John Charmley’s Chamberlain and the Lost Peace was published in 1989 and makes a fine companion volume to his later Churchill: The End of Glory and Churchill’s Grand Alliance.
Chamberlain and the Lost Peace is a bold reassessment of both Neville Chamberlain and his policy of appeasement, subjects which still lead to heated and acrimonious debates.
Charmley’s view is that Chamberlain was most certainly not a silly naïve old man nor was he soft. He was a hard-headed realist and he was tough and realistic. His realism was the key to his foreign policy. Chamberlain believed very strongly that Britain’s foreign policy had to be in harmony with its defence policy. A foreign policy based on the ability to intervene decisively in a continental war was obviously going to lead to disaster if the army that such intervention required did not exist.
Even more importantly, defence policy had to be in harmony in economic policy. Economic realities determined defence policy. Britain simply could not afford to maintain a strong navy, a strong air force and a strong army. Something had to be sacrificed. Chamberlain believed that a strong navy and a strong air force were more important than a strong army and history proved him correct.
Even maintaining a strong navy and a strong air force was something that Britain could only afford in the short term. Ands there was the expense of maintaining the Empire.
Worst still, while Britain could with great difficulty support the cost of rearmament she could not actually afford to fight a war.
Chamberlain’s foreign policy was based on an acceptance of these realities, realities which contemporary critics like Eden and Churchill steadfastly refused to face (and most subsequent historians have also refused to accept these realities).
Since Britain could not afford an army that could intervene decisively in a continental war it naturally followed that a rational foreign policy had to be based on avoiding being entangled in such a war, and preferably had to be based on preventing such a war from happening.
For Chamberlain foreign policy was not a matter of taking a moral stand, since taking a moral stand without having the force to back it up is not only futile, it does more harm than good. Chamberlain’s foreign policy objective was to build of Britain’s defences while doing everything possible to contain German expansionism. Since Britain lacked an army capable of intervening directly in central Europe this containment could only be achieved by diplomatic means. Chamberlain did not trust Hitler and he strongly disapproved of not only Hitler but dictators in general. On the other hand Chamberlain did not believe it was worth starting a catastrophic war, with no guarantee of victory, in circumstances in which Britain could provide no actual assistance to threatened nations such as Czechoslovakia and Poland.
Critics of Chamberlain often underestimate the full extent of his difficulties. He was somewhat sceptical of the extent to which the French could be relied upon (and he was obviously correct on that score), he was extremely sceptical of the possibility of any meaningful help from the United States and he was absolutely sure he could not trust Stalin. That left Britain with few options.
Given the reality of the situation in 1938 Chamberlain’s policy was not merely reasonable, it was the only sensible policy that Britain could pursue.
So why did Chamberlain’s policy fail to avert war? The answer to that is that by early 1939 Chamberlain was no longer a free agent. He was under extreme political pressure to abandon appeasement and adopt a more aggressive policy and his own Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, was determined to take a strong stand by offering a guarantee to Poland. Chamberlain, despite grave misgivings, felt that he had little choice other than to agree. Had he stuck to his policy of appeasement war might well have been avoided.
The insane decision to offer a unilateral guarantee to Poland was prompted to a large extent by a flood of wild and baseless rumours and hopelessly incorrect (and in many cases deliberately misleading) intelligence reports. The Second World War would not be the last war to be brought about by erroneous intelligence reports. The Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, unfortunately took the wildest of these rumours at face value. War becomes inevitable once people believe that it is inevitable. Britain blundered into war in 1939 as she had blundered into war in 1914.
Of course it goes without saying that support for the policy of appeasement did not and does not imply support for Hitler. Chamberlain detested Hitler and the Nazis, and he was well aware of the nature of Hitler’s regime. The fact that an historian believes that on balance appeasement was the most sensible of the limited options available to Britain also does not imply any kind of sympathy for the Nazis or any naïvete on the subject. Sometimes there are no good foreign policy options so one must settle for the least worst option.
Charmley is always provocative and always worth reading. Chamberlain and the Lost Peace is highly recommended.