The catastrophic decline of Great Britain is one of the central events of the 20th century. As the United States in many respects now occupies the place held by Britain when the century began, it is an event that Americans should find worthy of some reflection. Should they wish to contemplate a life that embodies that collapse and casts some light on its dismal progress, they could do considerably worse than to settle on that of Anthony Eden, now set out in a full-scale biography by Robert Rhodes James.1
Appropriately for the purpose of such contemplation, Eden was born in 1897, the year of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, an event that symbolized British power at its zenith. The vast edifice of the British empire extended over all the continents. Britain’s navy dominated the seas, as its merchant ships dominated the world’s trade. Its diplomatic prestige and influence were unrivaled. While the United States had recently overtaken it industrially, and Germany drawn equal, Britain’s foreign trade was still nearly as large as that of those two countries combined and its overseas investments were huge. London was the most important political, financial, and cultural center of the world.
By the time Eden died in 1977, all this had vanished: the possessions, the power, the prosperity, the prestige. Apart from a few pathetic remnants, nothing survived of the empire. Internationally, Britain was a second-rate power, and what influence it still had on the great questions was largely dependent on a “special relationship” with the United States that increasingly lacked substance. It was a country racked by industrial conflict, social decay, class and racial tension. The per-capita income of the British was one of the lowest in non-Communist Europe and the country’s economic performance was abysmal. As Eden lay dying, James Callaghan’s Labor government was negotiating the largest loan ever made to a country by the International Monetary Fund, in a desperate effort to prevent the collapse of sterling.
In the intervening years, Anthony Eden played a prominent part in Britain’s affairs, and in a curious way his personal career and experience reflected closely the vicissitudes of his country’s fortunes. Born into the landed aristocracy and brought up on a great and particularly beautiful estate on which his family had lived since the 12th century, he saw that estate destroyed and sold during his lifetime, as a result of gross financial irresponsibility. (The main culprit was his mother, who sustained a public reputation for outstanding generosity by giving away things she did not own and borrowing at ruinous rates of interest. His father, Sir William Eden, was a man of varied and considerable talent whom many people considered mad. From him Anthony inherited a fine taste for paintings and a vile temper.) Although Anthony Eden always appeared a model of what was fashionable and elegant, due to his mother’s pathological extravagance he was comparatively poor throughout his career. When he resigned from the Prime Ministership in 1957, in the wake of the Suez crisis, he did not even own a house, and his friends had to rally around to help him achieve some sort of financial security.
During his lifetime Britain fought in two world wars from beginning to end and emerged victorious on each occasion. Eden participated with conspicuous success in both wars. In the Great War he fought in France as an infantry officer for two-and-a-half years, won the Military Cross, and still only twenty, became the youngest brigade major in the British army. In World War II he was a political leader second only to Churchill in importance: Secretary for War during Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain; Foreign Secretary, leader of the House of Commons, and de facto deputy Prime Minister after that. But for both country and man the price of success was heavy. For Britain, the blood and treasure expended and the social dislocations wrought by war greatly hastened and intensified the process of decline. As for Eden, he lost two brothers and a son, as well as a marriage and perhaps his health, in the conflicts. For both country and politician, the outward appearance of success continued for a period after serious decline had set in, and for both the lingering illusion of greatness was shattered and reality cruelly brought home by the same event: the Suez crisis of 1956.
After a conventional education at Eton and Oxford (where he graduated with first-class honors in Oriental Languages), Anthony Eden entered public life in 1923 as the Conservative Member of Parliament for Warwick and Leamington, a position he retained for the next twenty-three years. He came in at a crucial turning point in modern British politics, just as Stanley Baldwin’s long ascendancy over the Conservative party was beginning and as Labor was displacing the once great Liberal party as the Conservatives’ main rival for power.
Immediately following what historians now call the “Age of Baldwin”—it extended from 1922 to 1940 and included Neville Chamberlain’s period as leader—the verdict on Baldwin’s stewardship was very severe. Since then there have been efforts to revise that verdict in a favorable direction, and certainly Baldwin did have some formidable qualities. He was a great party manager, a clever and ruthless political tactician, sensitive and intuitive as an interpreter of the mood of the British people, and an eloquent articulator of their idealized sense of themselves. But when all this has been granted, the main charge against Baldwin—the charge of dangerous mediocrity—stands. He was indolent and passive in his response to the major substantive questions of the day (even his most sympathetic biographers concede that he “believed that it was rarely possible to solve problems”); he maneuvered among the prevailing forces without attempting to shape or direct them; and both by temperament and from political calculation he set such a value on consensus that timely, decisive action became virtually impossible. (Edward VIII, with an unexpected wit inspired no doubt by extreme dislike, said that Baldwin “spoke like a Gallup poll.”)
In a sense, Baldwin was mediocre on purpose and on principle. One way of thinking about the non-Labor politics of England between the wars is in terms of a contest between the brilliant iconoclasts who believed that bold and far-reaching measures were necessary to restore the country to its greatness and prevent the rise of socialism, and the stolid party men whose main concern was to keep the iconoclasts (and particularly Lloyd George) out of power and to preserve the Conservative party. The latter, refusing to recognize the patent evidence of structural decline, believed that sound Tory government would be enough to restore the “normalcy” of prewar days; the former, believing that the existing order was fundamentally threatened, thought in terms of a Grand Coalition and, if necessary, exceptional action.
