HL Deb 05 April 1950 vol 166 cc851-8

4.30 p.m.

VISCOUNT TRENCHARD rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether they are now in a position to say what progress has been made in consultation with the American Government on the subject of a Joint History of the Second World War, as was agreed to by this House on March 10, 1948; and to move for Papers. The noble and gallant Viscount said: My Lords, over two years ago I put down a Motion that the views of the Government of the United States should be sought on the question whether arrangements should be made for the compilation of a Joint Anglo-American History of the Second World War. That Motion was received in all parts of the House with great sympathy, if I may say so. It was supported by the noble Marquess the Leader of the Opposition, by the noble Viscount the Leader of the Liberal Party and on all sides of the House, and it was accepted by the Government with sympathy. Since then several unofficial histories have been written, and two volumes of the Official History of the American Air War have been published. Yet in this country I have not seen any official history—or it may be that it has not been brought to my notice. The noble and learned Viscount the Lord Chancellor, in replying to my Motion in March, 1948, said: I accept this Motion readily and without hesitation. We will consult the Government of the United States about this matter. He went on to say: …it will be of the greatest value to the continuance of good relations between our two countries. That was the sole purpose of the Motion.

It may also be within your Lordships' recollection that I pointed out what damage had been done to the relations between the two countries by those bad old histories of the War of Independence, which are still on the shelves of all schools and universities. I went on to express my opinion that you cannot re-write those old histories of over two hundred years ago, but that if a joint history of the efforts of the two nations standing shoulder to shoulder in the last great war could be written now, it would have a wonderful effect on the relations between the two nations. That history would go on to the shelves of schools and universities. I suggested the appointment of two leading historians, one American and one British. They would choose their respective staffs and work together under a committee composed of well-known people, with a man of great reputation as chairman, and perhaps four or five representatives of the leading universities in both countries. If they were the sponsors of this new history I feel (in the words I used then) that this book would in time supplant the old distorted histories of the War of Independence.

I know that there are difficulties, but as I said two years ago if the two Governments set up this committee to let them choose the historians, and gave them something in the neighbourhood of £200,000 for the initial cost, the difficulties could be overcome. On the point of finance, I know that that is a large sum, but a great part of it would be recovered in the sale of the histories over the years. In the debate two years ago the noble Viscount, Lord Camrose, in speaking of the urgency of the matter, said: If it is to be of any value at all, a joint history of the war as conducted from both sides of the Atlantic must be available at an early date, before too many books of an irresponsible or a too patriotic character have been published. I feel that two years has been a long time. It is five years since the war ended, but on the information I get from America if this work can be put in hand now it will still achieve the purpose I anticipated. I would ask the Lord Chancellor what steps the Government have taken in the last two years in regard to approaching the American Government. I ask further that a White Paper should be published showing how far the project has progressed at the present time. I beg to move for Papers.

4.45 p.m.


My Lords, a little more than two years ago I accepted on behalf of the Government a Motion asking that the views of the United States Government should be sought on the question whether arrangements should he made for the compilation of a Joint Anglo-American History of the Second World War. I confessed then that the idea seemed very suitable to me. Like the noble Viscount, I spoke not as a skilled or expert historian, but I felt it was desirable that we should have a joint history before partial accounts were written from the various points of view of the respective nations. I feel that the noble Viscount went a little far in saying that history once written cannot be re-written or overtaken. Speaking for myself, Mr. Winston Churchill's book on Marlborough caused me to revise drastically the opinion I had formed from reading Macaulay. But you must have a great art in writing in order to overtake things of this sort.

What we did following the noble Lord's Motion was to consult the American Government. They were consulted through our Embassy in Washington, with the State Department—they were lengthy and elaborate consultations—and subsequently we were fortunate enough to have in London the Chief of the Division of Historical Policy Research of the State Department, and members of the Foreign Office and the Cabinet Office took advantage of his presence to discuss with him the project which the noble and gallant Viscount has at heart. I may add—though I am not authorised to speak for this last body—that we have also consulted, as the noble Viscount would anticipate., the eminent historians of this country I do not want to mention their names, but I will gladly give them to the noble Viscount: indeed, I should like him to consult with one or more of them in order that he may realise what is involved from the technical point of view, and what are the difficulties. So far as the United States Government and His Majesty's Government are concerned, I am authorised to say that they both concur in the observations I am now going to make. As on this occasion I am speaking for two Governments, and not one, I must adhere rather closely to what I am authorised to say. Sympathy, yes—everybody likes the idea. But both Governments quite firmly take the view that they have embarked on their own official histories, and that they must before they do anything else finish those official histories.

Indeed, neither in the, United States nor in this country is there any prospect of finding historians of sufficient ability and authority who would be available to undertake this work. I am sure the noble Viscount would agree that it is no good having this work done unless it is done by absolutely first-rate people. As I have said, both Governments are committed to the completion of their own official histories. That work is making tremendous demands on the available supply of trained historians, for this is a time when the universities have heavy requirements for teaching, and are finding difficulties in recruiting their staff. Indeed, in our own case we are experiencing great difficulties in finding historians here to undertake the work on the various volumes of our own official military histories—there are still vacancies to be filled. The State Department authorise me to say that they are suffering from precisely the same difficulties. I do not know what size staff would be required, but if you think of the field to be covered there is obviously an immense amount of work to be done.

