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24 November 2021

From the NS archive: Soldiers and politics

23 July 1949: Field Marshal Montgomery’s warnings about the Cold War turning hot.

By Harold J Laski

Harold Laski, a prominent political theorist and from 1945 to 1946 chairman of the Labour Party, was a regular writer for the New Statesman and Nation – as the magazine then was. In 1949, he turned his attention to Bernard Montgomery, Britain’s pre-eminent military commander during the Second World War. In the years following the end of hostilities, Montgomery was involving himself in the political sphere and, said Laski, he shouldn’t. In a speech in the Netherlands, Montgomery warned about Russian menaces and stated Britain’s intention to meet any incursions from the east with force. The Cold War could become hot at any moment, he said. Laski, a pre-war supporter of communism, cast a cold eye over Montgomery’s speech, picked away at its arguments, and warned against “making speeches as provocative as they are untimely”.


Lord Montgomery was one of the outstanding soldiers of the Second World War; and nothing in the criticisms his methods evoked among some of his American colleagues and their angry journalistic supporters has, as far as our knowledge goes, been able seriously to affect the immense reputation he acquired from the moment that he assumed command of the Eighth Army. In the light of his achievements it was perfectly natural that he should be appointed C.I.G.S. [Chief of the Imperial General Staff] in succession to Lord Alanbrooke; and it was equally intelligible that, once the decision had been taken to unify the defence of the Atlantic Powers against the danger of possible aggression, he should have been appointed chief of the Combined Planning Staff of the partners in the new alliance.

But Lord Montgomery was appointed to his high posts on the strength of his professional competence, not on the ground of his political opinions. Already, before he went to Fontainebleau, there was a certain regret at his insistent habit of speech-making. When he was at the War Office he seemed to miss no opportunity of explaining his views on some of the most complex issues of civilisation, from the relation of the citizen to the State to the metaphysical foundations of ethics. Now, he has chosen the occasion of his inspection of the Dutch Army to make a new and incisive pronouncement of the type which, if it had been made by a civil servant of comparable eminence in this country, would have led to his instant dismissal from his post.

Lord Montgomery not only informs us about his private religious faith – a matter which, in the West, at least, is regarded as a matter of wholly personal concern. He tells us that “as a Christian soldier,” he “declares himself at war with Communism, and all that it stands for”. He proclaims that the “nations of the West, are to-day at war with Communism”. He warns us that the present “cold war”, is “nevertheless war”, and that this “struggle between Communism and democracy” may “eventually lead us into a ‘hot or shooting war’”. Realising that this would be “disastrous for the whole world”, he is insistent that it must be prevented. To prevent it, he calls for strength; “in the hands of strength,” says Lord Montgomery, “lie the keys of peace and war”.

He feels confident that the West can defeat any challenge. He explains that the armed forces of Britain, already deployed on the mainland of Europe, will, together with the Field-Marshal himself while he is still active, defend the “Netherlands from aggression”. “Lord Montgomery,” said The Times, in commenting on this speech, “has the gift… of cutting through the conventional… undergrowth of accepted phrases, and laying bare the root of the matter”.

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What, on this occasion, was the root of the matter to the Field-Marshal? He regards the “cold war” as does General Franco, as a war between Communism and Christianity. He insists that the “cold war” is an actual war which may become a “hot or shooting war” at any moment. To prevent this, he favours complete unity of the West for defence purposes, and, by inference at least, a great increase in armaments and, no doubt, man-power. He assures the Dutch that our armed forces “already deployed on the mainland of Europe”, will be used at once against aggression; and he promises, in effect, American aid if the “East” should “again” attempt to invade Western Europe.

I hope, with all my heart, that this is not the way that Mr Attlee and his colleagues regard the present difficult international situation. I do not know what Lord Montgomery means by “Christianity”; whether it is to him a number of churches, or a body of religious doctrine, or a system of ethical precepts. If it is the first or the second, he would do well to remember that most European Socialists are anti-clerical, as are many in Great Britain, and that, though they are strongly opposed to Communist methods, they would resist any attempt at their imposition on Western Europe with no atom of desire for a victory on behalf of any church or its theology.

If Lord Montgomery means by “Christianity” a system of ethical precepts, those, for example, embodied in the Sermon on the Mount, I am bound to point out, first, that they are not specifically Christian at all, and, second, that if they were applied, they would revolutionise the world as Lord Montgomery knows it, and replace it by institutions and ideas he would probably dislike, as passionately as the Roman Catholic Church disliked the followers of Peter Waldo or the spiritual Franciscans. Before committing himself too far, Lord Montgomery would do well to remember that recent Popes have had no difficulty in coming to terms with practically every Fascist movement in Europe, and that some of the Cardinals were warm supporters of Hitler.

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If the “cold war” is, as he says, really a war for which we must mobilise all our strength, Lord Montgomery ought to tell us how much more expenditure he believes defence requires, and how far he believes that further withdrawal of man-power from the civilian effort will make economic recovery impossible. When he points to British troops on the mainland of Europe as, so to say, the vanguard of our contribution against the onset of armies of aggression, does he really believe that, either in number or equipment, they could hold up those armies for a sufficient time to permit the arrival of full-scale aid, especially from America? And how can he be certain, further, that this American aid will come? The North Atlantic Security Pact is having, anyway, a difficult time in the Senate; and Senator Taft, not the least important of its members, leads a powerful opposition to its ratification, being particularly opposed to the expenditure of American funds on the rearmament of its European signatories.

What, further, does Lord Montgomery mean by his phrase about an Eastern aggressor “again” attempting to invade Western Europe? Soviet Russia did not attempt to invade Western Europe in the war of 1914-18, or in the war of 1939-45; in the second war, it stopped at lines agreed upon at conferences with the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of Great Britain. Does “again” refer to the Napoleonic wars? Or to Attila and his Huns? Or, when he spoke, was Lord Montgomery in a Kiplingesque frame of mind, and thinking of Greece and Turkey, perhaps of Iran and the Middle East also, as conceptually a part of Western Europe? Or was there really nothing precise in his mind except a warning to Russia against aggression?

Perhaps this is what The Times meant when it praised his “gift” of “laying bare the root of the matter.” As a strategist, and as a leader of troops in the field, Lord Montgomery commands high and deserved respect. But he really ought to remember that the wise soldier does not, for the reasons General Eisenhower gave in his famous letter refusing the Presidential nomination in 1948, concern himself with political problems he has not been trained to understand. Marshals Pétain and Weygand and General de Gaulle in France, Hindenburg and Ludendorff in Germany, Lord Roberts and Sir Henry Wilson in Great Britain, Piłsudski and the “regime of the Colonels” in Poland, General Metaxas in Greece, are merely illustrations of the possibility that an eminent soldier risks his reputation when he seeks to define ends, and not restrict himself, given those ends by responsible statesmen, to developing the means to assure the authorities he serves that those ends are likely to be attained.

Not least, since Lord Montgomery believes that a Third War would be a disaster, he might well, instead of making speeches as provocative as they are untimely, remind himself that as good a way as any of promoting peace is to look at the mote in one’s own eye as well as to draw attention to the beam in the other side’s. For, quite frankly, Lord Montgomery’s speech to the Royal Netherlands Society does not suggest that skill in ideological analysis is among the special gifts with which he has been endowed.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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