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Edward Wood, the fourth son of the 2nd Viscount Halifax, was born in Powderham Castle, Devon, on 16th April, 1881. He was born with an atrophied left arm that had no hand and his three elder brothers died before he reached the age of nine, leaving him the heir to the title and great estates in Yorkshire.
Educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, he taught at All Souls before being elected to the House of Commons to represent Ripon in 1910. A member of the Conservative Party, he served in the cabinet as president of the Board of Education (1922-24) and Minister of Agriculture (1924-25). In 1925 he was appointed Viceroy of India, a position he held for six years.
When Ramsay MacDonald, the former leader of the Labour Party, formed his National Government in 1931 he appointed Wood as his president of the Board of Education. Wood had to give up his parliamentary seat in 1934 when he succeeded his father as the 3rd Viscount Halifax.
When Stanley Baldwin replaced Ramsay MacDonald as prime minister in 1935 he appointed Lord Halifax as his war secretary and as leader of the House of Lords. In 1936 Halifax visited Nazi Germany for the first time. Halifax's friend, Henry (Chips) Channon, reported: "He told me he liked all the Nazi leaders, even Goebbels, and he was much impressed, interested and amused by the visit. He thinks the regime absolutely fantastic." Halifax later explained in his autobiography, Fulness of Days (1957): "The advent of Hitler to power in 1933 had coincided with a high tide of wholly irrational pacifist sentiment in Britain, which caused profound damage both at home and abroad. At home it immensely aggravated the difficulty, great in any case as it was bound to be, of bringing the British people to appreciate and face up to the new situation which Hitler was creating; abroad it doubtless served to tempt him and others to suppose that in shaping their policies this country need not be too seriously regarded."
In November, 1937, Neville Chamberlain, who had replaced Stanley Baldwin as prime minister, sent Lord Halifax to meet Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Goering in Germany. In his diary, Lord Halifax records how he told Hitler: "Although there was much in the Nazi system that profoundly offended British opinion, I was not blind to what he (Hitler) had done for Germany, and to the achievement from his point of view of keeping Communism out of his country." This was a reference to the fact that Hitler had banned the Communist Party (KPD) in Germany and placed its leaders in Concentration Camps.
Whereas Lord Halifax supported Chamberlain's appeasement policy, the foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, was highly critical of this way of dealing with Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. On 25th February, 1938 Eden resigned over this issue and Lord Halifax became the new foreign secretary. In a speech given in the House of Commons Eden argued: "I do not believe that we can make progress in European appeasement if we allow the impression to gain currency abroad that we yield to constant pressure. I am certain in my own mind that progress depends above all on the temper of the nation, and that tmper must find expression in a firm spirit. This spirit I am confident is there. Not to give voice it is I believe fair neither to this country nor to the world."
Soon after Lord Halifax's appointment, Adolf Hitler invited Kurt von Schuschnigg, the Austrian Chancellor, to meet him at Berchtesgarden. Hitler demanded concessions for the Austrian Nazi Party. Schuschnigg refused and after resigning was replaced by Arthur Seyss-Inquart, the leader of the Austrian Nazi Party. On 13th March, Seyss-Inquart invited the German Army to occupy Austria and proclaimed union with Germany.
The union of Germany and Austria (Anschluss) had been specifically forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles. Some members of the House of Commons, including Anthony Eden and Winston Churchill, now called on Lord Halifax and Neville Chamberlain to take action against Adolf Hitler and his Nazi government. However, they still retained the support of most of the Conservative Party and Henry (Chips) Channon suggested that the problem was with the rest of the government: "Halifax and Chamberlain are doubtless very great men, who dwarf their colleagues; they are the greatest Englishmen alive, certainly; but aside from them we have a mediocre crew; I fear that England is on the decline, and that we shall dwindle for a generation or so. We are a tired race and our genius seems dead."
