Churchill Archive for Schools - Themes_Key questions_League of Nations

Did the League of Nations matter in the 1920s?

Source 5

A letter from Lord Cecil to Churchill in July 1925


➜ CHAR 18/9

Simplified Transcript

Dear Winston

I wish I could get you to take a serious interest in disarmament. After we were humiliated in the Cabinet last week it is surely clear that a government will always give in to the Admiralty when it says we need more ships because of the threat of a foreign power. I am sure it is the same in France and other countries. It might be that the government would overrule the armed forces if there was a financial crisis. But that is not very likely for Britain. I think that we could try to get disarmament if we made an argument based on the cost and that we would save money by disarming.

I wish you could come to the Assembly meetings of the League and see what a powerful weapon it is for carrying out any international policy which is reasonable and has the support of the League’s members. Please think about this.


Original Transcript

Treasury Chambers
Whitehall. S.W.1.
July 24th. 1925.


My dear Winston,

I wish I could persuade you to take a serious interest in general disarmament. It is surely clear after the humiliating discussions in Cabinet in the last week that so long as the Admiralty is able to say that our safety is threatened by a foreign Power unless we build additional ships, no modern Government is strong enough to resist them, unless it might possibly be a Socialist Government. What is true about our Navy is equally true about the French and other armies. No doubt a point of financial pressure might be reached in which a Government would be absolutely compelled to overrule its fighting advisers. If such a thing happened there would possibly be wholesale and drastic reductions which would place that country in a really dangerous position – but that is not very likely to occur at any rate in our case. That is why from a purely fiscal point of view I venture to preach general disarmament as the only way out. I do not, of course, under-rate the enormous difficulties of the operation, though I am confident that if we were to put our backs into it we could put it through.

I wish you could come to the League Assembly some time and see the enormously powerful weapon we have there for carrying out any international policy provided it is a reasonable and right one, and consequently will be supported by reasonable and right thinking people. Do please think about this.

I need not say that I am always at your service to discuss it if I can be of any assistance to you.

Yours ever,

The Rt Hon Winston Churchill M.P.

What is this source?

This is a letter written by Lord Robert Cecil to Winston in 1925. Cecil was a senior member of the British government. At the end of the First World War, he had served as the adviser on League of Nations issues to Britain's delegation at the Paris peace conference. He was also a strong supporter of the League of Nations and a member of the League of Nations Union. Churchill was Chancellor of the Exchequer (in charge of Britain’s finances).

Background to this source

The League of Nations was one of Fourteen Points which were put forward by the US President Woodrow Wilson in 1918. Another of Wilson’s points was that the countries of the world should disarm. The League took strong action to try to make this happen. It tried to organise disarmament conferences and the League also hosted talks involving the USA (which did not belong to the League).

Additional information

Disarmament proved impossible to achieve. Lord Cecil was a passionate supporter of the League and Disarmament but he faced opposition from his colleagues in the government as well as from other countries who were unwilling to disarm. At this time, Cecil was a member of the British Cabinet but in a slightly unusual role. His position was Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and that made him officially a member of the Government representing the Crown. But as the position is the only Cabinet position without a department, it is arguably a position of status but with little power. Cecil eventually resigned from the government in 1927 when another set of disarmament talks in Geneva failed. Cecil felt that Churchill and other members of the British government had undermined him.

How can we use this source in the investigation?

Remember we are hoping that this source can be useful to us in investigating how far the work of the League of Nations mattered in the 1920s:

Surface level: details, facts and figures

1 What does Cecil want Churchill to do?
2 What problems have Cecil and Churchill had with the Admiralty?
3 What does Cecil suggest?
4 What does Cecil say about the League?

Deeper level: inferences and using the source as evidence

Which of the inferences below can be made from this source?

On a scale of 1-5 how far do you agree that this source supports this inference? Which extract(s) from the source support your argument?
Churchill is not keen on disarmament and does not rate the League of Nations

The League is important in international affairs.

This is a valuable source for studying attitudes towards the League

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Need some help interpreting the source?

  • This source is extremely useful in examining the problems faced by the League and one of its main aims – Disarmament. We can tell from the letter that supporters of the League, and of Disarmament, find it very hard to get governments to listen to their case.
  • However, the fact that Cecil was a supporter of the League that does not mean the source is not useful – quite the opposite in fact. The letter shows that the League and its ideas are at least being discussed even if they are not being completely accepted. 
  • Consider the language Cecil uses in his letter to Churchill. Does it tell you anything about Cecil’s feelings about his relationship with Churchill and his status in the Cabinet?

Explore the guide to interpreting letters

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CHAR 18/9