Myths of appeasement

Appeasement did not spring from military weakness. 1930s Britain was well armed
February 26, 2006

Since 1945, every British military intervention abroad has been justified by the invocation of a particular history of the interwar years. The terms "appeasement," "Munich," and "Hitler" are deployed to convince doubters of the wisdom of campaigns against Nasser, Galtieri, Milosevic and Saddam Hussein. Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair have been particularly keen on learning the lessons of their own versions of history.

When Blair presented his notorious Iraq WMD dossier to the House of Commons on 24th September 2002, he said that we knew, "from our history that diplomacy not backed by the threat of force has never worked with dictators and never will work." And one crucial element in assumptions about appeasement is that it was the consequence of, and perhaps justified by, military weakness. Central to our image of the 1930s is a disarmed Britain, whose "guilty men" (as Michael Foot and others called them in a famous polemic in 1940) not only appeased Hitler but kept arms spending down and then failed to rearm adequately.

The idea that Britain disarmed in the 1920s and early 1930s is no mere propagandistic assumption of those who favour strong armaments today. It is a foundational belief of many experts, among them the international relations community in the US and many historians. Without it, elaborate structures of argument and understanding crash to the ground. Evidence suggests it needs to be challenged.

The claim that Britain had disarmed started in the 1930s. For decades afterwards historians competed to find new ways of evoking the full extent of the cutbacks without making their case specific enough to make it easily verifiable or refutable. Historians spoke of a Britain which "largely dismantled her defence industries" and where "swingeing reductions were made in the budget of all three services." One claimed that in the 1920s, the "three services had barely existed on budgets cut to the bone." Yet as George Peden wrote in 1979: "One would be hard put to argue that Britain was in a worse position than Germany in 1932."

Revisionist historians have long been at work, but the slight impact of this work is a measure of how deeply ingrained the old story is. In the 1980s, John Ferris showed that 1920s Britain spent more on defence than anyone else. In 1989, Dick Richardson concluded that the "allegation—supported by a number of historians—that Britain disarmed while other powers did not is far from the truth." And my own work has shown that the British military aircraft industry was growing and was as large as any in the world. This alternative picture can now be strengthened.

Between the wars, defence expenditure in Britain was higher than it had been in the 1890s, and roughly the same as it had been from 1905-10. It remained at much the same level from 1924-34, if one corrects, as one should, for the rising value of the pound. Naval expenditure fell, but did so to accommodate an expanding air force. Even so, in 1935, before rearmament got fully under way, the British navy had rough parity with the US and a good margin over the Japanese. Crucially, the British navy outclassed all European navies. As Winston Churchill put it in September 1939: "the Germans have only seven ships worth considering… the two 26,000-ton battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau; the three so-called pocket battleships, which are really ill-constructed heavy cruisers, and two excellent 10,000-ton 8-inch cruisers." In 1939-40, the Italian surface fleet was stronger than the German.

Britain's major naval rival was Japan. In 1941, Japan had 11 battleships, but the Royal Navy would have had no fewer than 18 had it not been for war losses. Naval historians often imply that the Royal Navy was irrationally committed to battleships and failed to develop new classes of warship. This is wrong. In 1935, the navy had six aircraft carriers to four each for Japan and the US, while in 1939 it had seven and the others six each. By the end of 1941, had it not been for war losses Britain would have had 11 carriers to the Japanese eight (and the US's seven). It was warfare, not policy or disarmament treaties, which reduced the Royal Navy to rough battleship parity with the Japanese.

Britain's army was weak. However, work by Paul Harris has shown how important the tank was to this small army. The interwar British army had a very effective tank lobby, which made Britain the leading tank power of the 1920s. Not only were tank officers enthusiasts for their machines, but most interwar heads of the British army were highly sympathetic. If anything, by the late 1930s Britain over-rated the power of the tank.

The pre-rearmament strength of the British forces was based on a powerful armaments industry. Vickers, some 50 per cent of whose turnover was in armaments, was the third largest manufacturing employer in Britain, after Unilever and ICI. The private armament industry employed at least 38,000 out of a total of 80,000 armament workers before rearmament.

Just as the power of British arms in 1935 is systematically underestimated, so is the pace and scope of British rearmament. Although less intense in the late 1930s than the German effort, by 1940 the picture was very different. In 1940 Britain outproduced Germany in aircraft by around 50 per cent, as Richard Overy established long ago. Warship production was much higher too. More surprisingly, in 1940 Britain's tank production was just below Germany's and in 1941 well above.

German and Japanese victories in 1940 and 1941 were not evidence of weak British commitment to its armed forces. Nor was appeasement the result of weak armed forces. Nor did attempts to make friends with dictators end after the second world war, as Galtieri and Saddam Hussein, among many others, well knew. The lessons of history need rewriting.