Conference 2021

‘SUMMITS AND SUMMITRY: meetings that shaped the world?’

On Saturday March 13th, in a new departure after 70 years of the Forum's existence, members and guests gathered via their laptops and tablets for three papers on the theme of Summits and Summitry with lectures focusing on The Putney Debates 1647, Munich 1938 and Vienna 1961.The programme, drawing from the seventeenth and twentieth centuries, provided further insights into topics many students had explored in school and generated many thoughtful questions and stimulating debate.

Professor John Morrill, Emeritus Professor in History and Fellow of Selwyn College and delivered the first lecture, examining the Putney Debates when one hundred officers and elected representatives of the rank and file of the New Model Army, bringing some radicalised London civilians with them, met in Putney Church to debate the future of the kingdom. Professor Morrill explored the record of the debates, composed in shorthand by three different people and transcribed in 1665. Our text, which was subsequently unearthed at Worcester College, Oxford in 1890, provides a detailed account of the first three days of discussion but there are significant subsequent gaps in the record. Professor Morrill presented The Army Book of Declarations, published before the Putney Debates as a key document in elucidating the context of events-the Army was arguing more about the ‘hows than the whats’ at Putney. By what right could the Army impose a settlement? A key feature of the debates lay in manhood suffrage- how and how far to extend the franchise. Would every man be granted to right to vote or rather every man who had fought for Parliament up to Naseby? Cromwell’s view of Charles has been a keen area of debate. Putney was presented as a turning point in Cromwell’s evolving belief that ultimately Charles was a ‘a man of blood’. Whilst the First Civil War may be viewed as a trial by battle, it was the King’s attempt to overthrow the judgment of God in the Second Civil War which led to his execution.

In the second lecture, Dr Piers Brendon of Churchill College, explored the background and impact of the Munich Summit, one of the great turning-points in European history. Attended by Hitler, Mussolini, Chamberlain and Daladier, the Munich Conference of 29-30 September 1938, represented the culmination of the western democracies’ attempt to avert war by appeasing Nazi Germany. The lecture examined contrasting perspectives on Munich; for some it was a shameful moral collapse by ‘guilty men’ yet others have argued that it facilitated both rearmament and the time for public opinion to evolve, enabling Chamberlain to lead his country into a just war. An exploration of the global context of appeasement is crucial for any exploration of Munch. Dr Brendon traced the evolution of appeasement as a global policy from Ramsay Macdonald’s condoning of Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931 to the failure to respond to Mussolini’s assault on Abyssinia by closing the Suez Canal. Indeed, the latter episode was presented as a key turning point, being a much easier opportunity to check aggression than in China or the Rhinelands. Following non-intervention in the Spanish Civil War and Britain and France’s feeble protests over Anschluss in 1938, Hitler increasingly believed that the western democracies would seek to avoid war at any cost. Yet rather than viewing Chamberlain as weak, one could adopt a contrasting vision of a domineering Prime Minister, who was absolute master of his Cabinet. Chamberlain emerged from Munich on a wave of euphoria as a conquering hero; ‘Chips’ Channon describing him as ‘saviour of peace’. However, deliverance from war soon replaced by sense of shame. Kristallnacht served to fuel this turn against Appeasement and by March 1939 Hitler’s occupation of the rest of Czechoslovakia had begun. Appeasement did buy time to prepare for war, yet for Dr Brendon, Chamberlain deserves no credit as this was not his goal; if anything, Germany’s war production was greater. Thus appeasement invited the very aggression it sought to avert and perhaps illustrates the pitfalls of summitry.

Our final talk was delivered by Nicolas Kinloch, a great stalwart of the committee for forty years! His lecture examined the Vienna Summit of June 1961 between John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev where the ongoing crisis in Berlin was the principal area of discussion. Widely regarded as one of the least successful summits of modern times - at least for the United States- Mr Kinloch encouraged a reappraisal of that judgement and argued that it was not as disastrous as it appeared to be at the time. Vienna is often presented as reflecting Kennedy’s lack of preparation, yet, as Mr Kinloch pointed out, there is little evidence to substantiate this. The President clearly drew heavily on extensive briefings; indeed, Khrushchev’s memoirs suggest that Kennedy had been much better prepared than Eisenhower at Paris in 1960. A related argument is that Kennedy’s performance was severely impaired by painkillers for his chronic back problems, but once again, the case is flimsy at best. A key aspect of the debate regarding Vienna lies in the personal relationship of the two leaders. The view that Kennedy, President for a mere 5 months, was simply bullied by his more experienced adversary at Vienna can be largely dismissed. Although Kennedy was to claim that Khrushchev ‘savaged me’, in many respects this is erroneous. Superficially, he may have been outmanoeuvred by his more experienced adversary when drawn into ideological debate on the first day of the summit, but perhaps the image of Soviet aggression was one he cultivated to justify the authority to call up large numbers of reserves. Kennedy refused to withdraw US forces from Berlin whilst the meeting may have served to foster, Khrushchev’s future tactics of bluster during the Cuban Missile Crisis with disastrous personal consequences. However, on a positive note, discussion for a Test Ban may have established the foundations for future agreement by July 1963.

The programme concluded with questions drawing out key questions on the theme of summitry. Areas explored included the role of personal chemistry in determining the outcomes of summits, whether parties enter a summit on an equal footing and ultimately, are summits about planting seeds for future agreements.

S. Jack