Great nations often have two great national spirits, two internal voices between which they must choose in providential times. One will counsel looking inward, disregarding external duties, and minimizing external threats in favor of internal preoccupations. The other ties the nation’s identity and interests to international and moral duties.

America faces this choice today. That choice was incarnated into great ladies in Great Britain before World War II.

Lady Nancy Astor, born in Virginia, moved to Britain, married a wealthy titled American expatriate, and became Britain’s first woman to serve in Parliament. She’s recalled for trading reputed insults with Winston Churchill, her nemesis. Witty, fearless, and stylish, she was a social reformer who also harbored dark spirits of antisemitism and anti-Catholicism. Astor entertained lavishly at her Cliveden estate, where she and her husband constructed a sparkling salon of likeminded elite spirits.

By the late 1930s they coalesced around appeasement of Nazi Germany. Astor and her kindred were not Nazis. But they opposed war, and they surmised that the Nazis, while not right for Britain, had restored Germany’s spirits. As to the Jews, certainly Astor and friends did not countenance cruelty. But had not the Jews by their presumptions invited a negative response? And were they not, according to Lady Astor, “Christ killers? (Astor was herself a teetotaling Christian Scientist.)  And weren’t the Nazis at least standing up to the Communists, whose Soviet patron was a far greater threat? As to her personal prejudices, Astor explained to her ally, U.S. Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, Catholic of course, that her principled anti-Catholicism should not be treated as personal. As to her attitude towards Jews, she helped future U.S. Justice Felix Frankfurter, a Jew, extract his uncle from German-occupied Austria.

The countervailing spirit to Astor was found in another aristocratic woman politician, Lady Violet Bonham Carter, the daughter of Prime Minister Asquith from World War I, and herself a fiery orator for the Liberal Party. She was a nearly lifelong friend to Winston Churchill, who had been for a time in the Liberal Party and had served in her father’s wartime cabinet. She claimed they had been virtually engaged at one point, and she was his closest female friend other than his wife. In politics and in her vision for Britain, she was a robustly kindred spirit. She believed not just in British greatness but also in Britain as a beacon of liberty. Bonham Carter embodied the observation from historian Herbert Butterfield that by WWII, the Whig tradition had become the British tradition. From the very beginning, like Churchill, she rejected any accommodation of Hitler. She ferociously denounced the persecution of the Jews as a violation of “every canon of Christian faith.”  And she led philanthropies to help victims of German occupations.

At a 1938 rally with political and religious leaders, Bonham Carter declared:  

Justice cannot rule the world armed with the scales alone. In her other hand she must hold a sword. Unless we, the free democracies of the world who are still loyal members of the League, are prepared to stand together and to take the same risks for justice, freedom and peace as others are prepared to take for the fruits of aggression, then our cause is lost, and the gangsters will inherit the earth.


We cannot isolate ourselves. Even if we wished to leave the world along the world will not leave us alone. British rearmament must not be a mere blind throw of the die of force, it must be our contribution to the great collective front against tyranny and aggression, a free man’s front which all who will may join, which none may dare to challenge.


In this country we take our freedom as much for granted as the air we breathe. We can vote as we like. We can think and believe what we like. We can say what we like in Parliament, at the Albert Hall or, if you prefer it, at the top of our voices in Hyde Park every Sunday afternoon. And it is on this diversity of thought, and its free expression, out of the best that every race and class and creed can give, that we have built up the greatest empire, the strongest and most stable constitution that exists in the world today.


Can we imagine living in a land in which free thought and speech are treachery to the state, where the human mind is sent to prison, clapped into a strait-jacket like a lunatic, in which one may not criticise a work of art, where books are read to order, written to order, burnt to order, in which to hate to order is a patriotic duty, and race may be a crime even in a helpless Jewish child, a crime to be expiated in daily suffering humiliation and degradation?


Racial persecution, class hatred, the slavery of the mind, these hideous portents, have no place among us, no place in the life and liberties of this country. And that life, those liberties we shall defend and hold, not for ourselves alone but as a trust for civilisation. Let us prove, as prove we can, that democracy, that great army that needs no uniform, is not played out, that those who love peace above all things, do not lack the will and the courage to defend it. Let us remember that the great enduring victories of all times have not been won by mercenaries or slaves, but by free men who could draw the sword of the spirit, free men united as one soul in a great cause.

In contrast, Lady Astor was largely indifferent to issues of discrimination and religious persecution. To U.S. Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, a kindred spirit, although a Roman Catholic, she described Hitler as a solution to the “world problems”  of Communism and Jewry.  She told him that Hitler must more than “give a rough time” to “the killers of Christ” before justifying “Armageddon” to save them. In 1934, Astor had wondered “that there must be something in the Jews themselves that had brought them persecution throughout the ages.” In 1937 when visiting America, she warned about the “anti-German propaganda which was being conducted in America by the Jews.”

Astor and her husband denied that their infamous “Cliveden Set” at their magnificent country house was ever intended to advance the interests of or sympathize with Nazi Germany. They were simply for realism and peace, undergird by their understanding that Germany, as a great nation, had been treated unfairly after World War I. When war came to Britain, they dutifully supported their nation and the new prime minister. But Astor rejected abstractions about freedom. Britain was simply defending itself.

Oddly, Astor is still well known while Bonham Carter is mostly forgotten, except her granddaughter is actress Helena Bonham Carter. There are several biographies of Astor, who also was featured in a 1980s miniseries, but oddly no published biographies of Bonham Carter, although her diaries are published. A statue to Astor was dedicated in her constituency of Plymouth in 2019. Some of her unfortunate views were noted at that time. But she was defended as Britain’s first sitting member of parliament and a social reformer. No doubt she merits recognition. But Bonham Carter, unlike Astor, in times of crisis spoke to the ages, before, during and after World War II, as a tireless friend to liberty and justice for all.

Each woman incarnated a spirit within their nation, and in America, perhaps in all English-speaking societies. The one advocates broadly for the liberties of our tradition that we cherish. The other counsels against abstractions and external involvements in favor of internal reforms. One is ambitious, the other is carefully protective, but in its protectiveness is often shortsighted and dangerous.

In her 1938 speech, Bonham Carter told the Jewish people: “We honor your race whose genius has given so much to the world, we reverence your faith from which our own was born; we share your suffering, we salute your courage. But there is one thing that you cannot share with us: our shame. Shame that a government of a nation that has for centuries at least called itself a Christian nation, should outrage justice, gentleness, and mercy, should violate every canon of our Christian faith.”

May Lady Bonham Carter’s spirit of justice and mercy always have the upper hand in our nation and abroad. The voice of charming Lady Astor can be seductive. But its pathways are calamitous and immoral.