Nancy Astor and her husband, Waldorf Astor held regular weekend parties at their home Cliveden, a large estate in Buckinghamshire on the River Thames. Those who attended included Philip Henry Kerr (11th Marquess of Lothian), Edward Wood (1st Earl of Halifax), Geoffrey Dawson, Samuel Hoare, Lionel Curtis, Nevile Henderson, Robert Brand and Edward Algernon Fitzroy. Most members of the group were supporters of a close relationship with Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. The group included several influential people. Astor owned The Observer, Dawson was editor of The Times, Hoare was Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Lord Halifax was a minister of the government who would later become foreign secretary and Fitzroy was Speaker of the Commons.
Norman Rose, the author of The Cliveden Set (2000): "Lothian, Dawson, Brand, Curtis and the Astors - formed a close-knit band, on intimate terms with each other for most of their adult life. Here indeed was a consortium of like-minded people, actively engaged in public life, close to the inner circles of power, intimate with Cabinet ministers, and who met periodically at Cliveden or at 4 St James Square (or occasionally at other venues). Nor can there be any doubt that, broadly speaking, they supported - with one notable exception - the government's attempts to reach an agreement with Hitler's Germany, or that their opinions, propagated with vigour, were condemned by many as embarrassingly pro-German."
On 17th June, 1936, Claud Cockburn, produced an article called "The Best People's Front" in his anti-fascist newsletter, The Week. He argued that a group that he called the Astor network, were having a strong influence over the foreign policies of the British government. He pointed out that members of this group controlled The Times and The Observer and had attained an "extraordinary position of concentrated power" and had become "one of the most important supports of German influence".
Claud Cockburn later admitted in his autobiography, I Claud (1967) that most of his information came from Vladimir Poliakoff, the diplomatic correspondent of The Times. As his editor, Geoffrey Dawson, was a member of the Cliveden Set, and would obviously not allow it to be published in his own newspaper, he gave it to Cockburn instead. Cockburn also revealed that Poliakoff received much of his information from "anti-Nazi factions in the British and French Foreign Offices... and were thus first-rate, and the stories that came from them had that particular zip and zing which you get from official sources only when a savage intra-mural departmental fight is going on." He also admitted that Winston Churchill and his supporters were also providing him with "inside information".
During the weekend of 23rd October 1937, the Astors had thirty people to lunch. This included Geoffrey Dawson (editor of The Times), Nevile Henderson (the recently appointed Ambassador to Berlin), Edward Algernon Fitzroy (Speaker of the Commons), Sir Alexander Cadogan (soon to replace the anti-appeasement Robert Vansittart as Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office), Lord Lothian and Lionel Curtis. They were happy that Neville Chamberlain, a strong supporter of appeasement was now Prime Minister and that this would soon mean promotion for people such as Lothian and Lord Halifax.
According to Norman Rose, Lord Lothian gave a talk on future relations with Adolf Hitler. "He wished to define what Britain would not fight for. Certainly not for the League of Nations, a broken vessel; nor to honour the obligations of others. As he had explained to the Nazi leaders, 'Britain had no primary interests in eastern Europe,' areas that fell within 'Germany's sphere'. To be dragged into a conflict not of Britain's making and not in defence of its vital interests would bedevil relations with the Dominions, fatal for the unity of the Empire. For the Clivedenites, this was always the bottom line... In effect, Lothian was prepared to turn central and eastern Europe over to Germany." Nancy Astor supported Lothian: "In twenty years I've never known Philip to be wrong on foreign politics." Geoffrey Dawson also agreed with Lothian and this was reflected in an editorial in The Times that he wrote a few days later. Lionel Curtis was the only member of this group that had doubts about Lothian's plans.
In November, 1937, Neville Chamberlain sent Lord Halifax in secret to meet Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Goering in Germany. In his diary, Lord Halifax records how he told Hitler: "Although there was much in the Nazi system that profoundly offended British opinion, I was not blind to what he (Hitler) had done for Germany, and to the achievement from his point of view of keeping Communism out of his country." This was a reference to the fact that Hitler had banned the Communist Party (KPD) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in Germany and placed its leaders in Concentration Camps. Halifax had told Hitler: "On all these matters (Danzig, Austria, Czechoslovakia) ..." the British government "were not necessarily concerned to stand for the status quo as today... If reasonable settlements could be reached with... those primarily concerned we certainly had no desire to block."
