Britain and the Aggressors
During the 1930’s the world learned that aggressors care little for world opinion or for slaps on the wrist. When the League and we ourselves scolded Japan for invading Manchuria, Japan simply walked out of the League and went on walking into China. This lesson was well learned by Germany and Italy and gave them the green light. Year after year they gathered speed. Italy invaded Ethiopia. Germany rearmed in defiance of her pledges and treaty obligations. Germany and Italy helped the rebels in the Spanish War. Germany annexed Czechoslovakia and Austria, Italy grabbed Albania, and Germany took Memel and finally set out to swallow Poland. And all the time Britain and France let them “get away” with plan after plan, while we publicly cried “Why doesn’t somebody do something?” and wrapped ourselves round in neutrality acts. When at last the British and French and then the United States decided that the aggressors must be halted, we were taking on the job of stopping cars which were well tuned up, had plenty of gas, and were moving at a fast pace. The wonder is not that we were hit hard, but rather that we were not killed.
It is still too early to know fully why the British acted (or inacted) as they did. At every step in the aggressors’ advance, Liberals, Laborites, and even Conservatives demanded that their government take action to stop them, usually through the League. But they spoke as if they believed that words would be enough—and strong words are wasted breath unless you are willing to back them up with deeds. The deeds may be only an economic and general boycott, but a boycott is a use of force to compel another nation to change its course of action, and it may be met with counterforce, leading to shooting, and so a war begins. Further, a boycott is not likely to be effective unless everybody is in it against the aggressor, and at no time was there enough unity among the large nations, or between the League and the United States, to make a complete boycott possible. Our own laws, for example, did not permit an embargo on oil shipments to Italy in Ethiopia.
Hence the British might well plead that League action against Japan and Italy would have to be enforced largely by the British navy, and that in doing that job it might have to start fighting, or at least might have to stop ships which were taking goods to the aggressor. And the British navy was not as strong as it had been, especially in comparison to other navies. It is generally agreed that a nation’s foreign policy must be related to its military policy—and vice versa. That is, there must be a reasonably close balance between the foreign political commitments a nation is obligated to fulfill and the military force available to it for carrying them out. Thus, if a nation proposes to police the world’s oceans, it must have a large navy; if it sets out to protect the boundaries of every small country, a tremendous army and air force are called for. Conversely, if a nation lacks the requisite strength, it had better not undertake too much responsibility outside its own borders.
The British in the 1930’s did not have enough strength to take on the aggressors, even if they had been fully disposed to do so. The army was back to its old small size, the navy had been weakened, and the air force was good but probably far weaker than the one the Germans had secretly been building. Britain was slowly recovering from the combined effects of World War I and of the great depression; and was taxed up to the hilt. Its people had no desire to go fighting again, and many of those who insisted that something be done to the peace-disturbers were vigorous opponents of expenditure on armaments. There was a widespread pacifism in the land, and young men were solemnly announcing in their debating societies that under no circumstances could they fight for king and country.
This attitude was not merely part of the general disillusionment after the previous war; it was part of a troubled conscience. The British had persuaded themselves, or had let themselves be persuaded, that they treated Germany very shabbily in the Treaty of Versailles. Their love of sportsmanship made them feel that there were parts of that treaty which looked too much like kicking a man when he was down, hitting him below the belt; or were just “not cricket.” Hence they were not disposed to fight to prevent Germany from amending those parts of the treaty which they knew to be indefensible if there was any other way of doing the job; and the Nazis knew the British well enough to exploit that attitude to the limit. The British also knew that you cannot permanently keep down a nation of nearly 70,000,000 energetic industrious people, and that you ought not to try. Better meet their legitimate grievances and welcome them back into the family of European nations as a partner, as a balance against the expanded might of France, and as a possible barrier against Communist Russia. Then if Britain, France, Germany, and Italy could reach agreement, iron out their differences and remove causes for complaint, the peace of Europe might be maintained by their joint strength and their common purpose.
British Conservative policy in the thirties was therefore dominated by these two considerations: first, that the country was not strong enough to serve as policeman extraordinary for the world, or to go running round like a knight-errant rescuing damsels in distress everywhere; and second, that she was willing to let Germany correct the more glaring “mistakes” of Versailles on the assumption that when these grievances had been removed Germany would be “satisfied” to become a “good European.” Unfortunately the British misread their Germany; or rather they read Hitler’s book Mein Kampf only in an English translation, from which all the frightening parts had been omitted. Hence it was possible for them to agree that there was nothing they could do to prevent Hitler from taking Austria, and that since Austrians were of German stock perhaps the union, although a shotgun wedding, was desirable. It was possible to accept the transfer of the Sudeten Germans from Czechoslovakia to the Reich, since they were Germans; the Sudetens and the Czechs would never get on well together, so it was best to let them be separated. And when Hitler said he had no further territorial ambitions in Europe, perhaps he meant what he said.
When, in March 1939, Hitler grabbed the rest of Czechoslovakia and showed that he did not mean what he had said, the scales fell quickly from British eyes, as did the mask from Hitler’s face. There was little time to make up for the years of appeasement and of misplaced confidence; but there was no lack of courage in facing the inevitable. Poland, the next victim on Hitler’s list, was given a pledge of support, a treaty of alliance was signed with Turkey, while Greece and Romania were promised help if attacked.
A great heap of heavy commitments was thus shouldered, and a frantic attempt had to be made to gain the strength necessary for carrying them. Conscription was introduced, rearmament was speeded up, closer relations were established with France, and an attempt was made at long last to reach a defensive pact with Russia. But Hitler beat the British at Moscow by promising to leave the Russians alone and to let them take territory on their border. Meanwhile we turned a cold shoulder on Britain and France by reaffirming our intention to sell no munitions to them. There were many in France who were convinced that the great days of France were over, and that it had therefore better climb on the German band wagon and go along with its big neighbor next door. If ever the odds were stacked in favor of a country, they were in Germany’s favor in September 1939. If ever a nation seemed in a hopeless position, Britain seemed so in that same month. The fact that she did not flinch is the measure of her quality.