In May 1940, Leopold Amery, a prominent Conservative member of the House of Commons, rose to castigate Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain for his failures as a wartime leader—particularly for the recent British fiasco in Norway. Echoing Oliver Cromwell, he faced Chamberlain and declaimed, “You have sat here too long for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”
Amery’s rebuke helped to trigger a vote of no confidence, and Chamberlain was forced to step down on May 8.
What if the following then happened?
Because the Conservatives retain a majority, the new prime minister must come from their ranks. Some suggest Winston Churchill, first lord of the Admiralty, who had recognized the reality of the Nazi threat years before. But many find his judgment erratic and vividly recall his authorship of the Gallipoli disaster in 1915. Chamberlain, who continues as leader of the Conservatives, prefers Lord Halifax, former viceroy of India and current foreign secretary. While he has no formal say in the matter, King George VI is known to favor Halifax too. Initially reluctant to accept the post, which obliges him to step down from the House of Lords, Halifax yields, and on May 10 the king asks him to form a government.
That same day, the Wehrmacht launches a massive offensive against the Low Countries and France. German panzer divisions reach the English Channel within a week, cutting off France’s best forces along with virtually the entire British Expeditionary Force. By the end of the month only Dunkirk remains out of German hands. It is estimated that, at best, only forty-five thousand British soldiers can be evacuated, and even then virtually all equipment will have to be left behind. Facing the worst crisis in the history of the British Empire, Halifax believes that in order to preserve that empire, Britain must seek a negotiated peace with Germany.
To open talks directly with Hitler would be fatal; an intermediary must be found. The obvious choice is Benito Mussolini— his Fascist Italy is allied to Germany but as yet remains officially neutral. Halifax approaches American president Franklin D. Roosevelt, who offers his assistance in persuading Mussolini to accept negotiations, and on May 26 Halifax meets with Italian ambassador Count Giuseppe Bastianini. Although Bastianini opens the discussion by merely expressing a desire to explore ways of keeping Italy out of war, he mentions that Mussolini favors a general settlement that would “protect European peace for a century.” Halifax replies that Great Britain would consider any serious proposal “that gave promise of the establishment of a secure and peaceful Europe.”
Though some—particularly Churchill, who remains in the British Cabinet— adamantly insist on fighting on, Halifax believes Great Britain has no other choice, particularly since Operation Dynamo, the desperate evacuation of Dunkirk, has extracted a bare seventeen thousand men as of May 28. The following day Halifax persuades the cabinet to make a deal with Hitler to end the war.
The above account is far closer to what actually happened than one might think. Halifax really was the first choice to succeed Chamber lain. His exchange with Bastianini really did take place. Roosevelt did indicate to Mussolini his willingness to act as intermediary in British Italian talks. Only seventeen thousand British troops had been evacuated from Dun kirk by May 28. And from May 25 to May 28, the British Cabinet did seriously consider peace negotiations, using Mussolini as intermediary, with Halifax being the main proponent of such a course.
These events are ably re-created in historian Ian Kershaw’s new book, Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions That Changed the World, 1940–1941. The first of those fateful choices was the British decision not to seek negotiations.
Halifax in fact rejected the offer to become prime minister, so the job went to Churchill, although Halifax remained as foreign secretary. But Churchill lacked the firm grip on power that he would later possess. He could not peremptorily reject negotiations; he had to make his case by persuasion. Ultimately he succeeded— with firm support, surprisingly enough, from Chamberlain, who along with Hali fax had been the key architect of Britain’s “appeasement” of Hitler in 1938.
Halifax might not have prevailed even had he been prime minister; indeed, he might have changed his mind about the wisdom of negotiations. Yet he certainly enjoyed greater prestige than Churchill. And Chamberlain, who effectively held the balance of power, might conceivably have felt he had to support Halifax as the new prime minister and thrown his influence in favor of negotiations.
Once begun, the peace overtures would likely have gained momentum, particularly after the capitulation of France on June 22, 1940. The “general peace settlement” broached by Halifax and Bastianini might well have become reality.
What would such a settlement have looked like? The cabinet assumed that in exchange for not entering the war and for mediating the negotiations between Britain and Germany, Mussolini would want con cessions in the Mediterranean. Churchill estimated that Italy would seek the neutralization of Gibraltar and the Suez Canal, the demilitarization of Malta, and restrictions on the number of British warships in the Mediterranean. While Churchill considered these concessions unacceptable, they were hardly onerous when balanced against the preservation of the British Empire.
Hitler, who in July 1940 would assure Great Britain that he did not desire the destruction of the British Empire, might have accepted an armistice predicated on British assurances to play no further role in the European conflict. From Hitler’s perspective, such a solution would have freed him to turn all of his military might against the Soviet Union. But to ensure that the British would not renege on the deal, Kershaw believes that Hitler would have insisted upon the return of the colonies stripped from Germany after World War I, as well as concessions designed to hobble the Royal Navy, without which Great Britain had no chance for further intervention on the Continent.
In the short term, a negotiated settlement might have indeed preserved the British Empire. But it would have enfee bled Britain and extinguished Roosevelt’s interest in providing the country with support. He would have quite reasonably turned full attention to the defense of North America. And in the long term— especially given a Nazi triumph over the Soviet Union—it is unlikely that Great Britain would have retained its empire or even escaped eventual invasion.
Of course, no settlement occurred. In its “finest hour,” Great Britain fought on, creating a Grand Alliance with the United States and the Soviet Union, suffering 450,000 military and civilian deaths, and losing its empire and status as a world power anyway.
But gloriously, not cravenly.
Originally published in the November 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.