Cecil, Edgar Algernon Robert Gascoyne-, Viscount Cecil of Chelwood 1864-1958, a creator of the League of Nations, was born in London 14 September 1864. He was the third son of Lord Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, later third Marquess of Salisbury [qv.], and one of five distinguished brothers; a notice of the youngest appears below.
His upbringing, mainly at Hatfield, was happy and religious, among a united family in which the affection and authority of his parents were unquestioned. Owing to his father's view that children should not leave home until they had been confirmed, he was taught by tutors until he went as an Oppidan to Eton where he became known for progressive views, passed the necessary examinations, and was head of his house. At University College, Oxford, he obtained a second class in law (1886), played real tennis for the university, but found his main activities among friends, the Canning Club, and the presidency of the Union. He was called to the bar by the Inner Temple in 1887 and until his election to the House of Commons practised mostly at the parliamentary bar. He took silk in 1899, became a bencher in 1910, and was chairman of the Hertfordshire quarter-sessions (1911-20).
In 1906 Lord Robert Cecil was elected Conservative member of Parliament for East Marylebone. A moderate free trader and a keen supporter of women's suffrage, he had doubts even at this time whether he would not be happier on the other side. He broke with his party in 1910 and in that year unsuccessfully contested Blackburn and North Cambridgeshire as an independent Conservative. In 1911 he was elected for the Hitchin division of Hertfordshire which he represented until 1923 when he was created Viscount Cecil of Chelwood.
After the outbreak of war in 1914, being over military age, he worked at first with the Red Cross, organizing the wounded and missing department. But he was soon called to government office as parliamentary under-secretary for foreign affairs (1915-18) and minister of blockade (1916-18). He was sworn of the Privy Council in 1915 and in 1918-19 was assistant secretary of state for foreign affairs. Balfour, the foreign secretary, was often away, leaving Cecil in charge of the Foreign Office and its spokesman in the Cabinet.
Lord Robert Cecil was not only shocked by the bloodshed and horror of the war but felt that the worst part of it is that it seems to herald an era of destruction. No one can yet estimate the moral injury that it has wrought. He turned his thoughts to what was to become his life work, the creation of opinion in favour of the abolition of war and armaments. In September 1916 he circulated a memorandum to the Cabinet making proposals for the avoidance of future wars, in which the broad principle was that no country should resort to arms until its grievance had been submitted to an international conference or tribunal; if this obligation came to be violated, sanctions were to follow, first by blockade, then, if necessary, by military force. This paper was criticized in the Foreign Office; nevertheless, owing to his persistence, it led to the appointment of a committee under Sir W. G. F. (later Lord) Phillimore [qv.] which, with Lord Robert Cecil's memorandum as the basis of its work, produced the first draft of what became the Covenant of the League of Nations.
From this time forward, the maintenance of peace through the League of Nations, collective security, and disarmament absorbed all his time and thoughts. In 1919 he went to Paris where he dominated the debates of the conference commission on the League presided over by President Wilson. No one who was present in the commission could doubt that but for the patient and inspired persuasion of Lord Robert Cecil there might have been no Covenant at all. With the help of Dr. Nansen of Norway, he persuaded the neutral nations to join the League; without them it must have failed.
In the first three Assemblies of the League (1920-22) Lord Robert Cecil, who had resigned from the Government over the Welsh Church disestablishment, was appointed by J. C. Smuts [qv.] as a delegate for South Africa. With Nansen, Newton Rowell of Canada, Branting of Sweden, Hymans of Belgium, Motta of Switzerland, and others, he transformed what might have been a disordered diplomatic gathering into a well-organized parliamentary institution which grew rapidly in strength. He persuaded his colleagues that all the meetings of the Assembly and of its committees and of the Council should be held in public. He was a firm believer in the value of public international debate, saying that publicity is the life-blood of the League; and he set a standard of courtesy and candour which made this new practice a decided success. It was proved time after time that when private negotiations had failed, public discussion brought a settlement. A notable example was the admission of Germany to the League in 1926. Sir Austen Chamberlain [qv.] did serious harm in a promising situation by trying to revert to power-politics and to what Geneva called hotel bedroom diplomacy. Cecil was left to clear up the mess, which he did successfully—and in public.
In 1923 Baldwin became prime minister, Lord Curzon [qv.] his foreign secretary, and Lord Robert Cecil, as lord privy seal, was put in charge of League affairs. He was thus able to do excellent work in the League Council. He had already played a leading part in drafting the statute of the Permanent Court of International Justice; he now secured agreement on the reference to that court of important minority questions, a valuable precedent which led to the effective application of the whole minority protection system; in many contentious matters—the Saar, Danzig, mandates, the traffic in drugs, Nansen's refugee work—he successfully brought the principles of the Covenant to life.
His first major crisis, and his first major conflict with Curzon and his other cabinet colleagues, arose out of the seizure by Mussolini, 31 August 1923, of the Greek island of Corfu in reprisal for the murder of Italian officers on Greek territory. The Greek Government unfortunately telegraphed both to the League Council and to the Allied Conference of Ambassadors in Paris, promising both bodies to accept their decision. Cecil, Nansen, and Branting rallied the Assembly in support of Greece, and the Council drew up a proposed settlement, providing for the evacuation of Corfu by the Italians and reference to the Permanent Court of the question of compensation by Greece. The ambassadors at first agreed, but later decided that Greece must pay the full indemnity demanded by Mussolini.
