Failure of More Than a Mission


Failure of a Mission is an instructive book for Americans. It deals entirely with Sir Nevile Henderson’s experience as British Ambassador in Berlin from the spring of 1937 to the outbreak of the war in September two years later. It hardly mentions the United States. But mutatis mutandis, meaning in this case substituting the world for Europe and the Atlantic for the Channel, the lesson for us is there.

Before his departure for Germany, Sir Nevile had a long talk with Mr. Neville Chamberlain, soon to become Prime Minister. The two were in entire harmony. To his credit, Sir Nevile asked Mr. Chamberlain for an assurance that British rearmament was being ‘relentlessly pursued,’ and of course received it. We know now that, given the fearful acceleration of German armament and the conclusion of the Rome-Berlin Axis and the German-Japanese anti-Comintern pact in 1936, the facts on which this assurance was based were as indecisive in terms of Realpolitik as the results of the famous pledge uttered by Prime Minister Baldwin on March 8, 1934. On that occasion Mr. Baldwin announced that if his efforts to arrange an air convention failed, then the Government would ‘see to it that in air strength and air power this country shall no longer be in a position inferior to any country within striking distance of our shores.’

However, armaments were not Sir Nevile’s responsibility. His task was to develop the policy of appeasement towards Germany which had been adopted as a substitute for British rearmament on the German scale and at the German rate. The hope was that Germany would be persuaded to limit her objectives to ones which Great Britain could permit her to achieve and to employ methods which would not be too shocking to British popular sensibilities. Sir Nevile discussed with Mr. Chamberlain the pros and cons of a public attempt to cooperate with the Nazi Government.. Since this procedure ‘would constitute something of an innovation,’ he asked Mr. Chamberlain whether there would be any objection if he seemed ‘slightly indiscreet’ on his arrival in Berlin. Mr. Chamberlain’s reply was that ‘a calculated indiscretion was sometimes a very useful form of diplomacy.’

The ‘indiscretion’ was not long in coming. On June 1, before the DeutschEnglische Gesellschaft of Berlin, the new Ambassador made a speech offering British friendship in return for the aid of Nazi Germany in the peaceful evolution of Europe. He criticized elements in his own country which (he said) ‘have an entirely erroneous conception of what the National-Socialist regime really stands for’; and he deprecated their habit of stressing the Nazi dictatorship itself rather than the great social experiments being conducted under its auspices. The audience included Herr Himmler, head of the S. S. and the Gestapo. Sir Nevile was not deterred by the fact from remarking that too much concentration on certain trees which appeared misshapen in English eyes had prevented Englishmen from being sufficiently appreciative of the great Nazi forest as a whole.

At the time Sir Nevile made this speech the world had had four years and four months in which to appraise the Nazi Government and its works, at home and abroad. In view of that experience, what was one to conclude that the Nazi régime did ‘really stand for’?

Goebbels already had said: ‘Important is not who is right but who wins.’ The Nazi Professor of Philosophy at Heidelberg already had said: ‘We do not know of or recognize truth for truth’s sake or science for science’s sake.’ The Nazi Ministry of Justice already had said: ‘A handful of force is better than a sackful of justice.’ Göring already had said: ‘Germany has dropped the word “pacifism” from its dictionary.’

Mein Kampf already had gone into innumerable editions; and Sir Nevile mentions that he already had studied the unexpurgated edition of it. In that volume Hitler had boasted that he know the full power of the systematic lie and had issued a warning as to his interpretation of the value and meaning of treaties. He had called humanitarianism the product of stupidity, cowardice, and superciliousness; had said that peace was only to be established ‘ by the victorious sword of a master-nation which leads the world to serve a higher culture’; and had shown the unlimited nature of his program in I he announcement that though ‘the pacifist-humane idea may be quite good’ there was no use talking about it until ‘after the most superior persons have conquered and subdued the world in such a measure as makes them its exclusive master.’ The word ‘after’ was not italicized in the copy Sir Nevile read; but it was there.

