Grand Alliance: A Way Out of the Second World War?

Grand Alliance: A Way Out of the Second World War?


“Pro­fes­sor John Charm­ley says in a pod­cast that Neville Cham­ber­lain believed a pre­war grand alliance against Hitler was not fea­si­ble. He was refer­ring to alliance between the UK and France and the Unit­ed States and USSR. Do you agree?”


As Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei) tells the Dis­trict Attor­ney (Lane Smith) in “My Cousin Vin­ny” (1992), “that’s a B.S. question.”

(To voir dire Miss Vito on “gen­er­al auto­mo­tive knowl­edge” the D.A. had demand­ed the igni­tion tim­ing of “a 1955 Chevro­let 327 V-8.” (Read­ers less mechan­i­cal­ly inclined than Miss Vito may enjoy her dev­as­tat­ing two-minute rebut­tal to this “trick question.”)

Thir­ty years ago Pro­fes­sor Charm­ley and I engaged in a grand harangue over his high­ly read­able cri­tique, Churchill: The End of Glo­ry. The argu­ment was over whether Churchill was right to pros­e­cute the Hitler war after mid-1940. Nei­ther side gave an inch, but John engaged with gen­tle­man­ly verve and col­le­gial­i­ty that I admired, and tried to rec­i­p­ro­cate. After­ward he invit­ed me to lunch at his club, where I promised to order the most expen­sive cham­pagne. Alas we were nev­er able to make it work.

I am sure Dr. Charm­ley cor­rect­ly rep­re­sents Chamberlain’s belief that alliance with Rus­sia or the Amer­i­cans was not fea­si­ble. But nev­er mind 1940. Why is the ques­tion, “would alliance have pre­vent­ed WW2” like the ques­tion about a 1955 Chevy 327? Because as Mona Lisa Vito says, “nobody could answer that ques­tion.” It is unanswerable.

VancouverThe sub­ject of alliance between the Anglo-French and Rus­sians, and then the Amer­i­cans, is con­sid­ered in my 2015 mono­graph, Churchill and the Avoid­able War. (For a review by Pro­fes­sor Man­fred Wei­d­horn, click here.) Rel­e­vant to your ques­tion are two chapters….

Alliance with Ivan

Chap­ter 6, “Favourable Ref­er­ence to the Dev­il,” con­sid­ers the notion, strong­ly pushed by Churchill, of a Sovi­et alliance. These excerpts may be per­ti­nent. (End­notes are in the book):

From the time Hitler marched on the Rhineland, Churchill had pon­dered Anglo-Russ­ian  coop­er­a­tion. The his­to­ri­an Don­ald Cameron Watt wrote: “He fell into the clutch­es of Ivan Maisky, the Sovi­et ambas­sador in London…writing to Vis­count Cecil of the need to “organ­ise a Euro­pean mass and, per­haps, a world mass which will confront…the heav­i­ly armed unmoral dictatorships.”

Maisky was clever and world­ly, prac­tised in Eng­lish ways…. But say­ing Churchill fell into his clutch­es is very wide of the mark. Churchill loathed and feared the Sovi­et Union, and it was a huge deci­sion to court Maisky. Yet Churchill could add and sub­tract, and he need­ed the help. He act­ed for big rea­sons, and he explained them. In the event, his fore­bod­ings about the USSR would be proven entire­ly correct.

Churchill, a pri­vate Mem­ber of Par­lia­ment with­out office, was able to play only a back­ground role as Britain con­sid­ered a Russ­ian arrange­ment. But it is incor­rect to believe he did not call for one until 1938. He had many con­ver­sa­tions with prin­ci­pals, includ­ing Nazis, which he duly for­ward­ed to the For­eign Office.

Up until Munich, Churchill’s stand on Rus­sia was clos­er to that of his par­ty than has been gen­er­al­ly rec­og­nized. After Munich, he cor­rect­ly con­clud­ed that the only way left to pre­vent war was to revive the Triple Entente that had faced Ger­many in World War I. In view of Stalin’s obvi­ous ambi­tions in east­ern Europe, the ques­tion is whether that would have pre­vent­ed a world con­fla­gra­tion: an issue we shall now consider.

Alliance and America

Chap­ter 7, “Lost Best Hope,” con­sid­ers the chance of alliance with Amer­i­ca. In this case Cham­ber­lain was even more disdainful:

Churchill made his views about Amer­i­ca known as ear­ly as 1935: “We must keep in the clos­est touch with the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca….” In 1937, Churchill was heart­ened to hear of Pres­i­dent Roosevelt’s “Quar­an­tine Speech” in Chica­go. “A reign of ter­ror and inter­na­tion­al law­less­ness,” FDR said, threat­ened “the very foun­da­tions of civ­i­liza­tion.” He pro­posed eco­nom­ic pres­sure on the aggres­sor nations. Churchill respond­ed that these were “exact­ly the same ideas that are in our minds, and I have no doubt that it will be cor­dial­ly wel­comed by Mr. Chamberlain.”

They were not: On 11 Jan­u­ary 1938, Roo­sevelt telegraphed Cham­ber­lain propos­ing to invite rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Ger­many, Britain, France and Italy to Wash­ing­ton in the hopes of medi­at­ing an ease­ment of affairs, or at least tak­ing part in dis­cus­sions. Before doing so, he wrote, he wished to con­sult with the Cham­ber­lain gov­ern­ment. Not the French or Ger­man government—the British gov­ern­ment. This was not alliance, but it cer­tain­ly was a sug­ges­tion that Britain and Amer­i­ca might work together.

It was a gold­en oppor­tu­ni­ty, but Cham­ber­lain was in a bel­liger­ent mood. In Decem­ber, after Japan attacked British and Amer­i­can gun­boats on the Yangtze, he had pro­posed a con­cert­ed Anglo-Amer­i­can response includ­ing a joint naval task force, Roo­sevelt had set­tled for a Japan­ese apol­o­gy. The Amer­i­cans, Cham­ber­lain com­plained, “are incred­i­bly slow and have missed innu­mer­able busses….I do wish the Japs would beat up an Amer­i­can or two!” Japan ful­filled his wish four years lat­er at Pearl Harbor.

Back to the Unanswerable Question

Chamberlain’s rebuff of Roo­sevelt end­ed the last frail chance to save the world from cat­a­stro­phe. Churchill was on hol­i­day in the South of France dur­ing this episode, and could not have known of it at the time. But his mem­oirs were censorious:

That Mr. Cham­ber­lain, with his lim­it­ed out­look and inex­pe­ri­ence of the Euro­pean scene, should have pos­sessed the self-suf­fi­cien­cy to wave away the prof­fered hand stretched out across the Atlantic leaves one, even at this date, breath­less with amaze­ment. The lack of all sense of pro­por­tion, and even of self-preser­va­tion, which this episode reveals in an upright, com­pe­tent, well-mean­ing man, charged with the des­tinies of our coun­try and all who depend­ed upon it, is appalling. One can­not today even recon­struct the state of mind which would ren­der such ges­tures possible.

So the answer to your ques­tion, was alliance with Rus­sia or Amer­i­ca fea­si­ble, is impos­si­ble to sup­ply. Nei­ther option appealed to Mr. Cham­ber­lain. And con­trary to many opin­ions, he was a very astute man, try­ing “accord­ing to his lights,” as Churchill said, to avoid war.

Under the right lead­er­ship, per­haps one alliance or the oth­er might have worked. But that required extra­or­di­nary vision—the per­sua­sive­ness, mind­set and savoir faire Churchill might have brought to the task.

Was it pos­si­ble? Yes, but with great dif­fi­cul­ty. I wel­come read­er opinions.

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