The resignation of Harold B. Butler Second Director of the ILO, 1932-38 / Ivan M.C.S. Elsmark

The resignation of Harold B. Butler Second Director of the ILO, 1932-38 / Ivan M.C.S. Elsmark

Little has been written on the reason for Harold Butler’s resignation. It is not intended here to pass judgement on persons or events, but to shed some light on the cause of the conflict which developed into a serious crisis for the ILO and the Director himself.

On 28 April 1938, Butler stated in the Governing Body that, although having been appointed in 1932 for ten years as Director of the ILO, he had indicated a preference for a seven-year term; hence, he now desired “to relinquish his post”. The conventional view, as expressed by Pierre Waline, is that Butler resigned “in order to regain his freedom to become Warden of Nuffield College at Oxford”.

The same opinion is found in the obituary in the International Labour Review and many other publications. As if to emphasize this version for posterity, the official portrait of Butler at the ILO shows him in his academic gown. Closer to the actual events are Butler’s recollections The Lost Peace, David A. Morse’s Cornell Lectures and Alcock’s History of the ILO, which briefly refer to a conflict with the French Government on the nomination of the Director of the Paris Office.

 A new director of the Paris Office

The origin of the crisis was the sudden death in August 1937 of the ILO Paris Office Director, Ferdinand Maurette, whereupon this key post fell vacant. In the following months, names of various candidates were presented, none of which were retained. Already on 8 September Butler had written to Justin Godart, the French Government representative on the Governing Body, that the appointment presented a “complicated issue” and sent an aide-memoire detailing the qualifications required. On 10 September Butler met in Paris with André Fevrier, Minister of labour. He handed him a copy of the aide-memoire, emphasizing the importance of appointing a “worthy successor” to Maurette who would combine “the highest intellectual and technical attainments with an intimate knowledge of the French social and industrial world”. Essentially, the person chosen “should not be so definitely committed to any political party as to be unable to command the confidence of both employers and workers in his impartiality”. While recognizing the difficulties finding the right person the Minister suggested the ILO official Marius Viple1 as “a suitable candidate”, to which the Director remarked that he was “politically a marked man and that he did not possess several of the necessary qualifications [which] the Minister admitted”. Some other names were mentioned and discarded and it was agreed that “neither should put forward a candidate for acceptance without first consulting the other”. It seems surprising that Butler himself, neither then nor later, had no preferred candidate to recommend. This certainly placed him in a defensive position in the battle over the Paris Office.

Marius Viple had been a political journalist of Humanité and other socialist papers and served during the war in the ministerial offices of Jules Guesde and Albert Thomas. In 1920 he joined the ILO as press officer and in 1923 replaced Georges Fleury as Chief of Cabinet. Albert Thomas had great confidence in him and his “intelligence [and] political instinct” but also asked him “to cultivate a more sympathetic understanding of customs and trends of thought which may be very strange to us Frenchmen and to be somewhat more indulgent towards individuals”. At the death of Albert Thomas, he became Chief of the Information and Press Service. There seems to have been friction between Viple and Butler for a long time, and it is clear that Butler considered he “could not have confidence” in Viple who was “unfit for the post” as Paris Director.

During the month of September 1937 the negotiations accelerated. From his conversation with André Fevrier, Butler got the impression that he was open to suggestions of other candidates.

Marius Viple

However, some ten days later, the Minister of Foreign Affairs Yvon Delbos intervened, informing Butler that “the French Government wished Viple to be appointed”. The “decision had been taken at a meeting of the inner cabinet, including Léon Blum, Paul Faure and Edouard Daladier,” and the “Government attached great importance to this appointment”. Also Léon Jouhaux (French Workers’ representative on the Governing Body) firmly supported Viple’s candidature. According to Butler’s notes, Jouhaux agreed that Viple “did not possess some of the necessary qualifications” (inter alia, ability to speak in public and knowledge of economic issues), but that his “knowledge of French politics and politicians would be valuable to the Office”. Butler further pointed out that “a principle of considerable importance was at stake. If governments were to dictate appointments on political grounds it would be impossible to staff and administrate any international institution properly”, a weighty argument to this day.

 Difficult negotiations

On 29 September 1937, Butler saw Léon Blum in Geneva who also “strongly urged Viple’s claim on grounds of personal friendship, his loyalty to Albert Thomas and the desire of the French Govemment to have him in Paris”. Butler repeated what he had said to Minister Delbos and added that he “could not have sufficient confidence [in Viple] to entrust him with the responsible duty of maintaining direct relations with the French Government” and himself. Blum thought the “Government had no intentions to force [Butler’s] hand” but “hoped very much” that he “would appoint Viple”.

During the October meeting in Prague of the Governing Body, Butler took steps to consult the Chairman of the Governing Body F. W. Leggett and the employers’ Vice-Chairman H.C. Oersted on the “important principles regarding the position of the Director which was at stake”. In Geneva the ILO Assistant Director, Adrien Tixier, who had close relations with the French Government, subsequently advised Butler to “orientate his choice towards Viple”. Camille Pône, Butler’s Chief of Cabinet) also informed Pierre Waline who substituted for Alfred Lambert-Ribot (French Employers’ representative on the Governing Body) of the issue.

