William Manchester
The Caged Lion

As Churchill later wrote, 'The virtues of disarmament were extolled in the House of Commons by all parties.' On June 29, 1931, Ramsay MacDonald looking forward to the first World Disarmament Conference, had proudly announced in the House that the dismantling of England's armed forces had been 'swift, patient, and persistent,' and that although it had gone 'pretty near the limit,' he intended to make 'still further reductions' once he had persuaded other European governments to follow suit. His first target Would be Paris. Germany, stripped of her defenses, constituted no threat to the peace, but the huge French army could attack across the Rhine at any time.

Churchill instantly replied that the French army, far from being dangerous, was the strongest guarantee of peace on the Continent. Moreover, the chancelleries of eastern Europe, from the Baltic to the Black Sea, 'look to France for guidance and leadership.' If the French followed MacDonald's advice and sent half their poilus home, he continued, those states between Germany and Russia would be lost, leaderless, and ripe for the plucking. Britain must be armed—'England's hour of weakness is Europe's hour of danger.' He urged the prime minister to abandon his mission: 'The sudden disappearance or undue weakness of that factor of unquestionable French military superiority may open the floodgates of measureless consequence.'

Even as he had risen to speak, other members had begun drifting out of the chamber. Winston, they told one another, had always been against disarmament. Every MP knew it; they discounted it; he would make no converts here. But he had his readers, and as the diplomats convened in Geneva, he toiled in his Chartwell study urging close scrutiny of all proposals by the conferees in Switzerland. In the Daily Mail he wrote that 'millions of well-meaning English people' were praying for a successful conference. That, he said, was their vulnerability: 'There is such a horror of war in the great nations who passed through Armageddon that any declaration or public speech against armaments, although it consisted only of platitudes and unrealities, has always been applauded; and any speech or assertion which set forth the blunt truths has been incontinently relegated to the category of 'warmongering.'

Despite MacDonald's optimism, the first round of talks at Geneva ended in July 1932 after five months of frustration. Nothing had been accomplished. Sixty nations, the United States and the U.S.S.R; among them, had sent delegations, but every session ended in a deadlock between the Germans, who insisted on permission to rearm before any other item on the agenda could be even considered, and the French, who argued that the disarmament of all European states be supervised, and then monitored, by an international police force. MacDonald, undiscouraged, laid plans for resuming the conference.

To Churchill the negotiations were highly suspect. He believed, quite simply, that military weakness invited attack, a view more controversial then than it has since become. As early as September 9, 1928, he had written a friend: 'We always seem to be getting into trouble over these stupid disarmament manoeuvres, and I personally deprecate all these premature attempts to force agreements on disarmament.' Was it likely, he asked in the Daily Mail of May 26, 1932, that France, with twenty million fewer people than Germany, and half the number of youths coming to military age every year would deprive herself 'of the mechanical aids and appliances on which she relies to prevent a fourth invasion in little more than a hundred years?' The goals of disarmament were admirable, but they would never be 'attained by mush, slush, and gush.' The hard and bitter truth was that lasting demilitarization of Europe could only be 'advanced steadily by the harrassing expense of fleets and armies, and by the growth of confidence in a long peace.'

Convalescing from paratyphoid, Churchill was confined to Chartwell during the opening of Parliament's disarmament debate of November 10, 1932, and missed Sir John Simon's affirmation that it was the objective of British policy to find a 'fair meeting of Germany's claim to the principle of equality.' Baldwin, supporting disarmament as the only way to peace, spoke of what he called 'the terror of the air.' Enemy bombers, he said, could hammer London into the earth like a hot white saucer. No defense against them was possible: 'I confess that the more I have studied this question, the more depressed I have been at the perfectly futile attempts that have been made to deal with this problem.' He thought that 'the man on the street' should 'realize that there is no power on earth that can protect him from being bombed.' Whatever happened, he said, 'the bomber will always get through.'

Baldwin had raised, or perhaps stumbled upon, one of the thorniest military issues of the time. The weight of professional military opinion was on his side. In England, Italy, the United States, France, and Germany, most air strategists subscribed to what was called the Douhet Theory. Shortly before his death in 1930, an Italian airman, General Giulio Douhet, had published The War of 19—, in which he argued that armies and navies should be relegated to defensive roles while bomber fleets won the war. Any nation investing heavily in air defense was risking defeat, he wrote, for 'No one can command his own sky if he cannot command his adversary's sky.' His most important convert was Nazi air force chief Hermann Goring, the 1918 ace, with his treasured memories of the Red Baron and the wind in the wires. Unfortunately for Goring, one aging RAF officer thought Douhet's thesis fatally flawed. He was Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, who would later command the RAF in the Battle of Britain. Dowding and eminent British scientists, colleagues of the Prof, convinced Churchill that every offensive weapon could be countered by imaginative, intrepid defenders. They cited fast fighters and trained antiaircraft crews; later they would brief Winston on RDF, an acronym so secret that until the war only a handful of men would know of it. It represented 'radio direction finding'—or, as the Americans were to christen it, radar.

In the Daily Mail of November 17, Churchill called on the government to look to Britain's defenses: 'If Geneva fails, let the National Government propose to Parliament measures necessary to place our Air Force in such a condition of power and efficiency that it will not be 'worth anyone's while to come here and kill our women and children in the hope that they may blackmail us into surrender.' Six days later he addressed the House on the issue. He had studied Baldwin's speech and thought it needlessly pessimistic. It had 'created anxiety,' he said, 'and it created also perplexity.' S.B. had left an unjustified impression of 'fatalism, and even perhaps of helplessness.' The time had come not to dismantle the RAF, but to expand it. 'Why should we fear the air?' he asked. 'We have as good technical knowledge as any country.' He pressed the government to 'consider profoundly and urgently the whole position of our air defense.'

Of the French, he said, 'They only wish to keep what they have got, and no initiative in making trouble would come from them.' He was 'not an alarmist' (this drew jeers) and did not 'believe in the imminence of war' (more jeers). But, he continued, 'the removal of just grievances of the vanquished ought to precede the disarmament of the victors.'

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.