Lloyd George, together with Churchill, Birkenhead, Balfour, and Austin Chamberlain, had converted the wartime coalition into an anti-socialist one in 1919, and had come within an ace of gaining the permanent control over the Tory party that would have institutionalized and perpetuated the arrangement. Baldwin came to the leadership as a result of a reaction against that venture and his implicit mandate was to prevent its repetition.
It was a mandate he could carry out with conviction. He had a profound distrust of brilliance and boldness, and throughout his career fear and hatred of Lloyd George were among the principal motivating forces in his calculations. In this contest one might, with some license, say that the apparently plodding Baldwin played Stalin to Lloyd George’s Trotsky and Churchill’s Bukharin, and with the same result.2 Baldwin won hands down. The two authentic political geniuses that Britain has produced in the 20th century spent nearly all of the interwar years, years in which the crisis facing the country called for leadership of the highest quality, out of power: Lloyd George never held office again after 1922, while Churchill was restricted to five years as Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1925 to 1929 (a brilliant stroke, this, on Baldwin’s part: not only did it avoid the danger of having both Lloyd George and Churchill together on the back benches at a time when Baldwin had not yet consolidated his position, but it also put Churchill in the one great office of state for which he was utterly unsuited).
It is interesting, not only in terms of what it tells about Eden but because of the light it casts on the basis of Baldwin’s ascendancy, that despite his soon-to-be-acquired image as a young cavalier of British politics and his later close relationship with Churchill (often, and wrongly, described as “filial”), Eden was firmly on Baldwin’s side in this contest. He had the strongest admiration for Baldwin, and his admiration was repaid by friendship, advice, and patronage. Toward Lloyd George, on the other hand, Eden was unrelentingly hostile throughout his career, while he had a strong distrust of Churchill that did not entirely end until after the latter became Prime Minister in 1940.
Partly the hostility and distrust had their origins in the trenches of the Western Front and reflected an infantry’s officer’s animus (vividly expressed in Eden’s diary entries at the time) toward those political leaders responsible for the conduct of a most bloody war. But the war experience worked in Baldwin’s favor in a deeper sense than that. Those who had been through it were much more drawn to his vision, however vague, of social reconciliation, compromise, and government based on robust common sense than they were to the combativeness and volatility that seemed synonymous with the very names of Lloyd George and Churchill. Moreover, those of the upper classes who, like Eden, had seen and shared the experience of the ordinary soldier in the trenches, were likely to have emerged with a deep respect for the British workingman and no stomach for class warfare or ruthless reforms involving further sacrifices on his part, however strong the case for them might be.
In his recent book on Baldwin, Roy Jenkins identifies three great issues that dominated British politics during the interwar years: the thrust for power of organized labor; the country’s continuing industrial decline; and the rise of the dictators. On the first, Eden, following Baldwin, believed that the wisest strategy was one of accommodation and assimilation. The Labor party should be treated with respect and given a fair chance to prove itself a legitimate player in the country’s political life. This was by no means a unanimous view among Conservatives at the time. Many took Labor’s avowedly socialist ideology seriously and saw it as a deadly threat to liberty and the social order. This view was to persist for some time; those who held it tended to believe that the fight against Labor was different in kind from earlier party conflicts and that, within the limits of the constitution, there should be no compromise.
Over the years Baldwin has generally been praised as farseeing and sensible on this one issue, and credited with facilitating Labor’s successful incorporation into the body politic. But by today the cumulative effects of that incorporation—large-scale nationalization, a huge growth in public spending and government powers, the rise of militant unionism and of neutralist and quasi-pacifist attitudes toward defense and foreign policy—renders that judgment debatable. Perhaps, indeed, in the last resort there was no realistic alternative to the policy he adopted. But it is at least plausible that had a policy of firm opposition to socialism been combined with a more energetic and imaginative effort to restore the vitality of the economy and deal with urgent social problems, a healthier Britain might have resulted.
As far as Eden was concerned, the position he took on this issue—the fact that he generally scorned partisan politics and invariably showed courtesy and respect toward his Labor opponents—contributed much to the remarkable bipartisan popularity he enjoyed until nearly the end of his career.3 What made Eden popular in the country, however, also contributed to persistent doubts about him in the inner circles of the Conservative party, where many suspected, with some justification as events were to show, that he lacked the ruthlessness and the taste for political struggle that make a successful leader.
As for the second of Roy Jenkins’s three great issues—what to do about the disastrous industrial decline of the country—there is not much to be said about Eden’s views because, in common with nearly all his political contemporaries, he did not have serious ones. (Lloyd George and, sad to say, Oswald Mosley before he turned fascist came nearest to being exceptions.) Early on in his political career he picked up the good phrase, “a property-owning democracy,” and for the rest of his life he tended to fall back on it when economic and social questions came up. But he never made a serious attempt to develop it or to explore its implications and requirements. Throughout his career, and despite the fact that they loomed ever larger as that career progressed, Eden remained remarkably ignorant about domestic issues in general and economic ones in particular. As he approached the political pinnacle this was to worry him increasingly and undermine his self-confidence. In a wartime diary entry contemplating his future he was to write: “I do not feel confidence in myself as No. 1 at home. . . . I do not know enough of economics.”
