Churchill Archive Platform - Disarmament

The life and reputation of Sir Winston Churchill will always be closely associated with his role as Prime Minister during the Second World War and many of his speeches made as war leader have become iconic and are still quoted today. The discussion below is concerned with the decade or so leading up to this period, to the point when Churchill became Prime Minister in May 1940. During this period, which he referred to as the ‘wilderness years’, Churchill was not in office and had little political support. To many of his contemporaries, his responsibility for the disastrous Gallipoli campaign during the First World War and his continued hostility towards Germany in the years that followed fundamentally damaged his credibility. This was especially the case as the British governments of the 1920s and 1930s were increasingly committed to a policy of reconciliation and accommodation towards Germany. Churchill believed that such a strategy, which was eventually extended to include Italy and the Soviet Union, and often referred to as the policy of appeasement, was fundamentally wrong-headed. He believed that Germany in particular possessed a deeply entrenched bellicose and militaristic culture that defeat in the First World War had not snuffed out. And that, indeed, it would return again at the first opportunity to threaten the peace and stability of Europe if any attempts by Germany to rearm or to breach the terms of the peace settlements concluded at the end of the First World War were not met with robust resistance by Britain, France and their allies. During the period that these documents cover, Churchill often felt that his warnings about the perils of the policies of international disarmament and appeasement fell on deaf ears within the corridors of power in London, and within wider British society.

At the end of the First World War in 1918, the British government was one of the so-called Big Three powers that led the peacemaking process at the Paris Peace Conference that met the following year (the other two powers being France and the United States). At the end of every major war in the modern era, peacemakers have turned their thoughts not only to how to treat their vanquished enemies, but to ensuring that the peace they sought to create would last. The industrial scale of the destruction caused by the First World War rendered the need to prevent future recourse to war even more pressing and also much more complicated. The commitment to military disarmament that was to be such a feature of the 1920s and the early 1930s was the result of this. The thinking was simple; if countries lacked the means to wage war with each other through the reduction or elimination of their armed capability, peace would be assured. To emphasise further the importance of this policy, the job of overseeing the process of international disarmament was given to the League of Nations. This body, created in 1919, was at the heart of the thinking of the peacemakers as they sought to create a new world order in which a spirit of internationalism between states would replace the selfish nationalism that had proved to be such an important cause of the First World War. Disarmament was to be part of an international policy of collective security brokered by the League.

Churchill was one of those voices who argued that both the League and the efforts to create a universal disarmament convention were doomed to failure. One of his most famous statements was his so-called ‘Zoo Speech’ in April 1928, made during one of the many international disarmament conferences that met in Geneva during that period. In this he argued about the absurdity of animals giving up their traditional means of combat; horns, claws etc, in preference for the bear’s alternative means of resolving disputes, hugs and cuddles. Churchill argued that most nations would not relate well to initiatives in which some national self-interest was sacrificed for the good of the international community. However, Churchill’s preferred course of action often fell victim to the constraints of political office. As a former First Lord of Admiralty, Churchill opposed any attempt to reduce the size and capacity of the British Royal Navy, also arguing that the navy represented an important statement of British international power. Yet during the mid 1920s, as Chancellor of Exchequer, he was compelled to curb defence spending, and made the so-called ‘Ten Year Rule’ permanent.

Many of the diplomatic tensions that had resulted in the outbreak of war in 1914 remained problematic after the armistice, such as imperial rivalry and commercial, industrial and military rivalry. There were also those regimes, such as the National Socialists in Germany, led by Hitler, who were simply not interested in co-operating with other countries to create an international system free of the prospect of war. Consequently, many scholars view the quest for international disarmament as an example of the naive optimism of the 1920s that was simply ignored by militaristic regimes that came to power in the 1930s. The willingness of such regimes to risk the outbreak of another European war meant that those powers that had erstwhile been committed to some level of disarmament had little choice but to abandon the policy, and to rearm.

The policy of appeasement is one of the most famous or infamous aspects of British foreign policy in the twentieth century. It is most usually associated with the agenda of the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain and his Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, between 1937 and the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. It proved to be controversial during this period because the policy consisted of a mixture of avoidance of confrontation of an aggressor power to preserve peace or the ceding of territory for the same result. One of the most discussed elements of this policy is the Munich crisis of 1938, in which the German-speaking Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia was incorporated into Germany in order to placate Hitler’s increasingly bellicose foreign policy in central Europe in an agreement brokered by Britain and France. In reality, appeasement had long been a part of British foreign policy, and had been actively pursued since 1919. During the 1920s, the policy was less concerned with granting territory to placate an aggressor power, but was focussed on building closer, more harmonious relations between the victorious powers at the end of the First World War and their former enemies.

Churchill was opposed to the policy of appeasement in both its forms, and it represents one of the few areas of international relations in which it can be said that he adopted a consistent attitude, especially in European diplomacy, especially in relation to Anglo-French dealings with Hitler and with Mussolini. His views on the rise of militaristic nationalism in the Far East were less clear sighted. While he paid little attention to the growing Japanese threat in the Far East during the 1920s and 1930s, and opposed Admiralty’s plans to reinforce the British base at Singapore, he nevertheless warned of the dangers of an arms race in the Pacific. However, as already indicated, for much of the interwar period, Churchill was out of office and had few political allies. Consequently, his views often fell on deaf ears. What is more, appeasement was very popular among a British public who had little appetite for a second major European war within their lifetime. Consequently, it was not simply a case that no one believed Churchill’s warnings about German rearmament, they did not wish to believe them.

Where to find documents in the Churchill Archives

The CHAR collections offer numerous insights into the internationalist nature of the early Twentieth Century. The below overview is arranged chronologically, focusing on a few highlighted documents and archives. The list is by no means exhaustive but intended as a starting point for research and reading. Advanced search facilities can provide more targeted results. Please note that, within the Churchill collection of papers, the prefix CHAR refers to documents produced before the Second World War, while the prefix CHUR refers to documents produced after 1945.


  • CHAR 2/120/18. 9 January 1922. Letter from Churchill to Lord Riddell praising his handling of the Washington Naval Conference.
    This international conference between the great powers was one of the most important attempts at containing possible post-war naval expansion. Naval rivalry had been seen as an important cause of the First World War; a mistake it was deemed important not to repeat. The treaties that emerged from this conference shaped the military planning between Britain, France, Japan and the United States for the remainder of the period between the two world wars. George Allardice Riddell, 1st Baron Riddell (1865-1934), was a newspaper proprietor and civil servant, who had been part of the British delegation to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, and was thus seen as an influential commentator on international initiatives to preserve peace.
  • CHAR 1/401A/37. Letter from Lord Cecil of Chelwood, League of Nations Union, London, to Churchill, enclosing a book on international disarmament. 1 January 1932.
    Lord Robert Cecil was one of the leading British supporters of the League of Nations, and had been one of the organisations founding figures. Between 1919 and 1945, he was President of the League of Nations Union, an international organisation designed to promote a commitment to international peace among citizens of the world and to raise awareness of the work of the League. This book was presented to Churchill on the eve of the World Disarmament Conference that met in Geneva, 1932-1934.
  • CHAR 2/185/35-59. French newspaper cuttings reporting Churchill’s interview to the Havas news agency on disarmament and the position of Germany, France and the Soviet Union in European security. Sent with CHAR 2/185/34. 23-26 September 1932.
    As a former journalist, Churchill fully understood the power of the press to influence public opinion, and from that, the opinion of government. He thus courted the press and lost few opportunities to set out his views on what he deemed to be the futility of international disarmament. These extracts are notable because they illustrate his views before the creation of the Third Reich in Germany.
  • CHAR 9/108A-B. 13 June 1934. Speeches by Winston Churchill.
    While Churchill lacked a Cabinet position for most of the period between the two world wars, he was a vocal and active member of parliament. Consequently, Hansard is a very useful source on his thinking on a wide range of issues during this time. This extract includes Churchill’s comments on the World Disarmament Conference and its likely outcome.
  • CHAR 2/236/64. Letter from Ralph Wigram to Churchill, assuring him that it would be a good idea for him [to be guest of honour at the annual dinner of] the British Legion in Paris [France]. 18 June 1935.
    Wigram was a senior official in the Central European Department, the section of the Foreign Office that dealt with British diplomatic relations with Germany. He was also a friend of Churchill. The British ambassador to Berlin at the time, Sir Eric Phipps, had issued the Foreign Office with a number of warnings concerning German rearmament since 1933; consequently, Wigram was an important source of information for Churchill on this matter. In this letter, Wigram also discusses the forthcoming negotiation of an Anglo-German naval agreement, which was designed to help diffuse the growing diplomatic tensions in Europe.


  • CHAR 2/340A-B. 19 August 1937-23 November 1938.
    This collection of documents provides good examples of Churchill’s views on appeasement during the Anschluss between Germany and Austria in March 1938. The ‘union’ between the two countries was prohibited under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, the principal peace treaty between the Allies and Germany at the end of the First World War. The Anschluss also had a negative effect on Britain’s relations with the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, who had given an undertaking in the spring of 1935 to assist Britain and France in ensuring the continued independence of Austria.
  • CHAR 9/130/354-379. 5 October 1938.
    This file contains notes on a speech made by Churchill criticising the Munich agreement, in which he described the resulting partition of Czechoslovakia as a "total and unmitigated defeat" for the Czechs and for British and French policy towards Germany.
  • CHUR 2/182/113. 6 October 1938. Letter from Churchill to Neville Chamberlain.
    This is a summary of the letter only, produced because the Chamberlain family has denied copyright permission to reproduce the entire document. Nevertheless, even in precise form, it provides a very good illustration of the depth of the division between Churchill and Neville Chamberlain on the best way to respond to the growing fascist threat to European peace, especially the crisis over Czechoslovakia. It also demonstrates that many of the exchanges between them in the House of Commons frequently caused personal offence.
  • CHAR 9/133. 28 October 1938-11 December 1938.
    The main item of interest here is the text of a speech made by Churchill on 25 November 1938 in Harlow, Essex, in which he criticised the British government’s involvement in the Munich crisis and the general Anglo-French strategy towards the future sovereignty of Czechoslovakia. The file also contains newspaper cuttings reporting the speech and commenting on it. Illustrates that, while Churchill lacked a Cabinet position at the time, his views were of interest to the newspapers and thus to public opinion.
  • CHAR 2/335/12. Speeches by Neville Chamberlain, 1939.
    This file contains summaries only of speeches made by the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain in the months leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939. As with other papers relating to Neville Chamberlain, the Chamberlain family has declined to grant copyright permission to reproduce the entire original document. A number of the speeches were made in the House of Commons and thus include Churchill’s comments on them in the context of a parliamentary debate. The file is also important because it provides a reminder that not only was the policy of appeasement controversial but that it was not restricted to British and French relations with Germany, but included Italy and the Soviet Union.
  • CHAR 19/2C/251-253. Memorandum by Churchill, 11 September 1939.
    This document is a memorandum from Churchill advising Neville Chamberlain of the need to establish a Shipping Ministry. It illustrates the importance that Churchill placed on protecting and enhancing British naval power in what was the early days of the Second World War. Churchill had been impressed by the use of naval blockade by the Allies to secure victory in the First World War, and recommended its re-adoption. This document is also important because it dates from the early days of his re-appointment as First Lord of the Admiralty, and thus his much longed for return to government.