THE SPLENDID AND THE VILE: A SAGA OF CHURCHILL, FAMILY, AND DEFIANCE DURING THE BLITZ by Erik Larson

Standing out of the flames and smoke of surrounding blazing buildings, St Paul's Cathedral during the great fire raid in London.

(The bombing of London during the WWII “Blitz”)

Living at a time when leadership seems to be severely lacking with a president who enacts his personal agenda seemingly on a daily basis when people are dying is eye opening and ultimately a tragedy.  In times like this it is important to examine historical leadership that is grounded in fact and strength of personality.  Leadership during times of crisis is of the utmost importance be it a pandemic, wartime, economic or weather-related catastrophes.  The public needs to rely on someone to step up and provide honest and factual information with direction to mitigate people’s anxiety and provide hope for the future.  Examining the aerial atrocities committed by the Germans during World War II over London, Coventry and other English cities in late 1940 and early 1941 is a case in point.  Winston Churchill the newly appointed Prime Minister would rise to the occasion through his wisdom, wit, and force of personality and provide the British people a degree of solace.  Erik Larson’s latest book, THE SPLENDID AND THE VILE: A SAGA OF CHURCHILL, FAMILY, AND DEFIANCE DURING THE BLITZ successfully captures Churchill’s role and the courage of the British people in that moment and builds upon his series of historical narratives that ranges from hurricanes, murder in Edwardian London, a serial killer in Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition in 1893, the sinking of the Lusitania, to the rise of the Nazis.

In his current work Larson explores “the year in which Churchill became Churchill, the cigar smoking bulldog we all think we know…and showed the world what courage and leadership looked like.”  Larson has produced a workmanlike synthesis of events, policies, and personalities of the time period though he does not add a great deal that is new for historians.  What Larson does accomplish is a synthesis of information and sources focusing on many individuals that seem to fall through the cracks in other historical monographs.

Wikimedia Commons

(Sir Winston Churchill)
Larson’s grasp of the most salient historical points is evident for all to see.  Churchill’s obsession with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s thoughts serves as a background to most of Churchill’s actions.  Churchill is fully aware that England cannot defeat the Nazis without American equipment and financing and finally their entrance into the war.  Larson describes the political and personal machinations of FDR and Churchill in traditional fashion as he labors through the Destroyer-Base Deal and Lend-Lease as the United States slowly become more and more of a belligerent.  Larson’s description of the visit of Harry Hopkins, perhaps FDR’s closest ally and friend to England for four weeks in January, 1941 is a case in point as Churchill rolled out the red carpet to flatter and convince Hopkins to support American aid to England and encourage the eventual entrance of the United States into the war.
Everyday English citizens are presented through their daily lives and travails as they confronted by the German “Blitz.”  In addition, Larson takes figures like “Jock” Colville, Churchill’s reluctant private secretary and drills down exploring aspects of their lives in detail.  In Colville’s case the unrequited love he pursues in the name of Gay Margesson, a student at Oxford, supplemented by his important role by Churchill’s side.  Others explored include Pamela Churchill who had the unfortunate task of being married to Churchill’s son Randolph, an alcoholic, gambler, and philanderer.  Mary Churchill, the prime Minister’s eighteen-year-old daughter provides an interesting perspective of an upper-class youth through her diary entries.  More importantly Larson pursues the role of Max Aiken, better known as Lord Beaverbrook, a newspaper magnate who performs miraculous work increasing British airplane production at the newly created Ministry of Aircraft Production as well as serving as Churchill’s closest friend and alter ego.  Frederick “Prof” Lindemann , an Oxford Physicist assesses the world with “scientific objectivity” who Churchill brought into government to deal with German technology and efforts to counter the damage it caused.  The marriage of Sir Harold Nicholson, Parliamentary Secretary for the Minister for Information and his marriage to the writer Vita Sackville-West receives a great deal of attention.  Churchill’s bodyguard Detective Inspector Walter Henry Thompson provides numerous nuggets of information.  Mass-Observation diarist Olivia Cockett chronicles many of the horrors resulting from the German onslaught.   There are of course portraits of the military types like Major-General Hastings “Pug” Ismay, the Military Chief of Staff and political figures such as Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, who is then shuffled off to Washington as ambassador to remove a political threat to the Prime Minister’s leadership.  Characters abound and Larson has the knack of providing just the right amount of detail to make them interesting in of themselves for the reader.

TIME Magazine Cover: Lord Beaverbrook -- Nov. 28, 1938

If Churchill was obsessed with FDR, Adolf Hitler was obsessed with Churchill.  In Larson’s accurate rendition of the Hitler-Churchill enmity, the Fuhrer did not want to go to war with England at first.  He wanted to negotiate a deal that would be somewhat satisfactory to Churchill to end England’s adversarial role toward Germany so he could concentrate on lebensraum, living space is the east against Russia.  When Churchill refused to comply, Hitler unleashed the German Luftwaffe led by Hermann Goring against England to knock them out of the war.  At times a cartoonish, despicable, and insidious figure, Goring did all he could to raze English cities like Coventry to create the terror that would force the English people to remove Churchill and replace him with a more pliable figure.  Hitler and Goring could never quite comprehend why Churchill refused to give up based on the physical and psychological damage they inflicted on the English people.  Larson provides a fascinating aside to Goring’s terror bombing of civilians in his ravenous pursuit of cultural artifacts anywhere he could steal them.  With Churchill’s obstinacy remaining constant, Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s Deputy Fuhrer hatches a plan to achieve peace with England. Larson does his best to break down the myths of Hess’ attempted flight to Scotland to try and negotiate England’s exit from the war delving into the latest material available.

