Born March 9, 1881
Winsford, Cheshire, England
Died April 14, 1951
British foreign minister
I mmediately following the end of World War II (1939–45) in Europe, a general election was held in Great Britain for prime minister, Britain's top leadership position. Clement R. Attlee (1883–1967; see entry), leader of the Labour Party, defeated wartime hero Winston Churchill (1874–1965; see entry) for the office. After his election, Attlee asked Ernest Bevin to be his foreign secretary. According to Mark Stephens's 1985 book Ernest Bevin: Unskilled Labourer and World Statesman, 1881–1951, Attlee wanted "a heavy tank," not "a sniper."
Such was the hard-nosed, up-front character of Ernest Bevin. As British foreign minister from 1945 to 1951, Bevin had a major role in developing British foreign policy during the Cold War's early years. The Cold War was an intense political and economic rivalry between the democratic United States and the communist Soviet Union that lasted from 1945 to 1991.
The rise of a leader
Ernest Bevin was born on March 9, 1881, to a poor mother, Diana Mercy Bevin, in Winsford, Cheshire, England. He was the youngest of seven children. He never knew his father. His mother did domestic work and sometimes served as the village midwife, a person who helps mothers during childbirth. She died of cancer when he was eight. Orphaned, Ernest lived with a stepsister and her husband for awhile, and then left school at age eleven to seek work. He worked at various unskilled jobs until becoming a delivery driver, using a horse-drawn cart to deliver mineral water in the town of Bristol. He held the job for eleven years, until he was twenty-nine years old.
By 1908, Bevin's life had begun to take shape. He became involved in labor issues and married Florence Townley, the daughter of a Bristol wine taster. They had one child. Bevin's career took off in 1910, when he joined the Dockers' Union while they were on strike (a work stoppage in protest of low wages or unsatisfactory working conditions) in Bristol. He organized a new branch of the union for truck drivers. The expanded membership helped the dockworkers win their strike. Greatly enthused by his quick success, Bevin became a full-time labor organizer and exhibited great skill in negotiating and recruiting. Through his energetic leadership, working conditions on the docks improved, and he received increasing recognition. By 1914, Bevin was a national organizer for the Dockers' Union. During World War I (1914–18), he mobilized transport workers and unions to support Britain's war effort. By 1920, he was a top official in the dockworkers' union.
Bevin was an unusual character. He ate and drank excessively at times and smoked heavily. Short and stocky, he lumbered about awkwardly. He had poor table manners, and he spoke with poor grammar in a gravelly voice. But Bevin also had natural skills and behavioral traits that made him an effective negotiator in labor disputes and later in foreign policy conferences. His success in bitter negotiations with employers was attributed to his ruthless demeanor. He was abrupt, boastful, and self-righteous. His forceful character led to poor relations with the press and professional politicians. Yet surprisingly, he could be a very effective and impassioned orator at times, and above all, he was very imaginative.
Despite his outward arrogance, he inspired strong loyalty, obedience, and even affection in union members during his labor days and later among the British people in general. Witnessing Bevin's twenty-five years as a union leader convinced newly elected prime minister Clement Attlee that Bevin had an ideal personality for dealing with the tough Soviet premier Joseph Stalin (1879–1953; see entry) and other Soviet leaders. Some historians even claim Bevin's tough approach contributed to the beginning of the Cold War. Bevin battled growing Soviet influence by taking an early hardline position against Stalin and organizing alliances in opposition to the perceived Soviet threat, which became increasingly real as positions became cemented.
A major step in Bevin's labor career came in 1922, when he combined many small local unions into one, the Transport and General Workers' Union. Bevin led this trade union—the world's largest—until 1940. In 1937, Bevin was also elected chairman of the Trades Union Congress (TUC). The TUC is a national organization of British trade unions that was founded in 1868. Bevin had become one of the most powerful union leaders in Britain. As Nazi leader Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) rose to power in Germany through the 1930s, Bevin used his position to vigorously argue for rearming Britain so Britain could challenge the growing German threat.
Acknowledging Bevin's prominence in British labor circles, Winston Churchill, Britain's prime minister during World War II, appointed Bevin to the five-person War Cabinet in May 1940. Bevin's position was minister of labor and national service. He was charged with the daunting task of mobilizing British troops through unpopular measures such as a military draft, meaning certain citizens would be eligible to serve in the military if required, and restrictions on trade union activities, including strikes. The Emergency Powers Act of 1940 gave Bevin the power to shift the workforce between the armed forces, the war industry, and civilian needs. As World War II progressed, his mobilization program proved an incredible success.
