in 1938 would have taken Britain to the brink of starvation and collapse. An early war would have squandered vital time, diplomatic support, political will and financial strength.'

Now I agree with you that states in principle should not have to be dictated to by majorities of public opinion. But in practice, it is hard for them to sustain a war effort in the face of strong domestic opposition. Postponing war with Germany at least gave the allies one strong asset, particularly after the Blitz: a widespread agreement that Hitler was the aggressor and that Britain had tried for peace, however wrongly.

Patrick Porter said...

In terms of military considerations and an 'early' versus 'later' war, the British government feared that without a robust air defence system, it would be vulnerable to the Luftwaffe under open skies. We know now that the fear of the bomber in the 1930's overestimated the ability of air forces to break the will of a determined people, and that the nightmarish fears were overstated. But an earlier anticipatory war might still have subjected the Brits to a horrific air campaign against which they would have been far less well defended.

I believe even Churchill advised the Czechoslovakian government after Munich that, for these kinds of reasons, he would have done the same thing as Chamberlain, but I can't recall where I read that.

The point is, appeasement was a mix of diplomatic concessions and the internal 'balancing' of rearmament, at a time when it was far from clear that the alternatives, such as anticipatory war or 'external' diplomatic balancing, were better. It was the least bad option in a set of very bad options, all of which would have brought considerable risk and grave moral compromise.

In any event, as you say, this debate matters because our collective memory of Munich, Chamberlain and Hitler informs how we see the world today. If we remember it in terms of simple moral and strategic failure, and believe that the only correct course is always to be a Churchillian hawk, well that has consequences. Obsession with being resolute, avoiding appeasement and resorting to force early to prevent a worse crisis later was something that haunted the architects of war in Suez, Vietnam and Iraq. To be sure, sometimes it may be prudent to confront a bully earlier. But at other times it may not. As you say, Assad is not Hitler, any more than Britain in 2014 is not Britain in 1938. Munich and Vietnam have to be balanced against one another as analogies, and all analogies have to be treated with caution, because of the mischief and misinterpretation that they can encourage.

Ultimately, the danger with reducing appeasement to a kind of fable about right and wrong is that it encourages a view of international politics as a stark morality play. Which is unwise, for obvious historical reasons.

Of course, it must partly be about morality, including the morality of doing things that risk terrible unintended consequences. But the limits of power and knowledge and the fact that to do good one must probably also compromise means that it is more of a tragedy.

Your other overall point that popular and populist opinions about war and peace can look very different later on, and look very foolish, is absolutely right, and the 'herd' can never determine with certainty the rightness or wrongness of these decisions. I would be opposed to intervening in Syria even if every other person in the country was in favour of it. But the 1930's was a strategic nightmare for those trying to cope in it, I think.

kellie said...

Thanks for that Patrick. I think my main thought when posting this last year was not so much that the public of 1938 were foolish (though one could say they were) but that as public opinion then shifted radically with events, Chamberlain was proved foolish to have been seduced by the public adulation; similarly Labour’s leadership might be proved foolish in last year’s revelling in the then-popular outcome of the House of Commons vote. Events since have reinforced that thought. Of course the same warning should apply when following the opposite sort of policy: the invasion of Iraq enjoyed good poll numbers in the initial months…

kellie said...

On Chamberlain and rearmament, I haven’t read widely on this, but Lynne Olson gives a negative picture in the book quoted in the post above. She describes him as an obstacle to rearmament from 1934 on, first as Chancellor of the Exchequer, then as prime minister. Even after Munich, though he acknowledged the need to speed up rearmament in the Commons debate that followed, he later told the Cabinet that a good deal of false emphasis had been placed on rearmament, and that he had no intention of beginning a new arms race. (Her source is Martin Gilbert’s Churchill biography.)

She describes Horace Wilson, top civil servant at No. 10, saying to air minister Kingsley Wood in early 1939 that the RAF would not be allowed to increase its production “to a level equal to the estimated German capacity” because Germany would “take it as a signal that we have decided at once to sabotage the Munich agreement.” (Source is Gilbert again.)

She also writes that “Chamberlain continued for several critical months after Munich to spurn appeals from Leslie Hore-Belisha and Leo Amery, among others, to beef up the pitifully small troop levels…”

kellie said...

Lynne Olson also points to Chamberlain’s remarks in parliament on 21 February 1939.

In a debate on defence loans he argued that “the only chance that the League [of Nations] has of becoming again an effective factor in the 229 preservation of peace will be when it has abandoned the idea that peace can be imposed by force.”

He also yearned for the day when world leaders might come to a disarmament conference “with good will and with a determination to produce the desired result,” conditions which he affirmed were present at the Munich conference.