Baldwin, when he formed his second Government in 1924, at first proposed to leave Cecil out. It was only under the urgent persuasion of Sir Eric Drummond (later the Earl of Perth) [qv.], the secretary-general of the League, that Baldwin changed his mind and made Cecil chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, in charge of League affairs. Cecil was soon again at variance with his colleagues, this time over the Geneva Protocol which had been prepared by the delegates of the Labour Government and which Baldwin's Cabinet opposed. The Protocol would have given the Permanent Court compulsory jurisdiction in cases which could be settled by law; it would have organized collective security under the League, and brought an early conference on disarmament. Although Cecil proposed amendments which he hoped would make it acceptable, the Cabinet finally rejected the Protocol. This was a grave shock to League supporters all over the world and in the light of subsequent events a tragic mistake.
Cecil himself believed that the nations must either learn to disarm or perish. In 1926 he was sent as delegate to the preparatory disarmament commission and in 1927 to the Coolidge conference in Geneva on naval disarmament. President Coolidge was proposing large reductions of cruiser, destroyer, and submarine strength, with a ratio of 5:5:3 for Britain, the United States, and Japan. Cecil and W. C. (later Viscount) Bridgeman, the first lord of the Admiralty, who was with him, favoured acceptance; the Cabinet would not agree to parity with America; Cecil resigned, broke with his party, and never again held government office.
He did not regret his resignation. When in 1928 the Baldwin government made a strong attack on the League budget, the purpose being to save Britain £6,000, it seemed to him the final proof that his former colleagues would never understand the importance of the League, or its chance of success.
Fortunately this was not the end of his work for the League. When the second Labour Government came into power in 1929 Arthur Henderson [qv.] gave Cecil a room and a staff in the Foreign Office and made him chairman of a departmental committee on League affairs, deputy leader of the Assembly delegations, and once again British representative on the preparatory disarmament commission. The two men worked in great harmony and achieved excellent results, including the adhesion of all the Commonwealth countries to the Optional Clause (accepting compulsory jurisdiction) of the statute of the Permanent Court, the preparation of a draft disarmament convention, and the fixing of a date for the general disarmament conference. Before the conference met the Labour Government had resigned, but Henderson remained president and in that capacity arranged for Cecil and others to address the conference on behalf of various private organizations. Cecil spoke on behalf of the International Federation of League of Nations Societies of which he was president; he put forward the doctrine of qualitative disarmament, ie. the abolition of weapons which assist aggressive attack, a principle ultimately accepted by almost every government represented in the conference. In June 1932 President Hoover based upon it a bold and comprehensive plan which was welcomed with enthusiasm by Germany, Italy, Russia, and all the smaller and middle powers. Many of the British Cabinet, including Baldwin and Sir John (later Viscount) Simon [qv.], the foreign secretary, wanted to accept it; but by a small majority they were defeated and the British delegation played the principal role in killing the Hoover Plan. The disarmament conference failed and the League disintegrated.
Cecil hoped to save the League by organizing public opinion which, thanks to his efforts, amongst others, overwhelmingly supported the League in Britain and in many other countries. He was president of the League of Nations Union from 1923 to 1945 and in 1934-5 organized the peace ballot. In spite of bitter attacks the ballot became a massive demonstration of deep-rooted public feeling. In a vote of over eleven and a half million over 90 per cent were in favour of the League, disarmament, and the abolition of private manufacture of armaments; over 80 per cent for the abolition of national air forces; over 85 per cent for economic sanctions, and 74 per cent of those who answered the question for military sanctions. This result had a profound effect on both the Government and the public. At one time during the Abyssinian crisis it seemed possible that the League might yet be saved; when eventually the Covenant pledges were betrayed and Mussolini was allowed to occupy Addis Ababa, there was no doubt that the outcome was deeply repugnant to British feeling. It is now generally recognized that Cecil was right: that only strong international institutions founded on world law could save mankind.
After the second war Cecil went as British delegate to Geneva for the closing session of the League. The League is dead, he said, long live the UN. Even in the crisis of 1941 when Britain stood alone, he wrote on the title-page of a copy of his book about the League Le jour viendra. He was never personally embittered and it was this faith in the ultimate triumph of his cause which sustained him through so many years of disappointment and frustration.
Cecil was chancellor of the university of Birmingham (1918-44) and rector of Aberdeen (1924-7) and received a number of honorary degrees. He was visitor of St. Hugh's College, Oxford, and honorary fellow of University College. He was awarded the Woodrow Wilson peace prize in 1924 and the Nobel peace prize in 1937, and was appointed C.H. in 1956.
In 1889 he married Lady Eleanor Lambton, daughter of the second Earl of Durham. It was a long and happy, though childless, marriage. Lady Cecil was a woman of great intellectual power who ardently shared her husband's views and was a tower of strength to him, particularly at the crises of his career. In 1900 they built a house, Gale, at Chelwood Gate in Sussex, which was their home for the rest of their lives. He died in Tunbridge Wells, 24 November 1958, survived for only a few months by his widow.
Cecil was very tall, and the impression of his height was undiminished by a pronounced stoop. His mobile features, noble forehead, and fearless searching eyes conveyed a feeling of great intellectual penetration and moral power. He could draw immense audiences in any country which he visited, and they always found his wide knowledge and complete candour most persuasive. He cared nothing for the honours and trappings of public life, and was modest to a fault about his own position and achievements. He was an insatiable reader, who knew the works of Jane Austen almost by heart. A portrait by P. A. de László is at London University Hall and a smaller version at Hatfield; others by John Mansbridge and Sir William Orpen are in the National Portrait Gallery. The Royal Institute of International Affairs has a bust by Siegfried Charoux.
Viscount Cecil of Chelwood, A Great Experiment, 1941, and All the Way, 1949;
Contributor: Philip Noel-Baker.