Chatham House’s war

A vital contribution to the Allied effort and the shaping of the peace that followed

The World Today
Published 12 June 2015 Updated 7 December 2018 2 minute READ

In June 1939, with war in Europe looming, Lord Halifax, the foreign secretary, gave a keynote speech at Chatham House. ‘If international law is to be preserved, we must be prepared to fight in its defence,’ he said. He defined the twin foundations of British foreign policy as resisting the use of force and recognizing the world’s desire to build peace.

Discussions with the government on what role Chatham House would play in the forthcoming conflict – and in securing peace after it – had already begun a year before the speech. These turned into lengthy negotiations partly due to the institute’s insistence on protecting its political neutrality and independence. Lord Astor, the chairman, held an unshakeable belief that Chatham House’s best contribution to the war effort would be through objective study and presentation of the facts.

By the outbreak of war Chatham House had secured the assurances it sought. Its contributions to the war effort included the creation of the Foreign Research and Press Service (FRPS), the secondment of staff to government departments, the provision of educational courses for British officers and the creation of a Post-War Reconstruction Committee. It also provided research facilities for refugee and Allied scholars and office space for the Polish Research Centre.

The government came to depend on the services of the FRPS, which included a systematic review of the foreign press and the preparation of memoranda and reports. The monitoring of international press coverage was undertaken by a group of leading academics under the direction of Arnold Toynbee, the historian who served as director of studies from 1929-56.

Having served unhappily in government propaganda in the First World War, Toynbee was no less insistent than Astor that he should not ‘sell his soul’ – as he put it – but work honestly to promote a post-war settlement. Toynbee had a clear view of what this should look like. In 1942 he was invited to America on a 12-city tour where he argued that the only way to avoid a third world war was for the US to repudiate the isolationism of the 1920s and 30s and play a full part in a muscular global system with the power to rein in aggressor states.

At Princeton in October 1942 he spoke to an audience including John Foster Dulles, the future Secretary of State. He proposed a ‘World Association of Nations, to which all the United Nations [the Allies] would initially belong, and the Axis powers as soon as possible, and the allocation to the four major powers of responsibility for police’, according to a summary written by a participant. It noted: ‘Dulles was reluctantly compelled to concede the validity of this conclusion.’

On return to Britain, Toynbee wrote that British rule in India was a major stumbling block in the way of the necessary improvement in Anglo-American relations, and proposed the ‘liquidation of imperialism’ after the war, with non-self-governing territories to be put under international administration.

When war was declared most of the staff and more than 20 tons of library materials and press cuttings were moved to Oxford. A skeleton staff was left in London but by January 1940, Chatham House events, including members meetings, roundtables and discussions, were re-started in St James’s Square – arranged at lunchtime instead of the usual 8.30pm.

The premises at 10 St James’s Square proved too small, and in 1943 Lord Astor and the director-general, Ivison Macadam, began to negotiate for the purchase of the next-door building (No 9), then occupied by the Portland Club. The Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, urged club members to agree to a sale to the institute and they duly obliged.

As the war concluded some staff returned to Chatham House from their postings to government or the armed forces. Others left to join the staffs of the newly created international organizations – the IMF, the World Bank and the United Nations. These institutions were based in the US, a clear sign of US endorsement of their goals of securing the peace and preventing a recurrence of economic slump.

In 1945 the Bulletin of International News, the institute’s flagship publication, was divided into two parts. Articles on current international questions were published monthly under the title The World Today: Chatham House Review, a format aimed at reaching a wider public than in the past. The daily chronology of events, and the other reference material, was published as a supplement twice a month.

The division of the publication can be seen symbolizing a new stage in the institute’s development. Founded in the aftermath of the 1914-18 war, its initial aim was to broaden the range of expertise applied to international affairs beyond diplomatic professionals. In 1945, with the publication of The World Today, it sought to expand the circle of debate to include the informed lay person and others with an interest in peace-time developments.