He went on:

Our armaments, vast as they are, are armaments for defence, and for defence alone, and if it be true that others have no more intention of aggression than we have, well, then the conclusion that we must come to is that we are all piling up these ruinous armaments under a misunderstanding. I am very much inclined to believe that there is a great deal of truth in that. I would like to remind the Committee of some words used by the late Lord Grey of Fallodon in his book, “Twenty-Five Years,” when he said: “Each Government, while resenting any suggestion that its own measures are anything more than precautions for defence, regards similar measures of another Government as a preparation for attack. Fear begets suspicion and mistrust and evil imaginings of all sorts, till each Government feels it would be criminal and a betrayal of its own country not to take every precaution, while every Government regards every precaution of every other Government as evidence of hostile intent.” That seems to me to be very much the situation in which we are finding ourselves to-day, so, while I cannot consent that we should relax our armaments in any degree till we can do so by general agreement with others to do the same, I do say that I feel it our duty, the duty of this Government in particular, to watch for every opportunity that may come to try and persuade other Governments of the folly of the course that we are all pursuing, and to induce them to put an end to a situation which, if it is persisted in, must bring bankruptcy to every country in Europe.

Patrick Porter said...

Hi Kellie,

Thanks for these - some important historical issues here.

I haven't read Lynne Olsen's book, but it sounds like it revives the 'guilty men' tradition of Michael Foot, Anthony Eden and, indeed Churchill himself.

I'm a great admirer of Churchill, partly because of his ability to forge a grand wartime coalition through compromise and dogged diplomacy. But his own rewriting of the history of the appeasement debate and his hindsite oversimplifications had a strong impact on collective memory of the prewar period. (David Reynolds' 'In Command of History' is good on this).

There's a risk here that this becomes a debate about Chamberlain, rather than the overarching logic(s) of appeasement.

I agree with what your quotes suggest, that Chamberlain at times resisted claims for more rearmament. I would just say that this was a relative rather than absolute position. He was always in favour of 'some' British rearmament and a 'Germany First' strategy ever since the Defence Requirements Committee recommended 'balanced' defence spending to meet growing threats in East Asia and Europe.

There's plenty of evidence, both in his private correspondence and public statements, that Chamberlain overall hoped (sometimes naively) for the best and prepared for the worst. He hoped that Britain's air defence and strategic bomber force would be a strong deterrent as an instrument of denial and punishment. He believed Britain should try to avoid war, because an actual war would destroy Britain's position as a great power (which it really did). But he also believed in preparing to fight on better terms if it did break out, and therefore later because time was on Britain's side, and hoped this too would deter, while Britain neutralised the issues that might cause war. Clearly much of this failed - but they at least were in a position to win the Battle of Britain in 1940, which was crucial in persuading Washington that they were a horse worth backing.

Patrick Porter said...

Part of the appeasement strategy, and something that Chamberlain observed privately and publicly, was a belief that Britain had to balance rearmament with economic recovery and, in particular, exports and the balance of trade.
Rearmament didn't just cost money, it claimed factory space, raw materials and manpower. Exports and trade were vital to the UK's health.

Making matters more complicated, even if Britain could have created a formidable war machine faster, that might come prematurely and be unaffordable and indeed reverse the economic recovery. Instead of rapid rearmament, effort was made to increase Britain's productive capacity into which it could expand in wartime (physical plant, trained pilots, etc).

So the question of the timing and pace of rearmament was sensitive. Arguably it was too slow after Munich and should have accelerated. But if Chamberlain appeared to be an obstacle, it was for reasons beyond not wanting to undermine diplomacy with Germany, though that too was a factor.

His critics complain that his
government should have moved faster on rearmament, and spread it more intensively to a continental commitment with a larger army. They need to show, however, how that large commitment would be paid for realistically. And there were several problems with a 'continental commitment' alternative: first, given scarce resources and the perceived excellence of the French army (which Churchill also admired!) appeasement strategists believed that there should be a division of labor, where France focused on the land war, while the UK focused on a naval blockade and an air war, in an overall long struggle of attrition. If Britain had split its efforts more evenly, that would have come at the cost of its naval and air power, or of the economic base of its global position.

And, they were worried that a continental commitment would embolden France (French determination to enforce the original Versailles settlement also worried the Brits) and create the potential of being chain ganged into a war with Germany, losing their 'free hand.'

On balance, I'd still say this was the least bad set of options.

On Syria and memory: I agree that there is a self-congratulatory segment of the antiwar movement and an unreflective and populist streak to the Labour party on these issues. I wrote at the time that I didn't think punitive bombing of Assad to make a point was wise, as it would inevitably implicate the West in the wider war, but that if we did, we hit hard and make it sustained. But this issue is too grave for anyone to celebrate.

For what its worth, I agree with the novelist Ian McKewan in his thoughts on the Iraq war protest in 2003:

"All this happiness on display is suspect. Everyone is thrilled to be together on the streets – people are hugging themselves, it seems, as well as each other. If they think – and they could be right – that continued torture and summary executions, ethnic cleansing and occasional genocide are preferable to an invasion, they should be sombre in their view."