From the beginning Eden’s main interest was in foreign policy, and it is in relation to the third great issue—how to respond to the rise of the dictators—that he is most interesting. In 1931, a combination of hard work, ability, charm, and loyalty to Baldwin got him appointed junior minister for Foreign Affairs in the newly formed coalition national government. Under two weak ministers—first the vacillating Sir John Simon and then Sir Samuel (“Slippery Sam”) Hoare—his reputation and influence advanced rapidly. At the end of 1935, still only thirty-eight, he became Foreign Secretary, and from shortly after the Italian invasion of Abyssinia began until just before Hitler marched into Austria he was a key figure on the European scene. In February 1938, he resigned dramatically in protest against both the conduct and content of foreign policy as practiced by Neville Chamberlain, who had recently taken over as Prime Minister from Baldwin. From then until the outbreak of war he was on the back benches, the acknowledged leader of a group of twenty or so Conservatives who were critical of government policy. Known as the “Eden Group” or, to their enemies, as the “Glamor Boys,” they included Harold Macmillan, Duff Cooper, and the future Lord Salisbury.
Eden’s evolution during this period is instructive. It illuminates both the strengths and weaknesses of what might be called “Foreign Office realism.” It also helps make comprehensible the difficulty that even highly intelligent and honorable men found in groping toward sound policies, at a time when the slaughter of the Great War was still a recent memory—the year in which Eden became Foreign Secretary was exactly the same distance in time from the Battle of the Somme as 1987 is from the Tet Offensive—and when the problem of dealing with totalitarian dictators was still a novel one.
When he came to office in 1931, Eden had no coherent, thought-out position on foreign policy. It was to be a case of learning on the job. From 1932 to 1934—that is, just as Hitler was assuming power in Germany—he was absorbed in the World Disarmament Conference in Geneva, at which he quickly became the dominant British figure. In a speech in March 1933, Churchill denounced the conference as “a solemn and prolonged farce” and famously thanked God for the existence of the French army. But, then as now, such thinking was generally considered perverse and alarmist, and the conference an event of overriding importance. At a time when it was conventional wisdom that the outbreak of war in 1914 had resulted from an arms race, and that aerial warfare meant that another war would destroy civilization, it was also an article of faith that disarmament, or what we would now call arms control, combined with collective security organized through the League of Nations, was the way to preserve peace. It has proved a durable faith.
Eden began by accepting all this and, being a serious (and ambitious) man, he proceeded to work hard to give it substance. Unlike most of his colleagues, he was thorough in mastering the details and arguments, fertile in drawing up proposals, and skilled and resourceful as a negotiator. (He was undoubtedly the most “professional” minister to be involved in British foreign policy in recent times.) James’s biography, too anxious to make the case for Eden, is particularly weak in its treatment of the disarmament conference. It hints repeatedly that had opportunities been seized and Eden been better supported, it could have been a success, and makes the ludicrous claim that he was “the one man who actually made the League work.” In reality there was no possibility of success and the lesson of the conference was the simple but fundamental one that the question of arms control is always subordinate to the question of the settlement of political conflicts. Even without Hitler, the insurmountable problems of reconciling the French concern to obtain security guarantees, the German demand for equality of status, and the British desire both to maintain freedom of action and to assuage a misplaced sense of guilt over the Versailles Treaty ruled out the possibility of progress through the mere devising of disarmament formulas and schedules. With Hitler’s arrival the whole thing became an utter nonsense.
But for Eden the disarmament conference was nevertheless a valuable education. Precisely because he took it seriously and gave it his best effort (instead of merely using it to evade and delay the making of hard decisions, as many others did), he was able to draw the right conclusions when the conference failed. He never again put real faith or effort into disarmament. Similarly, when the attempt to impose collective sanctions against Italy at the time of its invasion of Abyssinia collapsed—an attempt in which, again, he played a leading role—Eden drew the right conclusion about the League of Nations.
Thus his education proceeded. But it was a slow process, and in dealing with Hitler and Mussolini time was a wasting asset. Eden’s crucial weakness was that, despite his application and professionalism, he lacked an adequate interpretive framework with which to confront the realities of the 1930’s. Possessing this, Churchill was able to penetrate to the essence of the situation very early on the basis of much less information than was available to Eden as a minister; lacking it, Eden had to learn the hard, slow way, by bitter experience. Two related features of intellectual makeup particularly hindered him in this respect (as they continue to hinder many others): the fact that he was temperamentally incapable of appreciating the important role of ideology, symbols, and rhetoric in modern mass politics; and the inclination, reinforced by his professionalism, to approach international politics as a closed system operating in terms of its own logic and essentially unaffected by the internal character of regimes.
Eden’s indifference and insensitivity to ideology and rhetoric were a major weakness even in the context of British politics and set serious limitations on his potential as a democratic leader. (Faced with a draft of a speech, James tells us, he was inclined first to strike out any memorable or original phrase and substitute a well-tried cliché, which makes it unsurprising that although he lived through the most stirring and dramatic of times he never uttered a single phrase or passage that stays in the mind.) But in dealing with the totalitarians it was a much greater handicap. It meant that he lacked a vital tool for interpreting the dynamics of their behavior and, in its absence, was forced to fall back on judging by demeanor and manner, at which he was as bad as most other Western leaders. On his first meeting with Stalin, when the Great Terror was already under way, Eden was struck by his “pragmatic approach” and commented, “It was easy to forget that I was talking to a party man, no one could have been less doctrinaire.” Hitler on first acquaintance he found “quiet and rather shy” and he wrote to his wife, “Dare I confess it? I rather liked him.” When it came to understanding the behavior of the dictators, the absence of an appreciation of ideology usually meant a resort to such unilluminating and inadequate characterizations as “gangsters,” “madmen,” or even “spoilt children.”
