Their Finest Hour
How a group of upstart Tories toppled Neville Chamberlain.
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.