May 23, 2013

Finest Hour 147, Summer 2010

Page 34

Churchill Proceedings – Coalition Frustrated, 1934-1939 / Churchill and the League of Nations / Churchill Asks the Perennial Question: “Shall We All Commit Suicide?”

By David Freeman

National WWI Museum and Memorial, Kansas City

2022 International Churchill Conference

Join us at the National WWI Museum for the 39th International Churchill Conference. Kansas City, October 6-8, 2022

Professor Freeman teaches British history at California State University Fullerton, and is a regular contributor to Finest Hour. His presentation at our 2009 San Francisco conference on Churchill’s futurist essays would normally fall with other “Proceedings,” but it fits better here.

Shall We All Commit Suicide?” first appeared in print on 24 September 1924 in the pages of Nash’s Pall Mall magazine. Sir Martin Gilbert has written that, of all Churchill’s “literary work at this time, it made the greatest impact.”1 Churchill, Sir Martin continued, “had not previously been regarded as a supporter of the League. But officials of the League at once published his article as a pamphlet in the United States, where, within two weeks, over 250,000 copies were distributed, and a second massive reprint put in hand. ‘Just look at this,’ Churchill wrote to [President of the League of Nations Union] Lord Robert Cecil on November 25th, when he learnt the news of the pamphlet’s success. ‘You see I am not so unregenerate as you suppose.’ ‘Who says you are unregenerate,’ Cecil replied. ‘I regard you on the contrary as a brand plucked from the burning!’”2

“Shall We All Commit Suicide?,” the first fruit of his friendship with Professor Frederick Lindemann of Oxford, was the first in a series of articles Churchill published in support of the League of Nations. It is altogether fitting, therefore, that we should consider this essay in San Francisco, birthplace of the United Nations, for Churchill was a consistent supporter of the UN’s predecessor from the time of the League’s inception in 1918 up through the eve of the Second World War.

Churchill’s statements were far more multilateralist than those of his colleagues. “I am not going to get the country into a war with anybody for the League of Nations or anybody else or for anything else.”3 That was Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin in 1936. Two years later his successor, Neville Chamberlain, told Parliament that the League of Nations could not ensure collective security “for anybody,” and it would be fatal “to delude small, weak nations into thinking that they will be protected by the League against aggression.”4 But it was Churchill, in the wake of the First World War, who spoke of the importance of “a permanent League of Nations to render future wars impossible.”5

Today the United Nations is stretched to the breaking point over baffling and divisive problems—Israel vs. the Arabs, the advent of nuclear weapons by fanatical regimes, the inability of great powers to agree what to do. Churchill’s understanding of what the League was, and how he believed it could prevent war, is well worth considering.

By the time Churchill wrote “Shall We All Commit Suicide?” he had had several years’ experience with the League. The former colonial possessions of the defeated Central Powers had been transferred by the 1919 Peace Settlement to League of Nations authority. Under a mandate from the League, Britain administered Palestine (today’s Jordan and Israel) and Iraq. As Colonial Secretary, it had been Churchill’s responsibility to fulfill the League mandate to shepherd these territories toward self-government. This, I argued in Finest Hour 132, he successfully did. Thus Churchill was among those who proved early that the League could function in a constructive way.

Churchill included an account of the League’s creation at the Versailles Conference in The Aftermath, fourth volume in The World Crisis (1929). He was critical of President Wilson for insisting that the structure of the League be worked out before any preliminary understanding had been reached between the leading powers on the main issues resulting from the war. Indeed, this may be seen as one of the many lessons learned from the First World War and successfully applied in the Second: meetings leading to the creation of the UN were entirely separate from meetings of the Big Three involving decisions on fall-out from the war.

Churchill also recognized that a successful League required the membership of both Russia and the United States. Despite its faults, Churchill praised the way the League was swiftly brought into being and emphasized the central role of British diplomats in the process, declaring, “the League of Nations was an Anglo-Saxon conception arising from moral earnestness of persons of similar temperaments arising on both sides of the Atlantic.”6

How did Churchill understand the League of Nations to function? To grasp his view we must remind ourselves that the League was not quite the same as today’s UN.

