If there can said to be true turning points in history, when the future of mankind seems to pivot on the outcome of a single event, perhaps the afternoon of May 9, 1940, 70 years ago, might qualify. This was the day that British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax ,Government whip David Margesson and First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill conferred over scotch and cigars at 10 Downing Street on the future of Chamberlain’s Conservative government.
By that time Britain had been at war with Germany for eight months but had little to show for it. Germany had invaded and then crushingly defeated Poland and Czechoslovakia the previous Fall. Denmark had capitulated in April in less than 12 hours with barely a fight. Norway, where the British Expeditionary Force had fought a two week, half-hearted and poorly planned campaign, was fighting a losing battle for its existence against overwhelming German force.
But even more devastatingly, British intelligence reported that Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg were likely to be invaded within hours by the advancing Wehrmacht – its aim a lightning Panzer strike on France itself through the Ardennes. The Blitzkrieg, confined at that time to Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, was now ripping through the heart of Europe and rumbling dangerously close to home.
Neville Chamberlain, whose policies of appeasement had led Britain into such dire straits, was being increasingly ridiculed in Parliament and had suffered a division in the House of Commons only the day before on the issues of his governmental stewardship. Although Chamberlain won the contest, his usual muscular majority of 250 was reduced to a feeble 80 – which was read as a bitter, humiliating defeat.
At this point, Chamberlain had two options: He could attempt to form his own national government, bringing in Labour and the Liberals members into a unity coalition. Or he could resign and hand over his prime ministerial responsibilities to another man more capable of inspiring the confidence of parliament and the citizenry. He chose to go on. Yet when the answer returned that neither Labour nor the Liberal leaders would serve under him, he accepted that he had no choice but to tender his resignation to the King.
The four men sitting together at Downing Street, then had to make a fateful decision about the leadership succession. Chamberlain’s own choice was Halifax, a man who had loyally supported his policies of appeasement and had demonstrated little taste for war.
Churchill, the alternate choice, had many things going against him. He was intensely distrusted by senior members of his own Conservative Party, who saw him as vainglorious and unstable. Members of the Opposition had been aggrieved by his steadfast commitment to Chamberlain’s lackadaisical conduct of the war (he had been appointed as First Lord of the Admiralty in September) and largely blamed him for the Norwegian fiasco.
Moreover, there was Churchill’s resistance to the idea himself. Once in government, he had become a loyal supporter of Chamberlain and had even mounted a vigorous defense of the prime minister when he was denounced in Parliament the day before. He made it clear to Chamberlain that he would accept any decision the prime minister made about a successor. For the young and aggressive back-benchers who had, since Munich, been clamoring for a Churchill prime-ministership, this was deeply puzzling, if not tantamount to a betrayal.
The one thing that tipped the balance was Halifax himself. Noting how difficult it might prove to lead the government during wartime from the House of Lords, he made it clear that he didn’t want the job, even if there was support from the Commons. After he made that comment, a long silence followed and Chamberlain, looking at Churchill, designated him as his heir.
How the world might have looked today if things has swung the other way and Halifax had accepted Chamberlain’s choice is one of the truly great counter-factual questions of history. For Halifax was not a fighter, nor a particularly inspiring figure. A sense of his thinking on the matter of war and peace was revealed two weeks later when the Italians sent feelers to the British government to help negotiate a separate peace between the U.K. and Germany. Churchill had retained Halifax (along with a number of Chamberlain’s appeaser crew) in his government in an effort to maintain continuity. Halifax argued aggressively for a peace treaty with Hitler, essentially conceding the European continent to the German dictator. This, he argued, might keep the British fleet in tact and allow the U.K, to use its over stretched resources to defend against grave threats to the British Empire in Asia and the Pacific.
After four days of heated debate, Churchill rejected Halifax’s proposals out of hand and soon enough went on to rally not only Parliament but the entire nation behind his defiant policy. “Then and there,” historian John Lukacs has written, “Churchill saved Britain and Europe and Western civilization.”
But what if it had been Halifax in charge and not Churchill who led that cabinet debate in late May? The likely outcome would have been a peace treaty that surrendered not just the Continent, but also Britain’s control of the Atlantic, giving the Germans effective command, through unrestricted submarine warfare, of its sea lanes. The United States would then have stood alone, relatively unprepared, as the sole major world democracy facing totalitarian challenges on two fronts.
Recognizing American vulnerability, the Japanese might well have stepped up their planned attack on Pearl Harbor to December, 1940 – a year early, giving the United States little time for its rearmament program to have any significant impact on the war’s outcome. The Soviet Union, after many setbacks, including the destruction of Moscow and the defeat of Stalingrad, but drawing on its enormous human resources, may have recovered sufficiently to force back a German retreat, which would have led to the Russians’ ultimate advance on Berlin.
Without the presence of Allied forces to prevent their progress, the Soviet armies would have quickly swept into France, Spain and Italy and crushed any resistance. The entire European continent would inevitably have come under the shadow of Communist rule, leaving a brittle, ineffectual Britain and a struggling United States to defend the last bastion of world democracy. In such a scenario, the Cold War might have taken on a completely different complexion, as the appeasement of an indomitable Soviet Union became the governing foreign policy of a succession of American administrations.
Not many people today realize how close the world came in those crucial Spring days to the utter decimation of Western civilization. It was the West’s great fortune to produce a man of Winston Churchill’s charisma, energy and fighting spirit at the moment of its greatest challenge. As prosaic as it may sound, this one man did indeed stand on the division between a world given over to slavery and oppression and one where freedom and liberty are both cherished and defended. He understood the stakes and appreciated the importance of his role. Would we have leaders today who are similarly endowed with such a breadth of vision and greatness of purpose.
Their absence is made all the more glaring by Churchill’s extraordinary example.
Avi Davis is the president of the American Freedom Alliance in Los Angeles. His writings and blog entries can be found at The Intermediate Zone and at the Los Angeles Jewish Journal blog On The Other Hand