Launching the League: The foundation of the League of Nations Union in Kingston

One hundred years ago this month, in January, 1920, the League of Nations was officially launched, and the first meeting of the new League’s Council took place on 16th January. There have been times in history when the global has very much influenced the local, and during the interwar period Kingston-on-Thames in Surrey saw a burst of activity from a local lobby group which was designed to both promote the new League of Nations and educate people about international affairs more generally.

Woodrow Wilson 2The creation of the League of Nations had been very much down to the vision and energy of President Woodrow Wilson of the USA (see photo) who, in January, 1918, had called for the foundation of a ‘general association of nations’ to help guarantee the political and territorial independence of all states after the Great War.

President Wilson said he looked forward to a ‘new world’ of international co-operation and open diplomacy, backed by the organisational machinery of the League. Ironically, though, the USA did not become a member of the new League of Nations and Wilson was left bitterly disappointed about this.

In Britain, however, to help support the League and influence public opinion in its favour, a new national organisation was created in November, 1918, called the ‘League of Nations Union’ (LNU). According to recent research by the historian Helen McCarthy, the LNU became one of Britain’s largest voluntary associations during the 1920s and 1930s, and similar organisations were set up in a number of other countries around the globe.

League of Nations symbol

In south-west London, League supporters soon became active, including in Kingston. In nearby Richmond, a local branch of the LNU had been founded as early as May, 1919, but in Kingston it took a while longer. Thus, in February, 1921, a ‘representative group’ of people gathered for a meeting at the town’s Assize Courts one Tuesday evening, presided over by Kingston’s local Member of Parliament, Mr. J.G.D. Campbell. Kingston’s MP said that they had ‘just emerged from the greatest and most terrible war in history’. Whatever their ‘views or prepossessions might be’, he reasoned, they ‘all felt determined that a war like that should not occur again’.

This comment received a round of applause from the audience. Warming to his subject, Campbell continued by noting that the war had seen ‘millions of men cut off in their prime’ and millions more incapacitated. But, he argued, the ‘horrors of that war were nothing to what the horrors of a war in twenty years would be. It would end in the destruction of civilisation as they knew it’. The ‘hope for the future’, he claimed, lay in the nations discussing their differences ‘amicably’.

Next to speak to the Kingston audience was Mr. F. Whelen, who spoke for an hour about the moving scenes he had witnessed at a meeting of the League of Nations Assembly in Geneva. Only a year had passed since the League had come into existence, he said, but already it embraced 42 nations, representing 1,100 millions of people, or three-quarters of the population of the earth.

Sidney Pocock

Another key local figure present at the meeting was Sir Sidney Pocock (1854-1931) (see photo), a businessman, magistrate, writer and Liberal Party politician (who also happened to be an authority on prisons). Pocock, in his comments to the audience, strongly emphasised what he saw as the necessity of the League, and he moved a resolution to establish a Kingston branch of the League of Nations Union. The resolution was seconded by the Vicar of Kingston.

The inauguration of the new LNU branch in Kingston certainly caught the attention of the local Surrey Comet newspaper, which devoted a detailed editorial to discussion of the League, entitled ‘A Federation of the World’. In the Comet‘s view, the League of Nations was ‘the first attempt in the history of the world to legislate for the good of humanity, instead of for the advantage of individual nations’. According to the paper, it was therefore ‘gratifying’ to see that representatives ‘of every shade of political and religious opinion, and of all the most prominent organisations in Kingston’, had combined to inaugurate a local branch of the LNU.

Sounding notably optimistic, the Comet added that it was ‘another sign that the common will is set steadfastly against a recurrence of war’, and that the people were marching resolutely forward.

League of Nations cartoon image

It is difficult to determine how many local people signed up to be members of the LNU at this inauguration meeting but, when the branch next met two months later (in April, 1921), at what was described as a ‘very successful public meeting’ held at the Kingston Congregational Church, it was announced that about 60 members had been enrolled over the previous two months. Interestingly, perhaps indicating the keen wider interest among people in the town, this second meeting reportedly had an audience ‘that nearly filled the hall’.

The overall story of the parent League of Nations in the interwar period is, of course, not a happy one. While there were some notable successes (especially in social reform, labour legislation, and medical campaigns against disease), the League – despite the initial optimism of its supporters during the 1920s – was unable to stop the outbreak of new disputes and conflicts and, ultimately, failed to prevent the outbreak of a new world war in 1939.

