The Foreign Secretaries (10): Sir Anthony Eden

IMG_3393Sir Anthony Eden

Conservative: in the National Government, under Baldwin and Chamberlain, 1935-38; in the wartime National Government, and then caretaker government, under Churchill, 1940-45; under Churchill, 1951-55.

For the rest of Eden’s remarkable career, see the blog article here.

By late 1935, Eden was Foreign Secretary: at 38, the youngest of the 20th century. As DR Thorpe avers, from this point Eden was ‘crown prince of the Conservative Party’: a position, Eden was to note later, that was ‘not necessarily enviable’. He became foreign secretary at a difficult time, at Baldwin’s attitude towards him was ambivalent. It was also a difficult time. In the course of the next year, Eden would face Mussolini taking complete control over Abyssinia, Japanese designs upon China, the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and Hitler’s remilitarisation of the Rhineland.

Abyssinia was a fait accompli; so, in the end, was the Rhineland. That Hitler would want to remilitarise the Rhineland was hardly news. In the opinion of the Foreign Office, the only viable German policy was to come to terms, as measures of collective security would draw Britain into a network of defensive alliances that they believed had dragged Britain into the Great War. As such, Eden hoped to use the Rhineland as a carrot to persuade Hitler to agree to the much vaunted air pact. Back in 1935, the Foreign Office had seen the Anglo-German Naval Agreement as the first step on that road; Hitler had sidestepped it by publicly announcing the existence of a German air force in any case. Once again, Hitler forestalled any such plan. On March 6th, Eden got cabinet agreement for talks; on March 7th, German troops entered the Rhineland.

It was once a commonplace to assert that this was the moment Britain and France could have stopped Hitler. True, Hitler had ordered his forces to withdraw if there was any allied resistance. However, any notion that the army might then have overthrown him fundamentally misreads the strength of Hitler’s position and the extent of the army’s acquiescence to him. Furthermore, given what we all know about Hitler, it is surely impossible to imagine that he would not have returned. Both Britain and France feared that any kind of military reaction might spark war, and war over the Rhineland was disproportionate. Last of all, France’s military posture was avowedly defensive. Given that Maginot mentality, and Britain’s unwillingness to make security arrangements, the Rhineland affair was over without much of a fuss. As the inevitable taxi driver told Eden, Jerry could do what he liked in his own backyard.

In any case, another issue arose soon enough when, in the July, the Spanish Civil War broke out. For Britain, the key requirement was to contain the conflict: earlier, Eden had talked publicly of the need to ‘appease Europe’. The problem was that, almost immediately, both Italy and Germany were intervening on the side of Franco’s nationalists. Britain and France were determined to keep out. Opinion on the left was passionately for the Republic, and the civil war provoked a bitter public debate. The government took a different view. The Foreign Office looked to bolster relations with whichever side won in the end. For some, such as the former foreign secretary Samuel Hoare, the key issue was to stop communism, and the Republic had the support of Stalin’s Russia.

In terms of policy, the Spanish War had to important outcomes, neither of them good. In the first place, it drew Hitler and Mussolini closer together. Secondly, the bombing of Guernica in 1937 reinforced the belief that the bomber would always get through. This had a political impact in Britain, by the way. Labour, and the left, were shaken out of any semblance of their previous pacifism. For others, the fear of the bomber gave an even greater imperative to avoid war.

Eden had sometimes felt frustrated with Baldwin’s lack of interest in foreign policy, but he quickly came to miss that freedom of manoeuvre when Chamberlain entered Number 10. Some prime ministers leave foreign policy to the Foreign Office; others want to dictate it from Downing Street. Chamberlain, an old man in a hurry, was one of the latter sort, and came to disagree fundamentally with Eden.

To understand how that worked, and thus understand the real reason for Eden’s resignation in 1938, we need to look again at the diplomatic situation. In 1936, Mussolini had proclaimed the Rome-Berlin Axis. That vague notion was, however, reinforced by the Anti-Comintern Pact, signed by Germany and Japan in 1936, and then by Italy in 1937. Throughout 1937, Eden had courted Mussolini, despite his deep distrust of him. In January, the so-called Gentleman’s Agreement, whereby both Britain and Italy recognised each other’s interests in the Mediterranean, seem to hold out hope that Anglo-Italian diplomacy might still be useful. Italy’s signing of the Anti-Comintern Pact was a severe blow to that hope, one made even more grievous in the context of the launching of Japan’s bloody invasion south into China in the July.

Chamberlain came to office convinced the Foreign Office were too cautious and conservative. Furthermore, he governed taking advice from an inner circle that excluded Eden, but included two former foreign secretaries, in the form of Sir John Simon and Sir Samuel Hoare. Another one of that inner circle was Halifax who, as lord privy seal and leader of the House of Lords, was increasingly influential. Furthermore, foreign policy was the dominant issue of Chamberlain’s time in office, right from the start.

