Lord Cranborne to Mr Churchill
My dear Winston,
Thank you so much for your letter. I am sorry you thought my comment on your speech was unfair. I did not know about the private conversation you had had with the Foreign Secretary. I was only judging by your public words. You said in your speech that no one could do more than we have done. Finally, in a moving passage, you said that the League has moved from being weak and unimportant to being significant in world affairs. What I thought you meant was that you supported the policy of the League on Abyssinia and were praising the government for supporting the League’s policies.
I now realise you did not mean that and that you thought Britain should have taken more direct action. I do not believe that was realistic. Britain had to take the lead and direct what the League was doing. As soon as Italy invaded Abyssinia we were bound by the Covenant of the League to condemn the invasion and oppose it. The French may not treat the Covenant as law but we do treat it that way.
17 April 1936
Lord Cranborne to Mr Churchill
My dear Winston,
Thank you so much for your letter. I am so sorry that you thought my comment on your speech unfair. I need not say that when I spoke I knew nothing of your private conversation with Sam Hoare and Anthony in August. I was judging merely 'by your public' utterances. You will remember your speech in the House of Commons on October 24th last, in which you defined the Govt’s right policy as 'the whole way with the whole lot'. Later in that speech you went on to say 'No one has suggested that we could do more than we have done, or that we should take isolated action': and finally, in a most moving passage, you said that as a result of its actions in this dispute 'The League of Nations has passed from shadow into substance' & you concluded that 'the case for perseverance holds the field'. I still feel that those quotations justified me in thinking that at that time, at any rate in public, you approved both the policy of the League with regard to the war in Abyssinia & the action of the British Government in supporting and giving an impulsion to that policy.
Moreover, the course which you now consider that we should have adopted, that of taking a less prominent part, was, I believe, at no time practicable. We are by far the greatest nation in the League, & we are bound to take a prominent part. The decision which the British Govt. had to take was indeed not whether they should give a lead, but what lead they should give. To my mind, the decisive factor governing this decision was inevitably our commitments under the covenant. As soon as the Emperor had telegraphed to Geneva that Italian forces had violated the integrity of Abyssinia, & as soon as the League had decided that the Italian action constituted an unprovoked aggression, Art. 16 came automatically into operation. Not to have indicated quite clearly that we were ready to honour our obligations under that Article would have been as unjustifiable as for us not to indicate, in the Rhineland crisis, that we stood by the Treaty of Locarno. The fact that France may regard the Covenant not so much as a code of international law as an instrument of national policy, to be used when convenient, does not entitle us to take the same view.
For these reasons, I still believe that the Govt. took the only possible course under difficult circumstances.
This is a letter from Lord Cranborne, a Conservative and grandson of the ex-Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, to Churchill about Churchill’s stated opinion on Government policy towards Mussolini and Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia. Between 1935 and 1938 Cranborne held a junior ministerial role in the government as Joint Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. So Cranborne was working right in the heart of the Foreign Office during the period of appeasement (a policy adopted by Britain in the 1930s that involved making concessions to dictatorial powers such as Germany and Italy in order to avoid the need for aggression).
In 1935 Italy advanced troops into Abyssinia. The Emperor Haile Selassie asked for help from the League of Nations and sanctions against Italy were discussed. Samuel Hoare had become British foreign secretary at the end of 1935 and, with his French counterpart Pierre Laval, proposed action to end the Second Italo-Abyssinian War. Britain was predominantly pacifist and so it was difficult to act.
Initially Churchill supported the government’s action but by April 1936 Mussolini was on the verge of conquering the whole of Ethiopia and Churchill felt Britain should do more to stop him. Churchill also had concerns about the new ruler of Germany, Adolf Hitler, and wanted Britain to take a more aggressive stance towards Italy and Germany.
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