The Gathering Storm

I have recently finished reading Winston Churchill’s The Gathering Storm, and the resonance his writings sustain in the modern world is striking. Writing as he does of the years between the World Wars, a resounding theme is that of disarmament and the perils such a policy can bring upon a nation. In the following peace, I will be highlighting sections of Churchill’s historical narrative from Hitler’s accession to power and will attempt to show how the dangers highlighted in these writings are just as applicable to the modern world as they were in describing the cataclysm that he saw approaching.

[a.n. The following piece does contain multiple references to political parties which still exist in one form or another in Britain today. I would have preferred to remove them but their prevalence is too extensive to do so without making the narrative difficult to follow. The disastrous events which transpired were a result of a unilateral failure to appreciate military and diplomatic facts, for which all political parties in the nation at the time must be held accountable, and the lessons to be learned here are applicable across the political spectrum.]

The section I have selected to open covers the British governmental policy soon after German rearmament became overtly obvious to all in Europe, and how the hard-earned advantages possessed by the victorious powers of the Great War were squandered. This especially serves to highlight how a well-intentioned desire for peace could actually exacerbate future conflict, when pursued without consideration of the character of other nations or the realities of inter-state relations.

While [rearmament was] taking place in Germany, the MacDonald-Baldwin Government felt bound to enforce for some time the severe reductions and restrictions which the financial crisis had imposed upon our already modest armaments, and steadfastly closed their eyes and ears to the disquieting symptoms in Europe. In vehement efforts to procure a disarmament of the victors equal to that which had been enforced upon the vanquished by the Treaty of Versailles, Mr. MacDonald and his Conservative and Liberal colleagues pressed a series of proposals forward in the League of Nations and through every other channel that was open. The French […] clung tenaciously to the French Army as the centre and prop of the life of France and of all her alliances. This attitude earned them rebukes both in Britain and in the United States. The opinions of the press and the public were in no way founded upon reality; but the adverse tide was strong.

When in May, 1932, the virtues of disarmament were extolled in the House of Commons by all parties, the Foreign Secretary opened a new line in the classification of weapons which should be allowed or discouraged.” [p.71]

In this speech the Foreign Secretary outlined a ways in which weapons might be classified as offensive or defensive, a distinction which Mr Churchill believed to be somewhat ludicrous given the capacity of any weapon to be used in battle. In his opposing speech, Churchill concluded with his fears as to the current military situation in Europe created by the British obsession with disarmament:

I should very much regret to see any approximation in military strength between Germany and France. Those who speak of that as though it were right, or even a question of fair dealing, altogether underrate the gravity of the European situation. I would say to those who would like to see Germany and France on an equal footing in armaments: “Do you wish for war?” For my part, I warnestly hope that no such approximation will take place during my lifetime or that of my children. […] I am sure that the thesis that [Germany] should be placed in an equal military position with France is one which, if it ever emerged in fact, would bring us within practical distance of almost measureless calamity.

The British air estimates of March, 1933, revealed a total lack of comprehension alike by the Government and the Opposition, Labour and Liberal, of what was going on. I had to say (March 14, 1933)

I regretted to hear the Under-Secretary say that we were only the fifth air power, and that the ten-year programme was suspended for another year. I was sorry to hear him boast that the Air Ministry had not laid down a single new unit this year. All these ideas are being increasingly stultified by the march of events, and we should be well advised to concentrate upon our air defences with greater vigour.” [p.72-3]

In these passages it is apparent that the government had become so compelled by their desire for peace in the continent that they were unwilling to face up to the fact that other nations might not share their admirable convictions. The coming war, whilst by no means inevitable, could well have been curtailed by firmness and determination on the part of the victorious allies. Even if the British government had continued to refuse in an expansion of attacking arms, their pride in neglecting to even modernise the defensive capacities of the British Isles is startling. The foundation of deterrence is determination; were the British government of these years militarily determined to preserve the hard-earned peace it could well have been upheld. But attempts to assure peace through a pacifist example were dangerously counter-productive.

Churchill continues to detail how events unfolded before the eyes of the wider world:

All this while the United States remained intensely preoccupied with its own vehement internal affairs and economic problems. Europe and far-off Japan watched with steady gaze the rise of German warlike power. Disquietude was increasingly expressed in Scandinavian countries and the states of the “Little Entente” in the Balkan countries. Deep anxiety ruled in France, where a large amount of knowledge of Hitler’s activities and of German preparations had come to hand. There was, I was told, a catalogue of breaches of the Treaties of immense and formidable gravity; but when I asked my French friends why this matter was not raised in the League of Nations, and Germany invited, or even ultimately summoned, to explain her action and state precisely what she was doing, I was answered that the British government would deprecate such an alarming step. Thus, while Mr MacDonald, with Mr. Baldwin’s full authority, preached disarmament to the French, and practiced it upon the British, the German might grew by leaps and bounds, and the time for overt action approached.

In justice to the Conservative Party it must be mentioned that at each of the conferences of the National Union of Conservative Associations from 1932 onwards, resolutions proposed by such worthies as Lord Lloyd and Sir Henry Croft in favour of an immediate strengthening of our armaments to meet the growing danger from abroad were carried almost unanimously. But the parliamentary control by the Government Whips in the House of Commons was at this time so effective, and the three parties in the Government, as well as the Labour opposition, so sunk in lethargy and blindness, that the warnings of the followers in the country were as ineffective as were the signs of the times and the evidence of the Secret Service. This was one of those awful periods which recur in our history, when the noble British nations seems to fall from its high estate, loses all trace of sense or purpose, and appears to cower from the menace of foreign peril, frothing pious platitudes while foemen forge their arms.

