On 9 May 1940 three men, Winston Churchill, Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax met to decide who was to become the next prime minister of Great Britain. At that moment Nazi Germany’s Wehrmacht was poised to invade France and the Low Countries and win one of the most spectacular victories in the twentieth century. Churchill himself, after long years in the wilderness, had only become a member of the government on the outbreak of war in September 1939. In the period before the war he had waged a long and lonely struggle against the government’s policy of appeasement of Nazi Germany. On the other hand Neville Chamberlain had resigned as prime minister, having just received a stinging rebuke in a vote of no-confidence in the House of Commons two days earlier.1 Chamberlain had clearly believed that Britain could reach an accommodation with Nazi Germany that would meet Adolf Hitler’s goals, while avoiding another great European conflict. In that effort Halifax had been the prime minister’s steadfast supporter. How these men had reached that room and why Britain now confronted the most dangerous challenge in its history is the subject of this essay.
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