Chamberlain, Prime Minister Neville, 1869-1940

Chamberlain, a member of one of the leading Conservative Party families, became Prime Minister of Great Britain in May 1937. Although his experience had been in home affairs, he made the direction of foreign policy his principal concern. The line he adopted in his dealings with dictators quickly attracted the description of ‘appeasement’ but the term did not at the time carry any suggestion of the disreputable; Chamberlain himself regarded it as an accurate expression of his desire to preserve peace. His opponents were later, somewhat unfairly, to accuse him of desiring to do so at any price. Though prepared in 1938 to sacrifice the national territory of Czechoslovakia—‘a far-off country of which we know lit- tle’—he regarded that capitulation as unavoidable in Britain’s current state of military unreadiness, which he was simultaneously working to change, through a program of rapid rearmament. By 1939 he had accepted that Germany’s territorial ambitions could no longer be tolerated by the Western powers and, with France, issued guarantees of protection to Poland. When Germany attacked Poland in September 1939 he stood by those guarantees and, if with the heaviest of hearts, brought Britain into the war against HITLER. His credibility as a war leader had been hopelessly compromised, however, by his appeasement policies and his position was further undermined by the defeat of the British Expeditionary Force to Norway in April 1940. Criticism of his leadership was publicly and widely expressed in the House of Commons in May, notably by Leo AMERY, and on 10 May he surrendered the premiership to Winston CHURCHILL. He remained a member of the War Cabinet but was broken by his humiliation and the failure of his honest search for peace, and died in November 1940. His reputation, though now assessed more charitably, never recovered.

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