In this dark time the basest sentiments received acceptance or passed unchallenged by the respectable leaders of the political parties. In 1933 the students of the Oxford Union, under the inspiration of a Mr. Joad, passed their ever-shameful resolution, “That this House refuses to fight for King and Country.” it was easy to laugh off such an episode in England, but in Germany, in Russia, in Italy, in Japan, the idea of a decadent, degenerate Britain took deep root and swayed many calculations.” [p. 84-5]

The notion of international prestige has fallen out of favour in much modern analysis of current affairs, yet this passage aptly demonstrates the impact the perception nations hold of one another can have upon their decision making process. By demonstrating an unwillingness to take action, the British made themselves appear weak and easy to circumvent, provoking their enemies to take bolder action at just the time the government were making efforts to further undermine any British ability to retaliate. The failure of multi-national bodies to support international agreements likewise devalued the institutions and further incited the more aggressive states into taking greater action. The habit of expecting peace to continue, and failing to appreciate that threats may arise at any time has recurred since Churchill’s time, most recently in the 1990s; in which the British military cashed in a ‘peace dividend’ with the fall of the Soviet Union and saw the nation’s defensive abilities heavily curtailed once again. What is more alarming in Churchill’s example of this trend is the accompanying pressure that Britain placed upon France to equally weaken herself; if a nation such as Britain is to withdraw from an active role in world affairs this is destabilising enough, but that she was to attempt to drag a powerful ally down with her demonstrates a terrifying blinker over the course of world affairs. The danger this was to place the world in is now apparent, and should serve as a warning to any that would attempt to promote peace through damaging the capacity of one’s allies to act in self defence.

The utter collapse of British assertiveness in international affairs was to have its first overt consequences in Asia, as Churchill describes:

In September, 1931, on a pretext of local disorders, the Japanese occupied Mukden and the zone of the Manchurian railway. In January, 1932, they demanded the dissolution of all Chinese associations of an anti-Japanese character. The Chinese government refused, and on January28, the Japanese landed to the north of the International Concession at Shanghai. The Chinese resisted with spirit, and, although without airplanes or anti-tank guns or any of the modern weapons, maintained their resistance for more than a month. […] Early in 1932, the Japanese created the puppet state of Manchukuo. A year later, the Chinese province of Jehol was annexed to it, and in March, 1933, Japanese troops penetrating deeply into defenceless regions, had reached the Great Wall of China. This aggressive action corresponds to the growth of Japanese power on the Far East and her new naval position on the oceans.

From the first shot the outrage committed upon China aroused the strongest hostility in the United States. But the policy of isolation cut both ways. Had the United States been a member of the League of Nations, she could undoubtedly have led the Assembly into collective action against Japan, of which the United States would have been the principal mandatory. The British Government on their part showed no desire to act with the United States alone; nor did they wish to be drawn into antagonism with Japan further than their obligations under the League of Nations charter required. There was a rueful feeling in some British circles at the loss of the Japanese Alliance and the consequential weakening of the British position with all its long-established interests in the Far East.[the alliance had been broken at American insistence in 1921, despite the consistent support and respect Japan had showed to the British. Churchill argues that this did much to provoke Japanese imperialism, as they viewed the breaking of the alliance as a spurning of Japan by the West] His Majesty’s Government could hardly be blamed if, in their grave financial and growing European embarrassments, they did not seek a prominent role at the side of the United States in the Far East without any hope of corresponding American support in Europe.

China, however, was a member of the League, and although she had not paid her subscription to that body, she appealed to it for what was no more than justice. On September 30, 1931, the League called on Japan to remove her troops from Manchuria. In December, a Commission was appointed to conduct an inquiry on the spot. The League of Nations entrusted the chairmanship of the Commission to the Earl of Lytton […] The Report, which was unanimous, was a remarkable document, and forms the basis of any serious study of the conflict between China and Japan. The whole background of the Manchurian affair was carefully presented. The conclusions drawn were plain: Manchukuo was the artificial creation of the Japanese General Staff, and the wishes of the population had played no part in the formation of this puppet state. Lord Lytton and his colleagues in their Report not only analysed the situation, but put forward concrete proposals for an international solution. These were for the declaration of an autonomous Manchuria. It would still remain part of China, under the aegis of the League, and there would be a comprehensive treaty between China and Japoan regulating their interests in Manchuria. The fact that the League could not follow up these proposals in no way detracts from the value of the Lytton Report. […] In February, 1933, the League of Nations declared that the state of Manchukuo could not be recognised. Although no sanctions were imposed upon Japan, nor any other action taken, Japan, on March 27, 1933, withdrew from the League of Nations. Germany and Japan had been on opposite sides in the war; they now looked towards each other in a different mood. The moral authority of the League was shown to be devoid of any physical support at a time when its activity and strength were most needed.” [p. 87-8]

The neglect paid to the Far East in these years has done much to cloud future friendly relations; China was left to a cruel fate by a Western world too absorbed in petty politics and a lofty idealism. The consequences of this neglect may still be felt today, China’s fall to communism was in no small part influenced by her abandonment in this era and the League of Nations proven to be a body and voice without a hand. Churchill concludes his analysis of this sorry affair in words that need little further explanation:

We must regard as deeply blameworthy before history the conduct, not only of the British National and mainly Conservative Government, but of the Labour-Socialist and Liberal Parties, both in and out of office, during this fatal period. Delight in smooth-sounding platitudes, refusal to face unpleasant facts, desire for popularity and electoral success irrespective of the vital interests of the State, genuine love of peace and pathetic belief that love can be its sole foundation, obvious lack of intellectual vigour in both leaders of the Coalition Government, marked ignorance of Europe and aversion of its problems in Mr. Baldwin, the strong and violent pacifism which at this time dominated the Labour-Socialist party, the utter devotion of the Liberals to sentiment apart from reality, the failure and worse than failure of Mr. Lloyd George, the erstwhile great wartime leader, to address himself to the continuity of his work, the whole supported by overwhelming majorities in both Houses of Parliament: all these constituted a picture of British fatuity and fecklessness which, though devoid of guile, was not devoid of guilt, and, though free of wickedness or evil design, played a definite part in the unleashing upon the world of horrors and miseries which, even so far as they have unfolded, are already beyond comparison in human experience.” [p. 89]

We would do well to take heed. ****

The terrible consequences of an unwillingness to support brave actions with words had been brutally laid bare in this moment; Britain in this era was desperate for peace to be preserved, but was utterly hampered by an erroneous belief that peace could only continue if no nation was willing to take military action, even in the face of the use of force. The lack of political backbone and unwillingness to face the uncomfortable reality in which the nation found herself was a blessing to the more aggressive nations of the world, and one which has recurred with regrettable consequences on numerous occasions in numerous locations since. The need for determination in deterrence should be made only too clear by the example of China; with her military credibility undermined through both the avowed policy of her government and public demonstrations by her people, Britain was in no place to make demands of a nation interested more in action than negotiation, and was made shamefully culpable in the atrocities to come.

