Why England Slept (John F. Kennedy)

Why England Slept was John F. Kennedy’s supplement to Winston Churchill’s While England Slept. In his book, written during his senior year in college, Kennedy consults magazine and newspaper articles, speeches, memorandum, proposed and actual English expenditures and production, to explore the reasons why, subsequent to World War I, England engaged in unilateral disarmament, followed by a sluggish, leisurely rearmament. Because England and the United States are both capitalist, democratic nations, Kennedy distills lessons that the United States can glean from England’s slumber.

We have the benefit of their experience. From their mistakes we should be able to learn a lesson that may prove invaluable to us in the future. From an analysis of their story we may be able to see how much of the fault is peculiarly England’s and its leaders, and how much can be attributed to those principles we share in common, a democratic form of government, based on a capitalist economy.

Rearmament came naturally to Germany, which, at the close of World War I, was broken and deconstructed, because it led to a sharp increase in employment and rapid rise in power. In fact, Kennedy asserts that the dire state of Germany following the war “cleared the path for complete mechanization and gave the German Army a far more modern outlook.”

On the other hand, England emerged from World War I with the same system of government and with its international status intact. When the National Government succeeded the Labour Government in November of 1931, England’s focus was a balanced budget and strict economy. Kennedy explains that the advantage of Germany (a totalitarian system) over England (a democracy) was that Hitler “cared little what happened to the country’s internal economy. He doubled, tripled, quadrupled the internal debt, but due to the totalitarian nature of his regime, he was able to keep prices to a reasonable level.” In contrast, “England could not double, triple, and quadruple her debts or she would have gone bankrupt. She would not have been able to keep prices from skyrocketing unless she put in Government control, which would have marked the end of her as a capitalistic nation, and the end of her democratic form of government.”

Additionally, in England, the prevailing sentiment of both Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and the public in general was that armaments had actually been a contributing cause of World War I. Rearmament was also viewed as inconsistent with the need for the League of Nations, as the strength of the League should have alleviated the need for individual member countries to rearm. Many English reasoned that with a strong navy, England was impenetrable. Moreover, England’s fanciful optimism for the success of the Disarmament Conference of 1932, which lasted well into 1934, prevented it from allocating any significant increases in budgeting for rearmament. Kennedy remarks, “England, in the year of 1933, was pacifist as it never was before and probably never will be again.”

Finally, in 1936, England launched its rearmament program, although it “was still a democracy, which was leisurely and confidently turning to a rearmament, not a frightened and desperate nation.” Kennedy states, “[T]he essence of democracy is voluntary action and co-operation. But you cannot get efficient voluntary action in a democracy unless people feel that sacrifices are essential…This is another of democracy’s weaknesses which she must face in competing with a dictatorship.” This is clearly seen through England’s Air Raid Precautions. The ARP program required one million workers but in reality only had 200,000. Germany, on the other hand, maintained 12 million workers in a comparable program. In fact, England did not divert substantial resources into rearming until 1938, after the Munich Pact.

In 1937, Neville Chamberlain became Prime Minister and announced his policy of appeasement. England was to continue to rearm, but would also seek to “remove the causes delaying the return of confidence.” Chamberlain needed to avoid war until 1939-40, because England’s defenses would not be sufficiently augmented until that time.

Although Kennedy attributes a portion of the blame to Prime Minister Baldwin, he submits that the public is also responsible for the delayed rearmament. Because in a democracy people vote government officials into office, the people also share the blame of those they have elected. Kennedy ultimately conclude that while a democracy is a preferable type of government, in order to endure, democracies must recognize their vulnerabilities, particularly when it comes to rearmament.

Democracy’s weaknesses are great in competing with a totalitarian system. Democracy is the superior form of government, because it is based on a respect for man as a reasonable being. For the long run, then, democracy is superior. But for the short run, democracy has great weaknesses. When it competes with a system of government which cares nothing for permanency, a system built primarily for war, democracy, which is built primarily for peace, is at a disadvantage. And democracy must recognize its weaknesses; it must learn to safeguard its institutions if it hopes to survive.


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