Nevertheless, looking back with the benefit of hindsight on the 1920s and the early beginnings of the LNU in Kingston, what is especially striking is the tremendous enthusiasm that its adherents had for the League’s ambitious vision of a new and peaceful world, particularly after all the bloodshed and trauma of the Great War.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University

(Images: Wikimedia Commons)

Note: This is an updated version of a blog that was first published here on 8th November, 2017


Posted in American history, British history, European History, Kingston, Local History, London history, Media history, Public History, Research, Surrey, Uncategorized, World History | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Year of Upheaval: ‘Red’ 1920 in retrospect

It is often assumed that when the Armistice was signed in November, 1918, the world entered a period of relative peace. Yet, as a number of historians have pointed out, the following year – 1919 – proved to be a year of civil wars, together with upheavals, strikes and general social and political discontent across the globe. Moreover, looking back, it is evident that this pattern of uncertainty and societal conflict also continued well into 1920.


In fact, one hundred years later, when we consider the many events of 1920 from the perspective of 2020, it is very clear that parts of the globe remained in considerable turmoil in the immediate aftermath of the Great War.

One especially notable sign of this was continued fear of the rise of Labour and Socialist ideas and parties. The year 1917, of course, had seen a Communist revolution in Russia, and 1918-1919 witnessed various Leftwing uprisings in cities in Germany and in other parts of central and eastern Europe.

All this had sent a palpable chill across the political elites in the democracies, and many politicians, such as Winston Churchill (pictured), feared that the ‘disease’ of Bolshevism could rapidly infect workers across the globe.

His views were echoed elsewhere. In the USA, for example, the ‘Great Red Scare’ that had gripped the country the previous year appeared to reach new heights in early 1920. On 2nd January, 1920, acting on instructions from the government (and mainly at the behest of the Attorney-General, A. Mitchell Palmer), extensive raids were carried out by state authorities across the country on Communist and Labour offices and, where necessary, on the workplaces and private homes of Leftwing ‘suspects’.

America Red Scare cartoon

It is estimated that more than 4,000 radical activists were rounded up, with confiscation made of huge amounts of documentary evidence, letters and membership lists. It is now generally accepted that this controversial operation, often conducted by local police, was informed by extreme paranoia, and had also been fanned by a regular diet of highly questionable press reports (many of them bordering on hysteria) about the internal ‘Red’ threat to American life.

Many of the citizens who were arrested were subjected to severe police beatings and ill-treatment, but many turned out to be innocent of the crimes they were accused of. Indeed, after a series of embarrassing court hearings where judges had ruled that much of the evidence collected by police had been obtained illegally, it is estimated that, by April, 1920, about 50 per cent of the detainees had been freed.

In Western Europe, the year 1920 saw similar political controversy and turmoil over the question of the impending ‘Red’ threat. In Germany, the month of January, 1920, saw mass marches by Berlin workers on the Reichstag (the German parliament). Many of the men were unhappy at a bill proposed by the new government that aimed to reduce the rights of the many elected Workers’ Councils that had been set up in 1918-19. On 13th January, 1920, armed troops posted around the Reichstag building clashed with the strikers and opened fire, killing 42 and wounding 400. Martial law was declared in some parts of Germany, and leaders of the Freikorps (paramilitary bodies of ex-servicemen which had formed in 1918-1919 and were deeply anti-Bolshevik) remained convinced that the country was in extreme danger from the Left.

Freikorps Germany 1920s

Although the Versailles Treaty had come into effect on 10th January, 1920, reducing the German army to 100,000 men and demanding the disbanding of the Freikorps (pictured, many Freikorps merely reformed themselves into sports clubs or shooting societies, planning for the day when they could fully re-group and destroy the German Left more decisively.

In hindsight, such a tense atmosphere also laid the groundwork for the emergence of extreme nationalists, such as the young Adolf Hitler, who had formed his new ‘National Socialist German Workers Party’ (NSDAP) in 1920.

In France, the spring of 1920 was also marked by a series of bitter industrial strikes, including a full national rail strike in the month of May. However, in a country still recovering from the huge damage and costs of the Great War, the key Labour Unions found it increasingly difficult to stir up enthusiasm and support from French workers for further strikes. It would appear that many French workers had lost their appetite for protest. In addition, the French government took legal action against those they regarded as the political ‘ring-leaders’ of the strikes.

Britain also saw numerous industrial strikes and general discontent during the course of 1920. This reached a climax in a major national miners’ strike in the month of October, a strike which lasted for over two weeks and effectively brought the country to a standstill.

Army on duty in Summer 1919

This industrial conflict in Britain gave much impetus to the growth of a number of voluntary citizens groups and organizations, such as the Middle Classes Union (MCU), which had been formed in March, 1919, and feared the rise of Socialism and Bolshevism. The MCU launched a new journal, The New Voice, in April, 1920, and warned that the country was drifting towards Communism. Although they denied they were ‘strike-breaking’ organizations, such groups were keen to offer their services to the government during any period of severe industrial ’emergency’. Similarly, although they operated with a lower public profile, unofficial agencies such as ‘National Propaganda’  and the ‘Industrial Intelligence Bureau’ had become key players by early 1920 for the dissemination of anti-Socialist propaganda across the British Isles.

