History of Great Britain

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Britain and World War II

Memories of World War I left Britons with an overwhelming desire to avoid another war, and the country played a leading role in the League of Nations and at interwar disarmament conferences such as those in Washington, D.C. in 1921 and 1922 and London in 1930 that limited naval size. Conscious that Germany might have been unfairly treated at the 1919 peace conference, the British government followed a policy of appeasement in dealing with Adolf Hitlers Germany after 1933. Germanys decisions between 1934 and 1936 to leave the League of Nations, rearm, and remilitarize the Rhineland in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles were accepted. So was the German annexation of Austria in 1938. In his efforts to keep the peace at all costs, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain also acquiesced to the Munich Pact of 1938, which gave Germany the Sudetenland portion of Czechoslovakia. Only after the German annexation of Prague in March of 1939 did Britain make pledges to Poland and Romania.

When Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939, Britain and France declared war, and World War II began. The defeat********************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************at achieved by any other power. Although a German invasion plan was foiled by British air supremacy, large parts of London and other cities were destroyed and some 60,000 civilians were killed. Beginning early in 1941, the still-neutral United States granted lend-lease aid to Britain.

The nature of the war changed with the German invasion of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in June 1941 and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Churchill then forged the Grand Alliance with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt against Germany, Italy, and Japan. In the immediate aftermath of the Japanese intervention, much of the British Empire in Southeast Asia was overrun, but late in 1942 the tide turned. The British contribution included the Battle of the North Atlantic against the German submarine menace and the campaign led by General Bernard Montgomery against the German army in North Africa. Churchill corresponded continually and met often with Roosevelt, and British forces joined American in the 1943 invasion of Sicily and Italy, the invasion of France in 1944, and the ultimate defeat of the Axis powers in 1945.

The Winds of Change

The general election of 1945 gave the Labour Party for the first time a majority of the popular vote and an overwhelming parliamentary majority. The result was less a rebuke of Churchills wartime leadership than an expression of approval of Labours role in the war and of hope that the party would bring more prosperity.

Clement Attlees Ministry (1945-1951)

During the years that followed, Labour, led by Clement Attlee, sought to build a socialist Britain, while surviving postwar austerity, dismantling the empire, and adjusting to a cold war with the USSR. The two measures that established a welfare state in Britain, the National Insurance Act of 1946 (a consolidation of benefit laws involving maternity, unemployment, disability, old age, and death) and the National Health Service, set up in 1948, were widely popular. Both drew on the wartime reports of Sir William Beveridge, a Liberal. The nationalization of the Bank of England, the coal industry, gas and electricity, the railroads, and most airlines proved relatively noncontroversial, but the Conservatives vigorously if vainly opposed the nationalization of the trucking and the iron and steel industries. In 1948 Labour eliminated the last remnants of plural voting (that is, voting in more than one constituency) and reduced the delaying powers of the House of Lords from two years to one. These changes were instituted in the midst of a postwar era of austerity. The national debt had tripled, and for the first time since the 18th century Britain had become a debtor nation. With the end of U.S. lend-lease aid in 1945, the British import bill had risen abruptly long before military demobilization and reconversion to peacetime industry had been accomplished. Wartime regulations, therefore, had been kept; food rationing in 1946 and 1947 was more restrictive than during the war.

Postwar Germany was divided into occupation zones among the USSR, the United States, Britain, and France, but efforts to reach agreement on a peace treaty with Germany broke down as it became clear that the USSR was converting all of Eastern Europe into a Soviet sphere. Britain, assisted by the U.S.-sponsored Marshall Plan (1948-1952), joined other Western powers and the United States in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949 in order to counter the Soviet threat. The British government felt less able, however, to play an independent role in the Middle East, and in 1948 it gave up its Palestinian mandate, which led to the establishment of Israel and the first Arab-Israeli War. Aware of Britains depleted coffers and sympathetic toward their nationalist causes, the Labour government granted independence to India and Pakistan in 1947 and to Burma (now known as Myanmar) and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1948.

: 14/02/2008