Turning Point

March 1, 2000 Topics: Society Regions: Western EuropeEurope Tags: Academia

Turning Point

Mini Teaser: Springtime for Churchill.

by Author(s): Michael Howard

John Lukacs, Five Days in London: May 1940 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 236 pp., $19.95.

"History is now, and England", wrote the American expatriate poet T.S. Eliot during the Second World War. This certainly was the case in the summer of 1940. Professor Lukacs' claim that the five days in London between May 24 and 28 saw a turning point in history sounds hyperbolic, but it stands up well to examination. It was then that the British government under the leadership of Winston Churchill decided not to ask a triumphant Adolf Hitler for terms, but to fight on whatever the odds. By that decision they gained the support of the United States, and persuaded Hitler to turn directly on his ultimate objective, the Soviet Union. Britain did not thereby win the war, but it created the conditions that made it virtually certain that Hitler would lose it. As a result, "civilization as we know it" survived for another fifty years. "Perhaps", Professor Lukacs concludes gloomily, surveying the scene at the end of the century, "that is enough."

Those five days, and that decision, have received repeated scrutiny. Scores of memoirs have been written by contemporaries, and the events have been minutely analyzed by such British historians as David Dilks, Philip Bell and Andrew Roberts. In this typically idiosyncratic work, John Lukacs generously acknowledges their work, as he does the unpublished theses of G.N. Esnouf and Sheila Lawlor, and it must be said that his own research has turned up little that we did not already know. But he brings to his topic, as to everything else he has treated, a sparkling and original mind, and interpretations that have to be taken very seriously, even if they are not entirely accepted.

In this study he makes two major contributions. The first is to examine the evolution of British public opinion during those fateful days, largely through the reports of that innovative institution, "Mass Observation", which are now preserved at the University of Sussex. The second is to analyze minutely the reports of the British cabinet meetings from May 25-28, when the possibility of using Mussolini as an intermediary to discuss peace terms was strongly pressed by the foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, and not entirely discounted, at least initially, by Winston Churchill himself.

"There was a white glow, overpowering, sublime", wrote Churchill of those days, "which ran through our island from end to end." But as the Mass Observation and other reports make clear, it was not quite like that. On May 16, when the full extent of the German breakthrough in France became apparent, there was initial bewilderment: "It just hadn't occurred to people", wrote one observer, "that we could be beaten." Still, no one doubted that Britain would triumph in the end, as it always had in the past. Ten days later, however, on May 25, when the French army had been totally defeated and the British surrounded at Dunkirk with little prospect of escape, the public mind was reported as being "in a chaotic condition and ready to be plunged into the depths of a shocked, almost unbelieving dismay."

Chaotic, indeed. I was myself in my last term at a British public school, one that educated a high proportion of the country's military leaders and where events were in consequence discussed with an above average degree of expertise. My own letters home indicated what was probably a fairly typical mixture of "defeatism" (a newly minted term then coming into general currency) and resolution. The defeatism arose from a reasoned belief that the Wehrmacht would capture the entire British Army on the Continent and follow up with an invasion that we could do little to resist. The resolution was simply a feeling that in the meantime there was no alternative to living our lives as normally as possible until we were called on to "do our bit", whatever that might be. We were enrolled in the Home Guard, patrolled the school grounds looking for parachutists, and looked forward to an invasion with curiosity rather than dread. (It does help, in wartime, to be rather young.) But it never occurred to us, for a single minute, that our government might sue for peace; certainly not until matters had been put to the test by invasion. I suspect that this was the general reaction outside a very narrow circle concentrated around Westminster and Whitehall; and that this was what a Labour Member of Parliament meant when he declared in the House of Commons on May 28, when the evacuation from Dunkirk had hardly begun, that "we have barely begun to touch the fringe of the resolution of this country." That resolution may have been rooted in what Lukacs refers to, a little unkindly, as "the habitual slowness of British minds", and it probably was. One can only say, thank God for it.

It was against this background that decisions were taken in Whitehall during those fateful days, and one of the most interesting conclusions to arise from Professor Lukacs' study is how little connection there was between elite and public opinion. Whatever the state of public opinion may have been, there was simply no time for Britain's leaders to take it into account. Certainly no reference was made to it in the course of the cabinet discussions that Lukacs goes on to analyze.

Churchill's War Cabinet consisted of only five members: the prime minister himself; Neville Chamberlain, his predecessor; Lord Halifax, the foreign secretary; and two members of the recently co-opted Labour Party, who were quite inexperienced in foreign affairs and contributed little to the discussions. Churchill, it must be remembered, had as yet little formal political support in the country. The majority Conservative Party regarded him with some reason as an unreliable maverick, whose track record, from his sponsoring of the Dardanelles campaign in 1915 to his more recent support for the abdicated King Edward VIII, had been uniformly disastrous. He was a journalist by profession, half American by provenance, was known to drink heavily and to be surrounded by a disreputable crowd of roués. Chamberlain, on the contrary, was respectable, upright and efficient. He had made an excellent peacetime prime minister: he had restored the British economy, and his dogged search for peace before 1939 had commanded nearly universal approval. He had certainly forfeited general confidence by his handling of the catastrophic Norwegian campaign, but still enjoyed the support of the Conservative Party and much of the British "Establishment" (a term that had yet to be coined). As for Halifax, a highly intelligent aristocrat with a fine record of public service, he was "a safe pair of hands" whom the Establishment, from King George VI down, would probably have preferred as prime minister. If pressed, he would no doubt have accepted out of a sense of public duty, and the history of the world might then have been very different. But he knew he was not the man for the job, and stood back while Churchill undertook the role for which he himself had no doubt that history had destined him.

