Churchill Archive Platform - The Origins of The Second World War

Churchill recounted how the war’s origins, from the British perspective, stretched from 1919 to 1939 as the world lurched ‘from war to war’ (Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War: Volume 1, The Gathering Storm (London: Cassell, 1948), frontispiece). That the aftermath of the Great War directly led to the outbreak of a second global conflagration is now almost universally accepted. Key factors were:

  • The Treaty of Versailles – that most controversial and punitive of the Paris Peace Settlements which forced the Central Powers to admit war guilt.
  • The impotence of the League of Nations and its inability to implement the Geneva Protocol as a bulwark against any future military aggression by one, or any, of its members.
  • The weakness of freshly implemented democracy in many nations across Europe – Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Austria and especially the Weimar Republic of Germany.
  • The inordinate financial cost of the war, underwritten by loans from the USA that were practically impossible to repay during the global depression which followed the Wall Street Crash of 1929.
  • The psychological scars of the Great War which led to bitterness and resentment in the leading protagonists of the outbreak of war in Europe.

European Tensions:

The perceived consensus for the origins of the Second World War were entirely centred upon unresolved tensions in Europe: the French aggressively demanding and enforcing extensive reparation for damage caused; the German antipathy due to the harsh surrender terms imposed that was so skilfully manipulated by Adolf Hitler; and the British desperately attempting to avoid another pitiful war through pursuing appeasement. These tensions were enmeshed in two ideological concepts that were causing serious concerns in all European nations – the growing rise of socialism emanating from industrialisation and urbanisation, and the rise of nationalism that had emerged from the demise of four great empires. A volatile mixture of both socialism and nationalism arose in Italy under Benito Mussolini’s brand of fascism – most visible when Italian troops invaded Abyssinia (the last independent nation state in Africa) in 1935, as this emphasised Mussolini’s imperial intentions. In Germany the mixed appeal of Nazism and Hitler’s dogged pursuit of Lebensraum led to war in Europe. Yet it was in Spain, from 1936 to 1939, that socialism and nationalism dramatically and tragically clashed as General Francisco Franco emerged triumphant in the Spanish Civil War.

The Spanish Civil War:

Often described as a microcosm of the Second World War, the advent of the Spanish Civil War awoke the world to the realisation that ideological concepts like socialism and nationalism could be extremely dangerous if harnessed by demagogues. This realisation made Neville Chamberlain’s well-intentioned, yet foolhardy policy of appeasement all the more understandable. All of this helps to explain the origins of the war in Europe and Africa, yet it was conflict between Japan and China that dragged isolationist America into what became a ‘world war’ – a fact Churchill emphasised in his war memoirs.

The War in the Far East:

The post-Great War distribution of German colonies in the Asia-Pacific inflamed already tense relations between Japan and China. Japan retained trading rights but not political control in Manchuria and Inner Mongolia, while China, having joined the Allied Powers in 1917, sought restored control of these areas and the return of the administration of Shantung. The long-standing territorial dispute over Manchuria was exacerbated by the global ‘Great Depression’. In September 1931, ‘on a pretext of local disorder’, Japan invaded and occupied Mukden, the zone of the Manchurian railway (Churchill, Gathering Storm, p. 68). US sanctions against Japan were a direct result of American protectionist economics and were arguably a result of Japanese aggression against China – and frequently cited as the beginning of the road to Pearl Harbor. Refusing in the 1920s to renew the Washington and London naval agreements, and intent on expansion throughout Japan’s perceived ‘sphere of influence’, the Japanese Army marched upon China’s coastal ports in July 1937. America banned the sale of oil to Japan to halt Japan’s march across China, let alone the Pacific. Japan was therefore faced with either acquiescing to American demands, or proceeding to seize oil from the British, French and Dutch imperial colonies in South-East Asia. American support for the Allies had been vocalised since the outbreak of the European war in 1939. By 1941 however, more was needed and the American/British Lend-Lease scheme (where American arms were either leased, sold or exchanged for other supplies) started.

When Two Wars became ‘The Second World War’:

Most historians generally concur that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and Hitler’s response to the US declaration of war on Japan, turned the wars of 1941 into a ‘world war’. David Reynolds convincingly argued that the fall of France was the crucial factor which created global conflict: it caused near-panic in Washington; left Britain heavily dependent on America; encouraged the Germans to pursue military goals beyond their capability; ‘unleashed’ Mussolini; and revolutionised Japanese policy, as the already aggressive Japanese Empire further gained Indo-China in the wake of the fall of France. These latter three points reinforced the Axis relationship, and set the three primary Axis nations on a determined course to break up the ‘old order’ in their quest to establish a ‘New Order’. Arguably, two wars – one in Europe, and one that spanned the Pacific Ocean – were joined through circumstance. This was not lost on Churchill when, in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor, he crossed the Atlantic to meet President Roosevelt, and remarked that a ‘new war’ had begun ‘with Russia victorious, Japan in and America in up to the neck’ (Sir Charles Wilson, notes, written aboard HMS Duke of York, 16 December 1941, in Martin Gilbert (ed.), The Churchill War Papers: The Ever-Widening War, vol. 3, 1941 (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2001), p. 1631).

Where to Find Documents within the Churchill Archive

This is by no means an exhaustive list, just a suggestion for starting points, and should be used in conjunction with the search facilities that will enable you to search across files for people, places and topics relevant to your individual research interests. Advanced search facilities can provide more targeted results.


This class contains a diverse range of papers, including notes and correspondence with colleagues, acquaintances and the general public, on topics of general interest, on party political matters and appointments to various positions.

  • CHAR 2/147/53–54: Letter from Lord Cecil of Chelwood (previously Lord Robert Cecil), to Stanley Baldwin (later Lord Baldwin), 21 March 1926, expressing his discomfort at having to take responsibility for recent events in Geneva (the postponement of the consideration of the admission of Germany to the League of Nations) which he believes have damaged the League.
  • CHAR 2/237/163–165: Letter from Desmond Morton, 26 October 1935, to WSC: offering his congratulations on WSC’s speech to the Commons on German re-armament. He also comments on how the League of Nations sanctions are becoming a mockery, and that although Britain should continue to support the League it should not overrate the League's power ‘when opposed to that of Germany whose strength and cunning, compared with Italy, are the attributes of a Bengal tiger compared with those of a common tom-cat (and not even a ginger one either!)’.
  • CHAR 2/253/59–61: Letter from Lord Cranborne (later 5th Lord Salisbury), dated 17 April 1936, to WSC, regretting that WSC found his comments on his speech unfair; also stating that he feels that WSC's policy of not taking the lead against Italian aggression is not practical, that Britain is by far the greatest nation in the League of Nations, and is duty-bound to take a prominent part, and that the Cabinet has taken the only possible course of action under difficult circumstances.
  • CHAR 2/286: Contains correspondence including: 1st Lord Cecil of Chelwood (earlier Lord Robert Cecil), on subjects including his vote for rearmament in the House of Lords, and the difficulty of organizing collective action against Hitler after Italy's successful invasion of Abyssinia. (Samuel) Vyvyan Adams urging WSC to speak for the International Peace Campaign; Anthony Eden (later 1st Lord Avon, Foreign Secretary) on the International Peace Campaign; Gilbert Murray (Chairman, League of Nations Union) on WSC's speeches, and arranging co-operation between him and the union; staying neutral over Spain; copy of the union's General Council resolutions on subjects including the prevention of war, rearmament, collective security, refugees and international labour laws.


This class contains material in connection with Churchill’s huge output of literary and journalistic work. Of specific importance is material which WSC wrote for the News of the World in 1937, as it illustrates WSC’s pre-war opinion of Hitler, Mussolini and on Japan’s aggressive expansionism.

  • CHAR 8/566/6–7: Press cuttings of the following article by WSC: ‘This Age of Government by Great Dictators’ on the rise of Benito Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin and Mustapha Kemal Ataturk
  • CHAR 8/566/9: Press cuttings of the following article by WSC: ‘Will Japan Decide to Accept the Olive Branch?’ on divisions between moderate and war parties in Japan, Japanese expansion and the need to protect Western trading interests in the Far East.
  • CHAR 8/566/10-11: Press cuttings of the following article by WSC: ‘Japan's Swift Rise to Her Place in the Sun’ on the rise of modern Japan.
  • CHAR 8/566/12-92: Press cuttings and annotated proofs of the following article by WSC: ‘Japan and the Asiatic Monroe Doctrine’ on Japan’s interactions with Western powers.


This class of papers is a collection of Churchill’s speeches, his speech notes and, source material and dates from 1897–1945.

  • CHAR 9/102: Includes notes and typescript for WSC's speech, 15 June 1932, entitled ‘The Money Problem’ on the harmful effects of cornering gold, war debts and the need to co-operate with the United States; WSC's speech and broadcast to the United States, 12 July 1932, entitled "Anglo-American Relations", and his (unused) speech notes on the disadvantage of naval parity with the United States, and the need for a fleet to protect the food supply.
  • CHAR 9/132/94–110: Draft speaking notes, 16 October 1938, for WSC's broadcast to the United States entitled ‘The defence of freedom and peace’ on the need for the democracies, including the United States, to unite against the dictatorships. Issues covered include: the consequences of the ‘abandonment’ of Czechoslovakia; likelihood of war; a call for the English-speaking peoples to ‘join hands together over land and sea’ to ensure peace; the strength and efficiency of the Nazi totalitarian state and air power; the Sino-Japanese war; struggles against fascism in Spain; the need for the Unites States to join Britain and France; and the power of ‘a little mouse of thought’ against dictators.
  • CHAR 9/133: Notes for WSC's speech, 25 November 1938, on his position as constituency MP, British rearmament, and the international situation. Also includes press statement by WSC, 6 November 1938, replying to Hitler's attack on him as a warmonger; notes dated 9 December 1938, on co-operation with the United States; notes for WSC's speech, 11 December 1938, entitled ‘A year of disaster and humiliation’ on the appeasement of Germany over Czechoslovakia, and other aspects of foreign policy, including Italy and Spain.
  • CHAR 9/135A/113–124: Notes for WSC's speech, dated 2 August 1939, supporting the early recall of Parliament from its summer adjournment and highlights the dangers posed by Germany.


This class comprises correspondence and papers relating to Churchill's wartime premiership, from 1940–45, and includes: private office correspondence; personal telegrams; printed copies of personal minutes, telegrams and reports; correspondence relating to appointments and patronage; some family correspondence, and some engagements cards and diaries.

  • CHAR 20/8/171–177: Letters, July 1940, between William Temple, Archbishop of York, and WSC: focuses on the issue of whether closing the Burma Road is placating Japanese demands; and the recognition of China’s rights.
  • CHAR 20/21B/192–193: Letter, 8 April 1941, from WSC to John Winant (the United States Ambassador to Britain) on the diplomatic arrangements surrounding the leasing of air bases on British territory in Newfoundland, Bermuda and Trinidad to the United States.
  • CHAR 20/27/109–112: Letters, September to October 1941, from Robert Morgan to WSC on British policy towards China; asks whether arms could be given to aid against Japan; with reply by WSC that aid from the United States has been released for use in China.
  • CHAR 20/46/2–3: Telegram, 30 November 1941, from WSC to Franklin Roosevelt (President of the United States) suggesting that issuing a joint ultimatum may prevent war with Japan.