Justifying War pp 179-199 | Cite as

Saving Civilization: British Public Opinion and the Coming of War in 1939

  • Richard Overy


On 1 January 1939, the journal of the British League of Nations Union, Headway, printed a banner headline that filled the first page: ‘Great Britain, Strong, Resolute, Just, Will Save the World in 1939’.1 This was an ambitious claim and it made sense only in terms of a widespread popular perception that Britain had a primary role in world affairs which gave her a particular responsibility to safeguard world security. If the claim now looks preposterous 70 years later, it was understood in early 1939 that this was a responsibility which Britain, one way or another, would have to fulfil in the coming year under the shadow of a collapsing world order. The proposition did not have to specify exactly what the world needed to be saved from; the journal’s readership well-understood that the choice in 1939 was between the possibility of peace and the strong likelihood of war.


Opinion Poll Labour Party International Police British Opinion World Affair 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 2.
    ‘The Million’, Headway, 15 (1933), April supplement; D.S. Birn (1981) The League of Nations Union, 1918–1945 (Oxford), pp. P.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    M. Ceadel (1980) ‘The First British Referendum: the Peace Ballot, 1934–5’, English Historical Review, 95, pp. 818–21, 828–9Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    Headway, 17(7), July 1935, p. 1.Google Scholar
  4. 10.
    London School of Economics, Carr-Saunders Papers B/3/4, British Institute of Public Opinion ‘What Britain Thinks’, p. 19; G.H. Gallup (1976) The Gallup International Opinion Polls: Great Britain 1937–1975: Volume 1 1937–1964 (New York), pp. 10, 21.Google Scholar
  5. 20.
    P. Noel-Baker (1934) ‘The International Air Police Force’, in S. Jameson (ed.) Challenge to Death (London), p. 237.Google Scholar
  6. 21.
    M.C. Pugh (1988) ‘An International Police Force: Lord Davies and the British Debate in the 1930s’, International Relations, 9, pp. 335–7; idem (2002) ‘Policing the World: Lord Davies and the Quest for Order in the 1930s’, International Relations, 16, pp. 97–100.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 24.
    H. Swanwick (1937) Collective Insecurity (London: Jonathan Cape), p. 228. See also L. Ashworth (2010) ‘Feminism, War and Prospects of Peace: Helena Swanwick and the Lost Feminists of Inter-War International Relations’, International Feminist Journal of Politics, 13 (2011), pp. 25–43.Google Scholar
  8. 26.
    D.C. Lukowitz (1974) ‘British Pacifists and Appeasement: The Peace Pledge Union’, Journal of Contemporary History, 9, pp. 116–17; C. Moorehead (1987) Troublesome People: Enemies of War, 1916–1986 (London), pp. 122–4. On the problems for the LNU, see J.A. Thompson (1977) ‘Lord Cecil and the Pacifists in the League of Nations Union’, Historical Journal, 20, pp. 949–55.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 30.
    See the discussion in R.J. Overy (2009) The Morbid Age: Britain between the Wars (London), pp. 11–22. There is much useful discussion in D. Todman (2005) The Great War: Myth and Memory (London) and A. Gregory (2009) The Last Great War: British Society and the First World War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).Google Scholar
  10. 31.
    N. Maclean (1934) How Shall We Escape? Learn or Perish (London), pp. 174–5.Google Scholar
  11. 32.
    U. Bialer See also R.J. Overy (2008) ‘Apocalyptic Fears: Bombing and Popular Anxiety in Inter-War Britain’, S-NODI: pubblici e private nella storia contemporanea, 2, 7–30. (1980) The Shadow of the Bomber. The Fear of Air Attack and British Politics, 1932–1939 (Royal Historical Society: London). See also R.J. Overy (2008) ‘Apocalyptic Fears: Bombing and Popular Anxiety in Inter-War Britain’, S-NODI: pubblici e private nella storia contemporanea, 2, 7–30.Google Scholar
  12. 33.
    K. Willis (1995) ‘The Origins of British Nuclear Culture, 1895–1939’, Journal of British Studies, 34, p. 83.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 34.
    Cited in I. Brown, ‘War’s New Ally: Fascism’, in Jameson (ed.) Challenge to Death, p. 151. On British attitudes to Hitler and National Socialism, see also D. Stone (2003) Responses to Nazism in Britain, 1933–1939: Before War and Holocaust (London), esp. pp. 1–13.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 36.
    See, for example, G. Howson (1998) Arms for Spain: The Untold Story of the Spanish Civil War (London: John Murray); R. Baxell (2004) British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War: The British Battalion in the International Brigades 1936–1939 (London: Warren & Pell); J.K. Hopkins (1998) Into the Heart of the Fire: The British in the Spanish Civil War (Stanford University Press); T. Buchanan (1997) Britain and the Spanish Civil War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).Google Scholar
  15. 38.
    M. Squires (1994) The Aid to Spain Movement in Battersea 1936–1939 (London: Elmfield).Google Scholar
  16. 41.
    See P. Davison (ed.) (2001) Orwell in Spain (Harmondsworth: Penguin), for Orwell’s own accounts of his conversion.Google Scholar
  17. 49.
    H. Nicholson (1941) Half My Days and Nights: A Memoir of the 1920s and 1930s (London: republished by Autolycus Press, 1998), pp. 144–5, 177–80.Google Scholar
  18. 50.
    See, on this, R. Stradling (2008) Your Children Will Be Next: Bombing and Propaganda in the Spanish Civil War 1936–1939 (Cardiff: University of Wales Press); I. Patterson (2007) Guernica and Total War (London: Profile Books).Google Scholar
  19. 51.
    J.T. Banks (ed.) (2003) Congenial Spirits: The Selected Letters of Virginia Woolf (London: Houghton Mifflin/Harcourt), p. 412, Virginia Woolf to Vanessa Bell, 3 October 1938.Google Scholar
  20. 55.
    R. Vickers (2003) The Labour Party and the World: Volume 1: The Evolution of Labour’s Foreign Policy 1900–51 (Manchester), pp. 135–8. The Party issued a pamphlet in November 1938 on the Czech crisis saying that ‘war was not the alternative’ at that time, but during 1939 pulled in several directions, one favouring collective security and a possible military alliance with the Soviet Union, one still opposing the government’s efforts to accelerate rearmament.Google Scholar
  21. 56.
    King’s College, London, Liddell Hart archive, LH1/408, Storm Jameson to Basil Liddell Hart, 21 December 1941. In the letter, she explains the process that led her to abandon her pacifism several years earlier. According to J. Birkett (2009) Margaret Storm Jameson: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press), p. 192, Jameson broke with the PPU only in May 1940. In fact, she resigned as a sponsor a year earlier. See Somerville College, Oxford, Vera Brittain archive, VB/D, diary file 1939, entry for 3 March 1939.Google Scholar
  22. 69.
    D. Hucker (2007) ‘French Public Attitudes towards the Prospect of War in 1938–39: ‘Pacifism’ or ‘War Anxiety?’, French History, 21, pp. 431–49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Richard Overy 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Richard Overy

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations