Great Contemporaries: Alfred Duff Cooper
Alfred Duff Cooper with Churchill looking over his shoulder, Ditchley Park, 1943. When the moon was full, the Prime Minister sometimes spent country weekends at Ditchley since his official residence, Chequers, was considered too visible a target for incoming bombers. (Ditchley Foundation)
London, 29 September 1938
The rules of The Other Club, the dining club established in 1911 by Winston Churchill and F.E. Smith, specifically permitted political repartee. The Club’s famous Rule 12 states: “Nothing in the rules of intercourse of the club shall interfere with the rancour or asperity of party politics.” Rancor overflowed at the Club’s dinner on this particular evening. The affair was made particularly bitter by an outburst from Alfred Duff Cooper.
Adhering to their rules, which specified dining on alternate Thursdays, the club met at 8:15 that evening in the Pinafore Room in the Savoy Hotel. In the backdrop loomed the unfolding Czechoslovakia crisis. As twenty-six members, attired in black tie, gathered for dinner, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was in Munich. There, with Hitler, Mussolini, and French Prime Minister Daladier, Chamberlain was pursuing his policy of appeasement at the likely cost of a European democracy. Tension and stress were high. Britain, many thought faced the choice of sacrificing Czechoslovakia or war with Germany.
Having failed that day to rally Parliament against imminent surrender at Munich, Churchill arrived for the dinner frustrated and angry. Although all club members were friends, the atmosphere was acrimonious. Churchill soon unleashed his anger on two members of the Chamberlain cabinet present: First Lord of the Admiralty Alfred Duff Cooper and Minister of Health Walter Elliot. How, he asked, could such “honourable men with wide experience and fine records in the Great War condone a policy so cowardly?” It was “sordid, sub-human, and suicidal.” The sacrificing of the Czechs was treachery and submitting to the “grossest act of bullying.” They were reduced to “grovelers cajoled by a Germany led by an Austrian corporal and bent on mischief.” Selling out Czechoslovakia would only lead to sacrificing British lives.
Duff has a “veiner”
Duff Cooper lost control and responded with an outburst of his own, shouting back at Churchill. His temper was legendary, awesome to behold. His outbursts were dubbed “veiners,” because a vein in his forehead would “enlarge and pulsate, his face would grow purple, and his voice could be heard for blocks around.”
Churchill, Duff said, was being “egregiously unfair.” He himself had been warning of Hitler since the Nazis took power. He’d been fighting appeasement from within Chamberlain’s cabinet. But he felt obliged to defend Chamberlain in public. Richard Law MP, son of a former prime minister, thought Duff stood with the anti-appeasers, without demonstrating “arrant disloyalty” to the Prime Minister.
As the dinner progressed and drink flowed, the mood became more sullen. “Everybody insulted everybody else,” Duff Cooper recalled. J.L. Garvin, pro-appeasement editor of The Observer, was so berated by Cooper and Robert Boothby that he stomped out, not returning to the Other Club until April 1945. So much invective was hurled, Violet Bonham Carter observed, that had they lived earlier when honor demanded vindication by combat, there would have been at least three duels fought at dawn.
About one o’clock in the morning the early editions of newspapers with the latest developments in Munich were brought to the Pinafore Room. An agreement had been reached. Chamberlain had conceded nearly everything and Czechoslovakia had been thrown to the wolves. As Boothby read aloud the terms, Duff Cooper listened with mounting anger. There was a “shocked silence.” No one tried to defend the terms to which Chamberlain had acceded. Without uttering another word, Duff rose and left the room. The next day he resigned from Chamberlain’s cabinet.
“A wild young man”
Born in 1890, Alfred Duff Cooper—always known as “Duff”—attended Eton and New College, Oxford before joining the Foreign Office. He met Churchill in 1914, when the then-First Lord of the Admiralty hosted a dinner party at Admiralty House. Just over two decades later Cooper would hold the same office and live in the same official residence.
Released from the Foreign Office in 1917 to join the army, Cooper served with distinction with the Grenadier Guards on the Western Front. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order in 1918. Returning to the Foreign Office, Cooper married Lady Diana Manners in 1919, despite his self-acknowledged reputation as “a wild young man” who played and drank too much. A “dedicated hedonist,” Cooper had “a taste for well-cut clothes, fine wines, good food and beautiful women.” Diana was his match: beautiful, flamboyant, witty, intelligent—a great celebrity of her age. It was a complicated but happy marriage. She always supported Duff and tolerated his endless promiscuity and heavy gambling. Together they maintained a “hectic social life,” which added to Cooper’s reputation for “idleness and frivolity.”