Larson is successful in explaining Churchill’s historical significance as he describes his speeches and physical appearance throughout London and other areas refusing to kowtow to Nazi bullying and bombing.  He demonstrated “a striking trait: his knack for making people feel loftier, stronger, and above all, more courageous.…he gave forth a confidence and invincible will that called out everything that was brave and strong,”  as his voice became a reassuring wellspring of hope and resolve.  Churchill was an expert at mass psychology, and he knew just how to hearten his downtrodden people and lead them to ultimate victory, even as so many people lived in shelters that were crumbling or pursuing an existence in the London Underground.

Goering Lounging In Chair

(Hermann Goring, Head of the Luftwaffe)

Larson is successful in reaching his stated goal of “hunting for stories that often get left out of the massive biographies of Churchill, either because there’s no time to tell them or because they seem too frivolous.”  Larson writes with verve and the character formation of a novelist.  He seems to leave no rock unturned in seeking out the intimate lives of his characters so they can provide a feel for what England is experiencing between May 1940 and 1941.  He find’s vignettes that are a treasure.  For example, Churchill constantly critiques the writing of his Cabinet and military figures correcting grammar and demanding brevity.  Deeply personal aspects garner Larson’s attention exemplified by his comments on Churchill and Clementine’s life in the bedroom, which was separate and as far as intimate relations, it took place only upon an invitation from Clementine!

As with any historical monograph there are always suggestions for improvement.  According to Gerard DeGroot in his February 28, 2020 review in the Washington Post in Larson’s case it may be fair to argue that Churchill is given too much credit for saving England when English factories and workers produced the Spitfires and Hurricanes that consistently outperformed their German counterparts.  Further British workers, male and female were much better mobilized than in Germany.  In addition, the idea that England acted alone is an overstatement when the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish contributed greatly as did members of the vast empire including Canadians, Australians, Indians and South Africans who all did their part.  One also cannot forget the 145 Polish pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain, in addition to the 88 Czech, and 30 pilots  from Belgium.  One must also not forget that other parts of the United Kingdom were also bombed – cities like Glasgow, Cardiff, Belfast were also severely damaged.   Churchill needs to share the limelight a bit more than Larson offers.

Though Larson has not written the definitive account of Churchill’s first year as Prime Minister he has written an evocative description of what life was like for the English people during the period.  One cannot go wrong hunkering down with Larson’s narrative particularly at a time of extreme crisis and discomfort.  I was scheduled to hear Larson at the Music Hall in Portsmouth, New Hampshire at the end of March, however due to the pandemic it was cancelled.  I fervently hope it can be rescheduled.

In the aftermath of a bombing raid, a bus lies in a crater in Balham, South London.
(London during the WWII “Blitz”)

OPERATION CHASTISE: THE RAF’S MOST BRILLIANT ATTACK DURING WORLD WAR II by Max Hastings

Operation Chastise by Robert Taylor (Lancaster)

During World War II a debate raged among allied strategists as to how much civilians should be targeted to defeat the Nazis.  As the Germans wreaked havoc on civilian populations throughout Europe and the United Kingdom the defeat of Hitler’s henchmen was deemed a necessity no matter the cost.  Max Hastings, a British journalist and historian, the author of numerous volumes ranging from World War I, the Battle of Britain, World War II, Winston Churchill and Vietnam tackles the issue of civilian casualties in his latest effort, OPERATION CHASTISE: THE RAF’S MOST BRILLIANT ATTACK DURING WORLD WAR II.

By May 1943 the British had accomplished little against the Nazis when compared to the effort and suffering of the Soviet Union which was finally making its push from Stalingrad westward.  Further, Winston Churchill was under a great deal of pressure to produce victories to stir the English people.  The allied grand strategy to this point was cautious to allow their slow industrial buildup to take hold before making a stronger presence on the battlefield.  To this point their most significant action concerned the use of heavy bombers.  The British decided in October 1940 that instead of pursuing largely vain efforts to locate power plants, factories, and military installations the Royal Air Force (RAF) would bomb German cities which would continue until 1945 and the end of the war.  The C-in-C Bomber Command Chief Marshall Sir Arthur Harris believed that air attacks on Germany could render a land invasion of Europe as unnecessary.  Winston Churchill did not care for Harris, but he believed in his sense of purpose and his ability to create positive publicity, i.e., the thousand bomber raids” over Cologne in May-June 1940.  There were a number of skeptics concerning Harris’ approach to winning the war, but Harris’ publicity machine and ability to put out positive bombing figures made him an important component in RAF leadership.  By “by war’s end, Bomber Command was capable of reigning upon Hitler’s people in a single twenty-four-hour period as many bombs as the Luftwaffe dropped during the course of its entire 1940-41 blitz on Britain.”

