Chamberlain assumed that post on the retirement of Stanley Baldwin on 28 May 1937. Intellectually arrogant and convinced his opinions were correct in all things, he rarely sought advice from a generally weak cabinet, listening only to his confidant, Sir Horace Wilson. He was woefully ignorant of foreign affairs, and his policy through most of the 1930s was to cut defense spending while appeasing those who appeared to pose threats. In April 1938, he abandoned Royal Navy bases in Ireland. Until his final weeks in office, however, he enjoyed strong support in Parliament and from the establishment British press.
Chamberlain is remembered most for his dogged efforts to appease Adolf Hitler in order to avoid war, culminating in the shameful Munich Agreement of 30 September 1938, which gave the Sudeten portion of Czechoslovakia to Germany (without any Czech participation in the decision) to avert a threatened German invasion. At home, Chamberlain was widely praised for bringing "peace in our time." He ignored the tiny parliamentary minority led by Winston L. S. Churchill, who argued that Britain had to rearm. And he virtually forced Anthony Eden to resign as foreign secretary on 19 February 1938 when they disagreed about discussions with the Italian government. He only reluctantly repudiated appeasement when Germany occupied the remainder of Czechoslovakia on 10 March 1939.
Finally pushed hard by members of his own cabinet, Chamberlain issued an ultimatum to Hitler after Germany's invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939. Receiving no answer, he took his nation to war two days later and directed Britain's effort for the first eight months of the conflict. His War Cabinet now included Churchill, back as first lord of the Admiralty. Although much of the period passed as the so-called Phony War, April and May 1940 saw Germany's disastrous invasion and occupation of Norway and Denmark and its invasion of the Low Countries and France.
By then, Chamberlain had lost his support in the House of Commons, and after several days of emotional debate, he was replaced by Churchill on 10 May 1940, with a multiparty national government. Chamberlain became lord president of the council (he remained head of the party) and a member of the War Cabinet until 30 September 1940, when he resigned due to ill health. He died of cancer on 9 November 1940, in Heckfield, England.
Christopher H. Sterling
Dilks, David. Neville Chamberlain. Vol. 1, Pioneering and Reform, 1869–1929. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.; Dutton, David. Neville Chamberlain. London: Arnold, 2001.; Fuchser, Larry William. Neville Chamberlain and Appeasement: A Study in the Politics of History. New York: Norton, 1982.; Macleod, Iain. Neville Chamberlain. London: Muller, 1961.; McDonough, Frank. Neville Chamberlain, Appeasement & the Road to War. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1998.; Parker, R. A. C. Chamberlain and Appeasement: British Policy and the Coming of the Second World War. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.