Eden’s last stand

Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 3, Key stage 4

Time period: Interwar 1918-1939

Suggested inquiry questions: How do these documents explain Anthony Eden’s resignation as Foreign Secretary in 1938?

Potential activities: Students research the meaning of the following terms: ‘appeasement’; ‘collective security’; League of Nations; ‘isolationism’ in the context of the international relations in the 1930s.

Download: Lesson pack

Why did Anthony Eden resign in 1938?

By March 1936 Germany had already re-occupied the Rhineland against the terms of the Treaty of Versailles and Locarno Pacts. Italy and Germany had also formed the Rome-Berlin Axis in October 1936 which meant that Mussolini and Hitler had promised to support each other in event of war.

A month later Germany and Japan had signed the Anti-Comintern Pact directed against the Soviet Union. Italy left the League of Nations in 1937 and joined the Anti-Comintern Pact in the same year.

Use the documents in this lesson and to find out about differences between British politicians in the Conservative Government over foreign policy before the outbreak of the Second World War.


1. Look at Source 1a, b and c. This is a letter from Anthony Eden to Neville Chamberlain.

    1. Can you describe the tone of the letter in the first paragraph? Is it formal or informal?
    2. Was it intended to be read by Chamberlain alone do you think?
    3. What evidence is there from the letter that Eden thought it important to build US support?
    4. Which aspects of Britain’s defences did Eden think needed improving?
    5. What phrases can you find in the letter that show that Eden seemed to be underplaying his concerns? Clue: think about use of language and tone.
    6. What do you think the hand written comment made by Chamberlain at the top of the letter suggests? Clue: ‘No. 11’ refers to Downing Street the offices of the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
    7. Why did Eden write this letter to Chamberlain?
    8. Can you find evidence in the letter for any of the following reasons?
      • Eden was trying to put pressure on Chamberlain
      • He was trying to alert Chamberlain to the fact that Britain was playing a weak hand and needed a strong ally
      • He was calling for rearmament to be taken more seriously
      • The letter indicates fundamental tensions over foreign policy which could to flare up later

2. Look at Source 2. This is another letter from Eden to Chamberlain.

    1. Why has Anthony Eden written this letter?
    2. What is the tone of the letter?
    3. If you accept that the differences over foreign policy between the two men are evident in Source 1, can we conclude that Eden’s resignation was inevitable? Explain your reasons.

3. Look at Source 3. These are extracts from Winston Churchill’s speech in the House of Commons on the resignation of Anthony Eden (22 February 1938).

M.P. for Epping, Churchill’s speech. Historic Hansard: House of Commons Debate: 22 February 1938 vol. 332 cc209-326

    1. Why is it helpful to think about how and where this speech was delivered?
    2. What examples can you find in Churchill’s speech of exaggerated or emotive language?
    3. What is the immediate cause for Eden’s resignation according to Churchill?
    4. Can we trust Churchill’s wider explanation for Eden’s resignation?
    5. What are Churchill’s views on how foreign policy should be handled at this time?


When Eden writes that 1938 will be difficult year, he might be referring to Italy’s resignation from the League of Nations just three weeks previously. Eden mistrusted Italy almost more than Germany though he was certainly aware of the growing German threat.

Britain was also concerned about her possessions in the Far East: Hong Kong, Malaya and Singapore. The threat of Japanese aggression was a constant source of worry to British defence planners as Britain needed to maintain strong naval links with the Empire and if necessary defend its outposts.

The role of the United States is vital in understanding the whole issue of appeasement. Eden felt it was futile to try to reach agreement with the dictators. The best way to avoid war, in his opinion, was to involve the US alongside Britain in the Far East. If there were a European war, the US would automatically be committed as Britain’s ally. He felt that all should be sacrificed to the objective of Anglo-American co-operation and actively sought Roosevelt’s support.

Chamberlain on the other hand wanted to steer British policy more in the direction of appeasement in Europe and expected little from the United States. It was Chamberlain who sent a cold answer to Roosevelt’s suggestion for an international conference. Eden took offence as he had been trying to encourage American involvement. Tensions between the two men mounted.

Eden and Chamberlain were both concerned with rearmament but Chamberlain was primarily worried about growing costs. In December 1937 Eden expressed his concern on this matter.

At the start of 1938, the international situation was becoming increasingly tense. Hitler was putting pressure on Austria to accept the union, or Anschluss, between Germany and Austria. Chamberlain was prepared to recognise Italy’s conquest of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) to keep Italy as an ally in order to isolate Germany. Chamberlain’s cabinet ‘agreed that every effort must be made to come to an arrangement with Italy’ (catalogue reference: CAB 23/92 f255). Eden found this unacceptable and resigned. Lord Halifax replaced him as Foreign Secretary.

Teachers' notes

In this lesson students start by looking at two letters from Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. They relate to a period of mounting international tension during the winter of 1937-1938 and throw light on how the Conservative government viewed the situation. The third source is an extract from a speech given in the House of Commons by MP Winston Churchill which was recorded in Hansard from a debate in the House of Commons at the time of Eden’s resignation.

Some historians argue that the real explanation for Eden’s resignation in February 1938 lay in Chamberlain’s conduct of foreign policy and his refusal to consult Eden or the Foreign Office. From the moment he became Prime Minister in 1937 he did not hesitate to act independently. It appears as if there were no meetings of the Foreign Affairs Committee between 1 July 1937 and January 1938.

However, Eden’s resignation was not necessarily inevitable or even predictable when he wrote in December 1937. Disagreements and tensions between politicians are not unusual. In the 1930s, few would have guessed that Winston Churchill would become Britain’s war leader. Distrusted by fellow Conservatives, he vigorously opposed the policy of appeasement, fearing that it would only encourage Hitler’s appetite for more ‘living space’. He attacked his party in government for failing to rearm the country.

Some teachers may wish to use this lesson with our three other lessons on Germany’s occupation of the Rhineland and Chamberlain and Hitler and lesson on Adolf Hitler as leader in Related Resources.

All sources are provided with transcripts and simplified transcripts. Students could work on the sources individually or pairs and report back to the group with their findings.


Image: Anthony Eden, painted while Foreign Secretary by William Little (catalogue reference: INF 3/9)
Source 1: (catalogue reference: PREM 1/210)
Source 2: (catalogue reference: CAB/23/92f252)
Source 3: Hansard 22 February 1938

External links

Hansard (1803-2005)
Read the full text of Churchill’s speech in the official parliamentary record.

What’s the context? The resignation of Anthony Eden, 20 February 1938
More context on resignation of Anthony Eden in this blog.

Connections to curriculum

Key stage 3
Challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world 1901 to the present day: the inter-war years: the Great Depression and the rise of dictators

Key stage 4
AQA GCSE History: Germany, 1890–1945: Democracy and dictatorship
Edexcel GCSE History: c1900–present: Warfare and British society in modern era
OCR GCSE History: War and British Society c.790 to c.2010; attitudes and responses to war

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Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 3, Key stage 4

Time period: Interwar 1918-1939

Suggested inquiry questions: How do these documents explain Anthony Eden’s resignation as Foreign Secretary in 1938?

Potential activities: Students research the meaning of the following terms: ‘appeasement’; ‘collective security’; League of Nations; ‘isolationism’ in the context of the international relations in the 1930s.

Download: Lesson pack

Related resources

Chamberlain and Hitler 1938

What was Chamberlain trying to do?

German occupation of the Rhineland

What should Britain do about it?

Adolf Hitler

Was Hitler a 'passionate lunatic'?