Duff Cooper left the Foreign Office in 1924 and was elected to the House of Commons as a Conservative. Diana had earned money to support his, political career, playing in Max Reinhardt’s pantomime, The Miracle. A rising Tory politician, Duff was appointed financial secretary to the War Office in 1928. Defeated in the general election of 1929, he returned to Parliament in a by-election two years later. He was appointed under-secretary at the War Office and then, in 1934, Financial Secretary at the Treasury.
Awakening to the threat
In the summer of 1933, Cooper and Diana made a motoring trip across Germany, including Nuremberg. There they watched Hitler give an unintelligible, tedious speech about art. Cooper was disturbed by what he saw in Germany. Speaking to constituents after his return, he declared that “Germany was preparing for war on a scale and with an enthusiasm unmatched in history.” The response of the British press was scathing, especially from newspapers owned by Lord Beaverbrook. Cooper was denounced as a warmonger who had no right to say such things. “Indiscretions of this kind disturbed the peaceful international situation.”
Under Prime Ministers Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain, Cooper was appointed Secretary of State for War (1935), then First Lord of the Admiralty (1937). In both posts he fought for increased budgets and rearmament. He was convinced that war was likely. The only way to prevent it was to strengthen the military and convince Germany that it would surely lose any conflict. Cooper was, however, isolated in the cabinet in his fight against appeasement and Chamberlain considered him “an indiscreet and belligerent firebrand.”
In 1936 Cooper made the principal speech at the annual Paris dinner of the Franco-British Society. In the speech, a copy of which was provided in advance to the Foreign Office, he said that France and Britain were bound together by identical interests and (without naming Germany) threatened by the same danger. The speech caused an uproar and was debated in the House of Commons, where it was “warmly defended” by Churchill.
The drift toward war
Despite his prominent position in British politics, there was a common feeling in many circles that Duff Cooper was highly capable, and had not fulfilled his potential. A man of great talents, he was “a powerful orator, a brilliant conversationalist, a talented writer.” He wrote a fine biography of Talleyrand and a less successful study of Douglas Haig. But Duff simply did not work hard enough He valued pleasure “more than slaving away at his Admiralty desk.” He was known to duck out of boring meetings to spend hours drinking and playing backgammon at his London clubs.
Having absorbed Austria in March 1938, Hitler turned to Czechoslovakia six months later. On September 12th he made a threatening speech in Nuremberg, causing Chamberlain to hie to Berchtesgaden three days later. The Prime Minister returned to meet Hitler at Godesberg on the 22nd. There Hitler presented strident demands for the dissolution of Czechoslovakia. Throughout the crisis, Cooper and others in the cabinet pushed Chamberlain to resist. Hitler’s demands, Duff thought, were “such as a victorious and brutal enemy would impose upon a conquered people after a long and bitter war.” Hitler should be told that there would be war if Czechoslovakia was attacked, he said. In abandoning the Czechs, “we should be guilty of one of the basest betrayals in history.” The time for bargaining with dictators was over. He was ignored.
Duff’s finest hour
On the morning of 28 September 1938, Duff Cooper on his own initiative mobilized the Royal Navy. Later that day, Chamberlain dramatically announced to a tense House of Commons that he had just received an invitation from Hitler to return to Germany for a third time. Save Churchill, Leo Amery and Harold Nicolson, the Members of Parliament stood and frantically cheered. At Munich, Chamberlain bowed to Hitler’s ultimatums and on September 30th returned to London, receiving a delirious welcome. He waved with the King from Buckingham Palace’s balcony. In Downing Street crowds sang, “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” Basking in the admiration, Chamberlain declared “peace with honour” and “peace for our time.”
Duff Cooper was disgusted. As he walked through the excited crowds from the Admiralty to Number Ten, he felt “very lonely in the midst of so much happiness that I could not share.”
He resigned as First Lord of the Admiralty at the cabinet meeting on 30 September. “It was ‘peace with honour’ that I couldn’t stomach,” he said later. If Chamberlain had returned “saying ‘peace with terrible, unmitigated, unparalleled dishonour’ perhaps I would have stayed.’” The resignation was accepted by Chamberlain, whom Cooper thought was “as glad to be rid of me as I was determined to go.”
