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A War Cabinet is a committee formed by a government in a time of war. It is usually a subset of the full executive cabinet of ministers. It is also quite common for a War Cabinet to have senior military officers and opposition politicians as members.

United Kingdom

First World War

During the First World War, lengthy Cabinet discussions came to be seen as a source of vacillation in Britain's war effort. In December 1916 it was proposed that the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith should delegate decision-making to a small, three-man committee chaired by the Secretary of State for War David Lloyd George. Asquith initially agreed (provided he retained the right to chair the committee if he chose) before changing his mind after being infuriated by an article in The Times which portrayed the proposed change as a defeat for him. The political crisis grew from this point until Asquith was forced to resign as Prime Minister; he was succeeded by David Lloyd George who thereupon formed a small War Cabinet. The original members of the War Cabinet were:

  • David Lloyd George
  • Lord Curzon of Kedleston (Lord President of the Council)
  • Andrew Bonar Law (Chancellor of the Exchequer)
  • Arthur Henderson (December 1916 - August 1917)
  • Lord Milner (December 1916 - April 1918)

Lloyd George, Curzon and Bonar Law served throughout the life of the war cabinet. Later members include:

Unlike a normal peacetime Cabinet, few of these men had departmental responsibilities - Bonar Law, and then Chamberlain, served as Chancellors of the Exchequer, but the rest had no specific portfolio. Among others, the Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, was never a member of the War Cabinet, nor were the service ministers Lord Derby and Sir Edward Carson.

From the northern spring of 1917, the Imperial War Cabinet was formed. It had representation from the Dominions. Its members were:

  • Lloyd George
  • Sir Robert Borden, Prime Minister of Canada
  • Louis Botha, Prime Minister of South Africa
  • Billy Hughes, Prime Minister of Australia
  • William Massey, Prime Minister of New Zealand
  • Jan Smuts
  • the British Secretary of State for India and other senior ministers from Britain and the dominions.

Second World War

Germany invaded Poland early on 1 September 1939, and after to-ing and fro-ing with French Foreign Minister Georges Bonnet, an ultimatum was presented to the Germans and on its expiry war was declared at 11am on 3 September 1939.

Chamberlain War Cabinet

On 3 September 1939, Neville Chamberlain announced his War Cabinet.

Dominated largely by Conservative ministers who served under Chamberlain's National Government between 1937 and 1939, the additions of Lord Hankey (a former Cabinet Secretary from the First World War) and Winston Churchill (strong anti-appeaser) seemed to give the Cabinet more balance. Unlike Lloyd George's War Cabinet, the members of this one were also heads of Government Departments.

In January 1940, after disagreements with the Chiefs of Staff, Hore-Belisha resigned from the National Government, refusing a move to the post of President of the Board of Trade. He was succeeded by Oliver Stanley.

It was originally the practice for the Chiefs of Staff to attend all military discussions of the Chamberlain War Cabinet. Churchill became uneasy with this, as he felt that when they attended they did not confine their comments to purely military issues. To overcome this, a Military Coordination Committee was set up, consisting of the three Service ministers normally chaired by Lord Chatfield. This together with the Service chiefs would co-ordinate the strategic ideas of 'top hats' and 'brass' and agree strategic proposals to put forward to the War Cabinet. Unfortunately, except when chaired by the Prime Minister, the Military Co-ordinating Committee lacked sufficient authority to override a Minister "fighting his corner". When Churchill took over from Chatfield, whilst continuing to represent the Admiralty, this introduced additional problems, and did little to improve the pre-existing ones. Chamberlain announced a further change in arrangements in the Norway debate, but this (and the Military Co-ordination Committee) was overtaken by events, the Churchill War Cabinet being run on rather different principles.[1]

Churchill war ministry

When he became Prime Minister during the Second World War, Winston Churchill formed a War Cabinet, initially consisting of the following members:

  • Prime Minister & Minister of Defence: Winston Churchill (Conservative)
  • Lord President of the Council: Neville Chamberlain (Conservative)
  • Lord Privy Seal: Clement Attlee (Labour)
  • Foreign Secretary: Lord Halifax (Conservative)
  • Minister without Portfolio: Arthur Greenwood (Labour)

Churchill strongly believed that the War Cabinet should be kept to a relatively small number of individuals to allow efficient execution of the war effort. Even so, there were a number of ministers who, though they were not members of the war cabinet, were "Constant Attenders".[2] As the War Cabinet considered issues that pertained to a given branch of the service or government due input was obtained from the respective body.

