Britain Must Go to War
WE SHALL ENTER WITH A CLEAR CONSCIENCE
By NEVILLE CHAMBERLAIN, Prime Minister of Great Britain
Address made to the House of Commons, September 1, 1939
Vital Speeches of the Day , Vol. 5, pp. 708-710
I DO not propose to say many words tonight. The time has come when action rather than speech is required. Eighteen months ago I prayed that the responsibility would not fall upon me to ask this country to accept the awful arbitrament of war. I fear that I may not be able to avoid that responsibility, but, at any rate, I could not wish that conditions in which such a burden should fall upon me were clearer than they are today.
No man could say that the government could have done more to try and keep open the way for an honorable and equitable settlement for the dispute between Germany and Poland, nor have we neglected any means of making crystal clear to the German Government that if they insisted on using force in the manner in which they have used it in the past, we were resolved to oppose them by force.
Now that all the relevant documents are being made public, we shall stand at the bar of history knowing that the responsibility for this terrible catastrophe lies on the shoulders of one man. The German Chancellor has not hesitated to plunge the world into misery in order to serve his own senseless ambitions.
I would like to thank the House for the forbearance they have shown me on two recent occasions in not demanding from me information which they recognize I could not give while these negotiations were still in progress.
All correspondence with the German Government is being published in the form of a White Paper which will be available to Members, coming in relays, while the House is sitting.
I do not think it necessary for me to refer in detail now to these documents, which are already past history. They make it perfectly clear that our object has been to try to bring about discussions about the Polish-German dispute between the two countries themselves, on terms of equality, the settlement to be one which safeguarded the independence of Poland and which secured its due observance by international guarantees. There is just one passage from a recent communication of ours, dated Aug. 30, which I should like to quote, for it shows how easily the final clash might have been avoided if there had been the least desire on the part of the German Government to arrive at a peaceful settlement.
In this document we state this:
"This government fully recognizes the need for speed in the initiation of discussions. They share the apprehensions of the Chancellor arising from the proximity of two mobilizedarmies standing face to face. They accordingly most strongly urge that both governments should undertake that during the negotiations no aggressive military movements will take place. His Majesty's government feels confident that they can obtain such an undertaking from the Polish Government if the German Government would give similar assurances."
That telegram, which was repeated to Poland, brought an instantaneous reply from the Polish Government, dated Aug. 31, in which they say that the Polish Government are also prepared, on a reciprocal basis, to give a formal guarantee, in the event of negotiations taking place, that Polish troops will not violate the frontier of the German Reich, provided that a corresponding guarantee is given that there would be no violation of Poland by troops of the German Reich.
We never had any reply from the German Government to that suggestion. It was one which, if it had been followed, must have saved the catastrophe which took place this morning. In the German broadcast last night, which recited the sixteen points of the proposals which they had put forward, there occurred this sentence: "In these circumstances, the Reich Government considered its proposals rejected."
I must examine that statement. I must tell the House what are the circumstances.
To begin with, let me say that these proposals have never been communicated by Germany to Poland at all. On Tuesday, Aug. 29, in replying to a note which we had sent to them the German Government said that they would immediately draw up proposals for a solution, acceptable to themselves, and would, if possible, place them at the disposal of the British Government before the arrival of the Polish negotiators.
It will be seen by an examination of the White Papers that the German Government has stated that they counted on the arrival of a plenipotentiary from Poland in Berlin on the 30th, the following day.
In the meantime, of course, we were awaiting these proposals, but the next thing was that when our Ambassador saw Herr von Ribbentrop, the German Foreign Secretary, he urged upon him that when these proposals were ready —for we had heard no more about them—he should invite the Polish Ambassador to call and should hand him the proposals for transmission to his government.
Thereupon, reports our Ambassador, in the most violent terms Herr von Ribbentrop said he would never ask the Ambassador to visit him. If, he added, the Polish Ambassador asked him for an interview it might be different.
The House will see this was on Wednesday night, which, according to the German statement of last night, is now claimed to be the final date after which no negotiation with Poland would be possible.
It is plain, therefore, that Germany claims that Poland was in the wrong because she had not on Wednesday entered into negotiation with Germany on proposals which she [Poland] had never heard. Now, what of ourselves? On that Wednesday night, at the interview to which I have just referred, Herr von Ribbentrop produced a lengthy document which he read aloud in German at a rapid speed. Naturally, on this meeting, our Ambassador asked him for a copy of the document.
He replied that it was now too late, as the Polish representative had not arrived at Berlin at midnight and so we never got a copy of those proposals. The first time we heard them was on the broadcast last night. These were the circumstances in which the German Government said they considered their proposals were rejected. It is now clear that their conception of negotiation was that on an almost instantaneous demand the Polish plenipotentiary should go to
Berlin, where others have been before him, and should then be confronted with a statement of the demands to be accepted in their entirety or refused.