British government paranoia about Bolshevism was also increased when the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) was formed in August, 1920, with 5,124 members (but this membership figure declined to only 2,500 by January, 1921).

Meanwhile, Italy – although on the winning side during the Great War – continued to suffer from political upheaval, rampant inflation, high unemployment and general economic stagnation during the course of 1920. Strikes and riots were frequent occurrences during the year, culminating in September with a massive series of sit-ins in the industrial north of the country. Workers occupied over 600 factories and many Soviet-style Workers’ Councils were set up. The government finally stepped in and offered a 20 per cent wage increase, which ended the immediate crisis, but did little to ease middle-class fears of further Socialist ‘anarchy’.

Mussolini March on Rome

However, watching all this very closely was the former Socialist agitator Benito Mussolini, who increasingly played the anti-Communist card and instructed his new Black-shirted Fascists (founded in 1919) to attack all Socialist and Labour organisations across the country. The two ‘Red Years’ (as 1919-1920 became known in Italy) saw major physical confrontation on the streets of major towns and cities and in the countryside between Fascist squadristi and Socialist, Anarchist and Communist activists. By late 1920, it was evident that many ordinary Italians, although not necessarily enthused by fascism, increasingly saw Mussolini and his new movement as possibly the only force that could save Italy from ‘Red’ revolution.

In hindsight, the year 1920 can certainly be seen as a year of social and political upheaval, with paranoia, hatred and fear of Socialism across the world constituting a major element of this in particular. The French composer Claude Debussy, speaking in the aftermath of the Great War, apparently lamented to a friend: ‘When will hate be exhausted?’ A brief glance at 1920 suggests that it was far from exhausted.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, Surrey

(Images: Wikimedia Commons)




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Russia in NATO? Newly-released files offer glimpse into UK’s foreign policy thinking in mid-1990s

The latest batch of declassified British government files, released to The National Archives (TNA) at Kew, south-west London, in the New Year, offer some intriguing insights into the secret foreign policy deliberations that took place under John Major’s Conservative administration during the mid-1990s, especially towards post-Soviet Russia.

The National Archives

According to the formerly confidential Downing Street files, which can now be read at Kew, one suggestion from the Ministry of Defence (MOD), proposed the possibility of inviting Boris Yeltsin’s Russia to become an ‘associate member’ of NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, the West’s main defensive pact). The controversial suggestion was made by the British Defence Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, at a strategy seminar held at Chequers (the Prime Minister’s country residence) in January, 1995, which was attended by senior members of the Cabinet.

The Rifkind plan was put forward to try and heal almost a century of intense east-west rivalry, and to dispel Russia’s post-1989 suspicions of NATO’s plans to expand eastwards and bring in former Eastern Bloc communist countries.

John Major and Malcolm Rifkind

Rifkind (pictured with Major) was apparently convinced that Britain’s policy towards Russia was not, as he put it, ‘sufficiently imaginative’, and he seems to have wanted a bolder and more radical approach.

In notes for the Chequers seminar, Rifkind argued: ‘A possible solution would be to create a new category of associate member of Nato’. Rifkind wrote that such a status would not give Russia a veto over NATO decisions, but would still give Russia ‘a formal status within Nato’ and allow it to attend ministerial and other meetings, and would eventually lead (in his estimation) to ‘harmonisation’ with Moscow. Another element to this suggestion was evidently a desire to help Boris Yeltsin, as Russia had ‘entered a difficult and doubtful phase with Yeltsin visibly weakened and Russian democrats and westernisers on the defensive’.

Rifkind also argued that such an associate status would help make Russia ‘a more normal member of the western family’ and ‘help Yeltsin make Russia a more normal European country’. Otherwise, Rifkind warned, Russia ‘would revert back to authoritarianism’.


However, the files indicate the Foreign Office (under Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd) was cautious and luke-warm about the suggestion, while Ken Clarke, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, said the idea was ‘farcical’. Briefing notes drafted for the Prime Minister, John Major, prior to the seminar, also suggest that he was advised that Rifkind’s proposed plan was not workable. The notes for the Premier asked whether Rifkind’s plan was ‘realistic’ and advised the PM that it was important ‘that we keep confidential the fact that we are considering the idea’. The files reveal that the proposal was not taken up.

Interestingly, the newly-released files at Kew also provide new insights into the Major government’s thoughts on Boris Yeltsin himself. There was clearly great concern about the Russian leader’s health and his fondness for alcohol. In fact, after Yeltsin’s second heart attack, civil servants even put together contingency plans in case Yeltsin died suddenly. This included a draft statement that Major would have made to the House of Commons.