Lord Lothian was a leading supporter of appeasement and when Hitler reoccupied the Rhineland he was reported as saying that the Germans were only occupying "their own back garden". However, his view changed in 1938 and he wrote to Lord Halifax urging him to make clear that British government would side with Czechoslovakia if Nazi Germany resorted to force.
International tension increased when Adolf Hitler began demanding that the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia should be under the control of the German government. In an attempt to to solve the crisis, Lord Halifax and Neville Chamberlain and the heads of the governments of Germany, France and Italy met in Munich. On 29th September, 1938, Chamberlain, Hitler, Edouard Daladier and Benito Mussolini signed the Munich Agreement which transferred to Germany the Sudetenland, a fortified frontier region that contained a large German-speaking population. When Eduard Benes, Czechoslovakia's head of state, who had not been invited to Munich, protested at this decision, Chamberlain told him that Britain would be unwilling to go to war over the issue of the Sudetenland.
The Munich Agreement was popular with most people in Britain because it appeared to have prevented a war with Germany. However, some politicians, including Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden, attacked the agreement. These critics pointed out that no only had the British government behaved dishonorably, but it had lost the support of Czech Army, one of the best in Europe.
Halifax also did what he could to persuade the British press not to criticise Adolf Hitler. According to Herbert von Dirksen, the German ambassador to London, he even went to see the cartoonist, David Low: "On his return to England he (Lord Halifax) had done his best to prevent excesses in the Press; he had had discussions with two well-known cartoonists, one of them the notorious Low, and with a number of eminent representatives of the Press, and had tried to bring influence to bear on them. He (Lord Halifax) had been successful up to a point. It was extremely regrettable that numerous lapses were again to be noted in recent months. Lord Halifax promised to do everything possible to prevent such insults to the Fuehrer in the future."
In March, 1939, the German Army seized the rest of Czechoslovakia. In taking this action, Adolf Hitler had broken the Munich Agreement. Lord Halifax and Neville Chamberlain, now realized that Hitler could not be trusted and their appeasement policy now came to an end. However, the British government was slow to react. As Clive Ponting, the author of 1940: Myth and Reality (1990) points out: "Hitler remained obdurate and the British government, under immense pressure from the House of Commons, finally declared war seventy-two hours after the German attack on their ally. Until the summer of 1940 they continued to explore numerous different approaches to see whether peace with Germany was possible. The main advocates of this policy after the outbreak of war were the Foreign Office, in particular its two ministers - Lord Halifax and Rab Butler - together with Neville Chamberlain."
Halifax defended his role in appeasement in in his autobiography, Fulness of Days (1957): "One fact remains dominant and unchallengeable. When war did come a year later it found a country and Commonwealth wholly united within itself, convinced to the foundations of soul and conscience that every conceivable effort had been made to find the way of sparing Europe the ordeal of war, and that no alternative remained. And that was the best thing that Chamberlain did."
After the outbreak of the Second World War Lord Halifax remained as the country's foreign secretary. On 14th December, 1939, Lord Lothian wrote to Halifax: "American opinion is still... almost unanimously anti-Nazi. In addition it is now almost more strongly anti-Soviet. It is to a much less degree pro-French or pro-British. There are formidable elements which are definitely anti-British which take every opportunity to misrepresent our motives and attack our methods.... I have no doubt that the best corrective is the fullest possible publicity from England and France through the important and high class American correspondents of what the Allies are thinking and doing."
When Neville Chamberlain resigned in May, 1940, the new premier, Winston Churchill kept Lord Halifax as foreign secretary in order to give the impression that the British government was united against Adolf Hitler. In December, 1940, Lord Halifax was replaced as foreign secretary by his long-term opponent, Anthony Eden. Halifax now became British ambassador to the United States. As Nicholas J. Cull, the author of Selling War: The British Propaganda Campaign Against American Neutrality (1996), has pointed out: "Lord Halifax was the six-foot-six-inch, living, breathing personification of every negative stereotype that Americans nurtured with regard to Britain - the very antithesis of the dynamic new nation of Spitfires and the Dunkirk spirit."