* * *
There were no other resignations from the cabinet over Munich but Duff’s was, for Bob Boothby, “a gleam of hope.” On 3 October 1938, with Lady Diana in the gallery, Duff made his resignation speech to the House of Commons. It was quite eloquent and somewhat chastened enthusiasm for the Munich Agreement. He concluded:
I have forfeited a great deal. I have given up an office that I loved, work in which I was deeply interested, and a staff of which any man might be proud. I have given up associations in that work with my colleagues with whom I have maintained for many years the most harmonious relations, not only as colleagues but as friends. I have given up the privilege of serving as lieutenant to a leader whom I still regard with the deepest admiration and affection. I have ruined, perhaps, my political career. But that is a little matter; I have retained something which is to me of great value—I can still walk about the world with my head erect.
As he sat down, Churchill passed him a note calling it “one of the finest parliamentary performances…admirable in form, massive in argument and shone with courage and public spirit.” The Times, however, suppressed their lobby correspondent’s favorable report on the speech. The correspondent resigned in protest.
Resignation of cabinet office was indeed a personal and political sacrifice. Duff lost his ministerial salary, his Admiralty House residence and the Admiralty yacht Enchantress. Having gone against the overwhelming mood of the country, he was widely seen as betraying his party and prime minister.
Friends shunned the Coopers and he was dragged before his constituency association for questioning. Eventually it was conceded that he had the right to resign. The association, however, expressed its entire support for the Prime Minister, and reserved the right to select a new candidate at the next general election. But Duff gained the honor of being named, with Churchill and Eden, one of the “three warmongers” by Hitler.
On the backbenches Cooper wrote several articles for the Evening Standard and joined the Tory rebels in the drift towards war. On 1 September 1939, as a distraction from the war’s imminent outbreak, Duff played a round of golf near his seaside home at Bangor. He could not concentrate, and it was the worst game he ever played. Afterwards in the bar, engaged in conversation about horse racing, a companion casually mentioned that Hitler had invaded Poland.
Chamberlain did not invite Cooper back into the cabinet after war was declared. Duff tried to rejoin his old regiment, only to be told he was too old. With nothing useful to do, he went on a long lecture tour of the United States, where he met briefly with President Roosevelt. He was still an MP, however. In May 1940, as the “phony war” was drawing to a close, he spoke in the Norway debate, calling for a coalition government. In the division that followed, Duff voted against the government. That vote was so narrow that Chamberlain was forced to resign. Winston Churchill became prime minister on May 10th.
Despite his abilities and experience in government, Duff Cooper’s first years of the war were a disappointment. Appointed Minister of Information by Churchill, he was not a success and, much to his own relief, was moved to the sinecure office of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in July 1941. Sent to Singapore on an ill-defined mission to assess the situation, he was elevated to Resident Cabinet Minister after the Japanese attacked in December. Once General Wavell was made supreme commander, Cooper returned to London; yet he was popularly associated with the disastrous fall of Singapore.
Envoy to France
In December 1943 Churchill appointed him British representative to the French Committee of National Liberation, then based in Algiers. This was a much more congenial, well-suited appointment. Duff spoke fluent French and achieved excellent results. He deserves credit for maintaining good Anglo-French relationships despite Churchill and de Gaulle’s best efforts otherwise. With the liberation of Paris in 1944, Cooper became British Ambassador to France, ably abetted by his wife Diana. So good were they that the new Labour government retained Duff as ambassador upon taking power in July 1945.
Duff Cooper’s ambassadorship culminated with the signing of the Anglo-French Treaty of Alliance at Dunkirk in March 1947. He retired at the end of the year and was created a peer as Viscount Norwich in July 1952. He wrote a splendid memoir, Old Men Forget. With the sparkling Diana, Duff lived a life that was “never dull.” He died too young, on New Year’s Day 1954, aboard an ocean liner bound with Diana for Jamaica. He was just short of his 64th birthday.
John Charmley, Duff Cooper: The Authorized Biography. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1986.
Alfred Duff Cooper, Old Men Forget. London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1953.
Diana Cooper, “Winston and Clementine: A Classic Remembrance,” Hillsdale College Churchill Project, 2018.
Colin R. Coote, The Other Club. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1971.
Lynne Olson, Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels who brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.
Bradley Tolppanen is Professor of Library Services, History Librarian and head of Circulation Services at Eastern Illinois University. He is the author of a definitive study, Churchill in North America, 1929.