As for the inclination to think of the international system as a closed one in which positional factors were decisive and the internal composition of the actors relatively unimportant (what is sometimes described as the “billiard-ball” view of international politics), then as now one of its most unfortunate consequences was the tendency to ignore moral differences and assume an essential equivalence of interest and behavior. Thus, as between France and Germany, Eden along with most other British politicians sometimes appeared more concerned to act as impartial umpire than as the ally of the democracy and the adversary of the dictatorship.
Despite these handicaps, Eden’s understanding of the dictators grew and his conviction that they must be opposed hardened. The main instrument of his enlightenment was the increasingly blatant and arrogant behavior of the dictators themselves, though the failure of this factor to convert others indicates that on its own it was not enough. Eden had other strengths that supplemented it and helped compensate for his blind spots. First he had an aristocrat’s very strong sense of dignity and honor, both of his country’s and his own. Such a sense may seem an inadequate piece of equipment with which to confront 20th-century totalitarianism, but there are worse ones. It meant that Eden had a low tolerance for the treaty violations, broken promises, and systematic lying that were the dictators’ stock-in-trade, and was affronted by them in a way that more pliant and cynical politicians were not. While Eden was an outstandingly good negotiator, he did not regard everything—and certainly not the honor of his country—as negotiable, as Chamberlain came close to doing in the end.4
Second, the long-established British Foreign Office tradition of approaching European politics in terms of the doctrine of the balance of power, definitively enunciated by Eyre Crowe at the beginning of the century, worked against the acceptance of appeasement and the flaccid acceptance of “understanding” as adequate goals of policy. Stigmatized as “Foreign Office thinking,” that tradition was in bad odor in most intellectual and political circles in the 1930’s. It was rejected as outdated and dangerous by League of Nations internationalists, pacifists, the Left, and “practical” men of the Right. But in the 1930’s the tradition was still strong in the Foreign Office, and Eden, a minister from 1931 on and one who respected his department and was respected by it, was constantly exposed to the kind of thinking that it produced.
Increasingly he came to accept and embody that thinking. It was a tradition that had its limitations—it was not of much use as a source of enlightenment on the nature of totalitarianism or the causes and scope of Nazi Germany’s expansionism, and therefore was of little predictive assistance. But it provided well-tested guidelines for responding to the international manifestations of that expansionism once it was well under way, and it taught that even the fate of faraway countries about which one might know little could be vital to international stability and one’s own security.
Together these two influences were strong enough to turn Eden against appeasement, though not strong enough to enable him to see with Churchill’s clarity that only unyielding firmness, even to the point of being prepared to fight, could possibly curb Hitler’s ambition. Churchill’s clear vision was aided by the fact that he was out of office. As Foreign Secretary, Eden carried an enormous burden of work and had to attend to the myriad issues that concerned a great imperial power. He had to cope with a relentless flow of information and make difficult decisions under pressure, in the process putting his name to hundreds of pieces of paper that he did not write or even always have the time to scrutinize closely. As a member of a government in which his views did not prevail, he also had to consider carefully on what issues he would fight and on which concede or compromise. It is therefore not surprising that one can make differing cases as to how resolute or compromising Eden was in relation to appeasement.
A few years ago an English historian, David Carlton, argued that Eden’s policy differences with Chamberlain were quite limited (relating mainly to the treatment of Mussolini) and that political ambition and ill-health were major factors in his resignation. James, who conducts a running argument against Carlton throughout his book, rejects that view and presents Eden as a firm opponent of appeasement. Probably both are guilty of exaggerating their cases, though Carlton more so than James. There was an element of ambivalence in Eden’s position that probably went beyond the compromises that he had to make as long as he stayed in the government. He clung to the hope that war could be avoided by a combination of strength and diplomacy (a hope that was shared by the British people, and which helps explain his extraordinary popularity in the country at the time). He did not close the door entirely on some flexibility in dealing with Hitler. But unlike Chamberlain he put much greater emphasis on firmness than on accommodation.
Eden’s ambivalence as well as some of his central character traits, are apparent in the circumstances of his resignation and its aftermath. He resigned because of his increasing opposition to the direction of foreign policy under Chamberlain, and also because foreign policy was being run more and more from the Prime Minister’s office with Eden and the Foreign Office ignored. Chamberlain’s determined wooing of Mussolini (largely carried on through what would now be known as back-channels, including a sister-in-law domiciled in Rome); the sending of Lord Halifax to talk to Hitler at Berchtesgaden; and Chamberlain’s brusque discouragement, without consulting Eden, of a tentative initiative by Roosevelt to draw attention to the deteriorating international situation all contributed to Eden’s decision. (Chamberlain had a strong dislike of Americans; he regarded them as “a nation of cads.”)