Nor had the Nazi Government failed to give proof that when it said this sort of thing it meant it. Free speech, a free press, an independent judiciary, elections under constitutional guarantees — all had been abolished. Parliamentary government had been snuffed out and political dissenters exiled, jailed, beaten, and shot. Militarization of the nation from the cradle to the grave was in full swing. The skies were black with Göring’s bombers. Chimneys of munitions factories were belching smoke. Laborers had been regimented and shipped around the country like cattle to perform their fifty, sixty, or even seventy hours of work a week. In every department the national economy had been made a war economy. Anti-Semitism had been drummed up, ‘Aryan’ decrees passed, and the Jews were being defrauded, beaten, and held for ransom. The highest officials of the state flaunted their corruption. The Christian religion had been defamed, its possessions seized, and, in the persons of men like Pastor Niemoller and many Catholic prelates and priests, had suffered physical indignity. Propagandists had been sent abroad in swarms to argue, insinuate, and buy their way into the confidence of every credulous, instable, and discontented element that might be turned against Germany’s competitors and possible antagonists.

In the field of foreign relations the schedule of ini imidat ion, concealed intervention, disregard of treaties, and sudden aggression laid down as axiomatic in Hitler’s writings and speeches had received preliminary but nevertheless concrete application. As a climax to a careful program of Nazi propaganda and terror, the Austrian Chancellor had been assassinated because he was an obstacle to the annexation of his country. The Rhineland had been occupied by Nazi troops in a sudden coup contrary to the Locarno treaty (freely entered into by Germany and securing her notable advantages) and contrary to Hitler’s personal pledge to respect that treaty.

Sir Nevile’s story reveals that these phenomena had left him and his superiors still uninstructed as to what the Nazi regime ‘really stood for’ and where it was headed. They did not have sufficient imagination to credit the evidence of their senses. There was nothing in their psychological equipment or experience to help them understand the dynamic revolutionary movement which faced them as the government of the most powerful nation in Europe, to warn them that its appetite could never be satisfied by any gift which they could safely make, either of their own property or of the property of third parties. Beyond all this, they did not have a sufficiently broad and general appreciation of the meaning of the phrase “the national interest’ (as distinct from obvious and limited national interests) to grasp that the creation of an illegal régime within any mighty nation like Germany, its perpetuation by fraud and force, and its proclamation of unlimited expansionist aims, menaced the deepest foundations of all nations living under a rule of law and anxious to conduct their foreign relations by legal and peaceful means.

Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, Robert Vansittart, Wickham Steed, and others had sounded the alarm, some in Parliament and the press, some inside the government ranks. They asked that the British Government either make a firm choice of collective action, rallying all its natural allies to its side and securing the full advantages of that course in return for assuming its obvious risks, or else prepare rapidly and at all costs a military machine able single-handed to replace the peace guarantees of the League. They were called meddlers, spendthrifts, warmongers, or even idealists. The English people gave plenty of evidence that if they were correctly informed and courageously led they would accept the risks of peace or, if they had to, the risks of war. But the maxims they heard from the dominant politicians and publicists of the day were all comfortable ones, supporting the comfortable theory of isolation, comfortably expressed in the policy of appeasement — ‘Let well enough alone,’ ‘Mind your own business,’ ‘Don’t borrow trouble,’ ‘Money saved is money gained,’ ‘Everything will turn out for the best.’ It was quite in harmony with these that Sir Nevile left for his post in Germany ‘refusing to be convinced, until the worst proved me wrong, that the intentions of others were as evil as they seemed.’