First, the League was much smaller. There were only four to five dozen member states at any given time, compared with 192 members in the UN today. In no small way this was due to the existence of European empires. Second, key players were lacking. The United States never joined the League, while the Soviet Union did not gain admittance until 1934. and was expelled following its invasion of Poland in 1939. China, today a permanent member of the UN Security Council, was a charter member of the League, but between the world wars China was in a state of grave weakness.

So the dynamics of the League were much different from today’s UN. In a sense the League’s smaller size made it potentially better able to get things done. For this reason Churchill had a somewhat different conception of how the League should operate as compared with how most people today view the function of the UN.

Churchill viewed the League as a mechanism through which nations could come together to achieve an objective. He did not view the international organization as an organic being or “world government.” Martin Gilbert records that when the Committee of Imperial Defense met to discuss a League of Nations Protocol on arbitration and disarmament in December 1924, three months after the publication of “Shall We All Commit Suicide?,” Churchill, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, “argued against Britain undertaking international obligations ‘of an unlimited character.’ It was better, he suggested, to work ‘in stages, by means of regional agreements’ and ‘by the maintenance of good understanding between various groups of Powers’ within the framework of the League.”7

In other words Churchill still believed that interested nations dealing with specific issues should work out agreements among themselves—but that their decisions should be congruent with the League Covenant. And the contracting parties might find it helpful to use the good offices of the League to reach agreement

Above all, Churchill envisioned the League as a vehicle for achieving collective security. This meant, of course, that League members had to be willing to support the threat and if need be the implementation of military force to deter aggression. That never happened. But it did not stop Churchill from advocating such a policy to meet the aggression of the emergent Axis Powers right up until the outbreak of war in 1939.

On 14 October 1933 Hitler, in his first year of power, took Germany out of the League of Nations. The following month in a speech to Parliament, Churchill argued that British policy should be to unite the small and threatened states of Europe under League protection. “Whatever way we turn there is risk,” he stated,

but the least risk and the greatest help will be found in recreating the Concert of Europe through the League of Nations, not for the purpose of fiercely quarrelling and haggling about the details of disarmament, but in an attempt to address Germany collectively, so that there may be some redress of the grievances of the German nation and that that may be effected before the peril of rearmament reaches a point which may endanger the peace of the world.8

Churchill continued to develop this theme in 1934 radio broadcasts, notably in January (previous article) and in November, when he said:

There is safety in numbers. If there were five or six on each side there might well be a frightful trial of strength. But if there were eight or ten on one side, and only one or two upon the other, and if the collective armed forces of one side were three or four times as large as those of the other, then there will be no war…

There was still time, he went on, for such a structure to be built. Doing so would enable the world “to get through the next ten years without a horrible and fatal catastrophe.”9

The following year in Collier’s, Churchill outlined how he saw the League being used to achieve peace:

The question of the illegal armament of Germany and her violations of the solemn treaties which she signed should be brought by France, Belgium, Czechoslovakia and other countries affected, before the League of Nations. The League should then examine their complaints and if the case is proved that there is a danger of war arising from violation of plighted faith and the growth of German armaments, then the League should call for volunteers among the countries most closely involved to take effective measures in order to give added protection to the peace of the world. Whereat it might be hoped that eight or ten powers, all disturbed and uneasy at the character and conduct of the German government, would, under the sanction and with the full authority of the League of Nations, maintain by agreements between one another such ample forces by land, sea and air that it would be quite impossible for Germany to challenge them.

