How Guilty Were The Guilty Men ?
BY HENRY FAIRLIE' THE 'Guilty Men'—so Mr. Michael Foot, Mr. Frank Owen, and Mr. Peter Howard called them; and the name and the mud have stuck. But twenty years have passed since the invasion.of Abyssinia, and the mud is begin- ning to dry and flake off. As each volume of memoirs is pub- lished, it becomes easier for the historian to take over from the pamphleteer, easier for him to see the real persons who were involved and not the stuffed images of them which were set up to be shot down by Mr. Foot and his colleagues. Sir Evelyn Wrench has performed an invaluable service by giving us a first draught from the diaries and papers of Geoffrey Dawson. There is no doubt that there is a lot more to come; the dots linking the numerous extracts make it clear that much has. been left out. (I believe that in manuscript the book was almost twice as long.) But the taste of the complete papers which we are given leaves no doubt that they are one of the most im- portant historical sources of the years between the wars. Sir Evelyn has wisely limited his commentary to the minimum. It is Dawson himself who speaks—and in the words which he used at the time of the enthralling events which he describes.
Geoffrey Dawson, of course, was Editor of The Times for two periods, from 1912 to 1919 and from 1923 to 1941. The Times has already published its History of those years. It is no secret that many people in Printing House Square were disturbed by the final volume of the History. First, the original idea of the History had been that it should be a serious con- tribution to historical study. Why, then, carry it almost up to the present day, when a large number of the necessary papers could not be available and when only an inhuman oracle could have the impartiality of judgement needed in such a work? Secondly, the second part of the final volume put all the blame for the appeasement policy of The Times on Dawson. Apart from the fact that it is never very pleasant seeing living men unload their guilt on a dead colleague, the simple truth is that the main author of the official History, the present Chairman of The Times and several other important people in Printing House Square were all there during the years of Dawson's editorship, and there is no evidence that any one of them ever protested against his policy. Those whd read the cold review of Sir Evelyn's book in The Times on Monday will realise that the feud continues.
I first became interested in the personality of Dawson, whom I never met, .when I discovered that some of the lesser (but not necessarily less intelligent) members of the staff of The Times remember him today with unusual respect and affection. The qualities which they so readily praise in him all emerge in Dawson's letters and diaries. Here was a man of acute intelligence and judgement, upright and truthful, above all a man of unquestionable patriotism. Dawson was always trying to serve the interests of his country, which is more than can be said of some of the journalists who now squawk round his memory. If this were not true, there would be nothing interest- ing to say. But Dawson was not a villain, nor were the other 'Guilty Men.' A moral can only be drawn from the actions of the men of Munich if it is realised that they were all good. conscientious men, trying to do their best. Anyone who does not believe this should read not only Sir Evelyn's book, but also Lord Templewood's Nine Troubled Years, which in my view is the most memorable volume of political autobiography published since the war.
What has to be explained about men like Dawson and Lord Templewood is why their judgement failed them in foreign affairs during the years between 1931 and 1939. Until then, and on other subjects, Dawson's judgement was con- sistently right. It is important to establish this fact, otherwise the collapse of judgement in the Thirties will not be seen in its proper perspective. Soon after he first became Editor of The Times, Dawson used his influence in 1913 to persuade the Conservative Party to disavow the food tax, a decision which would have been of vital political importance if war had not intervened. During the Irish troubles of 1914 he used his growing influence again (through both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Prime Minister himself) to obtain an authoritative statement from the Government which arrested the Army crisis. From the beginning of 1915, The Times under Dawson became the firmest advocate of both conscrip- tion and a smaller War Cabinet—two measures which were eventually realised and which contributed largely to the win- ning of the war in 1918. Dawson was again at the centre in December, 1916, pressing that Lloyd George should replace Asquith as Prime Minister.
It is, then, impossible to fault Dawson's judgement on any major issue during the period of his first editorship. What of his second? During the Government crisis of December, 1923, to January, 1924, he was firmly on the side of those who saw the danger of giving the impression that the King and the party leaders were trying to keep the Labour Party out of office, and he passed this advice to Stamfordharn, who, in turn, passed it to the King, `Stamfordham rang me up early to say that HM was in agreement both with the letter and with the leader.' Dawson's influence at this moment was almost certainly invaluable. Commenting, in a letter to Drummond Chaplin, on 'the hazards of trying to keep Labour out of office,' he wrote: 'I really cannot imagine anything more immoral or utterly fatuous,' and he ascribed the idea to 'the middle element in the City . . . and the unthinking, com- fortable people up and down 'the country. . . .' This was political judgement of the highest order. Again, in 1925, he supported Baldwin in resisting a Conservative demand for changing the trade unions' political levy : 'The Conservative Party have infinitely more important work in hand than tinkering with Trade Union privileges.'