Barnes Wallis

(Barnes Wallis)

It is at this point that Hastings introduces his main topic the bombing of German dams as a means of destroying Hitler’s Ruhr Valley industrial complex. The Ruhr and its industries accounted for 25% of Germany’s entire consumption, much of it derived from the Mohne reservoir.  Flooding the low-lying Ruhr Valley would render railways, bridges, pumping stations, and chemical plants inoperative.  The key figures that Hastings explores in depth are Barnes Wallis, an engineer who become the hero of Operation Chastise, the mission to destroy the Mohne Dam as well as others, as he was able to design and develop the immense bomb that could “bounce” along the water to breach the Mohne Dam.  Next, Guy Gibson who led the 617 Squadron of the RAF Bomber Command that would bomb the dams of north western Germany employing a revolutionary new weapon that required plans to fly at an extremely low level after conducting over 170 successful bombing missions over Germany.  Ralph Cochrane, Harris’ subordinate was in charge of the mission who was one of the RAF’s ablest senior officers who has been described as a “ruthless martinet.”  Air Chief Marshall Sir Charles Portal, the head of the RAF believed in assaulting urban areas and was a prime mover behind Operation Chastise.  Arthur Collins, a scientific officer in Harmondsworth’s “Concrete Section” who proved to Wallis that “a relatively small charge might achieve a wholly disproportionate result if it was detonated sub-aqueously and close to the target, using a timer or a hydrostatic pistol: it could thus harness the power of the water mass to channel the force of the blast.”  Lastly, Sir Arthur Harris, the commander, who when pulled over by the military police at one time and was admonished that he could have killed someone, he responded “I kill thousands of people every night.”

Guy Penrose Gibson, VC.jpg

(Guy Gibson)

Hastings does a marvelous job explaining the scientific experimentation, the training of the pilots, the shifting of resources, the strategic planning of the operation, and the different personalities with their own agendas in detail.  By doing so  Hastings highlights his own expertise and command of the material, but also the ability to explain complex information and make it easily understood for the reader.

Hastings introduces numerous pilots, bomb aimers, navigators, wireless operators, and gunners that made up the core of the mission.  These men formed groups of seven for each Lancaster bomber that was sent into Germany the night of May 16, 1943.  Hastings narrative provides intimate portraits of the men and how they interacted and were organized.  The squadron reflected all social classes, but despite a degree of class consciousness they were able to form into workmanlike groups of young men most of whom were in their late teens and early twenties with a sprinkle of men in their thirties.  Among these individuals included are Richard Trevor-Roper, the Squadron Gunnery Leader and bomb aimer who at 27 was the oldest among the squadron; F/.SGT Len Sumpter, a bomb aimer was a shoe makers son who left school at 14; wireless operator Jack Guterman, a very literary young man faced with the decision to follow his pilot Bill Ottley from another command joined the 617th;  F/LT Joseph McCarthy, the only American pilot involved with Operation Chastise who grew up in the Bronx, NY; F/LT John “Hoppy” Hopgood, Gibson’s closest friend; F/LT David Shannon, an Australian pilot; and aircraft navigator Jock Rumbes a pilot washout who became an excellent navigator.  These and many others new by the nature of the mission flying at night at an altitude of under 100 feet over water that their chances of survival were limited and the result is that 52 of the 133 men involved in Operation Chastise would not return.  As Hastings points out, “the margin for error, both for successful attacks and survival was virtually zero.”

Mohne dam before and after 617 squadron's famous Dambuster raid

(Mohne Dam May 16-17, 1943)

 

Hastings provides a blow by blow account of Operation Chastise from its takeoff on May 16, 1943 describing the difficulty of lifting off the ground with such a heavy payload, flying under 500 feet in the air to avoid German radar and flak, the mindset and experiences of the 133 men during the long flight, the final successful delivery of Wallis’ “bouncing bombs,” and the severe losses in planes, five of which crashed before reaching the target area in addition to three more at the site out of nineteen in total that took off on May 16, and the 52 men that perished.  As Hastings correctly concludes, Operation Chastise was a huge extravagance and essentially a gamble, a piece of military theater, rather than serious strategy.  In the end the Mohne and Eder dams were breached causing flood waters that would kill  between 1400-1500 people, half of which were non-German forced laborers.  In addition, the Nazis suffered an undetermined amount of economic and production losses.

Operation Chastise was largely hidden from the public until 1955 when the film, “Dam Busters” was released.  Hastings follows upon the works of other historians like James Holland to describe the events and personalities surrounding the mission whose idea dated back to 1937 and presents it to an audience after conducting voluminous research and interviews over his long career as a war correspondent, journalist and historian.  With the inclusion of maps, charts, and photos Hastings effort has produces a wonderful addition to monographs that focus upon the lesser known operations conducted during World War II, but were extremely important as in this case it reflected the turning of the tide, a small and symbolic step towards the ultimate defeat of Nazi Germany.