The story was leaked to the journalist Vladimir Poliakoff. On 13th November 1937 the Evening Standard reported the likely deal between the two countries: "Hitler is ready, if he receives the slightest encouragement, to offer to Great Britain a ten-year truce in the colonial issue... In return... Hitler would expect the British Government to leave him a free hand in Central Europe". On 17th November, Claude Cockburn reported in The Week, that the deal had been first moulded "into usable diplomatic shape" at Cliveden that for years has "exercised so powerful an influence on the course of British policy." He later added that Lord Halifax was "the representative of Cliveden and Printing House Square rather than of more official quarters."
The term Cliveden Set was first used by the Reynolds News on 28th November, 1937, in an article that argued that the group were highly sympathetic to fascism. David Low, had a cartoon published in the Evening Standard, showing James Garvin, Nancy Astor, Philip Henry Kerr and Geoffrey Dawson, holding high the slogan "Any Sort of Peace at Any Sort of Price". This cartoon inspired the Communist Party of Great Britain to produce a pantomime entitled Babes in the Wood - the Panto with a Political Point at the at the Unity Theatre.
On a visit to the United States Anthony Eden was amazed when he discovered the impact on public opinion of articles on the Cliveden Set in The Week was having in the country. A horrified Eden reported to Stanly Baldwin that "Nancy Astor and her Cliveden Set has done much damage, and 90 per cent of the US is firmly persuaded that you (Baldwin) and I are the only Tories who are not fascists in disguise."
In the spring of 1937, Sir Vernon Kell, the head of MI6 wrote a note to a diplomat at the American Embassy about Claud Cockburn: "Cockburn is a man whose intelligence and wide variety of contacts make him a formidable factor on the side of Communism." Kell complained that The Week was full of gross inaccuracies and was written from a left-wing point of view, but admitted that on occasions "he is quite well informed and by intelligent anticipation gets quite close to the truth". Kell was also concerned about some accurate reports that appeared in The Week about King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson.
The Reynolds News claimed that the new Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was "in protective custody at Cliveden". The Manchester Guardian, The Daily Chronicle and The Tribune reported the story in a similar fashion. When Anthony Eden resigned as Foreign Secretary on 25th February, 1938, and replaced by Lord Halifax, left-wing newspapers argued that the "appeasement coup" had been organised by the Cliveden Set.
The story spread to the United States. Louise Waterman Wise, the President of the American Jewish Congress wrote to Nancy Astor complaining about the activities of the Cliveden Set: "If Jews in America are against Nazi Germany, it is because they conceive it to be their duty as Americans to battle for civilization and humanity and therefore to stand against the crimes of Hitlerism... to render their country the service of making it aware of that monstrous iniquity - imperiling all that men hold dear in the political and spiritual world - of Nazism or Hitlerism." Felix Frankfurter wrote to her arguing that "anti-Semitism is an essential aspect of Nazism" and to persist in this vein would lead people to "infer a sympathy on your part with Hitler's anti-Semitism."
Lady Astor became convinced that she was becoming a victim of "Jewish Communistic propaganda". In the House of Commons on 28th February 1938, Harold Nicolson heard Alan Graham, the Conservative Party MP for Wirral, say to Astor: "I do not think you behaved very well." She turned upon him and said, "Only a Jew like you would dare to be rude to me." This incident was reported in the newspapers and The Daily Chronicle commented that Astor's "emotions about the Jews" had overcome "her sense of fitness". Friends recalled an incident at a dinner party when she introduced Chaim Weizmann as "the only decent Jew I have ever met."
Adolf Hitler wanted to march into Czechoslovakia but his generals warned him that with its strong army and good mountain defences Czechoslovakia would be a difficult country to overcome. They also added that if Britain, France or the Soviet Union joined in on the side of Czechoslovakia, Germany would probably be badly defeated. One group of senior generals even made plans to overthrow Hitler if he ignored their advice and declared war on Czechoslovakia. In March 1938 Hugh Christie told the British government that Hitler would be ousted by the military if Britain joined forces with Czechoslovakia against Germany. Christie warned that the "crucial question is How soon will the next step against Czechoslovakia be tried? ... The probability is that the delay will not exceed two or three months at most, unless France and England provide the deterrent, for which cooler heads in Germany are praying."
Neville Chamberlain met with Adolf Hitler in Berchtesgaden on 15th September. Hitler threatened to invade Czechoslovakia unless Britain supported Germany's plans to takeover the Sudetenland . After discussing the issue with the Edouard Daladier (France) and Eduard Benes (Czechoslovakia), Chamberlain informed Hitler that his proposals were unacceptable. Hitler was in a difficult situation but he also knew that Britain and France were unwilling to go to war. He also thought it unlikely that these two countries would be keen to join up with the Soviet Union, whose communist system the western democracies hated more that Hitler's fascist dictatorship.