Lord Halifax was the British delegate to the San Francisco Conference in March 1945, and attended the first session of the United Nations in 1945. He resigned as ambassador to the United States in May, 1946.
In his retirement Lord Halifax wrote his memoirs, Fulness of Days (1957) where he attempted to defend the policy of appeasement. Edward Wood, 3rd Viscount Halifax, died at Garroby Hall, near York, on 23rd December, 1959.
(1) Lord Halifax, Fulness of Days (1957)
The advent of Hitler to power in 1933 had coincided with a high tide of wholly irrational pacifist sentiment in Britain, which caused profound damage both at home and abroad. At home it immensely aggravated the difficulty, great in any case as it was bound to be, of bringing the British people to appreciate and face up to the new situation which Hitler was creating; abroad it doubtless served to tempt him and others to suppose that in shaping their policies this country need not be too seriously regarded.
(2) Henry (Chips) Channon, diary entry (5th December, 1936)
I had a long conversation with Lord Halifax about Germany and his recent visit. He described Hitler's appearance, his khaki shirt, black breeches and patent leather evening shoes. He told me he liked all the Nazi leaders, even Goebbels, and he was much impressed, interested and amused by the visit. He thinks the regime absolutely fantastic, perhaps even too fantastic to be taken seriously. But he is very glad that he went, and thinks good may come of it. I was rivetted by all he said, and reluctant to let him go.
(3) Lord Halifax met Adolf Hitler in Brechtesgaden on 19th November, 1937. He recorded the meeting in his diary.
Hitler invited me to begin our discussion, which I did by thanking him for giving me this opportunity. I hoped it might be the means of creating better understanding between the two countries. The feeling of His Majesty's Government was that it ought to be within our power, if we could once come to a fairly complete appreciation of each other's position, and if we were both prepared to work together for the cause of peace, to make a large contribution to it. Although there was much in the Nazi system that profoundly offended British opinion, I was not blind to what he (Hitler) had done for Germany, and to the achievement from his point of view of keeping Communism out of his country.
(4) Henry (Chips) Channon, diary entry (12th May, 1938)
This Government has never commanded my respect: I support it because the alternative would be infinitely worse. But our record, especially of late, is none too good. Halifax and Chamberlain are doubtless very great men, who dwarf their colleagues; they are the greatest Englishmen alive, certainly; but aside from them we have a mediocre crew; I fear that England is on the decline, and that we shall dwindle for a generation or so. We are a tired race and our genius seems dead.
(5) In March, 1939 Herbert von Dirksen, the German Ambassador in London, sent a telegram to Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German Foreign Minister. The telegram commented on the talks between Lord Halifax, the British Foreign Minister, and Joseph Goebbels, the German Minister of Propaganda, that had taken place in Berlin.
On his return to England he (Lord Halifax) had done his best to prevent excesses in the Press; he had had discussions with two well-known cartoonists, one of them the notorious Low, and with a number of eminent representatives of the Press, and had tried to bring influence to bear on them.
He (Lord Halifax) had been successful up to a point. It was extremely regrettable that numerous lapses were again to be noted in recent months. Lord Halifax promised to do everything possible to prevent such insults to the Fuehrer in the future.
(6) In his memoirs Lord Halifax attempted to justify his appeasement policy that culminated in the signing of the Munich Agreement in September, 1938.
The criticism excited by Munich never caused me the least surprise. I should very possibly indeed have been among the critics myself, if I had not happened to be in a position of responsibility. But there were two or three considerations to which those same critics ought to have regard. One was that in criticizing the settlement of Munich, they were criticizing the wrong thing and the the wrong date. They ought to have criticized the failure of successive Governments, and of all parties, to foresee the necessity of rearming in the light of what was going on in Germany; and the right date on which criticism ought to have fastened was 1936, which had seen the German reoccupation of the Rhineland in defiance of treaty provisions.
