Ernest Bevin: Foreign Secretary

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Ernest Bevin: Foreign Secretary

By Alan Bullock
Norton, 1984
896 pp. $37.50
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This is the final volume of Lord Bullock's three-volume biography of Ernest Bevin, illegitimate child, reared in poverty, with little education, a towering figure in the trade union movement, as Minister of Labour in Churchill's wartime cabinet, and finally as Foreign Secretary under Attlee. This book is more than biography, more even than the story of Britain's policies in the immediate postwar period: it is the story of the emergence of the postwar world as seen through the work of one of the key architects of that world. It is a rare combination of a superb historical intelligence, new material (the just-opened Bevin papers, inter alia), and a fascinating subject.

Bevin, part "Palmerston in a cloth cap," part tough negotiator, realized that Britain's insolvency and the transformation of her two allies into superpowers put British interests in jeopardy, and yet he sought to prolong Britain's worldwide role, concentrating on Europe and on Anglo-American relations. In his six years in office, he confronted "as formidable a list of problems as any British Foreign Secretary had ever been called upon to face," and of these none was as formidable as the issue of Palestine, where his insistence on protecting British (hence, in his view, Arab) interests brought upon him the wrath of the Zionists and, intermittently, of Truman. Bullock handles this still controversial issue fairly and persuasively, with a historian's sense of how conflicts feed upon extraneous as well as substantive issues. Bullock's Bevin is one of the great biographies of a 20th-century figure.