Halifax and Chamberlain were thus still formidable adversaries, and on May 26, when all hope of rescuing the British Army seemed lost, both supported the idea of a confidential approach to the Italians. Halifax was later to claim that he was interested only in securing Mussolini's neutrality, but the record makes it clear that more than this was involved. His objective was to see whether Hitler would consider peace on terms that "did not postulate the destruction of Britain's independence", and Halifax declared that they would be "foolish if they did not accept them." Chamberlain was initially supportive, and even Churchill, at this stage, did not object; he suggested only that "it would be best to do nothing until we see how much of the Army we could re-embark." The next day, with the capitulation of Belgium, the situation looked still blacker, and positions had hardened. Chamberlain was wavering, but Halifax strongly urged an approach to the Italians. Even Churchill admitted that he would not reject terms that consisted only of restoring Germany's colonies and yielding "the overlordship of Central Europe." But since they were most unlikely to get such terms, nothing would be lost by fighting on: "we should get no worse terms if we went on fighting", he repeated on May 28, "even if we were beaten." By the following day it became clear that the bulk of the army was likely to escape from Dunkirk, and the issue was not raised again. Halifax, in Lukacs' words, had been "defeated." Churchill shipped him off at the first opportunity to the United States, where he proved to be a surprisingly good ambassador.

"In the last days of May 1940", states Professor Lukacs, "the fate of Britain--indeed, the outcome of the Second World War--depended on two things. One was the division between Churchill and Halifax. The other was the destiny of the British Army crowding back into Dunkirk." The second, probably, yes. If the British Expeditionary Force had not gotten away, Britain would have had no army left to speak of: all of its senior officers--Montgomery, Alanbrooke, Alexander, to name but three--would have spent the rest of the war as prisoners. Further, the boost that Dunkirk gave to British morale was tremendous. Thereafter bewilderment did turn into resolution: we had no doubt that we would win somehow or other, and something like the "white glow" that Churchill was later to describe did run, for a few months, from end to end of the country. It was a good time to be alive: History was now and in England, and we knew it.

But was the division between Churchill and Halifax of comparable importance? I find this very hard to believe. What if Halifax had "won"; that is, convinced Chamberlain and his Labour colleagues that Britain should ask for terms? Apart from anything else, those Labour colleagues would have needed some convincing: for all its faults, the Labour Party (which Lukacs totally ignores in his analysis) was anti-fascist to a man and woman, and in any case would have been highly reluctant to serve under the leadership of the aristocratic Halifax. If Churchill had been outvoted in cabinet, would he have resigned? Unthinkable: he had gotten the job he had coveted all his life, and knew that no one else could do it. Would he have remained, and asked for terms? In spite of his apparent wavering at the earlier meetings of the cabinet, when he was no doubt playing for time, this is even less thinkable: it would be a betrayal of everything that he had stood for throughout his entire life. He recognized that if worse came to worst someone might have to do so, and like many others he had cast the veteran Lloyd George in the role that was to be played in France by Marshal Pétain. But he himself would have gone down fighting, and with relish. (His advice to the British people in the event of invasion, in defiance of all Hague conventions, was rumored to be, "Take one with you.")

As for Halifax, had he become prime minister on May 10, the situation might have been very different. But now he was a member of Churchill's cabinet, and whatever his disagreements with the leadership, the resignation at such a crisis in his nation's history of a man with his record of loyal public service would have been almost as unlikely as that of Churchill himself. Indeed, if Halifax had resigned at the end of May few people would have noticed, or cared very much if they did: they had more important things on their minds. During the previous three weeks the world had been turned upside down, and traditional loyalties with it.

The cabinet discussions are thus little more than a footnote to history, and cannot bear the weight that Professor Lukacs tries to place on them. But they are certainly interesting, if only because they were suppressed for many years and Churchill himself was to deny that they had ever taken place. It is no discredit to Halifax that he should have initiated them. He was a rational man concerned for the national interest, and one brought up in the diplomatic tradition of "the balance of power." It was not clear to him at that moment that Britain's interests might not best be served by accepting a limited defeat at the hands of a not unfriendly power with whom there was an adversary in common--the Soviet Union. He was not alone in this belief: Lloyd George might have assembled quite an able cabinet, and we can still have fun discussing who would have joined it. Even today a few right-wing British historians have expressed regret that this view did not prevail. If it had, they claim, Britain might have retained its Empire and the world might not have been first divided between the United States and the Soviet Union, and then subjected to American hegemony. On this view I can only comment, as did the Duke of Wellington on a famous occasion, "If you can believe that, you can believe anything."

Essay Types: Book Review