Churchill continues:

By the autumn of 1933, it was plain that neither by precept nor still less by example would the British effort for disarmament succeed. The pacifism of the Labour and Liberal Parties was not affected even by the grave event of the German withdrawal from the League of Nations. Both continued in the name of peace to urge British disarmament, and anyone who differed was called “warmonger” and “scaremonger.” It appeared that their feeling was endorsed by the people, who, of course, did not understand what was unfolding. At a by-election which occurred in East Fulham in October 25, a wave of pacifist emotion increased the Socialist vote by nearly nine thousand, and the Conservative vote fell by over ten thousand. The successful candidate, Mr Wilmot, said after the poll that “British people demand… that the British Government shall give a lead to the whole world by initiating immediately a policy of general disarmament.” And Mr. Lansbury, then leader of the Labour Party, said that all nations must “disarm to the level of Germany as a preliminary to total disarmament.” This election left a deep impression upon Mr. Baldwin, and he referred to it in a remarkable speech three years later. In November came the Reichstag election, at which no candidates except those endorsed by Hitler were tolerated, and the Nazis obtained ninety-five percent of the votes polled.

It would be wrong in judging the policy of the British Government not to remember the passionate desire for peace which animated the uninformed, misinformed majority of the British people, and seemed to threaten with political extinction any party or politician who dared to take any other line. This, of course, is no excuse for political leaders who fall short of their duty. It is much better for parties or politicians to be turned out of office than to imperil the life of the nation.” [p.111-2]

This turn of events reveals how public sentiment can cloud political leadership even in the face of genuine fact; such was the public will for disarmament that their elected representatives were willing to ignore their responsibility to assure the safety of their constituents and encourage the general policy of undermining British defence. The condemnation of those who would advocate against the group ideal is a regrettably prevalent theme in all nations, but a particularly dangerous one to emerge when the majority view is led by a misguided idealism detached from the realities of the time.

The European situation continued to worsen, as the British Government refused to permit the spending necessary to allow the British air forces to even maintain parity with the rapidly expanding Luftwaffe (an expansion expressly prohibited by the Versailles Treaty) and instead encouraged greater disarmament in the states surrounding the now overtly militaristic Germany. In a speech delivered to Parliament, Churchill had recourse to state :

The Opposition are very free-spoken, as most of us are in this country, on the conduct of the German Nazi Government. No one has been more severe in criticism than the Labour Party or that section of the Liberal Party which I see opposite. And their great newspapers, now united in the common cause, have been the most forward in the severity of their strictures. But these criticisms are fiercely resented by the powerful men who have Germany in their hands. So that we are to disarm our friends, we are to have no allies, we are to affront powerful nations, and we are to neglect our own defences entirely. This is a miserable and perilous situation. Indeed, the position to which they seek to reduce us by the course which they have pursued […] is one of terrible jeopardy” [p.117]

It is easy to criticise from afar, but far harder to actually take a stand against that to which you are opposed. It is evident that the lessons of the Manchurian Crisis had still to be digested in this period, despite the obvious display of Western impotence shown to the world by their failure to affect any action against Japanese devastation of northern China. Likewise, as Churchill warned, these criticisms were further alienating Britain and undermining her diplomatic abilities in concert with the calamitous weakening of her armed forces. Condemnation of foreign action in Parliament without the requisite strength to take action serves no other purpose than currying domestic favour; the slighted party will have less inclination to enter into diplomatic discussion in the future, whilst hurling insults will do nothing to actually address the perceived ill.

These previous an subsequent segments show how short term political gain can greatly impact the long term capacity of a nation to take action; the political parties of the era were entirely possessed by a desire to reflect the peaceful hopes of their constituents, even in the face of facts pointing to impending danger. Their near-sighted hopes of clinging to office were to have dire consequences, however, as their unwillingness to tell people uncomfortable truths led to a campaign of virtue signalling that was to cripple the British defence infrastructure as she became led by a Parliament that was singularly incapable of comprehending the danger which stalked closer with each passing day. It would be well to remember in the modern world the fact that these individuals were unwilling to entertain; that peace has never in the course of human history proven to be lasting.

During a debate upon air parity, Churchill writes:

..when on July 20, 1934, the Government brought forward some belated and inadequate proposals for strengthening the Royal Air Force by forty-one squadrons or about 820 machines only to be completed in five years, the Labour Party, supported by the Liberals, moved a vote of censure upon them in the House of Commons. The motion regretted that

His Majesty’s Government should enter upon a policy of rearmament neither necessitated by any new commitment nor calculated to add to the security of the nation, but certain to jeopardise the prospects of international disarmament and to encourage a revival of dangerous and wasteful competition in preparation for war

In support of this complete refusal by the Opposition to take any measures to strengthen our air power, Mr. Attlee, speaking in their name, said: “we deny the need for increased air armaments .. we deny the proposition that an increased British air force will make for the peace of the world, and we reject altogether the claim to parity.” The Liberal Party supported this censure motion, although they would have preferred their own, which ran as follows:

That this House views with grave concern the tendency among the nations of the world to resume the competitive race of armaments which has always proved a precursor of war; it will not approve any expansion of our own armaments unless it is clear that the Disarmament Conference has failed and unless a definite case is established; and these conditions not being present as regards the proposed additional expenditure of £20,000,000 upon air armaments, the House declines its assent.

In his speech the Liberal leader, Sir Herbert Samuel, said: “what is the case in regard to Germany? Nothing we have so far seen or heard would suggest that our present air force is not adequate to meet any peril at the present time from this quarter.”

When we remember that this was the language used after careful deliberation by the responsible heads of parties, the danger of our country becomes apparent. This was the formative time when by extreme exertions we could have preserved the air strength on which our independence of action was founded. If Great Britain and France had each maintained quantitative parity with Germany, they would together have been double as strong, and Hitler’s career of violence might have been nipped in the bud without the loss of a single life. Thereafter it was too late.”


It was soon made clear that the assurances received by Parliament that the Germans were not within reach of air parity in the near future were utterly false, and Stanley Baldwin was forced to bring to the house the fact that the German air force was not only of equal size to the British, but was growing with each passing day, he was forced to confess this to the House and made the remarkable confession:

responsibility is not that of any single minister; it is the responsibility of the Government as a whole, and we are all responsible, we are all to blame”

Yet whilst this statement was laudable, the response was not.

The Labour and Liberal Oppositions, having nine months earlier moved or supported a vote of censure even upon the modest steps the Government had taken were ineffectual and undecided. They were looking forward to an election against “Tory Armaments.” […] and they did not attempt to adapt their speeches to this outstanding episode. Mr. Attlee said:

As a party we do not stand for unilateral disarmament… We stand for collective security through the League of Nations. We reject the use of force as an instrument of policy. We stand for the reduction of armaments and pooled security… We have stated that this country must be prepared to make its contribution to collective security. Our policy is not one of seeking security through rearmament, but through disarmament. Our aim is the reduction of armaments, and then the complete abolition of all national armaments and the creation of an international police force under the League.

What was to happen if this spacious policy could not be immediately achieved or till it was achieved, he did not say. He complained that the White Paper on Defence justified increases in the Navy {a.n. A Royal Navy already crippled by arbitrary restrictions on tonnage of warships that most nations except Britain were already ignoring} by references to the United States, and increases in our air forces by references to the air forces of Russia, Japan, and the United States. “All that was old-fashioned talk and right outside the collective system.” He recognised that the fact of German rearmament had become dominating, but “The measure of the counterweight to any particular armed forces is not the forces of this country or of France, but the combined force of all loyal Powers in the League of Nations. An aggressor must be made to realise that if he challenges the world, he will be met by the co-ordinated forces of the world, not by a number of disjointed national forces.” The only way was to concentrate all air power in the hands of the League, which must be united an become a reality. Meanwhile, he and his party voted against the measure proposed.

For the Liberals, Sir Archibald Sinclair asked the Government to summon

a fresh economic conference, and to bring Germany not only within the political comity of nations, but also into active co-operation with ourselves in all the works of civilisation and in raising the standard of life of both peoples … Let the Government table detailed and definite proposals for the abolition of military air forces and the control of civil aviation. If the proposals are resisted, let the responsibility be cleared and properly fixed.

Nevertheless [he said], while disarmament ought vigorously to be pursued as a chief objective of the government, a situation in which a great country not a member of the League of Nations possesses the most powerful army and perhaps the most powerful air force in Western Europe … cannot be allowed to endure […] The Liberal Party would feel bound to support measures of national defence when clear proof was afforded of their necessity … I cannot therefore agree that to increase our national armaments is necessarily inconsistent with our obligations under the collective peace system.

[…] Nothing in the speeches of the Opposition leaders was in the slightest degree related to the emergency in which they admitted we stood, or to the far graver facts which we now know lay behind it.” [p.123-5]

This has been taken slightly out of sequence, but serves to demonstrate the consequences of the outlook detailed by the previous sections. Such was the desire for peace in parliament, that they willingly constrained the capacity of the nation to not only make war but to even defend itself. Whilst the hopes for collective security are understandable given the freshness of the Great War in the national memory, the multiple failures of the League of Nations and the lack of support and interest given it by major nations such as the United States should have been a clear indication that Britain should have made ready to protect herself even as she pursued her peaceful designs through diplomatic means. The view that providing adequate forces for defence could be construed as a precursor to war should prove a clear falsehood; a strong defence provides a far stronger deterrent to war than stern diplomatic words without substance, and the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands and Belgium should eloquently describe the form of peace that can be assured against aggressive neighbours through disarming oneself. The terrible consequences of this misguided pacifism were to reverberate through the years ahead, as a failure to maintain military capabilities in the here and now will take years, if not decades, to rectify – it is far easier to maintain a capability than rebuild it. The immediate consequence of the British and French governments failing to adequately support their air forces were felt in the Battle of France, when Hitler’s invading armies swept the neglected allied forces before them; despite having similar sized armies and a superiority in tanks and guns, the German air forces were totally dominant; deploying over five and a half thousand planes compared to fewer than three thousand British and French. 2,233 allied aircraft were lost in the campaign, compared to 1,236 German.


The issue of German air parity with Britain, in grotesque violation of the Versailles Treaty, was discussed at the Stresa Conference in 1935, between Britain, France, and Italy, wherein Churchill reports:

There was general agreement that open violation of solemn treaties, for the making of which millions of men had died, could not be borne. But the British representatives made it clear at the outset that they would not consider the possibility of sanctions in the event of treaty violations. This naturally confined the Conference to the region of words. A resolution was passed unanimously to the effect that “unilateral” – by which they meant one sided – breaches of treaties could not be accepted, and the Executive Council of the League of Nations was invited to pronounce upon the situation disclosed […] The final declaration [a.n. By Mussolini] was as follows:

The three powers, the object of whose policy is the collective maintenance of peace within the framework of the League of Nations, find themselves in complete agreement in opposing, by all practicable means, any unilateral repudiation of treaties which may endanger the peace of Europe, and will act in close and cordial collaboration for this purpose.