OPERATION CHASTISE

Operation Chastise was an attack on German dams carried out on 16–17 May 1943 by Royal Air Force No. 617 Squ

 

AGENTS OF INFLUENCE: A BRITISH CAMPAIGN, A CANADIAN SPY, AND THE SECRET PLOT TO BRING AMERICA INTO WORLD WAR II by Henry Hemming

por 7789 r33

(Charles Lindbergh)

At a time when many Americans fear the impact of foreign interference in our elections, be it what the Russians did in 2016, or what may be in store for 2020 there is an excellent historical example of such a campaign on foreign soil that tried to sway Americans and help make entrance into World War II against Nazi Germany palatable.  The example I am alluding to is the subject of Henry Hemming’s new book, AGENTS OF INFLUENCE: A BRITISH CAMPAIGN, A CANADIAN SPY, AND THE SECRET PLOT TO BRING AMERICA INTO WORLD WAR II.

By June 11, 1940 a week after the British evacuation from Dunkirk allied shipping losses in the Atlantic had reached over 1,135,263 tons.  At the same time the German army outnumbered the British army 4.3 to 1.6 million.  In another month the Germans would launch the Luftwaffe against London in a “blitz” that would last almost a year.  The Churchill government faced long odds in overcoming the Nazi onslaught and the only hope to offset a disaster would be American entrance into the war, but in May 1940 only 7% of Americans favored doing so.  The British proceeded to send 700 crates of gold bullion along with a spy named William Stephenson to the United States. Interestingly, the author’s grandfather, Harold Hemming, a major in the Royal Artillery was a friend of the newly minted British spy, and along with his wife Alice would carry out a number of missions which included visiting American military bases and presenting a series of demonstrations revealing the intricacies of flash-spotting, a technique designed to locate German artillery, and lecturing soldiers what it was like to live in Nazi Germany.

Sir William Stephenson [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA141575]

(Sir William Stephenson)

Hemming does an excellent job recounting the business career that led Stephenson to be recruited by MI6 and chosen as Chief of Station with his main office in New York.  His task was to foster a climate that would allow Washington to declare war on Nazi Germany.  Hemming writes with an easy flair that allows the reader to become engrossed in how the British went about trying to surreptitiously convince the American people to favor entering the European war and pressuring their government to do so.  Stephenson’s task was not an easy one due to isolationist sentiment created by the Nye Commission which delved into the profits of munitions companies and other corporations from W.W.I., Neutrality legislation that hamstrung President Roosevelt, and a growing belief flamed by Charles Lindbergh that the British could not defeat Germany so it would be a waste for the US to enter the war.*

The British were not the only ones who were trying to manipulate American opinion.  Hans Thomsen, the German Charge d’affair in Washington was developing his own propaganda machine to keep the US out of the war, in addition to convincing a Montana Congressman and Senator to read pro-German material into the Congressional Record and using their congressional franking privilege to disseminate these views by mail to their constituents.  He was also able to bribe 50 Republican congressman, including New York’s influential legislator Hamilton Fish who attended the Republican National Convention to oppose entrance into the war.  “At the time the most extensive foreign intervention – direct intervention – ever in an American election campaign.”  Until Trump!

William J. "Wild Bill" Donovan, the Buffalo-born founder of the agency that preceded the CIA, won't have his name on Western New York's new veterans cemetery. (Photo courtesy of the Office of Strategic Services Society)

(General William J. Donovan)

Hemmings examines Lindbergh’s role in speaking out in favor of Nazi Germany very carefully tracing his views from the time of his son’s kidnapping and death.  Lindbergh would testify before Congress numerous times against legislation like the Destroyer-Base Deal and Lend-Lease both designed to assist the British navy whose merchant shipping was being shredded by Nazi submarines and the fact they were slowly going bankrupt.  The German embassy would mail Lindbergh’s speeches all across America to gain US domestic support.  Lindbergh would become the leading “isolationist” spokesperson in the country and a central figure in the “America First Committee” movement.

After describing what Stephenson was up against, including his own government who did not want to interfere in American politics as the 1940 election approached, the man in charge of British propaganda operations and returning refugees back to Europe as agents was ordered to hold back and not institute any radical plans.  Stephenson did have an ally, the British ambassador to the US, Lord Lothian who worked assiduously and ignored Foreign Office instructions to try and lobby Washington.  When Lothian died suddenly, Stephenson was left with Lord Halifax, a former Foreign Secretary and appeaser who Churchill sent to America to get him out of his cabinet.  Hemmings has unearthed a number of interesting commentaries presented throughout the book, for example, referring to Halifax as a “foxhunting aristocrat” who would not be well received in administration circles.

The Bow Tie Crowd.
Ian Fleming, 1958.

(Ian Fleming)

Once FDR is reelected in 1940 and he was able to get Lend-Lease passed it was clear that the president wanted to get the US into the war against Hitler’s forces.  He went so far as to have the US Navy patrol the North Atlantic hoping to create a casus belli to enter the war.  It was at this time that Stephenson, who had been put in charge of all MI6 activities in the western hemisphere, head the Special Operations Executive (SOE) nicknamed the “Ministry of Gentlemanly Warfare,” run MI5, British Passport Control and any propaganda dealing with the war effort, to take off the gloves and disregard his own Foreign Office.