Now I am not challenging the motives of Mr. Chamberlain and his colleagues, nor am I going to discuss here in detail the light Sir Nevile throws (or in some instances refrains from throwing) on his loyal efforts to make the policy of appeasement work and produce the desired fruits of reconciliation and peace. He engineered Lord Halifax’s visit to Hitler, in November 1937, over the opposition of Foreign Minister Anthony Eden. He devoted endless time and thought to an effort to make a deal with Göring. Although he calls Goring ‘a typical and brutal buccaneer,’ he found that he nevertheless ‘loved animals and children’ and was ‘a hospitable host and sportsman’ for whom he ‘had a real personal liking’; and although he knew that Goring was ‘ the absolute servant of his master’ he was under the delusion that negotiations could be conducted with him without Hitler’s being informed.

He gave ‘wholehearted and unreserved’ support to the initiative of the British Minister in Prague, Mr. Newton, in suggesting that London and Paris intervene to persuade the Czech Government to ‘readjust’ its relations with Germany, the move which led directly to the appointment of the Runciman Mission. He considered the Czech Government ‘fatally hesitant to appreciate facts,’ but makes no claim that the British and French Governments had promptly revealed to President Benes the most sombre and decisive fact of all — namely, that they considered the Czech position indefensible and had determined not to defend it. In the course of his visit to London on August 27, 1938, ‘the idea of actual personal contact [between Chamberlain and Hitler] took concrete shape.’ He was with the Prime Minister during the Godesberg conference, where (in Sir Nevile’s words) Hitler ‘cheated’ his visitor and ‘let him down.’ He made the decision that the International Commission which met in Berlin after Munich should insist on neither plebiscites nor a freely negotiated international settlement of the new German-Czech frontier, which meant in practice that the final upshot of Munich was worse for the Czechs than Hitler’s Godesberg demands would have been.

These matters of detail, and the story of the Ambassador’s cool and consistent adherence to the same policy during the days of the Polish crisis, ending finally in war, will be examined by the historians of the future. His testimony is important throughout, and incidentally makes very good reading. I want to restrict myself to making a more general point.

The personal honor and patriotism of Mr. Chamberlain and Sir Nevile Henderson are beyond question. They did not lack regard for fundamental principles of international morality and for civilized standards of personal decency. They simply did not conceive of its being any of their business if Germany repudiated those principles flagrantly and officially. It was none of their business because it did not seem to affect the national or imperial interests of Great Britain. The trouble with the conception was that it was erroneous. They worked and sacrificed for peace; they got war. It is not a sufficient reply to this criticism of the policy of appeasement to say that it is based on hindsight. The business of statesmen is to provide foresight.

Sir Nevile points out what acclaim Hitler would have deserved if he had halted his course ‘even after Munich and the Nuremberg decrees for the Jews.’ Here is an indication that even the advantage of hindsight does not always bring enlightenment. Let us suppose that, after Munich, Hitler had worked with Mr. Chamberlain and Sir Nevile along the lines they expected. The result could never in the nature of things have been more than a truce preceding another ultimatum, and then another and another. As I have indicated above, real peace between great nations holding diametrically opposed conceptions of individual and national life — moral, political, economic — was never to be won by mutual accommodation, but only by the defeat of one side or its spontaneous decision to effect a political, social, and economic transformation in its own manner of life: that is, to surrender without a fight.

Military and psychological reasons for expecting Hitler’s surrender were lacking. The Führer had watched the British Prime Minister alight three times at his doorstep; he considered German military force superior to that of Britain and France combined; he felt sure that their pacifism, democratic softness, and divided counsels incapacitated them for making unpleasant decisions and that they would continue to avoid a showdown. Economic bases for expecting him to surrender were lacking also. Supposing he suddenly became a convinced pacifist and accepted the idea of scrapping his mighty war machine before it was ever used, how was he as a practical matter to convert his totalitarian war economy to the arts of peace? How disband the hordes of men employed in the munitions factories, the labor battalions slaving on the West Wall, the millions in uniform? How replace the system of barter trade without transforming his regimented domestic economy, one of the indispensable props of his absolute power ?

No, the juggernaut had been set rolling and it would have to smash everything it encountered or be smashed itself. If the bloodless Nazi victory of September 1938 had been followed by a bloodless Nazi victory in September 1939, there still would have had to be a Nazi victory, bloodless or bloody, in September 1940.


It seems carping, and is positively painful, to criticize a policy which has since been completely reversed. Today the British and French peoples are risking all in a courageous fight against the forces that their leaders tried first to ignore and then to conciliate. They have placed in the balance their lives, their possessions, and the future existence of their countries. Many Americans think that the origins of the struggle and the nature of the contestants’ aims mean that the American front lines of defense are situated today in the North Sea and facing the West Wall and in Scandinavia. Such persons above all others must decide that no fear of appearing critical of British and French policy in the past should prevent the United States from drawing lessons therefrom and applying them to its own present situation.

The argument ad hominem is never very satisfactory. I shall not attempt, then, to identify the American ‘appeasers.’ We do not have a ‘Cliveden set’ over here; if any group of private advisers close to our government is recommending appeasement, it consists of disgruntled liberals rather than optimistic conservatives. Of course there are fifth columns in this country and Trojan horses stuffed with Communazis; but the followers of the amalgamated ‘Party Line’ are by now fairly well known and discounted. Much more important — because, of course, wholly sincere — are the publicists and politicians who encourage the hope that merely by mistrusting the evidence of our senses whenever it might lead to uncomfortable discoveries, and thereby avoiding the necessity of passing either moral or political judgments, we can shut the door on the effects of what is described as an unfortunate brawl several thousand miles away.

The persons I mean can be identified by their slogans — ‘War settles nothing,’ Nobody wins a war,’ ‘One side is as bad as the other,’ ‘They’re both aggressors,’ ‘It’s one imperialism tangling with another,’ ‘It doesn’t matter to us who comes out on top,’ ‘Let George do it.’ Are these really any more realistic, farsighted, and intelligent than the maxims that ruled certain English editorial columns and swayed the ‘Inner Cabinet’ in the years 1933-1938?

On the evening of September 27, 1938, Prime Minister Chamberlain, two days later to go to Munich, exposed his inner thoughts in a famous broadcast. It seemed fantastic, he said, that Englishmen should be on the verge of war ‘because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.’

Six months later Hitler had taken Prague. Another six months later Britain was at war for Poland. Another six months later British troops had moved into their sector of the Maginot Line, had assembled at Suez from the antipodes, and were embarking on their grim mission in the rocky fastnesses of Scandinavia. Each stage was the remorseless sequel of the one before. The British people and government had asked nothing better than to be left alone, to live and let live. They wanted peace. They found that it takes only one to make a war. And the outcome of this war which they did not seek will again provide an answer to the woolly statement that war ‘settles nothing’ and that if one has to fight it is not desirable to win. The answer will not be given in terms of a parlor rationalization, but by an Allied victory or defeat — just as victory in the Revolutionary War settled whether or not we were to be an independent nation and the battles of the Civil War settled whether or not, we were to abolish slavery and remain united.

Suppose the worst. Suppose the war drags on. Suppose the Allies fail.

Suppose the British and French navies pass into Hitler’s hands. Suppose British, French, Scandinavian, Dutch, and other shipping comes into his hands also and augments the German merchant fleet on every sea. Suppose the British, French, Dutch, Danish, Belgian, and Portuguese colonies come up for division between Germany and her satellites and friends, Fascist, Communist, and Japanese. Suppose control of the English Channel goes to Germany, along with control of the gateway between the South Pacific and the Indian oceans in Malaya and Singapore; suppose Hitler shares control of Suez with his Italian protégé and of Gibraltar with his Spanish one; suppose he builds naval or air bases in those key spots, and also in the Azores and the Cape Verdes, now held by England’s weak little friend Portugal, and reaches friendly arrangements with Argentina for facilities in the Falkland Islands, a vital strategic position for dominating the South Pacific and the whole Antarctic. Suppose the Nazi movements in Latin America begin to bear fruit in earnest, facilitated by Germany’s enormously increased prestige and resources.