Eden’s resignation, particularly as he had been the object of virulent attacks in the German and Italian press, was a major political event. Within a few days he received over 6,000 letters of support, an extraordinary number at a time when organized write-ins were unknown. Nothing, however, conveys better the impact of Eden’s resignation and the standing he had achieved by this time than Churchill’s moving account of his own reactions to the news. When Eden had become Foreign Secretary, Churchill had written to his wife, “I think you will now see what a lightweight Eden is.” But by 1938 his opinion had changed completely:
Late on the night of February 20 a telephone message reached me as I sat in my old room at Chartwell (as I often sit now) that Eden had resigned. I must confess that my heart sank, and for a while the dark waters of despair overwhelmed me. . . . During all the war soon to come and in its darkest times I never had trouble in sleeping. . . . But now, on the night of February 20, 1938, and on this occasion only, sleep deserted me. From midnight till dawn I lay in my bed consumed by emotions of sorrow and fear. There seemed one strong young figure standing up against long, dismal, drawling tides of drift and surrender, of wrong measures and feeble impulses. My conduct of affairs would have been different from his in various ways; but he seemed to me at this moment to embody the life-hope of the British nation. . . . Now he was gone. . . .
Coming from a man implacably opposed to appeasement, and well informed about the inner politics of the government, this reaction and the tribute it contains are the most convincing refutation of those who impugn Eden’s motives and question his record in opposing the dictators.
Eden’s resignation was in many ways his finest hour. For a moment he seemed destined—in terms of his conviction, his popularity, his age—to become the outstanding leader of his country in the coming crisis and perhaps beyond. But that moment slipped away, and he never really lived up to its promise, either immediately afterward or later.
While the act of resignation showed him at his best, his subsequent behavior quickly exposed his shortcomings as a political actor. If, immediately after his resignation, he had followed Churchill’s urging to do “full justice to your cause” and Lloyd George’s more laconic advice “not to be too good a boy,” it is possible that Eden could have brought down the government. He could certainly have made himself the central figure in the opposition to appeasement, more influential, because more widely trusted, than Churchill himself.5 But Eden did not, perhaps could not, play it that way. The sense of honor that had been an important factor in leading to his resignation also prevented him from ruthlessly driving home his advantage after he had done so. He declined to make public the full case for his resignation. He muted and scrupulously qualified his criticism of Chamberlain. He refused, partly on Baldwin’s advice and partly because of his own reservations, to make common cause with Churchill and his small group.
In his biography, James develops the case that, finally convinced that war was inevitable, Eden was constrained from adopting a more aggressive attitude toward Chamberlain by his belief that strengthening national unity in preparation for the struggle was now an overriding priority. Perhaps so. In any event, while he made some strong, well-reasoned speeches, Eden did not seize the moment, and within the Eden Group those who looked to him for decisive leadership were left puzzled and disappointed. Despite James’s protestations, in contemplating Eden’s performance at this time it is hard to keep from one’s mind Lady Violet Bonham Carter’s complaints about his “implacable fairness” and “tepid impartiality,” and that well-known summary of Austin Chamberlain’s career: “He always played the game and always lost it.” For the next decade and a half Eden’s role was to be not that of leader but of Churchill’s principal lieutenant.
During World War II, Churchill kept control of all aspects of grand strategy, including foreign policy, in his own hands, and Eden’s role was a subordinate one. But it was a special and privileged sort of subordination, involving a great mutual affection and trust (remarkable given their earlier attitudes toward each other), much exasperation, and, not infrequently, violent disagreements. In the eyes of many at the time, the most important function performed by Eden was that of exercising some restraint and control over Churchill’s wayward genius, which could alarm even as it inspired. When, exhausted and dispirited in the middle of the war, Eden was momentarily attracted to the idea of becoming viceroy of India and Churchill agreed on the grounds that it was essential to “save India,” the King instantly vetoed the idea by saying that he must stay “to have some influence over Winston.”
The most interesting and revealing aspect of Eden’s wartime work is that relating to the Soviet Union. When that country entered the war in 1941, there was a problem. For while Churchill promptly welcomed Stalin as an ally against the Nazis, he was conspicuously on the record as having denounced over the years “the foul baboonery of Bolshevism.” Eden, on the other hand, had comparatively good relations with the Soviet leaders, whether, as James suggests, because they respected his professionalism or because they sensed an exploitable weakness in his makeup. In any event, he played an important part in conducting relations with Moscow, particularly in the earlier years of the war. As in the 1930’s, he continued to be unduly influenced by manner and atmospherics and to show ambivalence. Writing of the Conference of Foreign Ministers held in Moscow in 1943, James recounts with evident approval:
Although Eden considered Stalin’s reluctance to look him in the eye, even when shaking hands, and his whole demeanor to be “creepy and sinister,” and disliked the Soviet system more on every visit, there was a core of mutual regard between these two very different men.
During the years 1941 to 1945, the balance of advantage as between the Western democracies and Moscow shifted steadily from the former to the latter. At the beginning, with the Soviets reeling under the furious German attack, the cards were all with the West; gradually, as the military contest became more even, Stalin’s hand strengthened; finally, as victory became certain, his position as far as Eastern and Central European issues were concerned became enormously powerful. The interesting thing is that the broad reactions of Churchill and Eden to this progression ran exactly counter to each other. When the advantage was clearly with the West, Churchill tended to take a robust, unaccommodating, and suspicious attitude toward the Soviet Union. Eden, however, was eager at this time to be a good ally and to be forthcoming toward Stalin and Molotov. He complained that the Prime Minister was becoming “dangerously anti-Russian,” and when Churchill lectured him on the threat that a victorious Russia would present after the war, his response according to his diary was:
I admitted that all this might be true but argued that only possible basis for a policy was to try to get on terms with Russia. In view of past history suspicion only too easily bred suspicion.