An aspect that Hemming develops in full is the relationship of General William J. Donovan and Stephenson.  Donovan was a close friend of FDR and had the president’s ear.  Stephenson felt his relationship with the FBI did not deal with Nazi penetration enough and he sought to help develop a partner in the United States for MI6 in dealing with joint intelligence.  Stephenson worked to convince Donovan, who at first was skeptical, to pitch the idea to FDR.  Soon Donovan became Stephenson’s conduit to FDR leaving out J. Edgar Hoover.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the narrative is the role played by Wendell Willkie who ran for president against FDR in 1940.  Willkie spent most of the campaign as an “interventionist,” but under pressure from Republican isolationists he switched his position.  However, once he was defeated, he once again switched positions and became one of the administrations most important spokespersons favoring intervention.  Some have questioned why he changed positions.  Hemming points out that that FDR might have threatened to expose his long affair with Irita van Doren, but no matter the motivation he became what Secretary of State Cordell Hull characterized as a strategic weapon used by the administration to help the British.

Adolf Hitler : News Photo

(General Wilhelm Keitel, Hans Thomsen, and Adolf Hitler)

Adolph Berle, a long-time ally of FDR and in charge of US intelligence operations did not want to intervene to help the British and conducted a series of investigations into Stephenson’s growing spy network and he wanted to shut it down.  This provoked Stephenson into launching an all-out attack on American isolationists.  Hemming delineates Stephenson’s new strategy aside from spreading pro-British propaganda.  Agents were dispatched to infiltrate America First organizations as well as those in favor of intervention to create support for the British.  The best of his agents was Joseph Hirschberg who escaped Belgium before the Nazis arrived.  An orthodox Jew who lost most of his family in the death camps he was involved with assassinations and worked to subsidize “Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League to Champion Human Rights.”  This was not the only organization Stephenson funded along with creating violent showdowns between protesters on both sides to drown out coverage of Lindbergh’s speeches in daily newspapers.  Another tactic employed was called “sibs,” meaning rumors from the Latin sibillare, to whisper.  The approach was simple, make up events, mostly anti-Nazi and have them investigated by newsmen and plant them in the media, for example, photos of Nazi atrocities, stories about the capture of German pilots behind enemy lines, convince shipping companies executives concerning German saboteurs, etc.  This became quite effective as agents would tell people things in “strictest confidence, that’s the best way to start a rumor.”  Another effective tactic was the creation, in conjunction with Donovan of a forgery unit under the auspices of a Hollywood screen writer, Eric Mashwitz outside Toronto designed to produce as many faked documents and news as possible.

A key for Stephenson and the Roosevelt administration was to directly link Berlin with spying on the United States.  Henry Hoke, a direct mail specialist stumbled on Thomsen’s franking scheme.  For Stephenson this was a direct link between the Nazis and isolationists.  Another hopeful episode was conjuring up a scheme that linked Berlin to a coup in Columbia involving forgeries and other strategies.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is Hemmings discussion of Stephenson’s role in trying to create a mirror MI6 in the United States.  A number of interesting characters emerge, including Ian Fleming.  Stephenson did not give up on Donovan as the head of an American spy organization until he finally agreed to become the new Coordinator of Intelligence (COI).  The result is that the British had a tremendous impact on the creation of the OSS during the war, which would morph into the CIA in 1947.  Another fascinating component to the narrative is how Hemming lays out step by step how Stephenson developed his own organization that created the right atmosphere for Washington to enter the war in Europe; facilitated American aid to Great Britain; helped beat back and unearth the isolationists; and developing a conduit to FDR.

Perhaps the greatest error made by isolationists was a speech given by Lindbergh on September 11, 1941.  Lindbergh followed a speech given by FDR the same day involving the USS Greer which had engaged a Nazi submarine in the North Atlantic signaling the onset of a shooting war between Washington and Berlin.  Lindbergh’s address in Des Moines, IA  where he blamed the real “war agitators” as being the British, the Jews, and the Roosevelt administration.  He continued with a number of anti-Semitic remarks focusing on the price  Jews would pay should a civil war break out in the United States over entrance into the war, as well as a number of anti-Semitic tropes.  This led to a backlash against Lindbergh that his movement never recovered from.  Hemmings conclusion that Lindbergh was correct that there was someone or something behind the scenes was agitating for war, but it was Stephenson, not the Jews.

Title: A Man Called Intrepid: The Incredible True Story of the Master Spy Who Helped Win World War II, Author: William Stevenson

Hemmings picture of FDR’s actions is quite interesting.  Like Lincoln during the Civil War, the president can be accused of committing impeachable offenses.  In Hemmings view that conclusion fits FDR’s actions in securing Lend-Lease, the Destroyer-Base Deal, the American intelligence relationship with the British, instructing Donovan to setup public opinion polls to ascertain what the public thought of certain policies before they were instituted, and trying to foment incidents with the Germans that would make her declare war against the United States.  If these were not impeachable, at a minimum FDR was pushing the envelope.

Hemming has written a crisp and easily read description of how the British successfully influenced American policy leading up to WWII.  Stephenson’s work was the key as was his working relationship with Donovan and indirectly with FDR.  In addition, by December, 1941 polls reflected what Churchill and Roosevelt had hoped for, the American people were ready for war. If you are interested in the onerous debate and how public opinion was transformed by a foreign power this book is very timely.

*See Philip Roth’s novel THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA whose counterfactual story centers on the defeat of FDR in the 1940 election by Charles Lindbergh.