The War Cabinet would undergo a number of changes in composition over the next five years. On 19 February 1942 a reconstructed War Cabinet was announced by Churchill consisting of the following members:[3]

  • Prime Minister and Minister of Defence Winston Churchill (Conservative)
  • Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Dominions Affairs: Clement Attlee (Labour)
  • Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Commons: Sir Stafford Cripps (Labour)
  • Lord President of the Council: John Anderson (Conservative)
  • Foreign Secretary: Anthony Eden (Conservative)
  • Minister of Production: Oliver Lyttelton (Conservative)
  • Minister of Labour: Ernest Bevin (Labour)

This War Cabinet was consistent with Churchill's view that members should also hold "responsible offices and not mere advisors at large with nothing to do but think and talk and take decisions by compromise or majority"[4] The War Cabinet often met within The Cabinet War Rooms, particularly during The Blitz of London.[5]

Falklands War, 1982

Margaret Thatcher chose not to include any representation of Her Majesty's Treasury on the advice of Harold Macmillan, that the security and defence of the armed forces and the war effort should not be compromised for financial reasons.

Gulf War


War Cabinet meeting in Melbourne in 1943. Left to right: John Curtin, Sir Frederick Sheddon, Ben Chifley, 'Doc' Evatt, Norm Makin, Arthur Drakeford

At the Imperial Conference in London in 1937, the Australian government had agreed to form a War Cabinet on the outbreak of war.[7] The Full Cabinet approved the formation of the War Cabinet on 26 September 1939.[8] As neither Earle Page's Country Party nor John Curtin's Australian Labor Party would join in a coalition government with Menzies' United Australia Party,[9] the War Cabinet initially consisted of:

In November 1939, the Department of Defence was split up. Street became Minister for Army, Menzies also became Minister for Defence Coordination, and three more ministers joined the War Cabinet:

  • James Fairbairn (Minister for Air)
  • Frederick Stewart (Minister for Navy)
  • Harry Foll (Minister for Interior)[11]

Following the deaths of Fairbairn, Stewart and Gullett in Canberra air disaster, 1940 and the loss of seats in the Australian federal election, 1940 the War Cabinet of October 1940 consisted of:

  • Robert Menzies (Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Coordination)
  • Arthur Fadden (Treasurer)
  • John McEwen (Minister for Air)
  • Percy Spender (Minister for Army)
  • Billy Hughes (Attorney General and Minister for Navy)
  • Harry Foll (Minister for Interior)
  • Philip McBride (Minister for Munitions) (from 26 June 1941)[12]

The government was replaced by a Labor one on 3 October 1941. A new War Cabinet was formed, consisting of:

  • John Curtin (Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Coordination)
  • Frank Forde (Minister for Army)
  • Ben Chifley (Treasurer)
  • Doc Evatt (Attorney General and Minister for External Affairs)
  • Jack Beasley (Minister for Supply)
  • Norman Makin (Minister for Navy and Minister for Munitions)
  • Arthur Drakeford (Minister for Air)
  • John Dedman (Minister for Interior) (from 11 December 1941)[13]

Frederick Shedden, the Permanent Secretary of the Department of Defence, served as secretary of the War Cabinet,[14] which met regularly throughout the war. It held its last meeting in Canberra on 19 January 1946.[15]

United States

In response to the 11 September 2001 attacks, United States President George W. Bush created a War Cabinet. They met at Camp David on the weekend of 15 September to shape what became the War on Terrorism. The membership was mostly, but not entirely, identical to that of the United States National Security Council.

The Cabinet comprised

During the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy's EXCOMM had some characteristics of a War Cabinet.


  1. Martin Gilbert, Finest Hour, Winston S Churchill 1939-1941, Book Club Associates, London 1983 page 40
  2. Winston Churchill, The Hinge of Fate, p.78. Boston, Houghton Mifflin 1950. ISBN 0-395-41058-4
  3. Winston Churchill,The Hinge of Fate, p.76. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company 1950. ISBN 0-395-41058-4
  4. Winston Churchill, The Hinge of Fate, p.75. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company 1950. ISBN 0-395-41058-4
  5. Imperial War Museum. "The Cabinet War Rooms". Retrieved 10 March 2013. 
  6. Rouvez, Alain (1994). Disconsolate Empires: French, British and Belgian Military Involvement in Post-Colonial Sub-Saharan Africa. University Press of America. p. 196. ISBN 978-0-8191-9643-9. 
  7. Horner 1996, p. 2
  8. Horner 1996, p. 3
  9. Hasluck 1952, pp. 112–113
  10. Horner 1996, pp. 2–3
  11. Horner 1996, p. 4
  12. Hasluck 1952, p. 574
  13. Hasluck 1952, p. 577
  14. Hasluck 1952, pp. 421–422
  15. Horner 1996, p. 197


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