The descriptions by British officials of Yeltsin’s behaviour were quite graphic and revealing. At a summit held in New York in October, 1995, for example, one British civil servant wrote afterwards: ‘He [Yeltsin] consumed wine and beer greedily and regretted the absence of cognac. One of his aides took a glass of champagne away from him when the aid felt enough was enough, and he was alcoholically cheerful at his press conference with [Bill] Clinton’.

Major and Yelsin

Similarly, at a reception held by President Clinton, and attended by Prime Minister Major and Yeltsin, the Russian leader ‘practically crushed the prime minister in a warm embrace, saying that he had not seen enough of the prime minister recently, and suggesting that they should meet tomorrow’. The files record a number of other incidents which gave officials some anxious moments.

Ironically, despite the British government’s concerns over Yeltsin’s sometimes erratic behaviour and its worries over his alcoholism and heart problems, the Russian leader remained in office as President of the Russian Federation until December, 1999, and did not die until April, 2007.

John Major - NPG image

In general, the tranche of newly-released files at TNA offer a range of useful insights into the foreign policy of the John Major government, including on Major’s uneasy relations with Bill Clinton’s administration over Northern Ireland, and on the distrust between Britain and France that apparently broke out over French policy in the Balkans conflict.

The external policy of the John Major Premiership is a period which has received relatively less attention from historians when compared to their critical explorations of the more ‘visionary’ and interventionist foreign policies of the pre-Major Margaret Thatcher administrations or the post-Major Tony Blair governments. Rightly or wrongly, Major’s external policy stance has often been seen by academic commentators as less ‘strident’ and more cautious and ‘realistic’ compared to some other UK PMs, such as Eden, Thatcher and Blair.

As new evidence increasingly comes into the public domain via TNA under the 20-year file rule, the historiography will undoubtedly begin to focus more directly on Major’s foreign policy-making and his administration’s specific attitudes towards other countries.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, Surrey

(Images: Wikimedia Commons and NPG)


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One of our highpoints of 2019: History at Kingston University achieved exceptional National Student Survey results

Looking back over the past year, one of our proudest moments came in mid-2019, as summed up in the following blog published at the time.

The History undergraduate Degree at Kingston University has done exceptionally well in this year’s recently released National Student Survey (NSS) results. The results were released by the Office for National Students (OfS).


A History research seminar at Kingston University

The University’s overall satisfaction rate this year jumped from 82.2 per cent, rising from 80.5 per cent in 2018. In History, we achieved an overall satisfaction rate of 93.8 per cent. Moreover, there was 100 per cent recorded for 8 of the questions, making History joint top in the University in all of these areas.

Dr. Jeremy Nuttall, Head of the History Undergraduate programme at Kingston in 2018-19, expressed his delight and offered a ‘well done!’ to the hard-working History teaching team. Similarly, Dr. Marisa Linton, Associate Professor of History and part of the team, also said it was ‘excellent news’ and ‘a great tribute’ to the work Kingston’s Historians have put in this year. It has clearly been strongly appreciated by our students.

As Kingston University’s Vice-Chancellor, Steven Spier, commented in his own assessment of the University’s latest NSS results, ‘Every year, the National Student Survey results provide an invaluable insight into our students’ views on both their campus experience and degree studies’.

The study of History at Kingston has certainly met with the approval of our students. Indeed, as part of the effort to keep Kingston at the forefront, Kingston’s History team have been as busy as ever during 2018-19. In November, 2018, for example, there was a large audience of students and the public to hear three KU Historians, Dr. Sue Hawkins, Dr. John Stuart and Dr. Steven Woodbridge, who each contributed a presentation on the end of the First World World War. This was part of the ‘Modern British Identity’ speaker series for the Cultural Histories at Kingston seminar programme. The latter programme has been organised and directed by Dr. Jeremy Nuttall.

Other sessions in the series this academic year have covered, for example, Manners in the 18th Century, the future of Social Democracy, and the mainstreaming of Black power in 1960s America.

IWM WW1 image

Similarly, the University’s marketing team has made use of special news articles written by Dr. Steven Woodbridge on the 100th Anniversary of the 1918 Armistice, the 75th Anniversary of the D-day landings, and also (when a German bomb was discovered in Kingston recently) on the impact of the ‘Blitz’ on Kingston in World War Two.

Moreover, the scholarly expertise on offer from Kingston’s historians remains in both national and international demand. Dr. Rachael Johnson appeared on British TV to share her knowledge of 18th century leisure and pleasure for a documentary, while Dr. Jeremy Nuttall organised a prestigious and highly-successful book launch and symposium on British politics at the Royal Academy of Arts in London last autumn, which was attended by some key politicians from Westminster.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge gave a paper on fascism at an international conference of British and Italian historians held at SOAS, while Dr. Marisa Linton will be speaking at a conference on the French Revolution at the University of Melbourne in Australia this month.