There were tensions over Halifax’s meeting with Hitler in 1937, though Eden went along with the idea. There were also tensions over the possibility of American mediation: It might well be thought that Chamberlain felt that if there was to be a mediation effort, it should be led by him. Most of all, though, it was Chamberlain’s policy towards Italy and his circumvention of Eden that told. As soon as Chamberlain had become prime minister, he began to make personal interventions in policy towards Italy, notably offering to meet with Mussolini in person. In the autumn, Eden and Chamberlain had differences over a speech Eden made, and over rearmament. In December, Ivy Chamberlain (Austen’s widow) was in Rome, and had a series of meetings with the Italian foreign minister, Count Ciano, and Mussolini himself. Ivy Chamberlain gave, and gained, the impression that relations with Italy could be speedily improved, confirming Neville Chamberlain’s prejudice about the Foreign Office’s caution and inertia. In a meeting with Grandi, the Italian ambassador, at which both Chamberlain and Eden were present, the disagreement between the two became open. Eden resigned the following day, his position untenable.

The real reasons for his resignation were the way in which Chamberlain was conducting foreign policy without properly consulting his own foreign secretary and a fundamental disagreement over the reliability of Mussolini as a diplomatic partner. Three weeks later, Hitler had occupied Austria. In part thanks to that coincidence, and in part thanks to the subsequent Munich agreement, Eden acquired the reputation of having resigned over appeasement. He had not.

The reputation he won for being against Chamberlain would serve him well enough in the long run, but he was helped just as much by the restraint he showed on the backbenches in not openly attacking the prime minister. Thus, when Chamberlain broadened his government upon the declaration of war, Eden was a natural choice to return. The Dominions Office was a demotion, for sure, but it was a stepping-stone, as was the War Office, which Churchill gave him in May 1940. In many ways, the War Office was a waiting room for Eden’s return to the Foreign Office. The obstacle was Halifax.

Eden was by far the best choice. Over the course of the rest of the war, Eden and Attlee were closest to Churchill. As Eden noted, they were often the only ones from whom he would take advice that he didn’t want to hear. It didn’t start well, though: an ill-fated intervention in Greece saw the Germans occupy both Greece and Yugoslavia, and Rommel make advances in the Middle East.

The Middle East and Balkans mattered, but were a sideshow compared with what came next. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Eden fully backed Churchill’s decision to treat the USSR as a would-be ally. Eden had first visited Moscow in 1935, and he now found himself there again in December 1941 just after Pearl Harbor and with the Germans at the gates. There were disagreements, Stalin wanted the old Tsarist borders restored as the price of victory, but Eden was able to reassure him of Britain’s good faith without making explicit promises. The important thing he did achieve was to convince Stalin of Britain’s determination to fight on; thus, he stiffened Stalin’s will to fight in turn.

Interestingly, given the fracture in Anglo-American relations over Suez in 1956, which would define his brief spell as prime minister, Eden was more suspicious of the Americans than Churchill was. In particular, he feared the price that Britain would have to pay for US support. It was not their only disagreement: others included over policy towards de Gaulle, for example. For all that, and not always for his political good, Eden was very much Churchill’s right hand man, and his nominated successor, as Churchill made plain to the king in 1941. Most of all, Eden’s writ, like Attlee’s and Bevin’s, ran wide across the wartime coalition, and he was essential to its effective working.

His fears about Britain’s diminished place in the world were all too evident by Yalta, in which a fatally ill Roosevelt and Stalin made the running. Eden, however, did secure one minor triumph: the promise of a Soviet withdrawal from Iran. The period that followed was a bitter one for Eden, losing his mother and son, and his marriage. The loss of office, in 1945, saw Eden’s ambitions for the leadership put further on hold.

Nonetheless, Eden used his time in that position fruitfully, doing much to modernise his party. As far as foreign policy went, Eden was supportive of Bevin, a man he much admired, recognising the need for a bipartisan approach. Thus, when the Conservatives won in 1951, Eden returned to the Foreign Office for the third time. Bar a period of serious illness, from which some believed he never fully recovered, there was much to do. Given what was to come, the Middle East saw unresolved issues in Iran, over oil, and Egypt. In part in consequence, Eden developed a mistrust of the US secretary of state, John Foster Dulles. Ironically, Eden and Dulles agreed that British troops should withdraw from Egypt in 1954 (something Churchill disagreed with). He also played a key role in the end of the Korean War, in the Geneva Conference of 1954, which brought short-lived peace to Vietnam, and in the creation of SEATO (the South East Asian equivalent of NATO).

The most pressing issue facing Eden was Europe. In particular, the prospect of West German rearmament, which threatened to destabilise or even kill off NATO. When the proposed European Defence Community was killed off by the French parliament, Eden saved the day by committing British forces to a permanent presence in Germany (the Americans did the same). This may have had an unfortunate consequence, in helping convince Eden that subsequent proposals for a European common market would never get off the ground. In truth, though, Eden shared the views of Attlee, Bevin and Churchill, that Britain could never be part of European integrationist initiatives. In doing so, he might be said to have failed to see the reality of Britain’s diminished position, but he was hardly alone in that.

Eden was one of seven foreign secretaries since 1906 to have also been prime minister, one of only four to have gone from the Foreign Office to number ten (one of only two to go direct), and one of ten foreign secretaries who also led their party. He is the only man since Lord Salisbury to have held the Foreign Office three times. His reputation would be made dust by Suez, but he remains one of the most distinguished of our foreign secretaries.




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