Benito Mussolini suggested to Hitler that one way of solving this issue was to hold a four-power conference of Germany, Britain, France and Italy. This would exclude both Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union, and therefore increasing the possibility of reaching an agreement and undermine the solidarity that was developing against Germany.
The meeting took place in Munich on 29th September, 1938. Desperate to avoid war, and anxious to avoid an alliance with Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union, Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier agreed that Germany could have the Sudetenland. In return, Hitler promised not to make any further territorial demands in Europe. The meeting ended with Hitler, Chamberlain, Daladier and Mussolini signing the Munich Agreement which transferred the Sudetenland to Germany.
Members of the Cliveden Set were delighted with the Munich Agreement. According to Lord Lothian, "Chamberlain had pulled off a masterly coup". He told Waldorf Astor: "Nobody else could have done the trick and I've no doubt prayer helped the result. He'll be the darling of the Western world - a most unexpected position - for a while." Lothian predicted "some nasty moments as the Germans march into the Sudenten territory and the worthless Czechs and Social Democrats flee before them." Lothian was now convinced that Hitler would not now go to war: "My own impression is that Europe, including the Nazis, have now turned their back on world war, if only because a general war means letting Russia loose in Europe, and trust a final settlement, including disarmament, may be possible if Neville's lead is followed up."
Martin Pugh, the biographer of Nancy Astor, has argued: "Nancy's reputation suffered irretrievable damage. Cockburn targeted the Astors as an example of very wealthy people who used their connections and their newspapers to subvert the policy of the government. He linked them to appeasement on the basis that they were keen to use Hitler as a bulwark against Bolshevism. Like many people at that time Waldorf and Nancy were appeasers in the sense that they believed that Germany had been treated harshly by the treaty of Versailles; she also had connections with influential people such as Philip Kerr who was active as an emissary to Hitler."
On 5th October, 1938, Claud Cockburn reported in The Week, that Charles A. Lindbergh had told a meeting of the Cliveden Set that the "German air force could take on and defeat, single handed, the British, French, Soviet and Czechoslovak air fleets" and that he "knew all about the Russian air force because, when in Moscow recently, he had been offered the post of head of the Soviet civil aviation administration". Prvada reprinted the article and denounced Lindbergh as a liar.
Lothian, Dawson, Brand, Curtis and the Astors - formed a close-knit band, on intimate terms with each other for most of their adult life. Here indeed was a consortium of like-minded people, actively engaged in public life, close to the inner circles of power, intimate with Cabinet ministers, and who met periodically at Cliveden or at 4 St James Square (or occasionally at other venues). Nor can there be any doubt that, broadly speaking, they supported - with one notable exception - the government's attempts to reach an agreement with Hitler's Germany, or that their opinions, propagated with vigour, were condemned by many as embarrassingly pro-German.
Oddly - or perhaps not so oddly, because I have always liked Americans, and the sort of man that likes Americans is liable to like Russians - a prominent light in my part of the gloom was my old friend Mr Vladimir Poliakoff, formerly diplomatic correspondent of The Times. (It was he who had first, perhaps inadvertently, provided the information which ultimately led to the discovery - or invention, as some said - by The Week, of the famous - or notorious, as some said - 'Cliveden Set')...
He had a house in a square in South Kensington and there I used to drink Russian tea or vodka with him, or walk round and round the gardens while he exercised his two small Afghan hounds and talked to me derisively, in his harsh Slavonic accents, of the international situation. Even when he later brought a libel action against me our walks and talks continued amicably.
Being a supporter of what was called "the Vansittart line" the notion that by a friendly policy towards Mussolini it might be possible to split the Axis and isolate Hitler - he was fervent in denunciation of those powerful personalities in England who, on the contrary, saw in Hitler a bulwark and potential crusader against Bolshevism and thought friendship with the Nazis both possible and desirable. The vigour of his campaigns and intrigues against such elements was naturally heightened by his knowledge that some of them lost no opportunity to convince everyone that he himself was a hired agent of Mussolini.
His sources of information from anti-Nazi factions in the British and French Foreign Offices were thus first-rate, and the stories that came from them had that particular zip and zing which you get from official sources only when a savage intra-mural departmental fight is going on.
