Troublesome Young Men The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England

Lynne Olson

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Trade Paperback

464 Pages


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A Christian Science Monitor Best Book of the Year

On May 7, 1940, the House of Commons began perhaps the most crucial debate in British parliamentary history. On its outcome hung the future of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's government and also of Britain—indeed, perhaps, the world. Troublesome Young Men is Lynne Olson's fascinating account of how a small group of rebellious Tory MPs defied the Chamberlain government's defeatist policies that aimed to appease Europe's tyrants and eventually forced the prime minister's resignation.

Some historians dismiss the "phony war" that preceded this turning point—from September 1939, when Britain and France declared war on Germany, to May 1940, when Winston Churchill became prime minister—as a time of waiting and inaction, but Olson makes no such mistake. She describes in dramatic detail the public unrest that spread through Britain then, as people realized how poorly prepared the nation was to confront Hitler, how their basic civil liberties were being jeopardized, and also that there were intrepid politicians willing to risk political suicide to spearhead the opposition to Chamberlain—Harold Macmillan, Robert Boothby, Leo Amery, Ronald Cartland, and Lord Robert Cranborne among them. The political and personal dramas that played out in Parliament and in the nation as Britain faced the threat of fascism virtually on its own are extraordinary—and, in Olson's hands, downright inspiring.


Praise for Troublesome Young Men

"Churchill was not alone in his opposition to Hitler during what he called his wilderness years, and therein lies the strength of Lynne Olson's brisk, engaging new book, Troublesome Young Men. Olson, a former White House correspondent for The Baltimore Sun, has given us a fascinating snapshot of the Tory ‘rebels,' as she calls them, who ultimately opposed Neville Chamberlain and helped elevate the then-unbeatified Churchill . . . A successful book."—Jon Meacham, The New York Times Book Review

"In Troublesome Young Men, Lynne Olson imposes real time on the events that led to Chamberlain's downfall and Churchill's installation as prime minister, a far-from-inevitable sequence helped along by a disorganized group of Tory rebels opposed to the government's policy of appeasement but powerless to stop it until history dealt them the right cards. It is a fascinating story that Ms. Olson tells with great dash . . . She takes on the tricky assignment of reconstructing a complicated series of events while delivering a group portrait of the restless young Conservative politicians whom one of their principal animators, Harold Macmillan, described in a letter to Churchill as 'troublesome young men.' She manages to pull this off in fine style . . . Ms. Olson vividly recreates the climate of suspicion and hostility that surrounded the troublesome young men, a tiny minority with a seemingly hopeless cause. Half the tragedy of the appeasement years can be accounted for by the cutthroat parliamentary politics she describes with grim relish . . . Ms. Olson describes, in satisfying detail, the white-hot debate in Parliament on May 7 and 8, 1940, when a shocked Chamberlain sensed that he had lost control of the House, a suspicion that materialized into fact as dozens of defectors voted against the government and brought the appeasement era to a close."—William Grimes, The New York Times

"He was a dominant leader of his government, utterly convinced of the righteousness and the rectitude of his policies, especially insofar as they concerned international affairs. He gathered around him a coterie of tight-lipped conservative advisors who were as like-minded and narrow-minded as he was. He scorned his critics in the legislature, branding them foolish, ignorant and unpatriotic. He had no time for members of any party but his own, and he treated the opposition with contempt. He cowed and coerced the media, and he authorized telephone tapping on an unprecedented scale. By such arrogant and intimidating means, he was determined to leave a more significant mark on public affairs than either his father or his brother had. But the result was a succession of foreign policy disasters that did his country untold damage in the eyes of the world. George W. Bush? No, Neville Chamberlain. As Lynne Olson, a former White House correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, points out in this vivid and compelling book, these were exactly the criticism directed at the British prime minister as he persistently pursued his policy of appeasing Adolf Hitler in a manner that may be described as vain in both senses of that word . . . Troublesome Young Men describes and celebrates the efforts of Chamberlain's opponents within his own Conservative Party."—David Cannadine, The Washington Post

"Ms. Olson's account is as fresh as it is engaging. Indeed, she is good at salting her book with all sorts of gems: Her accounts of life in the blackout, rationing, even the part the weather played in the national mood help make Troublesome Young Men the great read it is."—Martin Rubin, The Washington Times

"Numerous books have traced Churchill's rise to power and wartime leadership, but few have explored the role of the Tory parliamentarians who staged a political revolt that made his ascent possible. Olson helps fill the gap admirably with a readable, thoroughly researched, and well-paced narrative."—Joe Loconte, Books & Culture