In July 1945, Bevin traveled with Churchill and Attlee to Potsdam, Germany, for a postwar meeting of leaders from the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union. The key purpose of the meeting was to determine the fate of Germany, which had been defeated in the war. While the meeting was taking place, Attlee learned he had defeated Churchill in the general elections for prime minister. Attlee then appointed Bevin foreign minister of the new British government. Though Bevin had no experience in foreign affairs, Attlee believed Bevin's toughness and long experience as a negotiator was needed. Bevin officially took office on July 26,1945. Immediately, while at Potsdam, Bevin confronted the Soviets on their efforts to place a new postwar communist government in Poland. The Soviets backed off and promised to allow general elections. However, they did not fulfill the promise, and this deception would influence Bevin's decisions on other postwar issues. By 1946, Bevin came to the conclusion that the communist Soviets were intent on taking over all of Europe, including Great Britain.
The Potsdam Conference also established a council of foreign ministers to sign a peace treaty with Germany. Bevin hosted the first council meeting in London in September 1945, but it was unproductive. As it turned out, there would be no peace treaty until 1990, after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe.
Addressing the growing Soviet threat, Bevin proclaimed economic restoration and the defense of Western Europe as his top priorities. Because the British economy had been severely weakened by World War II, Bevin began trying to shift European defense responsibilities to the United States. The first occasion came in February 1947 when Britain withdrew its longstanding financial support from Greece and Turkey. At the time, the Greek government was fighting a civil war against communist rebel forces. Turkey was under pressure from the Soviets to share its access to the Mediterranean Sea. Bevin approached the United States, asking U.S. leaders to fill the gap left by Britain and to make commitments to European security. President Harry S. Truman (1884–1972; served 1945–53; see entry) immediately took up the challenge. The resulting Truman Doctrine, a U.S. pledge to assist governments being threatened by communist expansion or rebellion, came in March.
Bevin next argued for economic aid for Europe in general. The United States responded in July with the Marshall Plan, a massive program of economic aid to Western European countries, including Britain. Bevin helped create the Organization for European Economic Cooperation in April 1948 to coordinate dispersal of U.S. aid under the Marshall Plan.
True to his roots in organized labor, Bevin believed unity was strength, and he applied this belief to foreign affairs. After securing U.S. economic involvement in Europe's postwar reconstruction, Bevin sought a U.S. military commitment to European security. First, Bevin established the Brussels Treaty in March 1948, a defense pact between Britain, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Next, Bevin sought to dramatically expand this alliance; his efforts led to the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in April 1949. NATO included the United States, Canada, and the Western European nations. Thanks in part to Bevin, NATO would bring a long period of peace to the European continent.
Bevin also pursued aggressive steps for Britain itself. He sought to rearm Britain and pursue a program to develop an atomic bomb. When the Soviets blockaded West Berlin in 1948, Bevin had the Royal Air Force take part in the massive airlift led by the United States to supply the shut-out West Berliners with food and other essentials. Bevin even allowed the United States to station its bombers at a British air base. However, donating large amounts of British food and supplies to Germany via the airlift was not a popular cause among the British population, because they themselves were suffering from shortages. Furthermore, Britain's economic problems were worsened by increased military spending.
Bevin and the East
Despite cooperative efforts such as the airlift, Bevin did not always see eye to eye with the United States on foreign policy issues. For example, under Bevin's guidance, Britain formally recognized the communist People's Republic of China (PRC) in January 1950. Communist forces had waged a long civil war against the Chinese government in the 1930s and 1940s. They finally won in 1949 and established the PRC. The overthrown government leaders fled to the island of Taiwan and established the Republic of China (ROC). Immediately, the United States officially recognized the ROC as the only legitimate government of China; nevertheless, Bevin and Britain stood by the PRC. They did this because the PRC represented most of the Chinese population and President Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975; see entry) had not been popular with the Chinese people. Bevin also believed that differences between the communist Chinese and Soviet Union would eventually surface, and he wanted Britain to be able to take advantage by increasing ties with China further at the time of the split. The United States did not recognize the Communist PRC until 1979.