I rushed about between London, Paris and Brussels, supplementing and checking such stories from other sources. Vigorous anti-Nazis in the City, too, and on the so-called Churchillian wing of the Conservative Party were also very ready with "inside information".
At length I thought I had enough and more than enough to write in The Week a longish "think piece" about the nature and aims of those in high places who were working, sincerely perhaps, but as it seemed to me disastrously, for the 'appeasement' of Adolf Hitler. There were, of course, several references to gatherings at the Astors' Thames-side house at Cliveden. When I published the story, absolutely nothing happened. It made about as loud a bang as a crumpet falling on a carpet. A few weeks later, I ran the whole thing again, in slightly different words, and with similar result.
And then about a month later I did it a third time. There were only trivial additions to the facts already published but the tone was a little sharper. But it happened that this time it occurred to me to head the whole story "The Cliveden Set" and to use this phrase several times in the text. The thing went off like a rocket.
I think it was Reynolds News, three days later, which first picked up the phrase from The Week, but within a couple of weeks it had been printed in dozens of newspapers, and within six had been used in almost every leading newspaper of the Western world. Up and down the British Isles, across and across the United States, anti-Nazi orators shouted it from hundreds of platforms. No anti-Fascist rally in Madison Square Garden or Trafalgar Square was complete without a denunciation of the Cliveden Set.
In those days, if you saw cameramen patrolling St James's Square at lunchtime or dusk, you could be nearly sure they were there to get a picture of the Cliveden Set going in or out of the Astors' London house. Geoffrey Dawson, then editor of The Times, and a prominent member of the "Set", comments petulantly on this nuisance in his diary. If you talked to American special correspondents, what they wanted to know all about was the Cliveden Set. Senators made speeches about it, and in those London cabarets where libel didn't matter, songsters made songs about it. People who wanted to explain everything by something, and were ashamed to say "sunspots", said "Cliveden Set".
And throughout it all the members of the Cliveden Set, furiously, wearily or derisively, maintained that they were not members because there simply was not any Cliveden Set to be a member of. It was a myth.
And the fact was that, however it started, it presently became a myth. Within a year or so, the Cliveden Set had ceased to represent, in anybody's mind, a particular group of individuals. It had become the symbol of a tendency, of a set of ideas, of a certain condition in, as it were, the State of Denmark. It had acquired a powerful and alarming significance for people who could hardly have named three of those who frequented Cliveden. The phrase went marching on because it first had dramatized, and now summarized, a whole vague body of suspicions and fears.
Occasionally, moderate-minded intermediaries who felt the story was stirring up dangerous thoughts urged me to tone it down in some way curb the monster I had set loose. I had to reply that in the first place I thought the picture essentially a true one, doing more good than harm. In the second place, even supposing that, contrary to my own convictions, I were to get the B.B.C. to permit me to announce personally to the listening millions that the story had no foundation, that I had invented it, no one would pay the slightest attention. People would come to the conclusion that I had been nobbled by the Cliveden Set.
I was certainly taken aback by the wild improbabilities which some correspondents were writing about the Cliveden Set. It looked as though quite a lot of people were getting involved, were being branded as subtly scheming political intriguers, who would not have known a plot if you handed it to them on a skewer, and quite possibly had gone to Cliveden simply for a good dinner. But then, I reflected, if one is as ignorant of political goings-on as some of them claim to be, is it very wise, even for a very good dinner, to go at all?
My father Claud Cockburn once said that the report that God was on the side of the big battalions was propaganda put about by big-battalion commanders to demoralise their opponents. He saw the rich and powerful as highly vulnerable to journalistic guerrilla warfare of a type largely invented by himself. In 1933, he founded The Week, a radical anti-fascist newsletter, on a capital of £40 after resigning from his job as the New York correspondent of The Times. Its aggressive style and hard-hitting content was very similar to that of Private Eye.
He observed from the start that MI5 was keeping a close eye on his activities. He rightly assumed that they opened his mail and listened to his telephone calls. I remembered him telling me this years later when I was researching a memoir of my childhood. I wrote to the director of MI5 asking for my father's file. It was placed in the National Archives in Kew in 2004. It turned out to be 26 volumes long....
Claud's prediction is in keeping with a mischievous habit he had of telling people who were trying to pump him, or whom he simply found boring, that war or revolution were likely within days. On one occasion an outraged woman wrote to some contact at MI5 saying she had sat next to Claud at dinner and he had predicted imminent revolution, starting in the Brigade of Guards.