By 1944 their positions were substantially reversed. Faced with now-dominant Soviet power in the East and having failed to get Roosevelt to take a firm position on Poland and other Central European questions, Churchill now became anxious to strike the best bargain possible with Stalin before the Western negotiating position deteriorated still further. But his notorious “naughty document” proposing a division of the Balkans in terms of proportions of Soviet and British interests and his position on Poland represented no change of mind about the Soviet Union, only about what was possible. Eden, on the other hand, swung the other way. Having earlier been anxious to be accommodating to Stalin, he was now appalled at Churchill’s cold-bloodedness and Roosevelt’s indifference. As the Soviet position strengthened, it was he who increasingly harped on the ominous danger it posed, pressed for a firmer stand on the Polish question, and complained that Churchill was not looking ahead to the postwar situation.
The records of the two men in dealing with Stalin are strikingly similar to their records in facing Hitler in the 1930’s. In both cases, Churchill saw the problem early and urged that it be dealt with while the balance of advantage was still favorable. When his advice was not heeded, he accepted the consequences and prepared to deal with them. In the 1930’s that meant preparing for war; in the 1940’s getting as good a settlement as a weak bargaining position allowed in readiness for the postwar confrontation. Likewise, in both instances, Eden was slow to recognize the problem, put his faith in negotiation and accommodation when the British position was strong, and then, belatedly, began pressing for a much firmer policy when that position had deteriorated. Both were men of strong feelings, but Churchill’s were governed by a ruthless understanding of the logic of power and of the essential character of totalitarian regimes, while Eden’s acted as a substitute for such understanding. For him, resolute action was advanced as an alternative to power that had been allowed to slip away, not as something that flowed from its secure possession; and honor and good faith seemed to be free-floating entities, not things realistically wedded to capability and interest.
As the war drew to an end, there was one terrible question on which Eden and Churchill unfortunately did not disagree, and on which Eden showed no inclination to reject the logic of realpolitik. This was the question of the forced repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Soviet subjects—some prisoners of war, some who had been used by the Nazis as slave labor, some who had fought with the German army—to the Soviet Union and, almost always, to their death. Shamefully, James disposes of this episode in a single page which is taken up by a brisk, and singularly unfeeling, refutation of the charges made against Eden by Nikolai Tolstoy, in his book The Secret Betrayal 1944-1947. Tolstoy is indeed less than fair to Eden when he writes:
This was no cynical policy of realpolitik. Eden and his adversaries were not postponing an inevitable confrontation; they sincerely believed in Stalin’s goodwill. Eden himself felt for Stalin strong affection and admiration. These sentiments were shared by his permanent officials. . . .
It was in terms of realism and as a part of the overall bargaining process—when the future of Greece and the speedy repatriation of British prisoners of war who had fallen into Russian hands, in particular, were matters of concern—that the British gave way on this issue. And at the time Eden had long since ceased to feel anything approaching affection for Stalin. Moreover, the decision was not one taken personally by Eden but by the Cabinet as a whole. All this having been said, however, there is something exceedingly unattractive about what Carlton describes as the “unusual . . . clarity of mind and decisiveness” that Eden showed in “supporting so unpleasant a necessity.” And some of the details Tolstoy gives of the casualness with which Eden agreed to Stalin’s request for repatriation beggar understanding, even in the context of a war that required leaders to make many awful decisions.
This very selective account of Eden’s second war has focused mainly on aspects where there is not much to praise, but there are others which show him in a more favorable light. He understood de Gaulle’s great qualities better, and was closer to him, than any other leading Anglo-Saxon politician, and did valuable work in helping to smooth relations between him and Churchill. (Nor did de Gaulle forget; when Eden had retired and his reputation was low, he was invited to the Elysée Palace and treated as a major political figure.) Again, in Quebec in 1944 when Henry Morgenthau’s idiotic plan for the pastoralization of Germany was the main order of business, and when Churchill agreed to go along with it for the sake of amity, Eden took on both the Americans and his Prime Minister in opposing it violently, incurring Churchill’s public wrath in the process. The plan was subsequently dropped. It was the very big issues that tended to expose Eden’s limitations.
Nineteen Forty-Five, the year of victory, was the saddest one in Anthony Eden’s life. Simon, his elder son to whom he was particularly close, was killed in action. It became clear that his marriage, floundering for many years, was finished. He was exhausted, lonely, depressed, and worried about money. He was also tired of the political life and gloomy about the prospect of continuing to live in Churchill’s vast shadow (the great man had promised that once the war was over he would make way for Eden, but now he was having second thoughts). Had he been offered the Secretary Generalship of the newly founded United Nations Organization, which he had helped bring into existence, Eden would have taken it.
Although British prestige at this time was great, it Was a Pyrrhic victory that had just been won. The country was exhausted and depleted. Thoroughgoing social and economic reforms of almost revolutionary proportions—the kind that had been evaded during the Age of Baldwin—seemed necessary if there was to be recovery to anything approaching previous strength. The crushing electoral victory of the Labor party held out the possibility of such major surgery.
