Their Finest Hour

How a group of up­start Tories top­pled Neville Cham­ber­lain.

The Washington Post Sunday - - Book World - Re­viewed by David Can­na­dine

TROU­BLE­SOME YOUNG MEN The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power And Helped Save Eng­land

By Lynne Olson

Far­rar Straus Giroux. 436 pp. $27.50

He was a dom­i­nant leader of his gov­ern­ment, ut­terly con­vinced of the right­eous­ness and the rec­ti­tude of his poli­cies, es­pe­cially in­so­far as they con­cerned in­ter­na­tional af­fairs. He gath­ered around him a co­terie of tight-lipped con­ser­va­tive ad­vis­ers who were as like-minded and nar­row­minded as he was. He scorned his crit­ics in the leg­is­la­ture, brand­ing them fool­ish, ig­no­rant and un­pa­tri­otic. He had no time for mem­bers of any party but his own, and he treated the op­po­si­tion with con­tempt. He cowed and co­erced the me­dia, and he au­tho­rized tele­phone tap­ping on an un­prece­dented scale. By such ar­ro­gant and in­tim­i­dat­ing means, he was de­ter­mined to leave a more sig­nif­i­cant mark on pub­lic af­fairs than ei­ther his fa­ther or his brother had. But the re­sult was a suc­ces­sion of for­eign pol­icy dis­as­ters that did his coun­try un­told dam­age in the eyes of the world.

Ge­orge W. Bush? No, Neville Cham­ber­lain. As Lynne Olson, a for­mer White House correspondent for the Bal­ti­more Sun, points out in this vivid and com­pelling book, th­ese were ex­actly the crit­i­cisms di­rected at the Bri­tish prime min­is­ter as he per­sis­tently pur­sued his pol­icy of ap­peas­ing Adolf Hitler in a man­ner that may be de­scribed as vain in both senses of that word. Cham­ber­lain was con­ceit­edly con­fi­dent dur­ing the late 1930s that he was do­ing the right thing, but his pol­icy crashed into ru­ins when it turned out that the Führer could not be sated and that a sec­ond world war with Ger­many could not be avoided.

Trou­ble­some Young Men de­scribes and cel­e­brates the ef­forts of Cham­ber­lain’s op­po­nents within his own Con­ser­va­tive Party. Th­ese Tory rebels fi­nally suc­ceeded in bring­ing the prime min­is­ter down af­ter a fa­mous de­bate in the House of Com­mons in early May 1940 in which Leo Amery ended his pow­er­ful speech by quot­ing the ter­ri­ble words that Oliver Cromwell had used to dis­miss the Long Par­lia­ment 300 years be­fore: “ You have sat too long here for any good you have been do­ing! Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!” Cham­ber­lain grudg­ingly re­signed, and Win­ston S. Churchill suc­ceeded him, con­vinced that des­tiny had nur­tured him and pre­pared him for what would soon be his finest hour. Yet while this may all seem in­evitable in ret­ro­spect, there was noth­ing pre­des­tined about it at the time.

One prob­lem ( which Olson does not ad­dress) is that the op­po­nents of ap­pease­ment had no ef­fec­tive al­ter­na­tive pol­icy. In the 1930s, Bri­tain’s em­pire and mil­i­tary com­mit­ments were overex­tended, es­pe­cially as re­gards Europe and the Far East. That meant that wag­ing war on two con­ti­nents was a night­mare prospect, to which ap­pease­ment seemed for a time the only op­tion. The sec­ond dif­fi­culty ( which Olson re­luc­tantly con­cedes) was that the Tory rebels formed a rather mot­ley crew: Churchill him­self was widely re­garded as a re­ac­tionary has- been who was too fond of the bot­tle, An­thony Eden was a light­weight, and Amery was bor­ing. Their ju­nior col­leagues were no more im­pres­sive: Robert Boothby was a phi­lan­derer, Harold Macmil­lan was a cuck­old, Al­fred Duff Cooper drank too much, and Harold Ni­col­son was in­suf­fi­ciently com­bat­ive.

Yet in the end, the rebels were proved right, and they even­tu­ally pre­vailed. Sev­eral ( though not all) were re­warded with ju­nior jobs by Churchill in his great wartime coali­tion, and two of them, Eden and Macmil­lan, later be­came prime min­is­ter. In Macmil­lan’s case, this was some­thing of a sur­prise, but Eden had long been Churchill’s heir ap­par­ent. Yet his prime min­is­ter­ship turned out to be a dis­as­ter. Con­vinced that Egypt’s na­tion­al­ist pres­i­dent, Ga­mal Ab­del Nasser, was an­other Hitler, Eden launched a mil­i­tary ex­pe­di­tion in 1956 to get back the Suez Canal, which Nasser had na­tion­al­ized. World opin­ion was ou­traged, and the Amer­i­cans re­fused to help; Eden’s health col­lapsed, and he was obliged to re­sign, where­upon Macmil­lan suc­ceeded him. “ Not for the first time, and cer­tainly not for the last,” Olson rightly notes, “ the lessons of Mu­nich and ap­pease­ment were wrongly ap­plied to a later in­ter­na­tional cri­sis.” Pres­i­dent Bush and his fel­low neo­cons should take note.

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