Charles Lindbergh And Spirit Of St Louis

(Charles Lindbergh)

APPEASEMENT: CHAMBERLAIN, HITLER, CHURCHILL, AND THE ROAD TO WAR by Tim Bouverie

Image result for picture of neville chamberlain
(Neville Chamberlain after returning from the Munich Conference)

In 1961 the controversial British historian, A.J.P. Taylor published THE ORIGINS OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR arguing that the war was caused by the appeasement policies pursued by England and France toward Nazi Germany.  He further purported that Adolf Hitler was more of a traditional European statesman who easily could have been stopped in March 1936 at the Rhineland bridges had England and France had the will to do so.  This book created a firestorm in academic circles and over the years numerous historians have challenged Taylor’s conclusions. Among the first was J.W. Wheeler-Bennett’s MUNICH: PROLOGUE TO TRAGEDY followed later by Telford Taylor’s MUNICH: THE PRICE OF PEACE, Lynne Olson’s TROUBLESOME YOUNG MEN: THE REBELS WHO HELPED SAVE ENGLAND,  David Faber’s MUNICH THE 1938 APPEASEMENT CRISIS, and last year a fictional account was written by Robert Harris.  These books among many others lay out the counter argument to Taylor that even though Anglo-Franco appeasement was responsible for the war, Hitler would have stopped at nothing to achieve at a minimum domination of Europe.

Image result for picture of neville chamberlain
(Winston Churchill and Neville Chamberlain)

The latest entry into this debate is Tim Bouverie’s APPEASEMENT: CHAMBERLAIN, HITLER, CHURCHILL, AND THE ROAD TO WAR.  Bouverie, a former British journalist offers a fresh approach in analyzing London’s foreign policy throughout the 1930s leading to the Second World War.  The author excoriates British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his apologists who argue that he had little choice because of England’s lack of military preparation and fear of inflicting further damage to an already depressed economy.  Bouverie concludes that Chamberlain had decided even before he became Prime Minister that an accommodation with Hitler needed to be made in order to prevent revisiting the carnage of World War I.  With England’s position growing untenable in the Pacific due Japanese expansionism a rapprochement with Germany was a necessity.  Chamberlain would proceed to try to make deals with Benito Mussolini to pressure the Fuhrer, but in reality as his own writings and correspondence reflect he was bent on giving in to Hitler as shown in his reaction to the Anschluss with Austria, the drum beat by Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia for autonomy, the dismemberment of the only democracy in central Europe at the Munich Conference and thereafter, and finally over Danzig.  It was clear that the policies of Chamberlain and Lord Halifax, who Bouverie calls the “evangelicals of appeasement” would give away almost anything to achieve an Anglo-German Pact.

Bouverie does an excellent job developing the pacifist movement in England and the attitude of British elites toward Germany.  To the author’s credit he not only focuses on the major players in English politics during the period but others like Baron Lord Rothermere, his brother Lord Northcliffe, and Geoffrey Dawson who greatly impacted British public opinion through their newspaper empires.  In addition, Sir Robert Cecil, an ardent advocate of the League of Nations and the Peace Ballot in favor of collective security, Ernest Jenner, a banker, the historian Arnold Toynbee, former Labor leader George Lansbury, all whom received audiences with Hitler among others that the author discusses.  These individuals were able to mold public opinion and create further pressure on Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin who was replaced by  Chamberlain.

Image result for picture of neville chamberlain
(Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler at the Munich Conference)

Bouverie’s narrative is grounded in social and political history and makes exhaustive use personal papers, documentary collections, and the press.  He explains that England’s response to Hitler derives from a number of critical works such as John Maynard Keynes’ THE ECONOMIC CONSEQUENCES OF THE PEACE written in 1919 which pointed out the deficiencies in the Versailles Treaty.  Many in power in England saw the rise of Hitler as a manifestation of legitimate German grievances concerning the treaty, thus ameliorating Hitler’s “Diktat of Versailles” became a rallying cry for appeasers.  Those individuals include the British Ambassador to Germany, Neville Henderson; Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, and Sir Horace Wilson, the government’s Chief Industrial Advisor and Chamberlain’s alter ego.   Bouverie presents an incisive narrative concerning the raucous debate in British politics centering around rearmament, especially since Hitler was rearming Germany right under the nose of France and England undoing that clause of the treaty.  England would face reality and in 1934 agreed to a naval treaty with Germany allowing the Nazis a navy 35% of that of Great Britain (though at the time the treaty was signed Germany had already passed that threshold).

The author takes the reader through each major crisis that predated World War II.  Beginning with attempts at an Anglo-German Treaty recognizing Germany’s eastern borders and League membership; the German occupation of the Rhineland in March, 1936; the Anschluss with Austria in March, 1938; machinations against Czechoslovakia leading to the Munich Conference in September, 1938; the seizure of all of Czechoslovakia in March, 1939, the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and the final crisis in Danzig that resulted in the invasion of Poland and the “Phony War” that followed.  In each instance Bouverie provides insights into the thought patterns of English politicians and why they did little or nothing to stop Hitler.  The author also explores the opposition to the Baldwin and Chamberlain governments, in particular Winston Churchill who found the warnings he had offered about Hitler since 1933 coming home to roost.  But it is clear that the “evangelical appeasers” faced no serious opposition or obstacles in Parliament.

