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Response to Review no. 810

I am pleased to see that Carolyn Kitchen considers Guarantee of Peace authoritative and innovative, and hope that it will not be as daunting to readers as she fears. Because I have tried to open up new lines of arguments, I had to provide considerable supporting detail. Nevertheless, it would appear that some clarifications may still be necessary. I did not suggest that French policy became a paramount concern for British statesmen during the First World War. This did not happen until after 1920, once it became clear that the United States would not enter the League. Up to that point the League was envisaged almost exclusively as providing a framework for a hegemonic Anglo-American partnership. This was not intended to bind Great Britain to the United States as Kitching suggests. The British idea was rather that London would provide the brains and Washington the muscle. It is true that Cecil in 1915 did not believe that America would ‘make good’, but that was, of course, before the United States entered the war. At that stage, as Kitching notes, Grey did believe that American participation in a guarantee system would contribute to global security. Nevertheless, I argued that this was a subordinate element in his policy. The main consideration for London was that insisting on the necessity of American commitment to a guarantee would be an effective barrier to an inopportune mediation attempt from President Wilson. The quotation which Kitching cites from p. 23 of Guarantee of Peace, which is somewhat positively inclined toward the league idea, was not from Maurice Hankey but rather from the Paget-Tyrrell memorandum prepared in the Foreign Office. Hankey’s own views at the time were stridently hostile. Stephen Roskill has argued that he maintained consistent opposition to any idea of what came to be called ‘collective security’.(1) I contend that this hostility lapsed with American entry into the war, and that it was not until well into the 1920s that ‘collective security’ again became an issue for Hankey.

Hankey was one of those whose views on the League changed after 1917. Cecil’s had begun to change even earlier, as he was one of the first to recognise that American loans to Great Britain were making them ‘our partners in the “great adventure”’ (p. 24). British policy up to and through the peace conference was necessarily based on the assumption that the partnership would endure and provide the framework for the post-war world.

Carolyn Kitching is, of course, one of a distinguished line of historians who have looked at the League largely from the perspective of the failures of the 1930s which they wish to explain. I have tried to eschew that teleological approach, coming at the subject instead in terms of the imperatives of British diplomacy in the war and post-war periods. By the late 1920s it may well have been the case that disarmament was something which a not very much concerned British government was willing to push onto the League. For the earlier period it was different. At the end of the war there was a strong consensus that Germany had to be disarmed and that this would be the beginning of a more general process. Details could not be worked out at the peace conference, but had to be left to the League. At the Imperial War Cabinet meeting on Christmas Eve 1918 Lloyd George had insisted that any government ‘that dared to set up a League of Nations that was not real would be sternly dealt with by the people and sooner rather than later’, and that if the League ‘did not include some provision for disarmament it would be regarded as a sham’. That had also been Bonar Law’s view: ‘unless something definite was accomplished in regard to disarmament any discussion on the League of Nations would be in the main academic’. The ‘question of safety was a relative one’. With a general scheme both the British Navy and the French Army might safely be reduced. They were able to override Cecil, who at that time was still influenced by Sir Eyre Crowe’s view that a practicable scheme could not be devised.(2) Lloyd George still adhered to his position in 1922 when his private secretary Sir Edward Grigg remarked ‘unless League of Nations limits armaments, nothing will come of it’ (p. 211).

That British governments of the early 1920s wanted disarmament should not come as a surprise. What they wanted above all was French disarmament. They were worried at the French use of their military hegemony, which kept Europe unstable. They came to be alarmed at the build-up of the French air force which they saw as directly threatening Great Britain. The Esher plan must be considered in this context. Kitching is, of course, right in pointing out that it was eventually disavowed. However, I did present evidence to show that it needs to be treated more seriously than historians have done so far. Esher took up the challenge only after he had been persuaded that Lloyd George really intended to achieve disarmament and not let it be lost in a long set of academic discussions (pp. 212–3). His plan failed partly because London came to feel that discussions with Poincaré were unlikely to be productive, but also because he was pushed aside by Robert Cecil, who had a different plan, and who was a front-line politician rather than an elderly eminence grise. What happened next forms a whole chapter of Guarantee of Peace, but my conclusion is that Cecil’s proposals had more political substance and were more seriously considered by the Lloyd George, Bonar Law, and Baldwin governments than has usually been conceded. This was one of many points over which I found myself coming to a very different conclusion from that which I had anticipated at the outset of writing the book.

On some more minor points. The passage which Carolyn Kitching cites as evidence of my enthusiasm for the League was in fact mainly a quotation from the League’s historian Frank Walters. As my text indicates, I am much more in sympathy with his eventual conclusion that ‘The Assembly’s action on Armenia was in truth more creditable to its heart than to its head’ (p. 175). Conversely, while I did note that many considered Corfu a setback for the League, I argued that it should be regarded as a ‘substantial triumph’ (p. 270). Finally, something which I am disinclined to consider entirely pedantic. Misfiled documents are the bane of the researcher’s life. A writer has a duty to point out that a document is not where it should be. He should also indicate whether it might be shifted to its proper position. If archivists always re-filed documents once errors were pointed out to them, such scrupulosity on the part of an author would be unnecessary. Unfortunately, as archivists are not always so conscientious, writers do have to be careful in citation.


  1. Stephen Roskill, Hankey, Man of Secrets (vols. 1 and 2, London, 1970, 1972).Back to (1)
  2. 46 Imperial War Cabinet, 24 December 19128, CAB23/42, Cabinet papers, The National Archives, Kew. My summary of this meeting is to be found in pp. 104–5, and 116–9. I am giving some additional detail in response to Carolyn Kitching’s request. Back to (2)