I have little doubt that if we had then told Hitler bluntly to go back, his power for future and larger mischief would have been broken. But, leaving entirely aside the French, there was no section of British public opinion that would not have been directly opposed to such action in 1936. To go to war with Germany for walking into their own backyard, which was how the British people saw it, at a time moreover when you were actually discussing with them the dates and conditions of their right to resume occupation, was not the sort of thing people could understand. So that moment which, I would guess, offered the last effective chance of securing peace without war, went by.
(7) In his memoirs, Fulness of Days, Lord Halifax loyally defends Neville Chamberlain and the signing of the Munich Agreement in September, 1938.
The other element that gave fuel to the fires of criticism was the unhappy phrases which Neville Chamberlain under the stress of great emotion allowed himself to use. 'Peace with Honour'; 'Peace for our time' - such sentences grated harshly on the ear and thought of even those closest to him. But when all has been said, one fact remains dominant and unchallengeable. When war did come a year later it found a country and Commonwealth wholly united within itself, convinced to the foundations of soul and conscience that every conceivable effort had been made to find the way of sparing Europe the ordeal of war, and that no alternative remained. And that was the best thing that Chamberlain did.
(8) Herbert Morrison, An Autobiography (1960)
Halifax was a man of deep sincerity and pleasing personality. In the Churchill coalition he gave the impression of being a competent statesman though not, perhaps, one destined for immortal fame. Churchill seemed to get on well enough with him, but there was a certain coolness which suggested that he had not entirely forgotten Halifax's connexion with a cabinet which had pursued, in his judgment, wrong policies before and after war broke out. He was one of the men of Munich. It may well be that Churchill included Halifax, as he did Chamberlain, as a deliberate policy of taking some of the prominent supporters of the Baldwin and Chamberlain regimes into his coalition to preserve the unity of his Party.
As Ambassador to the U.S.A., upon ceasing to be Foreign Secretary, Halifax was a conspicuous success. Next to Royalty the citizens of the American republic love an aristocrat as a visitor, official or otherwise. Halifax combined his aristocratic status with a real man-to-man attitude which endeared him to the Administration, to Congressmen, to businessmen, and to the public.
(9) Clive Ponting, 1940: Myth and Reality (1990)
The British government entered the war in September 1939 with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. For two days after the - German invasion of Poland they tried to avoid declaring war. They hoped that if the Germans would agree to withdraw, then a four-power European conference sponsored by Mussolini would be able to devise a settlement at the expense of the Poles. But Hitler remained obdurate and the British government, under immense pressure from the House of Commons, finally declared war seventy-two hours after the German attack on their ally. Until the summer of 1940 they continued to explore numerous different approaches to see whether peace with Germany was possible. The main advocates of this policy after the outbreak of war were the Foreign Office, in particular its two ministers - Lord Halifax and Rab Butler - together with Neville Chamberlain. But the replacement of Chamberlain by Churchill had little effect on this aspect of British policy and the collapse of France forced the government into its most serious and detailed consideration of a possible peace. Even Churchill was prepared to cede part of the Empire to Germany if a reasonable peace was on offer from Hitler. Not until July 1940 did an alternative policy - carrying on the war in the hope that the Americans would rescue Britain - become firmly established.
British peace efforts in the period 1939-40 remain a highly sensitive subject for British governments, even though all the participants are now dead. Persistent diplomatic efforts to reach peace with Germany are not part of the mythology of 1940 and have been eclipsed by the belligerent rhetoric of the period. Any dent in the belief that Britain displayed an uncompromising 'bulldog spirit' throughout 1940 and never considered any possibility other than fighting on to total victory is still regarded as severely damaging to Britain's self-image and the myth of 'Their Finest Hour'. The political memoirs of the participants either carefully avoid the subject or are deliberately misleading. Normally, government papers are available for research after thirty years but some of the most sensitive British files about these peace feelers, including key war cabinet decisions, remain closed until well into the twenty-first century. It is possible, however, to piece together what really happened from a variety of different sources and reveal the reality behind the myth.