The Italian Dictator in his speech had stressed the words “peace of Europe”, and paused after “Europe” in a noticeable manner. This emphasis on Europe at once struck the attention of the British Foreign Office representatives. They pricked up their ears and well understood that, while Mussolini would work with France and Britain to prevent Germany from re-arming, he reserved for himself any excursion in Africa against Abyssinia on which he might later resolve. Should this issue be raised or not? Discussions were held that night among the Foreign Office officials. Everyone was so anxious for Mussolini’s support in dealing with Germany that it was felt undesirable at that moment to warn him off Abyssinia, which would obviously have very much annoyed him. Therefore, the question was not raised; it passed by default, and Mussolini felt, and in a sense had reason to feel, that the Allies had acquiesced in his statement and would give him a free hand against Abyssinia. The French remained mute on the point, and the Conference separated.

In due course, on April 15/17, the Council of the League of Nations examined the alleged breach of the Treaty of Versailles committed by Germany in decreeing universal compulsory military service. The following Powers were represented on the Council: The Argentine Republic, Australia, Great Britain, Chile, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Turkey, and the U.S.S.R. All the Powers voted for the principle that treaties should not be broken by “unilateral” action, and referred the issue to the Plenary Assembly of the League. […] In all, nineteen countries formally protested. But how vain was all their voting without the readiness of any single Power or any group of Powers to contemplate the use of force, even in the last resort!” [133-4]

Due to the weakness imposed upon Britain by Parliament’s refusal to allow the military to be properly equipped, the nation’s only means of response to the worsening international situation was the above shameful facade. Aggressive actions were met only by words which were impossible to support, especially with an attitude of pacifism so prevalent that any use of force was seen as anathema, even to prevent an outright war. Mussolini had clearly appreciated the weakness of the League, and used his position as a stronger nation to strong-arm the democracies into silence over his planned endeavours in Africa.

When these endeavours were undertaken, the shock and outrage that they engendered finally managed to shake the mood of unquestioning pacifism that had racked the United Kingdom and yet, as Churchill reveals, even the public outpouring of disgust at the Italian attack on Abyssinia, encouraged as it was by the frailty of the League of Nations, was insufficient to promote action.

Bloodshed in Abysinnia, hatred of Fascism, the invocation of Sanctions by the League, produced a convulsion within the British Labour Party. Trade-unionists, among whom Mr. Ernest Bevin was outstanding, were by no means pacifist by temperament. A strong desire to fight the Italian Dictator, to enforce sanctions of a decisive character, and to use the British Fleet, if need be, surged through the sturdy wage-earners. Rough and harsh words were spoken at excited meetings. […] Many members of the parliamentary Labour Party shared the trade-unionist mood. In a far wider sphere, all the leaders of the League of Nations found themselves bound to the cause of the League. […] Here were principles for which lifelong humanitarians were ready to die, and if to die, also to kill.

[…] But this national awakening was not in accord with Mr. Baldwin’s outlook or intentions.[…] The Prime Minister had declared that sanctions meant war; secondly, he was resolved there must be no war; and thirdly, he decided upon sanctions. It was evidently impossible to reconcile these three conditions. Under the guidance of Britain and the pressures of Laval, the League of Nations Committee, charged with devising sanctions, kept clear of any that would provoke war. A large number of commodities, some of which were war materials, were prohibited from entering Italy, and an imposing schedule was drawn up. But oil, without which the campaign in Abyssinia could not have been maintained, continued to enter freely, because it was understood that to stop it meant war. [a.n. Ian Kershaw, in To Hell and Back, notes that whilst oil imports were still free to enter Italy, foie gras imports were stopped. A clear indication of the feeble power of the League to influence world events.] Here the attitude of the United States, not a member of the League of Nations and the world’s main oil supplier, though benevolent, was uncertain. Moreover, to stop it to Italy involved also stopping it to Germany. The export of Aluminium into Italy was strictly forbidden; but aluminium was almost the only metal that Italy produced in quantities beyond her own needs. […] Thus, the measures passed with so great a parade were not real sanctions to paralyse the aggressor,, but merely such half-hearted sanctions as the aggressor would tolerate, because in fact, though onerous, they stimulated the Italian war spirit. The League of Nations, therefore, proceeded to the rescue of Abyssinia on the basis that nothing must be done to hamper the invading armies. These facts were not known to the British public at the time of the election. They earnestly supported the policy of bringing the sanctions, and believed this was a sure way of bringing the Italian assault upon Abyssinia to an end.

Still less did His Majesty’s Government contemplate the use of the Fleet. […] The British Fleet which was lying at Alexandria had by now been reinforced. It could by a gesture have turned back Italian transports from the Suez Canal, and would as a consequence have had to offer battle to the Italian Navy. We were told it was not capable of meeting such an antagonist. […] It transpired, however, that the Admiral commanding resented the suggestion attributed to him that he was not strong enough to fight a fleet action. It would seem that before taking their first decision to oppose Italian aggression, His Majesty’s Government should carefully have examined ways and means and also made up their minds.