The close association achieved in the general strategic direction of the war at the highest levels—for instance, between the Prime Minister and the President personally—and through the combined Chiefs of Staffs, is a great story in itself. But it is nothing like the whole story, because collaboration at the centre was continued and reflected in the High Commands and between the Forces themselves engaged in operations. Quite outside the military field there were immense achievements in the spheres of finance, economics, supplies, shipping, lease-lend and the rest. A history which was to cover all these subjects adequately and authoritatively and, at the same time, to cover them within a reasonable compass —for it is a cardinal feature of the noble Viscount's scheme that it should be a readable work and not merely a book of reference for the experts—would require historical abilities of the highest order, as well as expert assistance on a considerable scale. The real art in all these things—in paintings certainly, and I think in writing history—is to know what to leave out. To know what to leave out presupposes a great knowledge of the subject and also a high degree of skill.

I come now to the question of cost. I do not put this as a major matter. Last time we were discussing this subject the noble Viscount gave an estimate of £400,000, which would be borne, of course, in equal shares between the two countries. No one can say whether that is excessive or the reverse. For the moment I accept it for argument. I say frankly that here we should find very great difficulties in providing the necessary sum. At the present time we are spending £95,000 a year on our Official History, and it seems probable that there may be, and, indeed, I think there has been, some slight Parliamentary murmurs about that. I gather that the State Department might have corresponding trouble in Congress if they were to ask for a further sum of money in respect of this Joint History. The consolation I can give to the noble Viscount is that both Governments view the idea with sympathy, but do not regard it as practicable until after the official histories are completed. Of course, as your Lordships know, after the First World War the official histories—well, I doubt if they have been completed yet, after something like thirty years. I hope there will not be that length of time in the case of this war. Two of the civil histories, but none of the military histories, have been completed here, but I suppose it is true to say that a certain separation of time does make it easier for an historian to see things objectively. I quite agree that the disadvantage is that in that interval of time you may have other reports and other books written and it may prove difficult to overtake their errors.

The noble Viscount wants the book to be unofficial, and I agree with him. There is much to be said for that, but in practice both Governments feel this: How can this history be unofficial? If the two Governments are to finance it, they must inevitably have some say in the selection of the historians, and if it is to be authoritative it must be based on full access to official records. This, of course, could not be granted without reserving the Government's right of scrutiny of the volumes before publication. On that basis, I think it is unlikely that the history would be regarded either by the public here or by the public in the United States as an entirely unofficial publication. But if it is not so regarded, has not the whole point of it largely been defeated?

Now there is another question which I must bring before your Lordships, and that is the question of the right of access to official documents, which is a formidable difficulty. It is quite obvious that no historian of repute on either side would be prepared to undertake this work unless he could have access to the full range of documents on which it was based. Now that means that the British historian would need to have full access to all American records at whatever level, and that the American historian would claim the same right here. It is very doubtful whether either Government would be prepared or willing to modify to this extent their existing regulations governing access to official documents. I am not saying that that attitude would always prevail. Obviously, it would be much easier to allow access to documents after a passage of time than shortly after the documents came into being. But I am pointing out that consideration to the noble Viscount as being the line which both Governments take.

I do not think that, for the time being, I can give a more helpful reply. I would point out that books are being written dealing with various aspects of Anglo-American collaboration during the war, and those books are widely read. I mean such records as those of Mr. Churchill, of General Eisenhower and of the noble and gallant Viscount, Field-Marshal Montgomery. They are all records of men who played predominant rôles in this great story of war-time cooperation between their countries and who are therefore in the best position to bear vivid and eloquent witness to its character and results. I have no doubt that each year important works are published in both countries which throw further light on this subject. Knowing what I do of official histories and knowing what I do of those formidable histories—I hope nobody will take me to task over this—the Cambridge Modern History is not the sort of book which one takes as a bedside book—at least I never do. I do with Macaulay, and I do with Trevelyan. I think these official histories will really serve in this way: they will serve as the source from which the historians of the future will get their information, and those historians will digest that information and present it to us in readable arid attractive form. In that way, I think, the official histories will play a great part.

For the reasons I have given—the reason of cost; the difficulty with regard to access to documents; the inability at present to get historians of the right quality arid repute—we do not think that at the present time the noble Viscount's project is a feasible one. But in order that the noble Viscount may not go away with the impression that this is just a departmental excuse for doing nothing, I should very much like to bring him in touch with some of the historians (whose names I will give him) in order that he may see, not merely from the departmental point of view but from the practical point of view, that there are great and weighty difficulties in the way which at present neither Government can see their way to overcome. I hope the noble Viscount will at least be satisfied that we have taken the trouble to get into touch with the American authorities to find out their reactions. Of course, it is quite obvious and quite certain that without the most full collaboration of both Governments, any such project at the present time is out of the question.

4.50 p.m.


My Lords, before I withdraw my Motion, which was supported on all sides two years ago, I would like to thank the noble and learned Viscount for the long statement he has made, and for the care with which he has gone into the matter. The noble and learned Viscount used the word "official" five or six times. I will not weary your Lordships by repeating the points that I made in my speech, but I must emphasise that what I am suggesting is that the four great universities of America and four of our own Universities should cooperate and take the work from the Government. The process of their getting secret records from both Governments was fully explained in the previous debate. I will reserve to myself the right to raise this matter at a later stage. After all, there are a considerable number of historians who are writing. Mr. Churchill is not an idle man, and yet he seems to have found time to write a very great deal. And there are others who have also found time for much writing. I have read many helpful and informative histories of the joint effort of America and ourselves. General Eisenhower and General Arnold, amongst other American generals, have found time to write, and I do not see why it should be thought impossible over here. I am sure it would be much better if this work were done not by the Government but by bodies drawn from the respective universities. However, in the circumstances I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.