The Blast of War 1939-45
Macmillan: A Study in Ambiguity
The second volume of Macmillan’s memoirs is somewhat less rich than was Winds of Change in those haunting, missing-step constructions which are his peculiar contribution to English prose, and perhaps are due to his place in English history. Yet the master has not lost his special touch; rarely but unforgettably the surface of this bland narrative is rippled by some dark pike-like intimation of another life in the depths; a parallel, unspoken, and possibly unspeakable monologue. Words like “indeed,” “in spite of,” and “nevertheless” are for him like Auden’s crack in the tea-cup, opening a lane to the land of the dead.
[Chamberlain] chose as its head [shipping] an amiable and aging politician, Sir John Gilmour, who indeed died a few months later.
The Finns, in spite of their national sympathy with the West, had been shocked and offended by Hitler.
Nevertheless, his [Roosevelt’s] death was a great shock. He had ruled for so long an America which was first a friendly neutral and then a loyal ally that it seemed the end of an era.
Sometimes he achieves much the same effect by omission, leaving out for example an “although,” which a writer more simply committed to his declared opinions would have been likely to find necessary:
In Albania, where our officers had organized a strong and loyal resistance movement with pro-Allied views and anti-Communist sentiments, the situation steadily worsened.
Mr. Macmillan’s famous “unflappability” which served him so well for so long—and never served him better than during the distinguished war service recorded in the present volume—seems to derive from the faintly inhuman quality that helped to make him a first-rate diplomatist and a sedative Prime Minister. It is mainly as a diplomatist that we see him in The Blast of War. As Minister of State at Allied Force Headquarters in Algiers in 1943 Mr. Macmillan helped to ease the difficult transition from Giraud to De Gaulle: from a Giraud with initially very strong American backing to a De Gaulle with rather shaky and testy British backing. In retrospect it seems a remarkable feat, and a momentous one. Had the Anglo-Saxon allies agreed to jettison De Gaulle—as well they might, had they been able to foresee the 1960s—a France liberated by them and Giraud might have extended the realities of Vichy into the postwar era, with the sole difference of being subordinate to the United States instead of Germany. That this was avoided is due mainly to the resourceful intransigence of De Gaulle; in part to the stupidity and complacency of Giraud, but in part also to the cool diplomacy of Harold Macmillan.
Too detached to be irritated by De Gaulle or sentimental about Giraud—the Anglo-Saxon attitudes then prevailing—he never lost sight of the fact that De Gaulle was the more useful of the two, so far as his potential contribution to Allied victory was concerned. Where someone emotionally committed to De Gaulle could only have antagonized the Americans on the spot—Eisenhower and Robert Murphy—Macmillan, by his urbanity and calm good humor was able to establish excellent relations with them, and undermine the position of their protégé. He amiably recalls General Eisenhower’s initial appraisal of the French political conjuncture:
“I can’t understand,” he exclaimed, “why these long-haired, starry-eyed guys keep gunning for me. I’m no reactionary. Christ on the Mountain! I’m as idealistic as Hell. Now that poor Darlan has been killed,” he went on, “we’ve got this Giraud, and no one can attack his record. We have made Giraud the boss. Of course we’re going to make changes. We are going to get a new Governor for Algeria. It’s a guy called ‘Pie-row-ton’. They tell me he’s a fine guy.”
The fact that the recorder of these remarks should apparently have been able altogether to conceal from the speaker any trace of condescension is one index of Mr. Macmillan’s diplomatic skill. The techniques of the good listener also worked on the unfortunate Giraud, whose attitude “soon changed into a more cordial mood, as he found my knowledge of French adequate, both for speaking and, more important, for listening.” Mr. Macmillan concluded that Giraud “possessed an engaging and endearing personality,” but was “out of his depth.” As indeed he was.
MR. MACMILLAN’S next main field of activity was occupied Italy. There he was for the King, ma non troppo. He notes with regret that a military colleague “took a very hostile attitude toward the King, which seemed to be strange for a British officer.” Yet on the following page he mentions that, “There was already passing through my mind the possibility of the King’s abdication.” There is nothing incompatible between the two positions. Mr. Macmillan, like Guchkov in 1917, was anxious to save not a monarch but the monarchy; he saw it as part of a system of “indirect control” which would be more convenient than direct Allied government. It also required using ex-Fascists on a considerable scale, and this did not disturb him. On the directive that “active or violent Fascist leaders or declared pro-German partisans should be arrested and removed,” he dryly comments: “This was no doubt for future publication. In practice, like most directives, it was useless…. I was soon to find that directives are more useful in protecting the writer than instructing the recipient.”
So Mr. Macmillan, who seems in practice to have had a remarkably free hand in framing Allied policy for occupied Italy, went ahead according to his own ideas (which were, of course, in general harmony with those of Churchill): “The plan of relying upon existing police forces, mainly the Carabinieri, to maintain order was completely justified.” For this general policy he managed to get the support of Vyshinsky and ultimately Stalin: “rather a sell for our left-wing critics at home….” He was thus able to carry out with confidence his chosen policy: “…to infiltrate the partisans with British officers and reliable Italians.”
In Greece also, and also with the acquiescence of the Soviet leaders, Mr. Macmillan backed the Monarchy—though not a particular king—and other conservative, or reactionary, forces, against the “pro-Communist” ELAS. This policy was originally not warmly backed—though it was condoned—by the United States, and it was sharply criticized in Britain, in The Times as well as on the Left. It was not long, however, before this policy became generally lauded in the West as a prudent early step toward the containment of Communism; and before some Western commentators came to deplore the abandonment of such a scheme as General Alexander’s “Operation Armpit”—backed by Macmillan—“an operation eastwards to cross the Po and Piave, seize Trieste and the Istrian Peninsula, and march through the Ljubliana Gap, threatening Vienna.” The rejection of this scheme Mr. Macmillan professes to regard as “one of the sad turning points of history…” sowing “the seeds of the partition of Europe….”
IT IS NECESSARY here to distinguish between the things Mr. Macmillan actually did, and the things he supported and claims to regret in retrospect. The things he did were all eminently practical, and primarily political. It was practical to assume that a former Great Power, France, should have a say—symbolized by De Gaulle—in its own restoration, and that Britain’s position, vis-à-vis the United States—not yet conceived as an entirely dependent and subordinate position—would be stronger if the French Government were not headed by an American puppet (Giraud). It was practical also to assume that the weaker countries, Italy and Greece, could be governed in a semi-colonial way, as a result of the choices made in the conditions of “liberation” (“Italy is a British interest”). It is indeed already clear that those countries had no more real share at this time in the shaping of their future destiny than had the countries of Eastern Europe. In both cases the framework of future political life came in the supply-trains of the invading troops. Mr. Macmillan was the highly efficient and discreet Tory Political Commissar for the Mediterranean.
By comparison with these neat and polished operations the projected “Armpit” seems rather flea-bitten. The rejection could not have created, as Mr. Macmillan implies it could, the partition of Europe. It would not even have meant that the partition line would have been in a different place; neither Yugoslavia nor Austria is now “behind the Iron Curtain.” It would indeed have implied a certain challenge to the Soviet Union in Central and Eastern Europe. But that challenge, if sustained, would have had to be sustained by the United States. The project required willingness, on the part of the United States, to be drawn by a British military initiative into carrying vast new responsibilities, both political and military, in Central Europe. No wonder that Roosevelt refused to be drawn, or that the refusal was expressed in terms which Mr. Macmillan characterizes as “brusque…even…offensive…a bitter blow….”
How did this cool calculator come to endorse such a romantic plan, on this occasion, and an even wilder one at Suez more than ten years later? The question is important because it relates to a vital field: the psychology of irrational military-political decision-making. It is particularly interesting, and ominous, because in this case the sponsor of the two irrational options was an exceptionally clear-headed and rational man.
Examination of what “Armpit” and Suez have in common suggests that there is a critical distinction between the psychology of a man making decisions for which he will carry the prime responsibility, and the psychology of the same man advising about decisions for which others will carry the prime responsibility. The latter tends to be a much more dashing fellow than the former. “Armpit” was Alexander’s idea and responsibility; Suez was Eden’s idea and responsibility; the romanticism of Macmillan in supporting these enterprises was largely vicarious. The schoolboy in him is unusually strong—he likes to compare a battle to a house-match and to make a Harrow-versus-Eton joke out of the fall of Rome. Normally, however, he is both disciplined and cautious, as befits a bright small boy in a hard school; indeed the quality about him which I described earlier as “faintly inhuman” could probably be more accurately described as “alert-British-juvenile-protracted.” When this subdued schoolboy sees a bigger boy about to take a whale of a risk, he throws his cap in the air with genuine enthusiasm. And when the bigger boy gets expelled, he takes his place on the team and plays a sober, conservative game. Suez was liquidated with remarkably little fuss.
MR. MACMILLAN’S BOOK—of which the most valuable part, historically, consists of numerous extracts from contemporary letters to his wife—brings the story up to the end of the war in Europe concluding with the question: “Yet who could tell what fortune might await our Empire and our people after the storm?” Presumably Mr. Macmillan himself will tell, in his next volume—which should be the most interesting of the series. In the meantime, Mr. Anthony Sampson, in his brief, well-written, shrewd, and fair-minded biography, covers some of the ground. Mr. Sampson admirably describes the enhanced prestige with which Mr. Macmillan, formerly a rather dim figure, emerged from the war, experiences described in detail in The Blast of War.
Macmillan’s wartime experiences could hardly have been more opposite to his prewar life. After all the theorizing, the pleading and waiting, he had found himself in a succession of situations where he could influence whole populations and convert political theories, on the spot, into battles and constitutions. He could no longer be regarded as absurd or ineffectual: among flying bullets his impassive mustache and classical manner acquired a new splendor; he was able to be the soldier-philosopher, tempering his intellect to action. He was still not a major public figure when the war ended, for his political sphere of influence had always been lesser known and more confused than the epic battles of the desert, or Burma, or Normandy. In political life, he was still eclipsed by the more glamorous figures of Eden, Duff Cooper or Stanley. But to those who worked with him, the wartime Macmillan was quite a dazzling phenomenon; and for himself, it was probably the most fulfilling time of his life.
The first great challenge in the post-war years came over Suez. Mr. Sampson rejects as “far-fetched” and “Machiavellian” the theory that Mr. Macmillan—then Chancellor of the Exchequer—could have “fomented a war” in order to bring down Eden and succeed him. Yet he shows that Mr. Macmillan “was decisive not only in urging the invasion but in stopping it.” The point where he stopped it was when American selling caused the huge run on the pound, bringing prime responsibility in the crisis onto the shoulders of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Harold Macmillan. If my own interpretation is right, a different psychology took over at this point: the old enthusiasm for an adventurous policy had been quite sincere, but simply ceased to be relevant.
The recklessness of a sick and foolish man may be—and was, at Suez—not tempered, but aggravated by the presence around him of intelligent advisers releasing, on his responsibility, wishes which their intelligence, within the area of their prime responsibility, reluctantly must repress.
Mr. Macmillan, at any rate, in the years of his own power, as Prime Minister, did sternly repress any tendency to adventurism. It is true that he developed Britain’s “unilateral deterrent,” but Mr. Sampson well shows that this was not so much a weapon as a kind of lullaby, to make more bearable a decline against which Mr. Macmillan had urged romantic revolt, but which he himself, in power, accepted and disguised. In a brilliant phrase Mr. Sampson defines the relevance of Britain’s hydrogen bomb: “The long trail back from Suez continued, as it were, under the smokescreen of a mushroom cloud.”
While Mr. Sampson’s book may be confidently recommended, except for a few errors of detail, to any student of modern British history—except students who are victims of the delusion that journalists cannot shed light on history—the present reviewer wishes to reserve his comments on the rest of “the long trail” for the appearance of Mr. Macmillan’s own account of this stage of the journey. What holds the contemporary reader, with a fascination which has to do with our destiny and present sense of helplessness, is not so much the narrative of events as the psychology of the great conservative politician, the man for whom, in Macaulay’s language, “tact” is an “instinct.” Into such a psychology Mr. Macmillan’s prose sends its slanted, dusty, precious shafts of light. His writing has been overpraised by courtly reviewers in his own country. He can write crisply and wittily—as in the passages about Giraud and about “directives”; he can write boringly and pompously as he does through many of these 600 pages. Rarely but memorably, he can write with that eerie, apparent inconsequence which is peculiarly his own, and which seems to have a direct affinity to the actual thought-process of a conservative politician—the blinking, peering, and stammering, the muffled but ruthless shovings and opportune disconnections which in the writings of a more conventional or less contemptuous memorialist become wholly concealed by a correct and even rhetoric.
POSTSCRIPT: The Blast of War contains a few excellent Churchilliana. This on the Casablanca Conference, where the Vichy-appointed Governor of Morocco, Noguès, was under some suspicion:
Churchill came at once to the point. “Vous ne téléphonerez pas à Vichy que nous sommes ici, will you?” Noguès was full of protestations. “Monsieur le Président, je vous assure de mes sentiments….” Churchill was not impressed. “Parce que maintenant clair de la lune et très bon pour bombarder.” And then the overwhelming deduction, emphasised with a wave of the long cigar, “et si on bombardait nous, on bombardait aussi vous”!
and this comment, toward the end of the war:
Sitting in the drawing-room about six o’clock [he] said, “I am an old and weary man. I feel exhausted.” Mrs. Churchill said, “But think what Hitler and Mussolini feel like!” To which Winston replied, “Ah, but at least Mussolini has had the satisfaction of murdering his son-in-law.” This repartee so pleased him that he went for a walk and appeared to revive.