I am not pronouncing an opinion on the terms themselves, for I do not feel called upon to do so. The proper course, in my view, was that these proposals should have been put before the Poles, who would have been given time to consider them and to say whether in their opinion they did or did not infringe those vital interests of Poland which Germany had assured us on a previous occasion she intended to respect.
Only last night the Polish Ambassador did see the German Foreign Secretary, Herr von Ribbentrop. Once again he expressed to him what indeed the Polish Government had already said publicly—that they were willing to negotiate with Germany about their disputes on an equal basis.
What was the reply of the German Government?
The reply was that without another word German troops crossed the Polish frontier this morning at dawn and are since reported to be bombing open towns. In these circumstances there is only one course open to us.
His Majesty's Ambassador in Berlin and the French Ambassador have been instructed to hand to the German Government the following document:
"Early this morning the German Chancellor issued a proclamation to the German Army which indicated clearly that he was about to attack Poland. Information which has reached His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom and the French Government indicates that German troops have crossed the Polish frontier and attacks on Polish towns are proceeding.
"In these circumstances it appears to the governments of the United Kingdom and France that by their action the German Government have created conditions—namely, an aggressive act of force against Poland threatening the independence of Poland—which call for the immediate implementation by the governments of the United Kingdom and France of the undertaking to Poland to come to her assistance.
"I am accordingly to inform Your Excellency that unless the German Government are prepared to give His Majesty's Government an assurance that the German Government have suspended all aggressive action against Poland and are prepared promptly to withdraw their forces from Polish territory, His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom will, without hesitation, fulfill their obligations to Poland."
If the reply to this last warning is unfavorable, and I do not suggest it is likely to be otherwise, His Majesty's Ambassador is instructed to ask for his passport. In that case we are ready.
Yesterday we took further steps toward the completion of our defense preparations.
This morning we ordered complete mobilization of the whole of the navy, army and air force. We have also taken a number of measures both at home and abroad which the House perhaps would not expect me to specify in detail.
Briefly, they represent the final steps in accordance with a prearranged plan. These last will be put into force rapidly and are of such a nature that they are deferred until war seems inevitable.
Steps have also been taken under powers conferred by the House last week to safeguard the position in regard to stocks and commodities of various kinds.
The thoughts of many of us must inevitably at this moment be turning back to 1914. In comparison with our position then how do we stand at this time? The answer is that all three services are ready and that the situation in all directions is far more favorable and reassuring than in 1914.
For behind the fighting services we have built up a vast organization of civil defense under the scheme of air-raid precautions.
As regards immediate man power requirements, the navy, the army and the Royal Air Force are now in the fortunate position of having almost as many men as they can conveniently handle at this moment.
There are, however, certain categories of service in which men are required immediately both for military and civil defenses. These will be announced in detail through the press and the British Broadcasting Corporation. It is most satisfactory to observe that there is today no need to appeal in a general way for recruits, such as was issued by Lord Kitchener twenty-five years ago. That appeal has been anticipated by many months, and men are already available.
So much for the immediate present.
Now we must look for the future. It is essential in face of the tremendous task which confronts us, more especially in view of our past experience in this matter, to organize our man power this time upon as methodical, equitable and economical a basis as possible. We therefore propose immediately to introduce legislation directed to that end, and a bill will be laid before you which, for all practical purposes, will amount to an expansion of the military training act.
Under its operation all fit men between 18 and 41 will be rendered liable to military service if and when called upon. It is not intended at the outset that any considerable number of men, other than those already liable, will be called up, and steps will be taken to insure that men essentially required by industry will not be taken away.
One other allusion before the close of my speech, and that is to record my satisfaction and the satisfaction of His Majesty's Government throughout these days of crisis to Signor Mussolini, who has been doing his best to reach a peaceful solution.
It only remains to set our teeth and enter upon this struggle, which we so earnestly endeavored to avoid, with a determination to see it through to the end.
We shall enter it with a clear conscience and with the support of the Dominions and the British Empire and the moral approval of the greater part of the world. We have no quarrel with the German people except that they allowed themselves to be governed by a Nazi government. As long as that government pursues the method which it has so persistently followed during the last two years there will be no peace in Europe.
We should merely pass from one crisis to another and see one country attacked by another by methods which have now become familiar to us with their sickening technique. We are resolved that these methods must come to an end, and if, after the struggle, we can re-establish in the world the rules of good faith and the renunciation of force, then even the sacrifices entailed upon us will find their fullest justification.