Image result for london in 1940 pics(London, 1940)

One of Bouverie’s best chapters deals with “Hitler’s Wonderland” reflecting British attitudes toward Germany in light of the Nuremburg Party rallies and the 1936 Olympics that took place in Berlin.  British elites like King Edward VIII, Charles Vane Tempest-Stewart, and the 7th Marquis of Londonderry all visited Germany a number of times and became the United Kingdom’s leading Hitler apologists.

Bouverie provides fascinating portraits of the periods leading characters.  His most important was his analysis of Chamberlain describing his intellectual self-assurance, a trait that would not allow him to consider the opinions and findings of others.  His arrogance would alienate Laborite’s as well as people in his own party.  This would prove a disaster as he tried to form governmental coalitions in 1939 and 1940.  In his defense Bouverie points out that Chamberlain had been a social reformer, but events did not allow him to pursue that interest.  As the former Chancellor of the Exchequer he realized England could not afford an arms race, so he tried to engage his countries enemies.  Chamberlain realized he could not rely on the United States, in large part because of his low opinion of Washington, believed that “careful diplomacy” would in the end be successful.  Bouverie is careful to point out that Chamberlain did not invent appeasement as British governments had been practicing it since the early 1920s, but it is Chamberlain who seems to have earned the mantle of the “great appeaser” because of Munich and beyond due to his innate stubbornness in dealing with those who disagreed with him.

Image result for images of lord halifax
(Winston Churchill and Edward Wood, Lord Halifax)

Bouverie’s narrative allows the reader to eavesdrop on many interesting conversations and events.  Particularly fascinating was a lunch thrown by German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop at the German Embassy on March 11, 1938 with British politicians in attendance at the same time that Hitler demanded the resignation of Austrian Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg or suffer an invasion.  Also interesting is the verbal give and take between Chamberlain’s Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, a pro-German appeaser and his predecessor Anthony Eden who resigned over English recognition of Mussolini’s seizure of Abyssinia.  The give and take in the English cabinet after the Anschluss fearing Hitler’s next move is important as the evidence that Bouverie presents makes it clear that no one in Chamberlain’s government wanted to risk war over Czechoslovakia a country they believed had little to do with British national security. Lastly, Bouverie’s discussion of conversations between Henderson and German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop as negotiations proceeded in August 1939 is priceless.

When war finally came, Bouverie notes that following the conquest of Poland, England and France declared war on Germany, but this was a rare case when war was declared but it was not fought until Hitler’s blitzkrieg entered France and the low countries in May 1940.   Finally, Tory anti-appeasement rebels will begin an all-out effort to get rid of Chamberlain in and Bouverie’s coverage of probably the most important parliamentary debate in English history is exemplary as it finally brought Winston Churchill to power.

Bouverie’s effort is very timely as Lynne Olson points out in her New York Times article, “Failure to Lead” (July 21, 2019).  Olson commends Bouverie for providing historical evidence as what will occur when a politician who has no knowledge of foreign policy, like Chamberlain imagines himself to be an expert and bypasses other branches of government to further his aims.  In addition, when one focuses only on negotiations with dictators and leaves their allies in the lurch……sound familiar?

Image result for picture of neville chamberlain

SAY NOTHING: A TRUE STORY OF MURDER AND MEMORY IN NORTHERN IRELAND by Patrick Radden Keefe

 

Image result for photo of dolours price

(The funeral of Dolours Price)

In reading Patrick Radden Keefe’s new book, SAY NOTHING: A TRUE STORY OF MURDER AND MEMORY IN NORTHERN IRELAND one has the feel they are inhaling a novel, a work of fiction that is drawing them into a complex plotline where it is hard to discern what is fact and what is fiction.  But Keefe’s work is not fiction, but a recounting of the brutal events that are part of the history of Northern Ireland from the 1960s onward that includes extreme violence, personal heroism, ideological commitment, individual growth, ideological evolution, and the last vestiges of colonialism.  The ongoing struggle between Catholics and Protestants; the Provisional Irish Republican Army and Protestant Unionists; the British army and its occupation are all played out from the “Time of Troubles” to an acceptable peace settlement.  Keefe is a terrific storyteller who has created a true story of murder and memory in the context of the larger struggle that is and was Northern Ireland.  Keefe accomplishes this by providing novelistic quality and pace which is the key to creating history that reads as if it is fiction.

Image result for photo of dolours price

(The Price sisters, Marian and Dolours in prison)

When asked in a New York Times podcast how he came to write the book, Keefe describes how he was reading the Times obituary of Dolours Price on January 23, 2013 and was attracted to the former IRA member and decided to dig further into her life story.  As he became engrossed in her biography he came across Jean McConville, a Catholic mother of ten who was kidnapped, and whose fate would be buried for decades.  The connection between the two women is a major theme of the book as it pulled together victims and perpetrators during the “Time of Troubles.”

