It is the classic denunciation of appeasement and it shaped popular and scholarly thinking for 20 years.
Guilty Men was a British polemical book written under the pseudonym "Cato" and published in July 1940. It attacked 15 public figures for their failed policies towards Germany and for their failure to equip the British armed forces adequately. It is the classic denunciation of appeasement, which it defined as the "deliberate surrender of small nations in the face of Hitler's blatant bullying."
The book's slogan, "Let the guilty men retire," was an attack on members of the National Government before Winston Churchill became prime minister in April 1940. Most were Conservatives, although some were National Liberals and one was Ramsay MacDonald, the late leader of the Labour Party. Several were current members of Churchill's government. The book shaped popular thinking about appeasement for 20 years and effectively destroyed the reputation of ex-prime ministers Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain and contributed to the defeat of the Conservative Party in the 1945 general election. According to historian David Dutton, "its impact upon Chamberlain's reputation, both among the general public and within the academic world, was profound indeed".
The 'guilty men' were:
The authors were three journalists, Michael Foot (a future Leader of the Labour Party), Frank Owen (a former Liberal MP), and Peter Howard (a Conservative). It was pseudonymous because their employer, Lord Beaverbrook, was active in the Conservative Party and banned his journalists from writing for publications other than his. Beaverbrook was a leader of the appeasement forces but he was never mentioned.
They believed that Britain had suffered a succession of bad leaders, who, with junior ministers, advisers and officials, had conducted a disastrous foreign policy toward Germany and had failed to prepare the country for war. They persuaded Victor Gollancz, creator of the Left Book Club, to publish the book, divided the twenty-four chapters among themselves and wrote it in four days, finishing on 5 June 1940. Gollancz asked for some of the rhetoric to be toned down, fearing the reaction it might provoke, but he rushed it into print in four weeks.
Guilty Men was published in early July, shortly after Churchill took over as Prime Minister, after the Dunkirk evacuation had shown Britain's military weakness, and after the Fall of France, which left the country with few allies. The major book wholesalers, W H Smith and Wyman's, and the largest book distributor, Simpkin Marshall, refused to handle the book. It was sold on news-stands and street barrows and went through twelve editions in July 1940, selling 200,000 copies in a few weeks.
There was speculation as to Cato's identity; some guessed that he was Aneurin Bevan. The authors had some fun reviewing their own work, Michael Foot entitling an article, "Who is This Cato?" Beaverbrook was as much in the dark as anyone, but joked that he "made do with the royalties from Guilty Men". The authors earned no royalties, as their literary agent Ralph Pinker absconded with them.
Guilty Men remains in circulation and was reprinted for its historical interest by Penguin Books to mark its sixtieth anniversary in 2000.
The speed with which Guilty Men was written shows in its errors. For example, the authors muddled the place and date where Baldwin said that re-armament was unpopular with the voters. (They placed it in the Fulham East by-election, 1933, instead of the 1935 general election and dated the Fulham by-election 1935. "1935" was corrected to "1933" in later editions, but the 1998 Penguin facsimile edition reproduced the error without comment.) It also shows in its excessively detailed description of Dunkirk.
The book's arguments and conclusions have been questioned by politicians and historians. In 1945, Quintin Hogg, MP wrote The Left was never Right, which was critical of Guilty Men and argued that "unpreparedness before the war was largely the consequence of the policies of the parties of the Left." In contrast, in 1944 Geoffrey Mander had published We were not all wrong.
The idea of appeasement as error and cowardice was challenged in 1960 by historian A. J. P. Taylor's highly controversial The Origins of The Second World War, in which he argued that, in the circumstances, it might be seen as a rational policy.
- "Oxford DNB theme: Guilty men". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 2013-10-05.
- David Dutton, Neville Chamberlain (2001) pp=71–72
- Graham Macklin (2006). Chamberlain. Haus Publishing. p. 98.
- Paul Addison (2011). The Road To 1945: British Politics and the Second World War Revised Edition. Random House. p. 136.
- Michael Foot, Preface to the 1998 re-issue of Guilty Men, Penguin Books
- Cato, Guilty Men, London: Victor Gollancz, 1941, 34th impression
- Morgan, Michael Foot, ch 3
- Kenneth O. Morgan, Michael Foot: A Life (2007), ch 3
- Scott Kelly, "The Ghost of Neville Chamberlain: Guilty Men and the 1945 Election", Conservative History Journal, Autumn 2005
- Geoffrey Mander, We were not all wrong - How the Labour and Liberal Parties (& also the anti-Munich Tories) strove, pre-war, for the policy of collective security against aggression - with adequate armaments to make that policy effective: the truth about the peace ballot: etc, etc. (London: Victor Gollancz, 1944)
- Dutton, D. J. "Guilty men (act. 1940)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press. accessed 15 Sept 2013
- Morgan, Kenneth O. Michael Foot: A Life (2007), ch 3