Eden was not hostile to the new government. In his diary he frequently expressed his dislike of his own party and the belief that he would have been more at home with Labor, a belief strengthened by how congenial he had found the experience of working with Labor leaders in the wartime coalition. Unfortunately, the Labor government was to prove much more successful in the area of social reform than in that of economic growth and efficiency. It was more concerned with redistribution and equality than with productivity and the creation of incentives, and its commitment to nationalization and centralization merely succeeded in bureaucratizing the British economy, thus rendering it even less competitive and adaptive than before.
As Churchill was busy writing his memoirs, and was in any case bored by day-to-day parliamentary affairs, Eden played a leading role in the Conservative party during the period in opposition. True to his long-held views, he strongly supported and encouraged R.A.B. Butler and those who worked with him in the newly established Conservative Research Department, in their aim to reform the party along progressive lines. Butler operated on the basis of a convergence theory of party politics, and the results of his efforts were the emergence of what in current British parlance would be termed “wet” (or, in American, “caring”) conservatism, more concerned with competing with Labor to do essentially the same things than to offer a clear alternative. The term “Butskellism,” a telescoping of Butler and Gaitskell coined by the Economist, defined the resulting state of affairs, and it was to remain a valid one until the arrival of Margaret Thatcher as Conservative leader and the Labor party’s sharp shift to the Left in the 1970’s.
In foreign affairs, Eden generally approved of the policies followed by the Attlee government and had good relations with Ernest Bevin who was now Foreign Secretary. At this time he began to propound his “three pillars” view of foreign policy, which maintained that Britain’s interests required it to cultivate the idea of an Atlantic Community based on the United States, the British Commonwealth, and continental Europe. Superficially this seemed an attractive formulation, at the same time appearing to integrate and balance diverse interests and allow a freedom of maneuver by the spreading of bets. In reality it represented the persistence of attitudes that were no longer appropriate and an unwillingness to make choices. It offered no guide as to how priorities were to be established among the three pillars and indeed carried the suggestion that they were of equal importance, though this was palpably false. The United States was overwhelmingly the dominant power in the world, Europe was for the moment weak but had great potential, while the Commonwealth was a shadowy and insubstantial entity whose members had little capacity or inclination for united action on large questions. If British foreign policy was to be a kind of stool resting on three such legs, it was bound to be a very unstable and badly tilted construction.
As Foreign Secretary and then Prime Minister in the 1950’s, Eden proceeded to act according to this three-pillar model, and the results were unfortunate. At a crucial juncture when the move toward European integration had real momentum, and when a strong commitment by Britain, at this time still the most powerful European state both economically and politically, could have made a great difference, Eden insisted on holding back (against Macmillan’s objection) on the grounds that membership in the European Economic Community would not be compatible with Britain’s Commonwealth obligations. Thus Britain missed the opportunity of being a founding member of the Community and of being able to play a part in shaping its character during the early exploratory years, while the British economy was deprived of the much-needed stimulus that membership might have provided.
In his dealings with the United States, the three-pillar cast of mind encouraged Eden to indulge a presumption that circumstances did not justify and a resentment that was unwise and potentially dangerous. On a number of issues during the early 1950’s—the Iran crisis, Korea, Vietnam, among others—the British government, under Eden’s influence, found itself at odds with America, and relations became noticeably cool. In all these instances, Eden had a case on the merits of the issue and on some of them he was clearly right. But all too often his behavior seemed to be motivated largely by a concern to emphasize British independence and to demonstrate the possession of superior skill and experience. After one such display, at the United Nations, Dean Acheson turned on him angrily, saying, “One day you will find that it never pays to win victories over your friends.” Sadly and revealingly, the British reaction to this prophetic warning, as voiced by Eden’s Minister of State Selwyn Lloyd, was that it was caused by personal jealousy.
As for the third pillar, the Commonwealth, there is little doubt that Eden believed in it as deeply as he was suspicious of supranational European entanglements and resentful of American power. But, as well, in offering a forum in which there was no challenger for leadership and in sustaining the memory of greatness, it served a function that was psychologically indispensable in facing decline. It is easy to ridicule the Commonwealth, but as long as expectations are kept modest and restricted to issues that mainly concern its member states, it can do useful work.6 But that was not what Eden had in mind. He saw the Commonwealth as a major prop and instrument of British power on the world stage. For that purpose, it was a phantom pillar.
In April 1955, a reluctant Churchill, now over eighty, was finally persuaded to resign and Eden at last came into his inheritance. On the night before his resignation, Churchill entertained the Queen at a large dinner party. John Colville, his private secretary, has described the end of the evening when everyone had left:
He sat on his bed, still wearing his Garter, Order of Merit, and knee-breeches. For several minutes he did not speak and I, imagining that he was sadly contemplating that this was his last night at Downing Street, was silent. Then suddenly he stared at me and said with vehemence: “I don’t believe Anthony can do it.”
Eden was still only fifty-eight when he became Prime Minister. He was married again, to Churchill’s niece, and this time happily. He had recently been the victim of a badly botched operation and his health was seriously impaired. Having once briefly been Churchill’s political equal and rival, he had served fifteen years under him, waiting with a mixture of impatience and apprehension for his own chance to be Prime Minister. It took less than two years to prove Churchill right.
