Finest Hour

“Winston Has Gone Mad”: Churchill, the British Admiralty, and the Rise of Japanese Naval Power

In the aftermath of the First World War, Great Britain faced a serious strategic challenge in imperial Japan, whose nascent sea power threatened the security and interests of the British Empire in Asia. At the center of British decision making about Japan’s naval challenge in 1924–29 was Chancellor of the Exchequer Winston Churchill, who reviewed spending requests of government departments, set priorities, sought revenue, prepared budgets, and managed the economy in the hurly-burly politics of the public arena.

Churchill had just turned fifty and, at the height of his powers when he became Chancellor, was determined to take an active role in directing Britain’s grand strategy. One colleague described Churchill as “the most forceful personality in the Cabinet.” But he forcefully challenged the idea of conflict with Japan. In an oft-quoted letter to Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, Churchill wrote: “why should there be a war with Japan? I do not believe there is the slightest chance of it in our lifetime.” Instead, he foresaw a “long peace, such as follows in the wake of great wars.” In a tragic irony of history, Churchill’s words would later come back to haunt him when Japan attacked the British Empire in December 1941.

Economizing Chancellor

Churchill’s views put him

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