(10) Clive Ponting, 1940: Myth and Reality (1990)
The main contacts in the autumn of 1939 were, as in 1940, made through the various neutral countries, which were still able to act as intermediaries between Britain and Germany. Early in October contacts were established with the German ambassador in Ankara, von Papen, but these came to nothing. A more substantial approach was made via the Irish. On 3 October the Irish Foreign Office told the German embassy in Dublin that Chamberlain and those around him wanted peace, provided that British prestige was preserved. This approach was not an Irish initiative but represented a British attempt to explore a possible basis for peace with Germany. The subject is still regarded as highly sensitive and all British files remain closed until 2016. Some evidence of the sort of terms the British may have had in mind is provided by Rab Butler's conversation with the Italian ambassador in London on 13 November. Butler, obviously intending that the message should be passed on to Germany, said that the Germans would not have to withdraw from Poland before negotiations to end the war began. He also made it clear that Churchill, with his more bellicose public utterances, spoke only for himself and did not represent the views of the British government.
The possibility of peace was also high on the agenda in the spring of 1940 before the German attack on Scandinavia. Influential individuals within the British establishment thought peace should be made. When the foremost independent military expert in the country, Sir Basil Liddell-Hart, was asked in early March what he thought Britain should do, he replied: "Come to the best possible terms as soon as possible... we have no chance of avoiding defeat." Lord Beaverbrook, proprietor of Express Newspapers, was even prepared to back `peace' candidates run by the Independent Labour Party at by-elections. He offered £500 per candidate and newspaper backing, but the scheme never got off the ground. Within the government there were similar yearnings for peace. On 24 January Halifax and his permanent secretary, Sir Alexander Cadogan, had a long conversation about possible peace terms. Cadogan reported that Halifax was `in a pacifist mood these days. So am I, in that I should like to make peace before war starts.' The two men believed that peace was not possible with Hitler on any terms that he would find acceptable and were worried that either the Pope or President Roosevelt might intervene with their own proposals. If they did, then Allied terms would have to be put forward, but neither Halifax nor Cadogan could think what they should be. Cadogan concluded: "We left each other completely puzzled." The British were also under pressure from the dominions to make peace. This was urged by both New Zealand and Australia. The Australian Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, wrote to his High Commissioner in London, Bruce, that Churchill was a menace and a publicity seeker and that Britain, France, Germany and Italy should make peace before real war made the terms too stiff and then combine together against the real enemy: Bolshevism.
(11) Clive Ponting, 1940: Myth and Reality (1990)
The meeting also considered what Britain might have to give up in order to obtain a settlement. There was general agreement that Mussolini would want Gibraltar, Malta and Suez and Chamberlain thought he might well add Somaliland, Kenya and Uganda to the list. It was more difficult to see what might have to be conceded to Hitler. The war cabinet were united in agreeing that Britain could not accept any form of disarmament in a peace settlement but that the return of the former German colonies taken away in the Versailles settlement was acceptable. At one point Halifax asked Churchill directly "whether, if he was satisfied that matters vital to the independence of this country were unaffected, he would be prepared to discuss terms". Churchill's reply shows none of the signs of the determined attitude he displayed in public and the image cultivated after the war. It reveals little difference between his views and those of Halifax, and shows he was prepared to give up parts of the Empire if a peace settlement were possible. He replied to Halifax's query by saying that "he would be thankful to get out of our present difficulties on such terms, provided we retained the essentials and the elements of our vital strength, even at the cost of some cession of territory". Neville Chamberlain's diary records the response in more specific terms than the civil service minutes. He quotes Churchill as saying that "if we could get out of this jam by giving up Malta and Gibraltar and some African colonies he would jump at it".