Dr. Sue Hawkins will also be speaking at a special one-day conference later this month on the role of women in the Great War, an event which will be the culmination of Surrey County Council’s four-year ‘Surrey in the Great War’ project (which also saw one of our History students conduct voluntary work on the project in 2018-19 as part of her enrolment on our Worklink module).

John Galsworthy Building

The strong NSS results achieved by History this year is also a reflection of the quality of the student experience enjoyed by our students and the strong loyalty they often retain after graduation. During the last two years, for example, appreciation of the History team’s innovative blogging module has been demonstrated through a substantial financial prize donated by a former History undergraduate, which this year has been shared by three of our undergraduate students.

All in all, the NSS has reflected the cutting-edge quality of History as a subject at Kingston and the hard work of the History team, who have ensured students remain at the heart of all that we do. Congratulations all round!

(All images: Kingston University and Wikimedia Commons).

This blog contribution was first published on 9th July, 2019. 


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Ronald Ray Gun? ‘Star Wars’ and the U.S. Presidency in historical perspective

Did American Republican President Ronald Reagan allow his deep love of movies to shape his perceptions of domestic and world politics? During his time in the White House, Reagan often peppered his speeches with references to the ‘Rambo’ and ‘Dirty Harry’ movies. He was also a big fan of Star Wars. As with a number of other Presidents, Reagan also regularly enjoyed special private screenings at the White House of the latest cinema releases.

On December 19th, 2019, film fans in the UK were given an early Christmas present when Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the ninth and final entry in the smash-hit science fiction series, opened at cinemas across Britain and is already on course to break a number of box-office records during the holiday season.

Star Wars the-rise-of-the-skywalker

Since the original George Lucas Star Wars film hit the big screen back in 1977, there has been much interest on the part of historians in the cultural impact and possible wider political meanings of the Star Wars franchise. One dimension to this has been some fascinating theories put forward by scholars of American history about the world-view of President Reagan (who was in office 1981-89). These theories raise the tantalising possibility that the Star Wars series – as bizarre as this may sound – was a key influence on Reagan and, in particular, on his views of defence and foreign policy. Reagan’s decision to develop what became known as the ‘Strategic Defence Initiative’ (SDI), for example, a project unveiled in his first term of office (and even dubbed by the press at the time as ‘Star Wars’), together with his wider rhetoric about the Communist ‘evil empire’, may have been partly drawn from his love of the George Lucas movies.

ReaganSo, what is the evidence? Is it really the case that a man who reached the very top in U.S. politics (and arguably the most powerful position in the world), viewed the globe rather like a blockbuster space movie, perhaps blurring science fiction with geopolitical reality? The evidence is rather mixed. However, as strange as it might be, some of it is indeed quite compelling.

Ronald Reagan (1911-2004), of course, was a former film and TV actor himself, and it has been suggested by some of his biographers that he tended to blur fiction and fact even before he formally entered the national political arena. In the 1940s, Reagan had played a Secret Service agent in the Warner Brothers B-movie Murder in the Air, which saw his character preventing an enemy spy from stealing plans for a top-secret new defence weapon, a weapon which could blast any missile out of the sky and make the USA ‘invincible’. Did this film sow the seeds of Reagan’s future outlook, even if unconsciously?

As President of the Screen Actor’s Guild in Hollywood, Reagan had also worked enthusiastically to publicly identify and remove all ‘Communists’, joining with those who tended to see ‘Reds’ nearly everywhere in U.S. society and elsewhere in the 1950s. There did appear to be a rather Manichean strand in Reagan’s outlook, whereby things were often seen in terms of the forces of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ in the world. Perhaps Star Wars merely encapsulated how Reagan already viewed the moral Universe?

Ronald Reagan

Similarly, when he ran as Republican candidate for the Presidency against Democrat Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s, Reagan’s notably populist ‘Morning in America’ campaign looked back to a supposedly much simpler time when there were ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’, and no shades of complex political grey. Some commentators have claimed this campaign deliberately tapped into the ‘feel good’ optimism so much on display in 1977’s Star Wars. Again, it is difficult to know for certain.

When he took office as President in January, 1981, Reagan initiated what he and the Republicans regarded as a necessary and major ‘modernisation’ of U.S. conventional and nuclear forces. This culminated in his announcement on March 23rd, 1983, of the SDI programme.