There is no doubt on our present knowledge that a bold decision would have cut the Italian communications with Ethiopia, and that we should have been successful in any naval battle which might have followed. I was never in favour of isolated action by Great Britain, but having gone so far it was a grievous deed to recoil. Moreover, Mussolini would never have dared to come to grips with a resolute British Government. Nearly the whole of the world was against him, and he would have had to risk his regime upon a single-handed war with Britain, in which a fleet action in the Mediterranean would be the early and decisive test. How could Italy have fought this war? Apart from a limited advantage in modern light cruisers, her navy was a but a fourth the size of the British. Her numerous conscript army, which was vaunted in millions, could not come into action. Her air power was in quantity and quality far below even our modest establishments. She would instantly have been blockaded. The Italian armies in Abyssinia would have famished for supplies and ammunition. Germany could as yet give no effective help. If ever there was an opportunity of striking a decisive blow in a generous cause with the minimum of risk, it was here and now, The fact that the nerve of the British Government was not equal to the occasion can be excused only by their sincere love of peace. Actually it played a part in leading to an infinitely more terrible war. Mussolini’s bluff succeeded, and an important spectator drew far-reaching conclusions from the fact. Hitler had long resolved on war for German aggrandisement. He now formed a view of Great Britain’s degeneracy which was only to be changed too late for peace and too late for him. In Japan, also, there were pensive spectators. [p.174-7]

The feeble sanctions brought against Fascist Italy when she also chose to take advantage of the paralysing indecision of the League of Nations likewise shows how a failure to back up rhetoric with credible military force allows more daring states to assert their will. Mussolini’s gamble could have been quashed by Britain alone, yet she did nothing and allowed the extraordinarily brutal Italian campaign continue. By failing to prevent this action of one League member upon another, Britain and France shattered all international respect for the League. The failure of NATO to protect Crimea shows a modern example of how a protracted period of military neglect and lack of public support for military action can allow such events to still occur. Churchill’s chilling conclusion to this episode should resonate uncomfortably to the modern reader; a love of peace can very readily blinker short-sighted political thought, and encourage conditions in which far greater bloodshed than might otherwise occur can be invoked.

Once Abyssinia was conquered, the impact of Italian operations became clear:

The collapse of Abyssinian resistance and the annexation of the whole country by Italy produced unhelpful effects in German public opinions. Even those elements which did not approve of Mussolini’s policy or action admired the swift, efficient, and ruthless manner in which, as it seemed, the campaign had been conducted. The general view was that Great Britain had emerged thoroughly weakened. She had earned the undying hatred of Italy; she had wrecked the Stresa Front once and for all; and her loss of prestige in the world contrasted agreeably with the growing strength and repute of the new Germany. “I am impressed,” wrote one of our representatives in Bavaria, “by the note of contempt in references to Great Britain in many quarters … it is to be feared that Germany’s attitude in the negotiations for a settlement in Western Europe and for a more general settlement of European and extra-European questions will be found to have stiffened.”

[…] His Majesty’s Government had imprudently advanced to champion a great world cause. They had led fifty nations forward with much brave language. Confronted with brute facts Mr. Baldwin had recoiled. Their policy had for a long time been designed to give satisfaction to powerful elements of opinion at home rather than seek the realities of the European situation. By estranging Italy they had upset the whole balance of Europe and gained nothing for Abyssinia. They had led the League of Nations into an utter fiasco, most damaging if not fatally injurious to its effective life as an institution. [p . 186-7]

The impact of the international appearance of weakness caused by a failure to oppose aggression is here made clear; it was the failure to protect Manchuria and Abyssinia that were to show Hitler that his designs could well be put in to practice without fear of serious opposition. Had France and Britain taken an assertive line with Italy and maintained their capacity to intervene, especially under the aegis of the League, German expansion could have been curtailed before it began. Even as Hitler began his conquests, multiple opportunities still presented themselves to prevent a Second World War, yet the vacillation of the democracies continued. No matter how well-intentioned, it was this failure to consider the use of arms that was to sow the seeds of a conflict that was to claim over 50 million lives.


Having made their bed of the policies of appeasement, the Western Allies continued to lie in it. Over the next four years the League watched, paralysed, as Germany massively expanded her borders at the expense of her neighbours and constructed armed forces of a technical and numerical superiority far in advance of the democracies. As her military expanded, her position of increasing strength allowed Hitler’s Germany to overawe and consume her smaller neighbours and overtly prepare for war. Each act of domination was met by feeble complaints from the impotent League, and mute acceptance by the democracies who had by now set a standard that any overt opposition would be seen as a declaration of war. When a red line was finally drawn by Britain and France, it was far too late to hope that Hitler would be cowed, and from a position in which the genuine guarantee of the use of force could no longer serve as an active deterrent. As Churchill summarises:

In this sad tale of wrong judgements formed by well-meaning and capable people we now reach our climax. That we should all have come to this pass makes those responsible, however honourable their motives, blameworthy before history. Look back and see what we had successively accepted or thrown away: a Germany disarmed by solemn treaty; a Germany re-armed in violation of a solemn treaty; air superiority or even air parity cast away; the Rhineland forcibly occupied and the Siegfried line built or building; the Berlin-Rome Axis established; Austria devoured and digested by the Reich; Czechoslovakia deserted and ruined by the Munich Pact; its fortress line in German hands; its mighty arsenal of Skoda henceforward making munitions for German armies; President Roosevelt’s efforts to stabilise or bring to a head the European situation by the intervention of the United States waved aside with one hand [a.n. In January of 1938 Roosevelt had offered to intervene directly to calm matters, but Chamberlain had bluntly rebuffed him before signing the Munich Pact], and Soviet Russia’s willingness to join the Western Powers and go all lengths to save Czechoslovakia ignored on the other [a.n. The Soviets had likewise been rebuffed by a British government seemingly incapable of understanding that Germany was planing war and that allies would be needed. This decision directly drove the Soviets into signing the infamous non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany]; the services of thirty-five Czech divisions against the still unripened German Army cast away, when Great Britain could herself only supply two to strengthen the front in France – all gone with the wind.

And now, when every one of these aids and advantages has been squandered and thrown away, Great Britain advances, leading France by the hand, to guarantee the integrity of Poland. […] There was sense in fighting for Czechoslovakia in 1938 when the German Army could scarcely put half a dozen trained divisions on the Western Front, when the French with nearly sixty or seventy divisions could most certainly have rolled forward across the Rhine or into the Ruhr. But this had been judged unreasonable, rash, below the level of modern intellectual thought and morality. Yet now at last the two Western Democracies declared themselves ready to stake their lives upon the territorial integrity of Poland. History, which we are told is mainly the record of the crimes, follies, and miseries of mankind, may be scoured and ransacked to find a parallel to this sudden and complete reversal of five or six years’ policy of easy-going placatory appeasement, and its transformation almost overnight into a readiness to accept an obviously imminent war on far worse conditions and on the greatest scale.” [346-7]

This catalogue of failures should serve to highlight how short-sighted idealism reaps its rewards in inter-state relations; when war was preventable, it was seen as uncouth to even contemplate, by the time it became unavoidable, it was too late to prepare.

The greatest folly of British policy in this period was the callous insistence that France follow her lead in disarming, and supporting a resurgent German military. The prevalent assumption was that by allowing Germany to reassert herself, there would be less resentment. The logic of Versailles (that a weak Germany could not present a threat) was forgotten in the hope that a strong Germany would not want to present a threat. The British government happily destroyed their arms and encouraged France to do the same, whilst making no effort to ensure that Germany followed suit. By so doing, Britain not only removed the bulwark of the French army from the path of German militarism, but even removed the means of preventing the process of German rearmament as there was no force to impose it. As the main powers of the League of Nations, Britain and France together were the driving force behind the world order envisioned in the creation of the League, yet their unwillingness to take any action in support of these ideals saw both the ideas and the League fatally weakened as the rise of the dictators across Europe presented an alternative future of strength. Attempting to encourage disarmament through example left Britain and France friendless and weak, trailing behind the assertive policies of the Italian and German states.

The most profound example of how this danger should be remembered in the modern world is in the realms of nuclear weapons: If a nation is desirous of leading others to disarm, they would be unwise to throw away their own weapons first. As in Churchill’s example of aircraft production, a defence capacity central to national defence should not be allowed to wither, as if neglected, it will take time to rebuild. A nuclear arsenal in particular is incredibly difficult to assemble, and indeed to be seen to be doing so would be seen as a direct threat to foreign powers and could provoke a first strike. By attempting to lead by example, a nation that discards its weapons will only achieve a greater instability; the allies of that nation would find themselves less secure and would cling more closely to their weapons, whilst their opponents would feel more confident and willing to assert themselves as they would face less incentive to disarm. This is without the dangers that would be faced by the disarming nation; as Britain and France discovered in 1940, weakening oneself only provides encouragement to more aggressive neighbours. In the modern world, only one nation has ever disposed of her nuclear weapons in the hopes that such power would not be needed to deter attack; Ukraine. Nuclear weapons, above all other weapons, preserve peace between great powers through the continued threat of use and their reckless disposal without a mutual agreement will do no more than threaten the security of the nation.

It is the greatest mistake to mix up disarmament with peace. When you have peace you will have disarmament.” [p.102]

The lesson of the sorry tale told by Churchill of the almost entirely preventable escalation of tensions that were to spawn the cataclysm of the Second World War may essentially be boiled down to the lesson that “all the is necessary for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.” The hopes for peace in Europe were sincere, but clouded by the naive belief that arms themselves were to blame for conflict, rather than warlike desires. This mistaken belief, clung to in the face of mounting danger and supported by electorates bereft of facts, was in no small part to blame for the catastrophe that was to soon engulf mankind. The possession of adequate armaments, and the determination to use them, could well have curtailed the ambitions of the fascist leaders whilst they were still nascent and spared Europe and the world the atrocities that were to ensue. We would do well today to remember that aggressive nations cannot always be deterred by words, nor national security ensured through hope and good intentions.


On Arms Control

Arms limitation has been a hope of many states and leaders in the modern world, and indeed it may be seen that efforts at controlling the impact of war have largely mirrored the ability of war to impact upon society at large.

Within the Middle Ages the Catholic Church attempted to control not only the spread of war amongst Christians, but the tools with which it was fought; the use of crossbows, for example, was proscribed by the Church. The power of the crossbow and the ease of its use presented a destabilising threat to the societal order of the day and the Church, as the assumed international guardians of society, were alarmed by its potential. Despite the ban in 1139, the crossbow was too powerful a weapon to be ignored and was widely adopted across Europe for use against both heathens and Christians in the wars of the age.

As enlightenment spread in the centuries to follow, weapons control remained rather low on the agenda of most states, but the development of ever more powerful infantry weapons saw some interesting efforts to limit the destructive potential of war. The Puckle Gun, designed in 1718, saw an interesting effort to vary the brutality of its use depending on the beliefs of its target: the gun was to fire regular ammunition against Christians, but square shot for use against Muslim Turks – the potential for appalling damage presented by such ammunition seeming improper to use in civilised circles.

The limited wars of the late Renaissance and Age of Empire have been described as one of the greatest accomplishments of civilisation – by keeping war as a genteel game, with little impact on civilians, the horror of conflict was naturally diminished. When Louis XIV, in many ways the embodiment of this era, was offered the secrets of chemical weapons by an Italian chemist he not only refused but paid the man a pension for the rest of his life on condition that he never release the information. The enlightened despot could ironically be argued to have done much to contain the horrors of war through approaching conflict as a noble enterprise. This era of civilised militarism was shattered by the French Revolution, the ‘nation in arms’ that evolved in France had brought war onto a new scale; with armies of hundreds of thousands that could rely on the support of millions. The defeat of Napoleon was unable to put this genie back into its bottle, for whilst the crown heads of Europe may have hoped for a return to the past the new ways of war had been unleashed – and those who failed to grasp them would be doomed in future conflict.

In 1899 Tsar Nicholas the Second invited world leaders to join him in The Hague to discuss the commencement of a unified effort to curtail the huge expenditure on weapons across the globe. In the 84 years since the fall of Napoleon there had been a period of uneasy peace, but Europe was embroiled in an arms race that many could already see would end in a more apocalyptic war than any could yet imagine. The Hague Conference was spoken of as a means to avert disaster, ye for all the talk of progress it would be easy to interpret the Tsars actions as shrewd pragmatism; despite its impressive size and resources, Russia was a technological backwater – and the Tsar did not have the means to compete on an even footing with his European rivals; a halt in military development would have served Russia well.