The League of Nations would not press the powers to disarm. On the contrary, it would exhort them to maintain the largest possible forces they could afford and to concert together through the military staffs the best plan for meeting an unprovoked attack. Having thus got into a position of indisputable superiority and strength, the League could then parley with Germany without fear…. Once the German government realized that they could make no impression upon the mighty, padded but solid barrier which had come into existence around them, there would be the best hope that they would enter into amicable relations with their neighbors and patiently discuss their grievances in the full comity of nations.10

On 26 September Churchill spoke to the City Carlton Club in London about the impending war between Italy and Abyssinia. The whole country, he said, would support the Government “in making their contribution to the authority of the League of Nations”: it was both Britain’s duty and interest to support action “which seeks to establish the reign of law among the nations and ward off the measureless perils of another world struggle.”11

Mussolini duly invaded Abyssinia, and Churchill told Parliament that although it was “a very small matter” compared to the German danger, it was nevertheless essential for Britain to back economic sanctions against Italy, for the League was “fighting for all our lives.”12

The next year, 1936, Churchill saw the League as the natural mechanism for responding to Hitler’s remilitarization of the Rhineland (see “Churchill and the Rhineland,” FH 141). “France has appealed to the League,” he wrote in the Evening Standard. If the League proved powerless to act…”the whole doctrine of international law and cooperation, upon which the hopes of the future are based, would lapse ignominiously.”13 A month later in the Commons he still insisted that negotiations with Hitler should be through the League of Nations, which contained “a large number of smaller States who individually are helpless, but who collectively are very powerful, and who feel their existence threatened.”14

A fortnight after making this statement Churchill dined with Cabinet Secretary Sir Maurice Hankey, who afterwards reported that WSC “favoured continued support of the League, and was down on Tory Members of Parliament who, he said, were widely criticizing our League policy. He himself of course had no illusions about the weakness of the League, but sees that the British people will not take re-armament seriously except as part of League policy….”15 Thus, Churchill saw how the League could function as an extension of national security by addressing domestic political concerns.

In May 1937 Churchill contemplated a Mediterranean pact “for mutual protection of further aggression.” He believed that if Mussolini could be persuaded to join such an alliance, “the League of Nations would then be strong enough to face the Hitler problem.” But if Mussolini refused and left the League, nothing would remain but for Britain to provide for its “own interests and security.”16 Yet even the “defection” of Mussolini did not altogether end Churchill’s faith in the League.

Parliament met on 14 March 1938 to discuss Hitler’s annexation of Austria. Afterwards, Harold Nicolson noted in his diary: “Winston makes the speech of his life in favour of the League.” Churchill wanted “a solemn treaty for mutual defense against aggression,” organized by Britain and France: “…if all this rested, as it can honourably rest, upon the Covenant of the League of Nations, in pursuance of the purposes and ideals of the League of Nations; if that were sustained, as it would be, by the moral sense of the world; and if it were done in the year 1938—and believe me, it may be the last chance there will be for doing it—then I say that you might even now arrest this approaching war.”17

Of course it was not to be. The League of Nations failed to function as Churchill believed it could because its major supporting members, Britain and France, were unwilling to take up the initiatives that Churchill proposed. Consequently, the small member states— whose value Churchill never discounted—were left to go it alone. In vain for most, the small nations then sought protection through unilateral declarations of neutrality.

The failure of the League was a failure of leadership by its leading members—much as lack of unanimity among its leading members prevents UN action today. Churchill understood that the League was a tool—but a tool cannot function on its own; it must be picked up and employed. It requires a motive force. Failing to share Churchill’s vision of the League’s value, the British and French left the tool unused in the garden shed. As a result fertile soil became barren, and the storm followed.


1. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, vol. V, The Prophet of Truth 1922-1939 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977), 50.

2. Ibid., 52.

3. Ibid., 777.

4. Ibid., 905.

5. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, vol. IV, The Stricken World 1918-1922 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975), 174.

6. Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis, vol. IV: The Aftermath (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1929), 109.

7. Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, vol. V, 121.

8. Ibid., 493.

9. Ibid., 567.

10. Winston Churchill, “To End War,” Collier’s, 29 June 1935, reprinted in The Collected Essays of Sir Winston Churchill, vol. I, Churchill and War (London: Library of Imperial History, 1974), 352.

11. Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, vol. V, 669.

12. Ibid., 676.

13. Ibid., 714.

14. Ibid., 721.

15. Ibid., 723.

16. Ibid., 740.

17. Ibid., 917.

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