Interestingly, it has been suggested that Reagan had been persuaded to go for the SDI programme partly because of the impressive footage put together by the key defence corporations to illustrate what they claimed was possible in terms of building a ‘defence shield’ over America: this included glossy SFX-style filmed images of missile-laiden satellites circling the earth and ‘zapping’ enemy missiles out of the sky. Perhaps all this reminded the President of Murder in the Air, or the hi-tech vision laid out in Star Wars? Again, one can only speculate.

The first politician to actually employ the term ‘Stars Wars’ to describe Reagan’s ambitious new defence vision was the Democrat Senator Edward Kennedy (in the Senate, the day after Reagan’s speech), and this was quickly taken up by headline writers in the media. But far from seeing this as a criticism, Reagan’s supporters actually embraced the term ‘Star Wars’ as a captivating and memorable label, perfect for their boss, who was already known as the ‘Great Communicator’.

Ronald Reagan evil_empireSignificantly, in the very same month, just two weeks before he announced the SDI programme, Reagan had also made a speech to the Annual Convention of the National Association of Evangelicals, where he had declared the Soviet Union to be ‘the focus of evil in the modern world’, and also used the phrase ‘evil empire’ for the first time. Almost immediately, commentators made links between Reagan’s moralistic rhetoric and the grand battles against evil on display in the Star Wars movies (the second film, The Empire Strikes Back, had been released in May, 1980).

A combination of Reagan’s faith in the possibility of space-based weapons systems and his near-Evangelical views of the role of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ in the world made for a potent mix, and one can certainly see why so many historians have made links between Reagan’s politics and the Star Wars franchise. Reagan’s general habit of borrowing movie terminology for his speeches has also reinforced this.

Trying to appropriate the appeal of the blockbuster entries in the Star Wars series is something that will undoubtedly continue in U.S. politics. At the Democratic Presidential debate held on December 19th, 2015, for example, Hillary Clinton livened things up for the audience by signing off with the words: ‘Thank you, good night, and may the force be with you’. Perhaps she was also paying a tribute to J.J. Abrams, the director of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Abrams and his wife donated $1 million to Clinton’s campaign to be President in June, 2015. 

Trump with Reagan

More recently, current Republican President Donald Trump appears to have developed an interest in space as an arena of future warfare; in March, 2018, for example, Trump gave a speech in which he stated that he saw space as ‘a war-fighting domain’.

Intriguingly, although it has proved very challenging for historians and other analysts to discern the precise roots and nature of Trump’s foreign policy outlook, Trump’s determination to massively increase U.S. defence spending, and his apparent recognition of ‘space’ as a future domain of military competition with rival nations, reminds some commentators of Reagan-style philosophy. It is perhaps worth noting that Trump himself has been very fond of displaying photos of the occasions he met Reagan, including this one (above), which Trump has tweeted via his personal twitter account.

Although Trump has not used Star Wars rhetoric directly, his Manichean way of viewing the globe, and his fondness for populist imagery when communicating with his supporters, is very reminiscent of the Reagan years.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, Surrey

(Images: Wikimedia Commons)

Note: A previous version of this blog was published here on December 23rd, 2015

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The Christmas Truce of 1914: not unique?

Speaking in 1963 for a BBC series on the Great War, the late author Henry Williamson, whose best-known work probably remains Tarka the Otter, gave some fascinating details about what he witnessed in December, 1914, when he was serving as a private in the British Army on the Western Front.

Williamson recalled that, starting late on Christmas Eve, 1914, the guns fell silent and a strange calm fell over the battlefield. Williamson was also surprised to see a Christmas tree go up on the German trenches, and to then hear the enemy soldiers singing Christmas carols. British soldiers sang carols in return. Moreover, at first light the very next day, on a cold Christmas Day morning, soldiers from both sides emerged from their trenches and went out into the frozen areas of ‘No-Man’s Land’, which became, he said, ‘khaki and grey as far as the eye could see’.


Christmas Day, 1914 (photo: WikiMedia Commons)

According to Williamson, this Christmas truce actually lasted for four days, until strict orders to stop such ‘fraternisation’ were issued by exasperated Generals on the High Commands of both sides.

Christmas Truce 1914 Daily Mirror

The ‘Christmas Truce of 1914’, as it is now usually called, where British and German soldiers left their trenches and went into ‘No-Man’s Land’ to meet, chat, exchange gifts, swop addresses and even play football, did receive some newspaper coverage at the time (see, for example, the image from the Daily Mirror), but it has often been seen as a unique moment amid all the terrible bloodshed of the First World War, never to be repeated. It has certainly become an iconic and startling image in modern popular culture when used as an anti-war message in various war films, and has featured in some pop ballads and also, at one stage, was seen in a large UK retailer’s Christmas advert.