Bevin did support the U.S. decision to militarily respond to North Korea's invasion of South Korea, which occurred on June 25, 1950. Bevin readily committed British troops to a United Nations military force dominated by the United States. However, Bevin strongly opposed the desire by U.S. general Douglas MacArthur (1880–1964; see entry) to invade the PRC, a plan MacArthur announced after successfully pushing the communist North Korean forces back north, all the way to the border with the PRC. In fact, Bevin's protest contributed to MacArthur's dismissal by President Truman. Bevin's commitment of British troops to the Korean War (1950–53) was unpopular with the British public and ultimately led to the end of the Labour Party's control of the British government. The Conservative Party candidate Winston Churchill replaced Clement Attlee as prime minister in the fall of 1951.
With his health failing, Bevin orchestrated one last feat in foreign affairs in 1950. He arranged for a $5 billion aid package to Southeast Asian countries, called the Colombo Plan, to help fend off communist expansion. Bevin resigned on March 9, 1951, his seventieth birthday, and died five weeks later. Though not versed in international relations to begin with, Bevin is regarded as one of the best foreign ministers in British history.
For More Information
Bullock, Alan. The Life and Times of Ernest Bevin. 3 vols. London: Heinemann, 1960–83.
Stephens, Mark. Ernest Bevin: Unskilled Labourer and World Statesman, 1881–1951. Stevenage, Herts.: SPA Books, 1985.
Weiler, Peter. Ernest Bevin. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.
Problems in Palestine
Great Britain had assumed control of Palestine, a region on the east coast of the Mediterranean inhabited by Arab peoples who had been under British colonial rule, in October 1918 at the end of World War I. Immediately following World War II, increased Jewish immigration into the area became a major concern. Persecuted during the war by German Nazi troops, many Jews fled Europe, hoping to find safety and better economic conditions in Palestine. Jews are believers of Judaism who trace their descent from Hebrews of the ancient biblical kingdom of Israel. Arabs are the inhabitants who occupy Southwest Asia and Northern Africa, including Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, and Egypt. Bevin faced the difficult task of maintaining good relations with the Arabs while dealing with the desire of Jews to establish a homeland for the many thousands fleeing Europe and the Soviet Union, where they faced religious persecution as well. Bevin hoped Britain could maintain a dominant role in the Middle East, and he knew that would require good relations with the various Arab states. Therefore, because the Arab peoples were alarmed by the growing influx of Jews in the region, Bevin opposed Jewish immigration and the creation of an independent Jewish state in Palestinian territory. There were few Jews in the region to begin with, but with growing numbers, Arabs feared the Jews would create their own country, which they did; Arabs held a strong anti-Israel position, that Jews should be removed entirely from the Middle East region.
Bevin proposed a federated Jewish-Arab state, but negotiations on this proposal collapsed by 1948. A federated state would be similar in appearance to the United States, where a single central government exists but separate states under it control affairs within their borders. In an effort to gain independence and drive the British out of the region, Jewish terrorists, or radical rebels, began striking against British troops in the area, leading to bloody clashes. On July 22, 1946, ninety-one people were killed when Zionists bombed British government and military offices. (Zionists were members of the Jewish movement to establish the state of Israel. They wanted to reestablish themselves in their biblical homeland and be safe from persecution in Europe and Russia.) Bevin turned to the United States for assistance, but President Harry S. Truman took a decidedly pro-Israel position. Against the advice of his advisors, Truman recognized Israel within hours of its establishment, thus creating much ill will with Arab countries in the region. Israel had been carved out of Arab lands with force. However, Truman was facing reelection in a tough political race and needed the support of the strong and wealthy pro-Israel lobby in the United States. With the increasing violence in Palestine, the British public was becoming less and less supportive of keeping British troops in the area. In frustration, Bevin decided to completely withdraw Britain, including eighty thousand British soldiers, from the region. Giving up on long-term British influence in the region, Bevin announced that Britain's withdrawal would be completed by May 15, 1948.
Meanwhile, fighting became more intense between Israelis and Palestinians as the Zionists made territorial gains. On the same day that the last British commissioner departed, Israel declared independence. Within hours, U.S. president Truman extended formal recognition. Immediately, armies from Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and Transjordan launched attacks against the newly formed country. Fighting continued through the remainder of 1948. Finally, Israel secured control of the region, and the fighting stopped. The failure to reach a peaceful settlement in British-controlled Palestine is considered the greatest failure of British foreign policy during the Cold War. Bevin was greatly criticized for his handling of the situation.
The collapse of the Labour government of 1929–31 compelled Bevin further into the political arena and he played a major role during the 1930s in committing Labour to realistic policies on the economy and rearmament. A devastating speech at the 1935 party conference helped remove the pacifist George Lansbury from the leadership. By 1937 Bevin was chairman of the TUC and one of the most influential figures in the Labour movement.
