Member of British Parliament
President of the Conference for the Reduction and Limitation of Armaments
Laureate of the Nobel Prize in Peace (1934)
1863 - 1935
Men and women everywhere are once more asking the old question - is it peace? They are asking it with anxiety and fear; for, on the one hand, there has never been such a longing for peace and dread of war as there is today. On the other hand, there have never been such awful means of spreading destruction and death as those that are now being prepared in well-nigh every country. To a visitor from another planet the world would present a spectacle as melancholy as it is bewildering. He would see civilization in danger of perishing under the oppression of a gigantic paradox: he would see multitudes of people starving in the midst of plenty, and nations preparing for war although pledged to peace.
- Arthur Henderson's Nobel Lecture "Essential Elements of a Universal and Enduring Peace", December 11, 1934
Arthur Henderson was born into a working class family in Glasgow on September 13, 1863. The death of his father in 1872 forced Arthur to leave school and seek work. His mother remarried, allowing him a further three years' schooling. He started an apprenticeship at an iron foundry in Newcastle-upon-Tyne at age twelve, and became a member of the Ironfounders' Union at eighteen.
Henderson married in 1888, and started his political career with his election as town councillor in 1892. This was closely followed by his appointment by the Ironfounders' Union to a district delegate position. He served on the councils of Durham and Darlington, and then became Mayor of Darlington in 1903.
His rapid rise from such humble origins, through first his union, and later his government, are an example of his strength of character, tenacity, and ability to inspire others.
Politics and The War
From 1900 onwards, Arthur was part of the Labour Party, acting variously within the party as chairman, secretary and leader.
When war broke out, he worked as President of the Board of Education and Paymaster General. He joined Herbert Asquith's war cabinet in 1915, but resigned the position in 1918 when the cabinet, under David Lloyd-George, refused Henderson's proposal to send delegates to an international conference in Stockholm, which, subsequently, was never held.
All three of Arthur's sons fought in the war, and the eldest was killed in action.
As the war concluded, Henderson turned his focus to international relations, in particular to the means of creating a lasting peace. His position within British politics offered him an excellent vantage point from which to pursue such a goal. He deliberately involved himself in post-war issues such as the Treaty of Versailles, and opposed harsh economic penalties against Germany -- while Britain went into a nationalistic fervour and demanded retribution against the invaders. Henderson's unswerving long-term viewpoint was not well received, and caused him to become somewhat unpopular with the public of Britain. However, he maintained the respect of his colleagues, and in the following years continued his attempts to establish conferences, and to promote dialogue between the victors and the defeated of the War. In 1929 he accepted the position of Foreign Secretary, and in the next two years he accomplished much, including the resumption of diplomatic relations with Russia, and significantly contributing to the granting of independent status to Egypt -- which occurred in 1936.
Arthur became increasingly involved with the League of Nations, the precursor to the United Nations. In 1931 he was appointed the president of the "Conference for the Reduction and Limitation of Armaments", also known as the "Geneva Disarmament Conference". The Conference began in February, 1932, and continued through various sittings until 1934, when Germany abandoned first the Conference, and then the League itself.
Henderson became the figurehead of the League of Nations' drive towards limitation of arms, and believed that the only way to achieve true peace would be to extrapolate the concept of the League into what he called "a World Commonwealth".
With Hitler's Germany completely disregarding the disarmament campaign, hope for a safer Europe was in short supply. It is at this time that Arthur was awarded the Nobel Price in Peace, for his determined and steadfast pursuit of sanity between nations in the face of extreme adversity.
If you'd like to know more about this admirable fellow, a good place to start would be the book Arthur Henderson: A Biography by Mary Agnes Hamilton (1938), or perhaps From Foundry to Foreign Office: The Romantic Life-Story of the Rt Hon. Arthur Henderson, M.P. by Edwin A. Jenkins (1933).
I would also recommend taking a look at the full text of Henderson's Nobel Lecture (equivalent to an acceptance speech), and the Presentation Speech by one Johan Ludwig Mowinckel of the Nobel Committee. These documents are an excellent way to gain a better understanding of the man, and also gain an intriguing perspective on the cultural climate of the times. Both are available from the Nobel website (http://www.nobel.se).
Henderson's written works include
- The Aims of Labour - London, Headley, 1917.
- Conference for the Reduction and Limitation of Armaments: Preliminary Report on the Work of the Conference - Geneva, 1936.
- Consolidating World Peace: The Burge Memorial Lecture for the Year 1931 - Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1931.
- Labour's Foreign Policy - London, Labour Party, 1933.
- Labour's Way to Peace - London, Methuen, 1935.