Chatham House and the Lessons of History: The Royal Institute of International Affairs, Better Known as Chatham House, Celebrates Its 90th Birthday This Summer. Roger Morgan Looks at the Organisation's Original Aims and Its Pioneering Role in the Study of Contemporary History

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In May 1919 a number of British and American historians found themselves in Paris, in and around the foreign ministry at the Quai d'Orsay, with long stretches of time on their hands. Harold Temperley and James Butler from Cambridge, Alfred Zimmern and Arnold Toynbee from Oxford, Charles Webster from Liverpool and their counterparts from Harvard or Columbia had been recruited by their governments to advise on shaping the post-First World War world. In the vast and complex peace conference, they concerned themselves with disputed frontiers, the future of ethnic minorities and distant colonies and the Covenant, or rule book, of the emerging League of Nations.

While they waited for British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and US President Woodrow Wilson to conclude the critical deals, the historians and an influential group of British and American delegates met at the Hotel Majestic, where the British delegation was staying. The meeting resolved to establish an Anglo-American institute of international affairs to promote public understanding of global problems and thus, it was hoped, contribute to a more peaceful world.

The initiative created the British (later Royal) Institute of International Affairs, also known as Chatham House following its move in 1925 to the former home of the Earl of Chatham in St James's Square, London. This year the institute celebrates its 90th birthday.

Chatham House is known as a meeting place for foreign policy specialists, with discussions held under the 'Chatham House Rule': that journalists and others may use things they hear there, but must not reveal where or by whom they were said. Less well known is the fact that, from its foundation, Chatham House also devoted some of its resources to promoting the writing of contemporary history with a policy-related purpose. (The institute is financed by members' subscriptions, donations and research grants.)

At the meeting of 1919, those present had decided to produce a major and unprecedented work of contemporary history. This was to become a six-volume history of the peace conference in which the delegates were still engaged; just as they hoped the conference would bring a peaceful and stable new world, they also believed that a historical account of the making of the peace settlement would help the League of Nations and its member-governments to ensure continued peace and cooperation.

The work which appeared between 1920 and 1924 as A History of the Peace Conference of Paris, containing contributions by 50 authors and amounting to well over a million words, was planned at speed during that Paris summer of 1919. The editor was Harold Temperley, who had been an editor of the Cambridge Modern History. As he argued in the foreword to the first volume, it was essential that the contributors should have first-hand knowledge of their respective topics:

Articles written at the time by persons present at the Conference, or with an intimate knowledge of the events they describe, must reproduce much of the spirit and atmosphere in which the Conference met.

Most of the authors were American or British, but they were urged to 'regard the Conference not from Washington or from London, but from Geneva, where for the first time in world history a permanent world organisation will be established'. The aspiration that the History would help the League of Nations to maintain the peace settlement was underlined by the editorial decision that 'the text of the treaties and other documents that may be required for future reference should be appended'.

One difficulty relating to source material had to be overcome in a historical account which was meant to be 'authoritative but not official.' Most of the contributors were to write about issues they had handled officially, but their governments forbade them to quote documentary material they knew directly from their official duties. …