Suppose not only Latin America, but. the whole world, ourselves included, relapses into a system of autarchy and barter trade. Suppose our gold becomes merely so much metal in our Kentucky vaults because prices in world trade are being based on other standards of measurement — wheat, tin, rubber, oil — which lie partly or wholly in German control. Suppose we raise our annual expenditure for defense to three or four billion dollars a year, hoping by the magnitude of our battle fleets, air squadrons, and standing armies to hold all t he world at bay. Suppose we succeed for ten years, at which I ime our expenditures for defense will have totaled more than the whole debt incurred in the last war plus all war taxes collected on its account. Suppose we regiment our economy, harness capital, harness labor, and limit the social services to make this expenditure possible, and suppose we stifle political and social opposition so that no critical voice is raised against any necessary step, however painful, to meet our altered status in an altered world.

That day may never come, or if it does it may produce only part of the unpleasant contingencies suggested. England and France may win alone. Or they may win with our unstinted economic and financial help, meaning: (1) the deliberate cessation of all American trade with their antagonists and the restriction of trade with so-called ‘neutrals’ which supply their antagonists; and (2) modification of the credit provisions of the Johnson and Neutrality Acts so that when Allied cash comes to an end we avoid the catastrophe of stopping our shipments to them of vital supplies — normal supplies of food, machinery, and raw materials as well as airplanes and other products useful in war.1 Such measures would be the more effective if we also undertook the rapid expansion of American facilities for the manufacture of various vital armaments (for example, anti-aircraft guns) which are now produced only in government arsenals and only in insignificant quantities.

We stand today where England stood, not at the moment Sir Nevile Henderson set out for Berlin, but where she stood when Hitler had taken Prague. Only the most puny mentality can entertain any trace of doubt at t his stage as to what the aggressor nations ‘really stand for,’ in general and in particular. Austria, Ethiopia, Czechoslovakia, Albania, Poland, Finland, Denmark, Norway — all have been slid under the guillotine or castrated in the totalitarian torture chamber. Other supposedly free nations stand huddled in line as I write, some defiant, some suppliant. Who can say which may not have been sacrificed by the time these words appear in print? Not one of them but knows that its sole chance of salvation is bound up in the chance that the Allies will win.

As for ourselves, we know perfectly well that the British and French Governments are not paragons of enlightenment and that the British and French peoples are no more free of shortcomings than Americans are. But we also feel in our bones that they represent and on the whole practise a manner of life in which we can share. If they are able to continue to practise it we can continue to have more or less free intercourse with them, can compete with them in trade on equal terms, can settle disputes with them by negotiation, and meanwhile can find time at home for the effort to resolve our own social and economic problems by gradual stages and without unnecessary sacrifices of individual liberty.

On our other hand lies unrolled the chart of the world in which we shall have to live if Hitler and his accomplices win. We dare not look away. We must try to foresee the successive phases in the development of Hitler’s global aims. We must appraise each from the point of view of American national interests, and we must appraise the whole from the point of view of its effect on the American interest in its most general and deepest sense. This done, we must make a determined effort of intellect and will, in the hope that by farsighted action now we may avoid reaching the moment of fateful choice in which England and France found themselves a year ago: either to accept Hitler’s world as tolerable, or to make a costlier contribution to his defeat than one which might have been decisive at an earlier stage.

And if no amount of foresight is able to ward off the moment of decision? If even prompt, spontaneous, and abundant economic and financial help, regardless of cost to ourselves, has not proved sufficient to enable the Allies to win? What then about one other current aphorism, that ‘war doesn’t pay’? The answer is that it certainly does not. War is not a commercial proposition. Sometimes, however, it is the lesser of two evils. Many of the important things in life are not to be had at a profit, or even free.

  1. An alternative might be to increase the capital of the Export-Import Bank by, say, a billion dollars, to enable it to finance the continuation of American exports. Or the United States Government might give a direct subsidy to governments it wished to assist. — AUTHOR