Appeasement: The Gathering Storm

Baldwin and Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement caused fierce controversy at the time and has divided opinion ever since. For many years it was common to condemn the appeasers for adopting a short-sighted approach and even for showing moral cowardice; in a widely-read pamphlet the Labour journalist and politician Michael Foot condemned them as “Guilty Men”. In recent years, however, historians have been more sympathetic to the dilemma in which the international situation placed British and French statesmen, with inadequate resources, strong peace movements at home, and the increasingly obvious ineffectiveness of the League of Nations.

In the traditional view of the period, Churchill is usually seen as the prophet in the wilderness, warning against German rearmament and calling for a tougher line while the government closed its ears to his wisdom. That was very much the message he himself liked to put forward, and it was also the line put across in the popular 2002 BBC/HBO drama The Gathering Storm which was based on Churchill’s own, rather selective, account of the period.

Image reference:Churchill Papers CHAR 2/355/40. Cartoon by Cyrus Hungerford, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 5 Oct 1938.

Statesmen since then have made use of Churchill’s imagery for their own ends. Anthony Eden who served as Foreign Secretary in Churchill’s second government and was widely seen as Churchill’s natural successor, modelled himself on the great man in the 1956 Suez Crisis; he also deliberately compared the Egyptian leader, Colonel Nasser, to HitlerMargaret Thatcher was a fervent admirer of Churchill and invoked his example during the Falklands War of 1982. When the American Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, urged her to reach a compromise with the Argentinians she rapped sharply on the table and told him, pointedly, “that this was the table at which Neville Chamberlain sat in 1938 and spoke of the Czechs as a faraway people about whom we know so little”. US President George W. Bush and Tony Blair also cited Churchill’s warnings about German rearmament to justify their own decision to attack Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction” in the run-up to the 2003 Gulf War.

How accurate is this common view of Churchill and appeasement? This unit looks at evidence from the Churchill Archives Centre to find out what British people really thought about appeasement. What did they think Chamberlain had actually achieved at Munich? Why exactly was Churchill ignored for so long? Were the ministers blind or did Churchill have only himself to blame?

For definitions of Government ranks and titles, remember to use the glossary section.