Image result for map of northern ireland during the troubles

Keefe focuses on a few important individuals as his protagonists.  Within this context are several families that come to the fore.  The story unfolds as Jean McConville, at the age of 38 is kidnapped and seized in front of her children to be murdered by unionist thugs.  Next, is the Price family that produced two daughters, Dolours and Marian who would experience the brutal unionist attack against a peaceful Catholic march on January 1, 1969 from Belfast to Derry.  This would turn the sisters from their socialist and civil rights beliefs into joining the IRA.  Radden reviews the history of Catholic v. Protestants, including important political, religious and socioeconomic points of view to place the reader in the moment as the “Time of Troubles” is about to commence.  The British response to the violence is key as Catholics assumed that British troops were being sent to Belfast to protect them from Protestant violence, but in short order it was clear that their mission was to support the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and B-Specials (anti-Catholic Unionist Auxiliary police).

Image result for photo of gerry adams

(Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein leader)

The history of the period is seen through the eyes of the McConville children as they have to cope with the loss of their mother, the separation of siblings into orphanages and other institutions, and living on the streets; the Price sisters who become key members of the violent wing of the IRA and carry out their operations until after years of imprisonment and hunger strikes they are released from prison and turn against the violence; and paramilitary leader turned politician, Gerry Adams and his alter ego, Brendan Hughes.  In addition to these individuals’ other major characters impact the story.  Reverend Ian Paisley, a radical Protestant preacher who calls for “religious cleansing” of Catholics; British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who does not have an empathetic bone in her body when it comes to the Irish; and Frank Kitson, a British officer who excelled an counter-insurgency in putting down the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya and was assigned to Belfast along with 30,000 troops to Northern Ireland to institute his theories in crushing a civilian led rebellion.  In introducing his characters Keefe provides a mini-biography of each that is insightful and allows the reader to understand their role and place in history.  What is amazing is how Keefe takes each character and deals with their emotional burdens.

Image result for photo of Brendan Hughes

(Gerry Adams and Brendan Hughes)

Keefe analyzes the strategies and tactics used by all sides in the conflict.  He explores the creation of MRF by Kitson, an elite squad that infiltrates the IRA and carries out “interrogation in depth,” rather than “enhanced interrogation,” or just torture.  The planning and implementation of Provisional bombings carried out, i.e.; in central London in 1973 and the trial that followed are investigated in depth as are several other operations.  The conflict within the IRA between the Old Guard and the Provo’s is carefully dissected.  The imprisonment, particularly of the Price sisters is examined carefully, in addition to the overall effect of Provo, Unionist, and British actions taken to achieve their agendas.  But the main mystery that clouds the entire story surrounds the abduction of McConville.  It will eventually take decades to learn what occurred that night, well into the 1990s when the children learn the truth and finally break their silence.

Image result for photo of of Northern Ireland in time of troubles

A key to Keefe’s success as an author is his ability to integrate aspects of Irish history throughout the narrative be it the Great Famine, the Easter Rebellion of 1916, etc.  As he tells his story Keefe weaves a few threads very effectively.  Keefe concentrates on one aspect of his story, the plight of the McConville children, then switches to the Dolours Price planning a bombing operation, to the arrests and escapes of Gerry Adams and Brenden Hughes, or the hunger strike of Bobby Sands, elected to Parliament, but allowed to die in prison from a hunger strike.  The components of the story seem diverse and unconnected, but Keefe can mesh the disparate elements for the reader which in the end come together.

Image result for photo of jean mcconville and family

(Jean McConville and three of her ten children)

A key development in the history of the conflict is the supposed evolution of Gerry Adams from a paramilitary leader to a politician.  Adams would come to realize that violence alone would not achieve his goals and believed a political component to the IRA strategy was called for.   Adams believed that a political movement was needed to run parallel with the armed struggle, the Provo’s would carry out the armed strategy, the Sinn Fein the political as he is elected to parliament.  It is fascinating how Adams can carry out his metamorphosis as the provisional IRA was illegal, and its political wing, the Sinn Fein was not.  Keefe is correct in emphasizing the importance of how Adams successfully develops the IRA from a revolutionary cadre to a retail political outfit.

Image result for photo of of Northern Ireland in time of troubles

(Northern Ireland during the Times of Troubles)

Keefe is very careful as he confronts the war’s strange ending.  Adam’s negotiates, but at the same time is planning and carrying out paramilitary operations.  The split between the former “partners” Adams and Hughes is thoughtfully portrayed as is the split between Adams and Dolours Price.  Keefe digs deep into their relationships as Adams seemed to suffer from amnesia concerning his role in the IRA, but for Hughes and Price he was their commanding officer who ordered them to carry out nasty operations.  The result was Adams denied it all, and Hughes and Price passed away by 2013.

Keefe’s approach is comprehensive and tries to uncover as many secrets as possible that are buried, bringing many to the attention of the public.  Keefe has done all those involved in “The Troubles” a great service as his efforts lays out the past and hopefully it should help those involved to achieve some type of closure.  Further, he describes the creation of the Belfast Project, an oral history of the “Time of Troubles” that is archived at Boston College which contains interviews that include Brendan Hughes that sparked a great deal of controversy and intrigue.  However, when you approach the history of Northern Ireland from 1969 to the present one must remember that the civil war was so vicious that closure may be something to aspire to, but difficult to achieve.  One last tidbit that Keefe brings up in the last pages of the book; wouldn’t it be ironic if Ireland is finally unified after all these years because of the Brexit vote, if so, the “Time of Troubles” needed have taken the course that it did – just a thought.

Image result for photo of dolours price

(The funeral of Dolours Price)