However, in 2016, new research for a book by the historian Thomas Weber suggested that the truce may not have been as unique as we thought. The British media, including The Times and the Daily Telegraph, together with a number of news websites, gave extensive coverage in December, 2016, to intriguing evidence uncovered by Professor Weber which indicated that smaller-scale truces of the same nature as the 1914 one in fact occurred at other points in the Great War, despite the growing brutality and enormous loss of life on both sides.

Professor Weber is a historian at the University of Aberdeen and is also the author of some ground-breaking work on the early military career of Hitler, which helped to puncture and de-mythologize the Nazi leader’s own highly-selective autobiographical version of his time in the trenches.

Weber’s new research retained its focus on the Western Front and raised some important points about the official records of the army regiments and also those of senior officers. Using a range of private correspondence and soldiers’ letters to their families, Weber’s careful investigation of the testimony of ordinary soldiers found that ‘fraternisation’ (i.e. peaceful and friendly interactions) between the rival sides did not just occur in 1914, but also during other key moments in the conflict, a pattern that was ‘purged’ from the official military records. Weber said that, as he worked through the large number of private letters, he came across ‘a surprising number’ of references to truces beyond 1914.

British troops in Trenches

According to Prof. Weber: ‘When officers failed to prevent fraternisation from happening, they rarely reported those cases up the chain of command for fear of being court-marshalled. In the few cases that were officially reported, they tended to be written out of the story after the event. There is strong evidence that instances of fraternisation were purged from the official regimental war diaries before they were published in book form in the interwar years’.

Examples of further Christmas truces occurred in 1915, and also at Vimy Ridge and on the Somme in 1916. At Vimy Ridge, for example, Weber found evidence of a truce struck between Canadian and German troops. The official version of events as recorded by the Canadian regiment stated that the Germans tried to reach out and interact, but that no Canadian troops responded to this. However, Weber found that letters written by soldiers contradict this. In one letter by a Scottish soldier who witnessed such events, he wrote: ‘We had a truce on Xmas day and our German friends were quite friendly. They came over to see us and we traded bully beef for cigars. Xmas was “tray bon” which means very good’. Weber also found other similar letters written by soldiers.

Christmas in trenches

Weber said: ‘The general view is that after the first Christmas there was no repeat because of the circle of violence and its ensuing bitterness that then set in. In fact, what we see is that despite the difficulties they endured, soldiers never tried to stop fraternising’. Indeed, the top-brass in the British military became so determined to stamp such behaviour out that officers were instructed to start using snipers against any friendly German soldiers when men met between the lines of trenches during any locally-arranged truces. Soldiers in the lower ranks of the British Army, however, were not happy about this and sometimes recorded their disgust at such ‘un-British’ tactics.

Interestingly, when he heard of Weber’s latest findings, Dan Snow, the BBC broadcaster and historian – who has himself become something of an expert on the First World War – commented to the UK’s media that he thought this topic was clearly one of the big ‘untold stories’ of the Great War. It is difficult to disagree.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, Surrey

(Images: Wikimedia Commons and Press Association)

Note: A slightly shorter version of this blog was first published here on December 21st, 2016


Posted in British history, Canadian History, European History, German History, Media history, Public History, Uncategorized, World History | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fuel to the Fire? The effect of Internment on ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland

Known by the name ‘Operation Demetrius’, a British Army operation led by RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) intelligence began in the early hours of 9th August, 1971, and saw the arrest of 342 people. More arrests were to come. In fact, between 1971-73, it is estimated that 2,169 people, overwhelmingly Catholic and republican, were interned by the authorities in Northern Ireland without trial.

Internment in NI - British soldiers search driver

Denied fair legal representation, they would experience violence, even torture, at the hands of their captors. Of course, internment without trial in UK history had been used across the British Empire, from Palestine to Kenya, as a method to control the numerous ’emergencies’, or in modern parlance ‘insurgencies’, that occurred as Britain retreated from her empire.

Significantly, though, Ireland had known internment twice previously in the 20th century, firstly following the Easter Rising in 1916 and then again, on both sides of the Irish border, following the IRA’s (Irish Republican Army) abortive Border Campaign of 1956-62. Internment in the latter, at one juncture, saw British Home Secretary RAB Butler congratulate “the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic for interning certain terrorists…”. However, by 1971, the situation in Northern Ireland (NI) was increasingly spinning out of control, so the introduction of internment appeared a reasonable strategy.

How had the province reached this dramatic point? The previous two years had seen an ever-increasing cycle of violence on the streets of NI, and the presence of the British Army had not stemmed the problem. Since the start of the civil rights movement in 1968, Belfast and Derry had been in constant turmoil. The situation had arguably been worsened by the British Army’s actions during the Falls Road Curfew of 26th June, 1970. The full details of the incident will not be set out here, but the British Army’s actions in the Falls Road evidently alienated even moderate Catholics from the state and saw the IRA declare war on Britain.

