* * *
It had been a brilliant summer. On that point everyone agreed.
Children floated toy boats on the Serpentine in Hyde Park, while young lovers lay on deck chairs nearby and basked in the sunshine. At the Ritz, middle-aged women in flowered hats lunched on salmon and strawberries. In the evenings, crowds gathered outside stately mansions in Knightsbridge and Belgravia, as debutantes in satin and silk and young men in white tie and tails emerged from taxis and rushed, laughing, into the houses' brightly lit interiors. In those brief seconds before the butler shut the door, spectators could hear the faint strains of "Love Walked In" or "Cheek to Cheek" and imagine, just for a moment, that they were young, titled, and rich, and whirling around on the dance floor.
There was racing at Goodwood and Ascot, cricket at Lord's, tennis at Wimbledon, the regatta at Henley. There were dances and dinners, nightclub outings, and house parties in the country. But the highlight of the 1939 London season, in the opinion of those fortunate enough to have been invited, was the gala coming-out ball at Blenheim Palace for the seventeen-year-old Lady Sarah Spencer-Churchill, daughter of the Duke of Marlborough. The palace's massive stone facade had been floodlit for the occasion, its baroque beauty visible for miles. Tiny colored lights twinkled in the trees and shrubs of Blenheim's twenty acres of gardens; its lake, also floodlit, seemed bathed in gold. A band played in a pavilion on the vast lawn, as footmen in powdered wigs and yellow and blue Marlborough livery handed out champagne to more than seven hundred guests, including Winston Churchill, who had been born at Blenheim and was a first cousin of the honored debutante's late grandfather Sunny Marlborough. Most of those present danced until dawn. The scene, said one dazzled guest, was "gay, young, brilliant, in short, perfection."
In that magical setting it was easy to forget that half a continent away, hundreds of thousands of German troops were massing on the borders of Poland, that in Warsaw residents were digging zigzag trenches in their parks while loudspeakers boomed out practice air-raid warnings. Europe stood on the brink of war. If Hitler invaded Poland, as seemed likely now, Britain had pledged to take up arms in defense of the Poles.
Yet as the summer wound down, there was little sense of crisis in that sea-girted country. Foreign visitors marveled at the calm of the British, their seeming insouciance in the face of peril. "Taxi-cab drivers, waiters and porters went about their work as though they were oblivious to the fact that soon they would be caught up in one of the greatest storms the world had ever known," recalled Virginia Cowles, a young Boston socialite who had just begun work as a reporter for The Sunday Times, London. "The most you could get out of anyone was a short comment such as 'Things aren't too bright, are they?' and you suddenly felt guilty of bad taste for having referred to it."
For Helen Kirkpatrick, another young American reporter, living in England in the summer of 1939 was akin to driving a car and realizing you were about to crash. "Afterwards, when they pick you out of the wreck, you can tell them so clearly how you saw the other car coming headlong towards you, how you tried to turn aside but couldn't quite make it," Kirkpatrick, a correspondent for the Chicago Daily News, wrote. "We knew it was coming-there it was ahead. Nothing could stop it. But life went on just the same as usual."
Even with war looming, there would be no disruption of the social routine. The final days of July marked the end of the glittering season. By August 2 the annual late-summer exodus from London was well under way. Brighton and the other English seaside resorts were already jammed. Members of the upper class were en route to their country estates for a bit of grouse shooting or to the beaches and casinos of southern France. As one society matron explained to her debutante granddaughter, "Darling, the thing is: one [should] be seen in London after July 31."
Neville Chamberlain prepared to follow his countrymen's example. Bone-weary, the seventy-year-old British prime minister was looking forward to a few weeks of salmon fishing in the Scottish Highlands. But before he could make his escape, he had one last duty on his schedule: to preside over the formal adjournment of Parliament for its traditional two-month summer break.
A number of members of Parliament, however, were appalled at the idea of a long vacation. This was not, after all, a typical desultory August. War could break out at any moment. What on earth was the prime minister thinking? Was he trying to get Parliament out of the way so he could renege on Britain's promises to the Poles? Chamberlain had seemed unequivocal in March, when he pledged to defend Poland against German aggression. Yet disquieting reports were circulating of intense British pressure on the Poles to make concessions to Germany, of secret talks with German officials about a possible deal. According to The New York Times, London and Paris were now privately warning Poland not to antagonize Hitler. And earlier in the summer, when Polish officials sought credits from Britain for arms, they were told by the Treasury that the matter was not considered "of great urgency."