Regardless of motivation, however, the Tsar’s proposals would have done much to prevent developing technologies and many of his prohibitions were indeed ratified. The use of unnecessarily destructive bullets, for example, saw the banning of such munitions as the Dum Dum bullet developed in India for the British. There had been hopes for greater control; such as the prevention of aerial weapons and the development of new propellants, but therein lay the problem: all proposals were voluntary. This was to foreshadow further issues; the ban on unnecessarily cruel bullets was not signed by the United States, whilst at the talks in 1907 British efforts at naval limitations were ignored by Germany, who was rapidly expanding her fleet in a direct provocation to Britain. The efforts of the Tsar may have been no more than an effort to defend his people, but did present a concerted effort to see warfare brought back under some semblance of control.

The Great War of 1914-1919 put efforts at arms control to the test, and revealed their true fragility. Constraints on the use of noxious gases, the bombing of undefended towns, and the shooting of prisoners were all universally disregarded (the last unofficially by all powers, but universally evident), and the unprecedented brutality of the war shocked all involved. The Vatican made particular efforts to curtail the slaughter and argued for both peace and a reduction in arms. The pope’s prescient arguments that the brutality of the weapons and the efforts at territorial gain would both lead to future conflict fell on deaf ears, and the war raged on to the point of exhaustion.

The experience of the Great War shocked much of Europe into greater efforts at arms control; the League of Nations was founded to arbitrate international disputes, and presented a greater sincerity in its efforts than the Hague Conventions might have done. In addition, efforts at arms control continued – the Washington Naval treaty presents the greatest example; as it banned the creation of large warships. It would become apparent, however, that these efforts had a fatal flaw – as with the Hague Conferences no thought was given to the enforcement of measures. Flagrant violations of the treaties were met with words, not action, as well-intentioned states refused to risk the lives of their citizens to combat those who held their efforts in low regard and indeed even persisted in hampering their own means of self defence by following treaty guidelines even as their neighbours rearmed. The disastrous consequences of a failure to take immediate action were writ in the blood of the victims of the next world war.

The irony of each effort at arms control is that it is worthless without powerful military support – this is a paradox that even in the modern world we have yet to surmount. The United Nations demands consensus before action can be taken, and its most decisive action – the Korean War – was only possible as a result of a convenient Soviet abstention. It is easy to blame failures to control the spread of arms on the lack of means of enforcement, but there is a further element of control that receives less attention but is perhaps the more prescient concern – whether or not any of the states involved truly want to reduce their arms.

The moral arguments of the 12th century church of the evils of the crossbow are echoed in the efforts to ban gas and chemical weapons almost 800 years later, and were to ultimately have the same negligible effect on warring nations. When a kingdom found itself in a war for survival, it was only natural to use every weapon available – a military would be failing its people if it refused to use every means at its disposal for victory.

In this idea may be found the greatest barrier to arms control; would a state be willing to face destruction rather than take action to defend itself? This dilemma is easy to face in peacetime, but rather more difficult in war – the only example of such an action being taken that I am aware of is Hitler’s refusal to allow the use of Nazi Germany’s battlefield chemical weapons at the end of the Second World War, for reasons known only to himself the release of these ‘Weapons of Despair’ was never permitted.

The imminent threat of a large-scale war prompted the Hague Conventions, and the shock of the World Wars led to much effort to prevent future conflict in their aftermath, but in the wars themselves, the rules were different. The Vatican, as a neutral state, could well afford to demand peace, but the combatant states were trapped in a life-or-death struggle and bent every fibre of their beings to the annihilation of their enemies in order to attain victory. Efforts to prevent the use of weapons could well be seen as a cunning ploy for a weaker state to hamstring their enemy, and the hopes of good-will at a negotiating table presented a far less attractive means of gaining peace than the obliteration of threatening armies.

In the hot blood of total war, all weapons may be seen as necessary, even those that would assure the deaths of millions. In this is the greatest obstacle to arms control, and one that may yet be insurmountable; rational discussion of the morality of weapons is a luxury only afforded to those in times of peace. When the threat of near-instantaneous obliteration appeared to states after the Second World War, any hopes at learning from that conflict were set aside as states rushed to develop their means to defend themselves.

The Cold War represented this all-too-human trait in microcosm; weapons were developed in every theatre to give even the most infinitesimal of advantage in a war that would have lasted less than a week if developed. Central to planning in most instances was the use of gas, nerve agents, and nuclear weapons of every size. For each of the potential belligerents the possible war was one in which every life of the nation was at risk – so every tool was seen as necessary. The eventual thaw saw weapons such as cluster bombs and mines be banned internationally, to universal acclaim, but it is worthy of note that such a ban was only seen as acceptable once these weapons were no longer necessary tools of national survival.

War between major powers has only been prevented in the last 72 years by the spread of the most powerful weapons mankind has ever developed – the use of nuclear weapons has been debated endlessly since their initial deployment, and threatened on more occasions than might have been prudent. Nonetheless, these weapons have effectively deterred any major conflict and for that we may be grateful. The nuclear arsenals of the major powers contributed to a longer period of arms build-up than had ever been seen before, but in so doing they also ensured that in this instance the posturing would not spill over into war. The nuclear arms race was also to provide the peace enforcement that previous efforts at arms control lacked; the weapons that nuclear states relied upon as a means to defend themselves in case of attack also prevented the chance of such an attack to begin with, and by deterring large-scale war also removed the necessity for the development of the weapons of large-scale war. In the paradoxical fashion of human development, it took the creation and proliferation of the most apocalyptic weapons in human history to finally allow for concrete efforts to enforce arms control.