"A riveting tale, immensely readable, that brings to history the excitement of a novel . . . During the 1930s, as the rise of Nazism threatened western civilization, Winston Churchill's was a lonely voice warning of the coming danger, opposing the British government's policy of appeasement and urging immediate rearmament. Lonely, but not entirely alone. For a few younger Tory members of Parliament held similar views about the German threat, though they did not necessarily agree with Churchill on other issues. The odds were against them, and in attacking their own party's leaders they put their careers at risk, but in the end they and their allies prevailed: Neville Chamberlain and his defeatist government were overthrown, opening up the room at the top that Churchill so famously filled. Lynne Olson has seized upon their wonderful but neglected story and has told it with verve."—David Fromkin, author of Europe's Last Summer

"By the time Chamberlain took chief executive power, writes Olson, his ways—and those of his Conservative whip and other lieutenants—had become un-Britishly tyrannical: He stifled the BBC and newspapers, demanded absolute loyalty of fellow party members and charged his Labour opponents with 'damaging the national interest,' if not outright treason. But, writes Olson, the 'troublesome young men' who entered the House of Commons in the 1930s were not ordinary Tories; some, like Harold Macmillan, had done frontline duty in WWI, others served poor constituencies and all hated fascism. Faced with the specter of their party leader's negotiating with Hitler to betray yet another ally—first Czechoslovakia, perhaps next Poland—these young men, ideologically closer to the Labour left than the fuddy-duddy right of their own senior leadership, began to organize a long campaign to oust Chamberlain. One, a young military officer named Ronald Cartland, was so radicalized by the Tory majority's refusal to speak up against the party's head that, by the time of Dunkirk, he was telling his allies that 'Neville Chamberlain and [Tory whip] David Margesson should be "hung upon lampposts."' It did not come to that, but, through careful and politically dangerous maneuvering, Cartland, Macmillan, Leo Amery, Anthony Eden and other rebels were finally able to force a crisis-of-confidence vote in the wake of the ill-fated Norway expedition and to replace Chamberlain with the largely unpopular Winston Churchill, who then came into his own in heading the country during WWII. History—and Churchill, for that matter—did not treat many of the 'troublesome young men' well, and most were all but forgotten in the postwar era, at least for their role in the insurgency; Olson does well in remembering their daring. A patient study of what political foot soldiers can accomplish when the need to remove an unpopular boss arises."—Kirkus Reviews

"In 1930s England, faced with the gathering menace of fascism, 30 or so junior members of Parliament understood that Hitler would not be dissuaded by Prime Minister Chamberlain's policy of appeasement. Their rebellion against their leader and the ‘elderly mediocrities' of their own Conservative Party is the subject of Olson's absorbing book. The forces opposed to Chamberlain were initially inhibited by party loyalty and the ferocious reprisals threatened against anyone who challenged the prime minister. Olson traces how Hitler's continuing depredations (Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland) served to recruit more insurgents in the House of Commons and galvanize those shamed by England's inaction. Olson's story picks up energy as she reviews the events of 1940, when at long last Chamberlain was replaced by Churchill. Olson is interested in the moral imperatives driving her protagonists. The dominant figure in the narrative, of course, is Churchill, who despised Chamberlain's defeatism but served loyally in his cabinet until Chamberlain's forced resignation. Infused with the sense of urgency felt by the young Tories, Olson's vivid narrative of a critical generational clash leaves the reader wondering what might have happened had they prevailed earlier on."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Here is the engrossing story of the British Tory dissidents, upper-class MPs who denounced Neville Chamberlain's attempts to mollify Hitler's ravenous territorial ambitions in pre-World War II Europe. The 'Young Rebels' despised appeasement as a diplomatic strategy and sought to remove Chamberlain from office. As back benchers, they were expected to tow the Conservative Party line strictly enforced by Chamberlain and his Tory whip, David Margesson. Yet Ronald Cartland, Harold Macmillan, Bob Boothby, Harold Nicolson, and their like-minded colleagues risked political suicide in their frustrating attempts to oust Chamberlain and to make Winston Churchill prime minister. It was only after the outbreak of hostilities and the dual defeats in Norway and France that their concerns finally gained traction: Chamberlain stepped down and the indomitable Churchill became England's leader, vindicating the Young Rebels. Olson does a superb job of capturing the smoked-filled, whiskey-soaked ambience of British politics and the web of personal relationships involved. While not sympathetic to Chamberlain's diplomatic strategy, she does convey the complexities of developing an effective foreign policy in a parliamentary government. Olson has crafted a seamless narrative that flows from primary and secondary sources and is a worthy addition to all World War II collections."—Jim Doyle, Library Journal

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They were schooled at Eton and Harrow, Cambridge and Oxford. They lived in Belgravia and Mayfair and spent their weekends at sprawling country houses in Kent, Sussex, and Oxfordshire. They were part of the small, clubby...

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  • Lynne Olson

  • Lynne Olson, former White House correspondent for The Sun (Baltimore), is the author of Freedom's Daughters, and co-author, with her husband, Stanley Cloud, of A Question of Honor and The Murrow Boys. She lives in Washington, D.C.