After the General Strike, during which The Times con- ducted a successful running battle with Mr. Winston Churchill and provided the only counter to the propagandist British Gazette, Dawson strongly supported Baldwin in his determina- tion that there should be no talk of 'smashing the Unions.' Then came perhaps the most important example of Dawson's influence for good during these years. From 1927 until 1936, Dawson, through The Times (and his was day by day the guiding mind), strove to keep before the British people an enlightened , view on India. Sir Samuel Hoare (now Lord Templewood) was trying to do the same even nearer the centre of government. In the face of the attacks of Mr.' Churchill and the 'Diehards,' Baldwin and Sir Samuel Hoare had a hard fight, and there can be little doubt that Sir Evelyn Wrench is right in his judgement that 'if there had been any weakening on the part of The Times, Baldwin could not have rallied to his support the great majority of the party' during the Round Table Conference of 1930 and the following eighteen months. During the political crisis of 1931, Dawson's influence was more open to criticism; but already we are into the Thirties.
I am not here primarily concerned with the reasons which made the men of Munich in general act as they did. But they need to be pointed out. First, it is quite clear that a large part of the blame must rest on two other countries : France and America. Anyone who wishes to understand what British statesmen had to contend with when brought face to face with French leaders should read the relevant (and rather terrifying) chapters in Lord Templewood's Nine Troubled Years. If France was hesitant and reluctant to commit herself, America was even more unreliable. There seems to be no ground on which it is possible to question Lord Templewood's judgement that 'On our side, we were convinced that in no circumstances, short of a direct attack upon American security, would Con- gress approve of any coercive action against the dictators.' Secondly, there was the feeling of guilt about Versailles which weighed heavily on British public opinion in general and on Dawson in particular. Throughout Dawson's papers there is the recurring theme that Germany should be allowed to right her wrongs. It is of course fascinating that during the crucial period of the Versailles negotiations, Dawson was not Editor of The Times and did not have to pronounce on the treaty which was eventually negotiated.
But there was a third and even more potent influence, which was exerted by the Dominions. This is a constant theme in both Dawson's papers and Lord Templewood's autobiography. Dawson was constantly being visited by Dominion leaders and spokesmen and he inevitably—and rightly—gave great con- sideration to what they said. On March 21, after the Austrian annexation, he had 'a tete-a-tete with Vincent Massey talking over the European situation and Canadian opinion, which, he thought, would support the P.M.'s attitude of restraint. . . Contacts like this with Dominions personalities were a day-to- day part of Dawson's life during the Twenties and Thirties and they justify Sir Evelyn Wrench's comment that `the really vital factor in Geoffrey's mind, which for diplomatic reasons could not be argued at the time, was his deep misgiving lest the United Kingdom should be led into war in circumstances in which the Empire might not support us.' Ministers at the time were equally sensitive to Dominions opinion. 'Dominion opinion,' Lord Templewood says, 'was at the time [of Munich] overwhelmingly against a world war. Time after time we were reminded of it, either by the High Commissioners in London, or by Malcolm MacDonald, the Secretary for the Dominions.'
These were the influences which weighed with all the `appeasers.' But Dawson's attitude was distinctive. He was an appeaser of Germany in a sense which was not true of many Ministers. Baldwin, Sir Samuel Hoare and Chamberlain, for example, were all bent (in their different ways) on trying to maintain (and later reconstruct) the Stresa front between Britain, France and Italy. This was the justification of the strategy which led to the Hoare-Laval proposals in December of 1935. There is no doubt whatsoever that the rejection of these proposals (which Mussolini was prepared to accept and which would have saved Abyssinia) forced Mussolini into Hitler's arms—reluctantly, for until the end he had an intense hatred of Hitler. (Personally, I believe that in the perspective of twenty years the Hoare-Laval proposals should have been accepted and that their rejection by a British public opinion ow. hich was predominantly pacifist is a severe comment on the influence which electorates can have on foreign policy in a democracy.) Nevertheless, the really interesting point is that Dawson, intent on appeasing Germany, never shared the `Stresa' attitude to Italy.
The conflict between 'these two points of view emerges startlingly in two comparable passages in Dawson's diaries and Lord Templewood's autobiography. First, from Dawson's diary of December 18, 1935: `. . . I went to see Sam Hoare at his home at Cadogan Gardens. He had made up his mind to resign and I urged him strongly to do it. . . .' This is what Lord Templewood has to say of the same occasion : `I also had a visit from Geoffrey Dawson, who came like one of Job's comforters to mourn over my sins and misfortunes. He had wished to see me Foreign Secretary, chiefly, I think, because he believed that I would assist his policy of Anglo-German appeasement. My efforts to maintain the Stresa front and to keep Mussolini on the Allied side had cut across his Anglo- German plan. His reaction, therefore, against the Paris pro- posals had been particularly savage. It was he who turned the provision of a port for Abyssinia in Italian Eritrea into an offer of "a camel track" to Zeila. At the time he was all the more hostile as his intimate friend, Baldwin, in refusing to see the Press, had not made an exception for the Editor of The Times. My interview with him was embarrassing for both of us.'
There can be little doubt, after reading Dawson's papers, that Lord Templewood is right in his assessment of Dawson's attitude. He worked consistently for years 'on end to prevent the growth of anti-Germanism in this country. On April 10, 1935. he visited Mr. Arthur Mann, the independent Editor of the Yorkshire Post, and commented in his diary: 'I don't think I shook his anti-Germanism much.' After the reoccupation of the Rhineland he met Ribbentrop at the Carlton Club and `begged him to take his time and keep negotiations alive.' In May, 1937, he was urging the Geneva correspondent of The Times to 'explore every avenue' in the search for a reasonable understanding with Germany and told him that 'I do my utmost, night 'after night, to keep out of the paper anything that might hurt their [the Germans'] susceptibilities.' On January 25, 1938, he 'went for a pre-arranged talk with the P.M. in Downing Street. He was in excellent form and stood pat on appeasement.' In February, 1938, he was talking with Nevile Henderson about the progress of Anglo-German feelers and 'the idea of getting Goering over for the Grand National.' When Chamberlain returned to London from Munich with the `peace' declaration signed by Hitler, he commented in his diary that it was 'a great achievement whatever the sceptics * might say.'
These (and other extracts which Sir Eyelyn Wrench prints) make it quite clear that Dawson's attitude to Germany was much more consistent than that of many other of the men of Munich. Yet, as I pointed out above, he was a man whose political judgement otherwise was almost infallibly right. What went wrong? Why did Dawson completely misunder- stand the German menace, and why was he able to impose this misunderstanding on a large number of important and powerful people? The answer to these two questions lies on almost every page of Sir Evelyn Wrench's book. Dawson (and many other people of influence at the time) were members of a tight, almost inbred circle. I hesitate to use the word 'Establishment,' but the truth is that Sir Evelyn Wrench's book is the most revealing insight into the working of the 'Establishment' which we have been given since Tom Jones's Diaries with Letters. It is impos- sible here to give the fascinating details of how, from the early days of the Milner Kindergarten in South Africa to the end of his long editorship of The Times, Dawson moved week by week, and particularly weekend by weekend, among the same small intimate circle of faceless men. F. S. Oliver, Philip Kerr [later Lord Lothian], Lionel Curtis, the Waldorf Astors, Edward Grigg [now Lord Altrincham]—round and round they went, to and from each other's London and country houses. The 'moot,' as it was called in one of its aspects, the Round Table in an- other, the Cliveden Set in yet another—the name does not matter, it was always there, a corporate body of like souls. imagining that its sources of information and its value judge- ments were those which mattered. Sir Evelyn Wrench has a page of comment on All Souls that Sir Robert Boothby might have written himself, in the course of which he quotes a friend of Dawson who, 'noticing what an extraordinary influence the Fellows of All Souls had had on current events,' described the College as 'an unofficial club for running, or Helping to run. the destinies of the British Empire.'
Dawson, I am quite sure, suffered' from this belief that a group of intimate acquaintances could, in Sir Evelyn Wrench's words, 'keep him in touch with current events in both hemi- spheres.' One of the characteristics of these intimates was that they were prepared to work through any party, government or minister. They were, as Mr. A. J. P. Taylor observed in the Observer, bureaucrats by nature. As Tom Jones's diaries and letters reveal, the idea of a National Government was one with which they particularly sympathised. They saw little sense in party struggles, believing that politics was a matter of the judgement of superior intellects (which they, of course, possessed). The National Government may have been a fiction in all but name, but it was not a fiction to them. It represented their ideal, and I think it was fatal to British political judge- ment in the Thirties. If there had been a far more open party struggle in the Thirties, the Conservatives would have been forced to act and think as Conservatives, and the Socialists would have been forced to act and think as their opponents. Instead, there was an attempt (unrecognisable at the time) to find a via media—and nothing was done. Britain was never presented with the simple choice between Labour pacifism and Conservative armaments. That is the choice which should have been presented and it was the myth of the National Government which baulked it.
How guilty, then, were the guilty men? As persons they were not guilty at all. Dawson emerges as a man of incomparable rectitude. But as politicians they (or their age) were guilty. They failed to realise that the British political genius lies not in the supposed 'genius for compromise' but in the open and some- times bitter conflict between two opposing points of view. Britain would have rearmed in time (and her foreign policy would then have been different) if the two parties had been true to themselves instead of chasing the mirage of a 'national' policy. That is the lesson. But has it been learned? No.