Brian Faulkner

The IRA began their bombing campaign by attacking the Daily Mirror’s offices on 17th July, 1971. This apparently forced Brian Faulkner, Prime Minister of NI from 1971-72 (see photo), to re-introduce internment. Revealingly, though, this enthusiasm for internment was not shared by high-ranking officers in the British Army in NI or by Westminster. Indeed, senior government officials in London, including Reginald Maudling and Prime Minister Ted Heath, were “extremely anxious” about internment as, in their estimation, it represented a high-risk strategy, which could increase the very violence it was trying to bring to a halt.

Lieut. General Sir Harry Tuzo

Importantly, these reservations were shared by General Sir Harry Tuzo, General Officer Commanding Northern Ireland (GOCNI). Tuzo believed that internment was not strategically important, and he also felt that the RUC were unprepared for the operation. Tuzo (see photo) and the Army more generally believed that other, more effective measures should be used, as internment “would become a liability”. Why was internment enacted, then, when there was little support for it? As the IRA’s bombing campaign intensified, so did the pressure on NI Prime Minister Faulkner.

In truth, Whitehall and Downing Street feared that if Faulkner were to be ousted by his own side, a more extreme character could take his place. Tuzo had told the Chief of General Staff that, although he disagreed tactically with internment, he thought that it might earn Faulkner “kinder support from his own side”. Tuzo also admitted that Faulkner “wanted to intern quite simply to remain in office”. Political pressure, not security imperative, was the important factor.

Internment in NI - Entrance to Compound 19

This raises another question. Why was internment such a hot issue? Firstly, it was a question of human rights. To hold someone without trial, to withhold habeas corpus, whilst denying the right for internees to question the evidence against them, contravenes articles 1, 2 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which the UK had helped to create and had passed through its Parliament in 1951. As Dame Helena Kennedy has commented, “the state is distinguished in a liberal democracy by the existence of the rule of law”, and the rule of law applies to the state as much as it applies to the individual.

Secondly, historians now know that the intelligence the security forces used was dated and possibly politically motivated. In the initial sweep, an estimated 520 suspects were to be gathered by the British Army, then held in several regional holding centres. This was changed to 435 after intelligence officials realised that 85 people on the list were already in prison. The Intelligence and Security Studies scholar Dr. Martin McCleery has noted that several of those remaining on the list were, in fact, dead.

Internment in NI - British soldiers round up suspects

Moreover, once the operation had completed its initial sweep, according to internee John McGuffin, of the 342 people, very few were IRA gunmen. Instead, there “were political opponents of the Unionists – like the PD and NICRA members, old retired IRA ex-internees, militant trade unionists”. Unfortunately, other detainees included three drunk men at a bus stop and, as McGuffin relates, a neighbour who was detained to make up the numbers after two target houses were found empty, together with, bizarrely, “a blind man with his guide dog”. Tellingly, over a third of the detainees were released without charge within 48 hours. Operation Demetrius was ill-planned and badly executed, though a dry-run a month before and an increase in troop numbers to the province probably gave the game away.

Another issue to consider was that very few Loyalist paramilitary members were interned. Between 1971 and 1973, of the estimated 2,169 people interned, just 109 were Protestant Loyalists. Although Faulkner claimed that there were no rival Loyalist paramilitary groups to intern, the RUC had evidence of sectarian violence committed by the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) and UDA (Ulster Defence Association). Because of this, internment seemed to represent a communal punishment, like those meted out in Britain’s colonies, which galvanised the minority community’s resistance in NI. This was reflected in the skyrocketing levesl of violence in NI: attacks on security personnel increased by some 400 per cent, and the bombing campaign reached catastrophic new heights.


Instead of gaining control of the situation, internment had, in reality, turned it into a disaster. Sadly, in hindsight, internment was the final break between the minority Catholic community, the Army and the state. It represented a sectarian, communal punishment that led hundreds of formerly moderate Nationalists to reinvigorate the civil rights movement and not only support but also join a legitimised IRA. This, in turn, directly led to the tragic events of Bloody Sunday and a PIRA (Provisional IRA) bombing campaign that took hundreds of lives.

The British Army, in ‘Operation Banner’ (the overall operational name for the Army’s operation in NI from 1969-2007), made a statement about internment that is hard to disagree with: that it was a major error in policy. Indeed, it was a mistake that could so easily have been avoided, one which cost millions of pounds and hundreds of lives. It was a mistake that in practice inflamed Northern Ireland and, had some voices been properly heeded, the situation could have been very different.

Nick Clifton is a PhD student in History at Kingston University, Surrey

(Images: Wikimedia Commons)





Posted in British history, European History, Irish History, Media history, Public History, Research, Teaching, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment