Anthony Eden: A Biography
by David Carlton
Indiana University Press, 528 pp., $35.00
Winston Churchill records that he only once spent a sleepless night of worry before and during the Second World War. That was on February 20, 1938, when he learned that Anthony Eden had resigned as foreign secretary. A tribute indeed to Eden as “the life-hope of the British nation.” David Carlton, Eden’s latest biographer, however, points out that in 1938 Churchill and Eden were rivals, not allies. The tribute, written more than ten years later, possibly contained “an element of hyperbole.” This little episode reveals the spirit of Carlton’s book, which is a systematic demolition of the Eden myth. The book is by no means a polemic. It is firmly based on a mass of sources: the official records, the diaries of Eden’s closest associates in the Foreign Office, and the papers of other cabinet ministers.
Eden had an aristocratic background to which he added an elegant air. He had a good war record which enabled him to appear as the representative of the younger generation. Elected to the House of Commons at the age of twenty-six, he at once found a constituency that remained staunchly Conservative even in 1945, the year of the great Labour landslide. Thus secured, he never troubled himself with home affairs and cast himself from the outset as an expert in diplomacy. From the first he had the air of a budding ambassador, an effect completed by the “Anthony Eden hat,” smart wear between the wars.
In the 1920s Eden was by no means the enlightened champion of the League of Nations that he seemed to become later. His maiden speech in 1924 asserted Trenchard’s doctrine of air bombardment as the way to win wars. With the establishment of the national government in 1931 Eden began his ministerial career as an assistant secretary to John Simon, the foreign secretary, and his first activity at Geneva was to make a case for Japan over Manchuria, much to the annoyance of Henry Stimson. Similarly, when the disarmament conference met, Eden had much sympathy with the German case. After visiting Hitler in Berlin, Eden wrote: “Without doubt the man has charm…. I find it very hard to believe that the man himself wants war…. I think we can trust the Chancellor [Hitler] not to go back on his word.” At this time Eden would surely have come under the heading of “appeaser.”
A change came with the Italo-Abyssinian war. As is well known, Samuel Hoare, recently made foreign secretary, joined with Laval in a plan to satisfy Mussolini by partitioning Abyssinia. Eden was a member of the cabinet that approved the Hoare-Laval plan. But when there was a public outcry Eden adroitly avoided any responsibility and soon succeeded the discredited Hoare at the Foreign Office. Eden was then thirty-eight years old, the youngest foreign secretary since the second Earl Granville in 1851. What was more, Eden had consolidated his reputation as the spokesman of the younger generation and the champion of Wilsonian principles.