To some MPs, such reports were unpleasantly reminiscent of Chamberlain's appeasement of Germany a year earlier. Was he now preparing to betray the Poles as he had betrayed the Czechs at the Munich Conference the year before? The prime minister's decision to embark on his personal diplomatic missions to Hitler in September 1938 had violated all precedent, having been made without consulting his own cabinet, much less the House of Commons. Indeed, when Chamberlain began his pilgrimages to Germany, Parliament was in its two-month summer recess, a fact that anti-appeasement MPs remembered only too well in August 1939. The House of Commons, representing the British people, was supposed to guide and control the executive. Instead, complained the Conservative MP Harold Macmillan, "we are being treated more and more like a Reichstag, to meet only to hear the orations and to register the decrees of the government of the day."
The forty-four-year-old Macmillan was one of a small group of Tory MPs who had been scathingly critical of the Munich agreement and who had banded together, under the ostensible leadership of former foreign secretary Anthony Eden, to resist any further appeasement. At a meeting in late July the dissidents, whom Chamberlain and his men dismissively referred to as the "glamour boys," decided to oppose the long summer recess. Separately, Winston Churchill, the best-known Tory foe of Chamberlain's foreign policy, made the same decision. Over lunch at Chartwell, his country house in Kent, Churchill told Edward Spears, an old friend and a member of the Eden group, that the prime minister's adjournment plans would simply encourage Hitler in the belief that Britain would not go to war if Germany invaded Poland.
Chamberlain brushed off Churchill's opposition-indeed, the opposition of all those who had resisted appeasement-as casually as he would flick away an ant at a picnic. What did he have to fear from Winston, a controversial and divisive figure, with no bedrock of support in Parliament or the Conservative Party? Even Eden shied away from cooperating with him. As for Eden's "glamour boys," how could they make problems for him when their own leader was doing his best to reinstate himself in Chamberlain's good graces and get back into the cabinet? At their meeting in July, Eden had told the others that "if there were ever an issue upon which our group should affirm our identity and vote against the Government, it is this issue." Within days, however, he was having second thoughts.
Chamberlain had no intention of taking Eden back into his government-once a rebel, always a rebel-but he was not averse to keeping him dangling. And even if the handsome ex-foreign secretary suddenly developed a backbone, it would accomplish nothing. Chamberlain was sure he had the Tory insurgents firmly under control. They had been attacked as disloyal by the prime minister's many supporters in the press and government. Their phones had been tapped, their meetings spied on, their constituencies pressured to withdraw support from them at the next election.
Most members of the huge Tory majority in the Commons whole-heartedly supported Chamberlain. So did the king and the House of Lords. The Labour Party, weak and divided, offered no threat. The other Opposition party, the Liberals, with only twenty-one members, was a joke.
No, Chamberlain was convinced, he had nothing to worry about at all.
In midafternoon on August 2 the House of Commons was set to begin its debate on the government's adjournment motion. The House chamber, beneath its vaulted, timbered ceiling, was filling up fast, with the noise level rising as MPs streamed in from the lobbies and smoking room. Once the debate was under way, the dimly lit chamber would be stuffy and jammed, as it always was when an important issue was being discussed. The Commons lacked enough seating for its more than six hundred members; in their first days in the House, new MPs invariably expressed amazement at how small this cradle of democracy really was. On occasions like this, some MPs were forced to stand or sit in the gangways or cluster around the Speaker's canopied chair. Those who were seated were packed close together on the tiered dark green leather benches.
The cramped, spare quarters were no accident. When the Palace of Westminster, which contains the Houses of Parliament, was rebuilt after a disastrous fire in 1834, its architect and interior designer viewed it more as a setting for royal ceremonial occasions than as the center of a democratic government. While the scarlet and gold House of Lords chamber was outfitted with stained glass windows, a magnificent throne, opulent furnishings, and frescoes depicting medieval sovereigns, the Commons chamber was small and austere, with terrible acoustics and tiny galleries for visitors and the press. Unlike the Lords' quarters, it was not intended as a theater of state. Yet the anger, passion, and drama displayed in the little oak-paneled hall over the past century had at times bordered on the operatic. In the view of David Lloyd George, one of the Commons' most accomplished showmen, nothing could compete with the excitement and electricity of the House. When the young son of a parliamentary colleague told the former prime minister that he planned to go into the Royal Navy, Lloyd George frowned and shook his white-maned head. "There are much greater storms in politics," he declared. "If it's piracy you want, with broadsides, boarding parties, walking the plank, and blood on the deck, this is the place." The two thin red lines on the floor in front of each of the front benches underscored that sense of confrontation and combat. According to Commons tradition, no member was allowed to step over the lines during a debate; the distance between the two was supposed to be the exact distance between two outstretched arms brandishing swords.
