Chamberlain and the Lost Peace

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.

Churchill: The End of Glory

There have been many attempts to demolish the Churchill Myth. John Charmley’s Churchill: The End of Glory is one of the most thorough, and most devastating. Of course, as Charmley admits, once a myth establishes itself no amount of rational argument has any effect.
Charmley describes his book as a political biography and that is what it is. Churchill’s private life is only touched on insofar as it is relevant to his political career. Churchill’s personality on the other hand is very relevant indeed and Charmley has much to say on that subject.
Throughout his career Churchill was dogged by suspicions of disloyalty and treachery. He did after all change parties twice and he was never trusted by his parliamentary colleagues. Charmley however makes it clear that such accusations are unjust. Winston Churchill was a man whose views on most subjects were formed very early in his life and he was remarkably consistent in adhering to his views. When the Conservative Party abandoned free trade (something in which Churchill believed passionately) Churchill abandoned the Party rather than change his views. His abandonment of the Liberals in 1924 can hardly be seen as treachery – the Liberal Party had simply ceased to exist as a viable force in British politics. It was not really a matter of deserting a sinking ship – the ship had already sunk. 
Churchill in fact was never truly either a Conservative or a Liberal. He had a distaste for party politics and he never even pretended to be a loyal party man. He was happiest when serving in coalition governments. He was, if such a thing could exist, a liberal conservative. His belief in social reform was perfectly sincere. In this he was motivated partly by a conviction that the only way of saving the traditional Britain in which he grew up was by giving those at the bottom of the heap a much better deal. He was also, to do him justice, genuinely shocked by the condition of the poor in late Victorian Britain. It might in fact be more accurate to describe Churchill as a liberal reactionary.
Churchill also believed just as strongly that Britain could and should continue to play the part of a Great Power and that the Empire could and should be preserved. 
The difficulty, as Charmley makes clear, was that by the twentieth century Britain simply could not afford to remain a Great Power and maintain the Empire and embark on ambitious social reform. It was doubtful if the country could afford to do even two of these things; doing all three was out of the question. This was something that Churchill was never able to understand or accept.
Churchill’s greatest flaw was unquestionably his belief in his own military genius. Having been a humble Second Lieutenant in the 4th Hussars and having participated in a minor colonial campaign on the Northwest Frontier in 1895 had convinced him that he knew more about military strategy than any general. Having been appointed First Lord of the Admiralty he assumed that this was enough to transform him into an expert on naval strategy as well.
His unshakeable belief in his genius led him, and the nation, into one disaster after another. Lord Nelson had famously expressed the very firm view that ships cannot fight forts but after all what did Lord Nelson know about naval tactics? Winston Churchill knew better and the catastrophic attempt to force the Dardanelles in 1915 was the result. This ill-judged operation was typical of all of Churchill’s forays into the realm of strategy. He would come up with a hare-brained scheme and then convince himself that success was certain and that enormous advantages would be gained. Wiser heads would point out the folly of the operation and Churchill would ignore them and then use his considerable powers of persuasion to get the plan approved. And, invariably, the plan would end in utter disaster. Norway in 1940 was another superb example although ironically it was not Churchill’s career that was ended as a result but Neville Chamberlain’s. The British intervention in the Greek campaign in 1941 was yet another prime example.
Churchill’s ineptitude as a strategist was bad enough but even worse was his inability to foresee inevitable consequences at the level of grand strategy. Charmley makes it clear that Churchill’s reputation as the man of the hour in 1940 was deserved but sees his conduct of the war thereafter as disastrous as he had no actual war aims. Wars are fought to achieve political objectives. Without clear and achievable political objectives war is merely a futile waste of lives. Churchill thought that defeating Hitler was a sufficient objective and had no clear idea whatsoever of what should happen next. Unfortunately both Stalin and Roosevelt had very clear and very definite ideas about what should happen next and neither had the slightest concern if their aims happened to be very disadvantageous indeed for Britain. Britain ended up fighting a war that served the interests of other nations without in any way serving Britain’s interests.
By February 1945 Churchill had realised his mistake and had recognised the danger posed by the soviet Union. Unfortunately after three-and-a-half years of appeasing Stalin this sudden volte-face was too little too late.
Churchill was a monstrous egotist with immense ambition but he was by no means a bad or malicious man. He was in his own way an idealist and no-one has ever desired more ardently to serve his country. Sadly the verdict that so many of his contemporaries had delivered upon him, that he was a man of vast talent and extraordinarily poor judgment, proved to be all too accurate.
Charmley does not set out to execute a mere hatchet job. He finds much to admire in Churchill. Churchill’s strengths and his weaknesses were both on an epic scale. The tragedy is that the weaknesses led to his ultimate failure and led to precisely the consequences that he was so anxious to avoid – the loss of the Empire, the reduction of Britain to the status of a third-rate power, the growth of class bitterness and resentment and the loss of the nation’s belief in itself.
Whether you agree or disagree with Charmley’s conclusions Churchill: The End of Glory is essential reading. Highly recommended.