When Labour joined Churchill's wartime coalition in May 1940, the prime minister made the surprise but inspired appointment of Bevin to the ministry of Labour. At the age of 59 he entered Parliament. Though he did not always fit easily into the Commons, his contribution to the war effort was invaluable. Probably no other figure could have secured the same level of co-operation from the work-force.
With the election of a majority Labour government in 1945 Bevin went, not as he had expected to the Treasury, but to the Foreign Office. Here he laid the foundation stones of British foreign policy for the next 40 years. To the disappointment of Labour's left wing but the approval of the Conservative opposition, Bevin took a consistently strong line towards the Soviet Union in the developing Cold War. Indeed he saw it as Britain's task to contain Soviet expansion until the USA was persuaded to commit its resources fully to the same end. Under Bevin's powerful influence the government went ahead with the construction of a British atomic bomb, seized the opportunities offered under the Marshall Plan, and played a leading role in the creation of NATO in 1949. Only over the question of Palestine was his stewardship a failure. Many considered he would make a better prime minister than Attlee, but he refused to be drawn into any intrigues.
Bevin had been in poor health since the 1930s. After the 1950 general election he was no longer capable of fulfilling his duties and in the end had to be eased reluctantly out of office by Attlee. He died within a month. Bevin was a man of great intelligence, despite his lack of formal education. He won the unqualified respect of his ministry and left an enduring mark on British diplomacy.
Bullock, A. , Ernest Bevin (3 vols., 1960–83).
The career of Ernest Bevin (1881-1951), English trade union leader and Labour politician, is often taken to symbolize the political rise of sections of the working class in 20th-century Britain.
Ernest Bevin was born on March 9, 1881, in Bristol, the son of poor, working-class parents. After finishing elementary school in Bristol, Bevin earned a precarious living in various manual jobs and was introduced to politics via the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), the Marxist party. He organized the dockers and transport workers and from 1910 to 1921 led the Dockers Union. Through his union activities Bevin became involved in national politics; his brilliant advocacy at a commission of inquiry on dock conditions in 1920 led to greatly improved conditions for the dockers and national recognition for Bevin.
The noted historian A. J. P. Taylor has bracketed Bevin at this stage of his career with J. H. Thomas, the leader of the National Union of Railwaymen. They were both outstanding union leaders of a new type. Though aggressively working-class in character, they were no longer willing merely to resist. Nor would they put off improvement till the distant dawn of socialism. They bargained with the employers as equals, displaying equal or greater skill, and they never forgot that compromise was their ultimate aim, whether with a strike or preferably without.
Bevin's most important contribution to modern Britain was as creator and general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union from 1921 to 1940. Forging a national force out of scattered, locally organized, occupationally divided workers was a major achievement; in time, the T&GWU became the largest union in Britain.
In the late 1930s Bevin opposed George Lansbury and other pacifists in the Labour party and argued in favor of rearmament. When he entered Parliament in 1940, Bevin became a key figure in the wartime coalition as minister of labor and national service (1940-1945). Without him the Churchill government could not have achieved the levels of wartime production necessary to continue the war.
After the war Bevin served as secretary of state for foreign affairs (1945-1951) and was lord privy seal for a brief period in 1951. In spite of his controversial handling of the Palestine situation, he is generally regarded as a great foreign secretary. Perhaps this accolade springs from surprise that Bevin, a Labour minister, did not depart radically from traditional British policies in foreign affairs. He died in 1951.
The best source for Bevin's career is the uncompleted biography by Alan Bullock, The Life and Times of Ernest Bevin (1960). The two volumes so far published not only deal comprehensively with Bevin but also set him in the context of changing British society. Bullock's work is a fundamental source of 20th-century British social history. There is a useful biography by Francis Williams, Ernest Bevin: Portrait of a Great Englishman (1952). See also Sir Trevor Evans, Bevin of Britain (1946). To get the feel of Bevin's almost brutal power of argument and his handling of Labour party audiences, one should look at the Report of the Annual Conference of the Labour Party in 1931. A man like Bevin, whose strength lay in negotiation, organization, and domination of audiences in the labor movement rather than in originality of ideas, is best studied through others' reactions to him rather than through his own speeches and writings.
Stephens, Mark, Ernest Bevin, unskilled labourer and world statesman, 1881-1951, Stevenage, Herts: SPA Books, 1985.
Weiler, Peter, Ernest Bevin, Manchester, UK; New York: Manchester University Press; distributed exclusively in the USA and Canada by St. Martin's Press, 1993. □