We have posted messages from historian John Steele Gordon defending the prudence of the Munich Agreement in the update to “Enhanced Munich” and in “The price of peace.” At the American Heritage blog, Fredric Schwarz first noted the posts “[f]or all you John Steele Gordon fans.” Mr. Gordon then elaborated his case in “Chamberlain and Hitler.” Mr. Gordon’s case is essentially the same case argued by the “Men of Munich” (in William Manchester’s phrase); I do not think the case has aged well or that it withstands close scrutiny, but readers interested in the issue will want to check out Mr. Gordon’s further reflections.
Let me take the occasion of this discussion to make a related point regarding Churchill, Chamberlain’s precessor Stanley Baldwin and the BBC. In rereading the Manchester biography and other volumes (such as Martin Gilbert’s) devoted to the period, one cannot avoid noticing Churchill’s greatness of character. He was an extraordinarily magnanimous man. He almost never allowed his frustrations and disappointments over the struggles of the day to be vented in a personal way, although the gentlemen against whom he contended never reciprocated. They treated him with small-minded contempt.
The single most striking exception to this general rule is Churchill’s comments on Stanley Baldwin, although I believe that Churchill did not indulge himself while Baldwin was alive. He reserved his frank evaluation of Baldwin until Baldwin’s death. The reason for Churhchill’s low opinion of Baldwin deserves an essay to itself and fortunately Richard Langworth has written it: “How Churchill Saw Others: Stanley Baldwin.”
Asked his advice on what should be done with Baldwin’s corpse, Churchill replied, “Embalm, cremate and bury. Take no chances.” But the comment that initially drew my attention to Churchill’s opinion of Baldwin was this one: “It would have been much better had he never lived.” Langworth shows, as you might expect, that much of the history of the British policy of appeasement can be drawn out of the story of Churchill’s estimate of Baldwin.
All of this is only a digression to note the following. The public disgrace of the BBC in the Hutton Inquiry has not to my knowledge occasioned the kind of historical examination of the BBC that it deserves. The Churchill biographies note mostly in passing that the BBC systematically barred Churchill from discussing his defense and foreign policy views during the 1930’s; Sir John Reith was head of the BBC at the time. Manchester states that “Reith saw to it that [Churchill] was seldom heard over the BBC…” Reith wrote of Churchill in Reith’s monumentally voluminous diaries, “I absolutely hate him.”
In 1938 Churchill was scheduled to appear on the BBC for a half-hour talk — on the Mediterranean. When the Czech crisis erupted, Manchester reports, Churchill asked that the program be cancelled. On the Saturday before Parliament’s debate on the Munich Agreement, Churchill agreed nevertheless to meet with (future Communist spy) Guy Burgess of the BBC. Churchill complained to Burgess, according to Burgess’s recollection, that “he had been very badly treated in the matter of political broadcasts and that he was always muzzled by the BBC.”
Why did Reith detest Churchill? In Reith’s eyes, Churchill was of course a warmonger, and Reith, not coincidentally, held Hitler in the highest regard. How little times have changed.
UPDATE: Mr. Gordon writes to clarify:
I would hate to be thought of as being on the side of appeasement, then or now. Churchill was right and everyone in power in Britain in the 1930’s were wrong. My point was only the narrow question of whether Chamberlain, confronted with the situation in September, 1938, and having to answer the question, “What do we do now?”, was wise to put things off for a year, giving England, belatedly, time to redress the military balance a little. As usual, historians differ (we’re a disputatious bunch, I’m afraid). Fred Smoler on the AH blog makes a pretty good case for going to war then and there. He might well be right.
In the linked post by Fredric Smoler, Smoler observes:
[T]he best book-—by a very long chalk the best book-—on the merits of fighting Hitler in 1938 rather than 1939 is by Williamson Murray, an excellent and celebrated military historian. That book is The Change in the European Balance of Power, 1938-1939, published by Princeton University Press in 1984…At any rate, in 1938 the Luftwaffe was simply not ready for war. I have never read a professional study of the Luftwaffe that argued otherwise.
On the other hand, David Rieff writes to point out the most recent scholarly work that lends support to Mr. Gordon’s thesis:
I’ve been following your discussion of Churchill and appeasement with interest. I haven’t read Mr. Gordon’s work, but wondered if you’d read Prof. James Levy’s Appeasement and Rearmament: Britain 1936-1939 (Rowan and Littlefield, 2006)? It makes the case for a simultaneous policy of appeasement and rearmament making both pragmatic and ethical sense…
I’m going to check out the Levy book, but I’m pretty sure Churchill is the guy I want on my side in this fight.