What destroyed him, of course, was the Suez crisis. There is a tragic air of inevitability about this episode. Eden contrived his own downfall just as surely as King Lear did, and if Nasser had not come along to give him the opportunity of doing so, one is left feeling that he would almost certainly have found, or created, another.
Consider the basic ingredients of the situation: a psychologically insecure Prime Minister in charge of a declining country, with both having a deep need to prove that they could still act decisively; an intense resentment of dependence on a parvenu power that had usurped their position and was now failing to display strong leadership; the fact that the finest hour of both man and country had involved standing up to a dictator; a made-to-measure confrontation with a compact-sized dictator, one significant enough to be taken seriously but not so powerful as to discourage taking him on; the threat to what was widely believed to be the “jugular vein” of the Commonwealth, an institution that had become crucial for sustaining a self-image of greatness.
To recognize these elements is not to deny that there was a sound case for responding firmly to Nasser’s seizure of the Suez Canal, nor is it to support the incoherent and foolish attitude (it can hardly be called a policy) that prevailed in Washington during the crisis. It is, however, to see that for Britain and Eden the same issue carried a symbolic weight that transcended that case: the weight of the mistakes of the 1930’s, the still-recent glory of the war years, and the decline that had followed so cruelly after victory. The result was that a sound case led to disastrous policy. In 1936 Britain had sufficient strength to confront a dictator and refused to use it; in 1956 it had greatly diminished strength and insisted on using it, in the worst possible way.
Eden’s actual handling of events provide a kind of compendium of his weaknesses. In the first place, by lack of foresight and understanding of the dynamics of the regime with which he was dealing, and in the face of opposition from Churchill and others in his party, he himself set the scene for the crisis by insisting on removing British forces from the Canal Zone in 1953-54. His inability to recognize the importance of ideology—in this instance the strength of the American ideological commitment to self-determination and against imperialism—led him to underestimate Eisenhower’s opposition to the use of force. Similarly, his ignorance of economics caused him to pay insufficient attention to the possibility and consequences of economic retaliation by an angered Washington. At home, his distaste for rhetoric and his lack of political sense contributed to the bitter division of the country and his own final isolation. In his concern to be independent and decisive, he neglected completely the importance of maintaining good communications with Britain’s principal ally: incredibly, through most of September and October when the crisis was at its height, there was no British ambassador in place in Washington (Eden has been rightly criticized for acting without the support of the United States, but the more one ponders his behavior the clearer it becomes that acting without that support was in a real sense the very point and attraction of the exercise for him). Finally, having committed Britain to invasion and with the process under way, Eden’s intense but brittle resolution cracked, and he failed to carry it through.
In January 1957, Eden’s long political career came to an end because of Suez. He was to live for another twenty years, and he died just as a new Conservative leader, Margaret Thatcher, was beginning her bold confrontation with the issues that had been so long evaded by her predecessors, including Eden himself.
But it may be that inadvertently Eden rendered his country a greater service with this resounding failure than he did with many of his earlier successes. All too often those had turned out to be virtuoso displays of negotiating skills that lacked real substance and lasting effect, and had served merely to disguise Britain’s changing status and power in the world. Suez, however, conclusively destroyed the illusions regarding their country’s capacity and standing that the British had clung to so tenaciously since World War II. And the persistence of illusions constitutes one of the greatest dangers for a country in decline.
1 McGraw-Hill, 665 pp., $22.95.
2 The ranking implicit in this analogy may puzzle some. But as between Lloyd George and Churchill, there is no doubt that the former was the dominant partner. Lord Boothby tells the story of a meeting between the two when Lloyd George had been out of power for several years while Churchill still held high office. Asked how the meeting had gone, Churchill, a “hard look” coming over his face, replied: “Within five minutes the old relationship between us was completely reestablished. The relationship between Master and Servant. And I was the Servant.”
3 As a boy growing up in a South Wales mining community which registered the largest Labor majorities in the country and where, even in wartime, Churchill was routinely jeered when he appeared on a newsreel, I was vaguely aware that while the prevailing local view was that Aneurin Bevan's description of Tories as “lower then vermin” was not unreasonable, the handsome young Foreign Secretary was regarded as something of an exception. It has to be recorded, alas, that this regard was not reciprocated on Eden's part. After a visit to South Wales early in his political career, he wrote in his diary: “. . . Swansea a terrible place . . . I do not like the Welsh. Undersized little humbugs with radical instincts.”
4 On occasion, and especially when he was rattled, this side of Eden could manifest itself in unattractive displays of vanity and irascibility. But there was nothing shallow about his sense of honor. One striking example, revealed by James for the first time, occurred when he became Foreign Secretary for the third time in 1951. As the Mossadeq crisis was in progress in Iran, he decided to sell his Anglo-Iranian shares when their price was at rock bottom. If he had held on to them, they would have made him a rich man, but as it was he took an appalling loss that he could ill afford. In terms of British law and convention there was absolutely no need for him to do this, and Churchill was horrified when he heard about it.
5 As it was, a poll taken by the British Institute of Public Opinion in April 1939 asking whom people would like to replace Chamberlain gave Eden 38 percent of the votes. His nearest rivals, Churchill and Halifax, got 7 percent each.
6 Between 1975 and 1981,1 attended three Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings as adviser to the Australian Prime Minister and had a chance to observe their workings closely. In comparison with the UN conferences I have attended, they were models of good sense.