The August 2 debate held the promise of considerable confrontation, and MPs took their seats with the eagerness of a first-night audience at the Old Vic. The day was sultry and hot, but as usual, Neville Chamberlain made no concessions to the weather. Wearing his usual black waistcoat, tailcoat, striped pants, and starched high white collar, the prime minister rose from his seat on the government's front bench at precisely 2:45 p.m., and, in his reedy voice, proposed that the Commons adjourn until October 3. On the opposite side of the House, just a few feet away, Arthur Greenwood, the lanky deputy Labour leader, stood to face Chamberlain. Greenwood immediately made clear that he and other Labour members suspected Chamberlain of having another Munich in mind. "Last September the House reassembled to witness a funeral pyre," Greenwood said. "A great people had their independence taken from them. I believe that an overwhelming majority of the public in this country would wish Parliament to be on alert at this critical time." With that, he introduced an amendment limiting the House's summer recess to less than three weeks. Members, he declared, should be called back no later than August 21.
When Winston Churchill stood to be recognized, the air was alive with the expectation of verbal fireworks. Churchill did not disappoint. His shoulders hunched, his head thrust forward, Churchill talked of the crush of German troops on Poland's borders, of German arms and supplies steadily moving east. "At this moment in its long history," he thundered, "it would be disastrous, it would be pathetic, it would be shameful for the House of Commons to write itself off as an effective and potent factor ... It is a very hard thing ... for the Government to say to the House, 'Begone! Run off and play. Take your [gas] masks with you. Do not worry about public affairs. Leave them to the gifted and experienced Ministers.'"
Churchill supported Greenwood's amendment, as did Macmillan and several other Tories. (Despite his fiery words less than a week earlier, Anthony Eden did not speak in the debate.) Just before Chamberlain was set to respond, Leo Amery, an old friend of the prime minister's, appealed to him to take the lead in uniting the Commons and the nation behind him in this time of national emergency.
Compromise, however, was far from Neville Chamberlain's mind. He was furious at Churchill and the other Tory renegades, at Amery for joining them. The prime minister had always been a man of great determination and obstinacy, but in the past year, after being acclaimed throughout the world as the savior of peace following Munich, he had become increasingly intolerant of any criticism or disagreement. He "suffers from a curious vanity and self-esteem which were born at Munich and have flourished ever since," John Colville, one of his private secretaries, noted in his diary. Now the savior of peace would make clear how very personally he took these attacks on the government, how he regarded them as intolerable slurs against himself.
Chamberlain stood, his jaw clenched, his face flushed. Removing his pince-nez from his nose, he rested one arm on the Treasury dispatch box on the table in front of him and stared at Labour MPs across the chamber. Then he turned halfway around to face his party's back-benchers. Very well, he announced, if "you distrust the Government and show it by your vote," he would treat such opposition as "a vote of no confidence in the Government, and no confidence in the Prime Minister in particular." Murmurs of surprise rippled through the chamber. In making the vote one of confidence in himself, Chamberlain was in effect demanding total party loyalty from the Conservative MPs, issuing an implicit order to refrain from criticizing further the adjournment proposal. It was clear, Chamberlain added acidly, that his critics were "very badly in need of a holiday ... their reasoning faculties wanted a little freshening up at the seaside."
Sitting a few yards away from the prime minister, on the second bench below the gangway, thirty-two-year-old Ronald Cartland was seething. Cartland had been in Parliament less than four years, representing King's Norton, a constituency in Birmingham adjacent to Chamberlain's own district. Indeed, the Chamberlain family's powerful party machine in Birmingham had approved his selection as a Conservative candidate and helped him win his seat. But that had not stopped him from becoming one of the most outspoken Tory critics of the prime minister's appeasement policy.
Cartland had wanted to be an MP ever since he could remember. As a small boy he would sit at a table in his nursery, scribble furiously on sheets of paper, mount a box, and deliver campaign speeches to his nanny and older sister, Barbara. Sometimes he told them to heckle; other times he demanded applause. He was that rare creature: a young politician who combined great ambition with a determination to speak his mind, regardless of the consequences. He "had very little of the diffidence that the House of Commons expects from those who seek its approval," said a Tory colleague. "But that was one of Ronald's most marked characteristics. He never did seek the approval of anybody."
Excerpted from TROUBLESOME YOUNG MENby LYNNE OLSON Copyright © 2007 by Lynne Olson. Excerpted by permission.
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