In reply, Lambert-Ribot wrote on 16 October that he did not consider Viple having the necessary “high qualifications and impartiality” and asked to be consulted before any appointment was made. After that, the matter was left in abeyance when Butler sailed on a Far-Eastern mission on 28 October, only returning to Geneva late in January 1938. At that time, “the atmosphere [on the French side] was very hostile” and “various threats of non-cooperation had been uttered in responsible circles”, as reported by Tixier who had paid several visits to Paris.

Butler hesitates

It seems that in the beginning of the year 1938 Butler’s resistance was wavering. What actually happened next was to become a subject of dispute. As the records provide no proof for the correctness of conflicting versions, they shall be given here in some depth to permit readers to draw their own conclusions.

According to Butler, on the occasion of the 82nd Session of the Governing Body (31 January to 5 February) he met with Lambert-Ribot who “would view Viple’s appointment with considerable reserve” and, although “he would not impose a veto, he could not in any way approve the appointment”. Butler recalls that on 5 February he saw Godart and Jouhaux together (Lambert-Ribot having already left Geneva), the former stating that “his instructions were unaltered despite change in Government”. The Director thought it ‘undesirable and contrary to all precedent to appoint a man who was not acceptable to all three groups” and would not take the responsibility for it. He suggested a meeting in Paris under the auspices of the Minister of Labour to discuss the matter “with him in the presence of all three French members of the Governing Body”. This was agreed, though Jouhaux said that “the CGT could not agree to any other candidate”.

Butler also “gave them to understand that if agreement was reached between the three parties, [he] would be disposed to make the appointment against [his] better judgement to avoid an open breach between the French Government and the Office”. On 12 February he wrote to the new Minister of Labour, Paul Ramadier that “he was disposed to accept the recommendation [to appoint Viple, but before proceeding with a nomination, he wished to have the assurance that it would be accepted by the major organizations” and thus proposed a meeting in Paris to settle the matter.

Different points of view

On the other hand Tixier gives a different version of the events. He was not a witness, and as he remarks in a confidential memo to Butler of 19 March 1938 “he never knew the details of the conversations” but referred to personal conversations at the time with Godart and Jouhaux. Both had “indicated with great satisfaction that he [Butler] had decided to nominate Viple”, but neither of them had said that this promise had been “subject to an agreement by the three parties: Government, employers’ and workers’ organizations”.

Furthermore, at a meeting with the Assistant Directors (probably on 8 February), Butler himself had “mentioned his intention to nominate Viple as the Paris Director, without mentioning that this was subject to unanimous approval”. Tixier had expressed surprise when shown a draft of the letter to the Minister of labour and had said to Pône that the “condition was not in conformity with the agreement as indicated to him by Godart and Jouhaux,” deleting the relevant paragraph. The final letter was not shown to him and he was still unaware of its contents.

Viple (an interested party) later wrote that on 3l January 1938 Butler had said to him that he “intended to deal with the question of the Paris Office clearly and within a brief delay”. There followed a “frank and loyal” exchange of views which “dispersed misunderstandings”. On 7 February at 5 p.m. Viple was again called to Butler’s office and told that he had ‘decided to nominate [him] Director of the Paris Office”, a decision “officially announced” to Jouhaux already on the morning of 5 February and on 7 February (sic) to Godart, and the following day to the Assistant Directors. Since then Viple had “never been given other communications from the Director on this matter”. To this statement, Butler commented that the “description of events was incomplete” and added that Viple had “neither the qualifications nor the knowledge to be the successor of Roques and Maurette” as Director of the Paris Office.

Had Butler at the meeting with Godart and Jouhaux been caught off balance and persuaded to accept the French demand? Did he agree and then change his mind in the course of the discussion, the meeting in Paris with the Minister being an afterthought? Did he fail to express himself sufficiently clearly, and did Godart and Jouhaux understand the significance of the proposed Paris meeting? Was it to retract his position that on 12 February he wrote to the Minister of Labour requesting a tripartite meeting, realizing that he might have mislead Godart and Jouhaux? These and other issues still remain obscure and open to interpretation.

 A difficult situation

It cannot be excluded that Butler may have realized that he (unwittingly) could have misled Godart and Jouhaux. Certainly, he later wrote to the former: “If I after all have failed to indicate clearly my position and of that reason have caused an error, I owe you my excuses, which I willingly give”. Godart’s position vis-à-vis his Minister may well have been embarrassing.

It seems evident that Butler still was presenting as his main objection the need for a tripartite consensus, hoping for a rejection by the employers to settle the issue, although his personal objection to Viple might have been the main obstacle. Certainly he was unwilling to nominate a person whom he “considered unfit for the post of Director of the Paris Office and in whom he “could not have confidence” (an argument which according to his own admission he had been reluctant to use).

Whatever had taken place at the meeting, the letter from Lambert-Ribot of 17 February gave further weight to Butler’s argument. It restated the opposition to Viple’s nomination who had “nothing but concern about politics and a man of notorious incompetence” and that he “in no way could command the confidence of the French employers”. Finally, it was suggested that Butler should take a firm position and “gain time for better-qualified candidates to present themselves”.

One must recall the extremely difficult political climate on the eve of World War II. Thus Butler strongly objected to the French demand, pointing out that “if governments of democratic countries adopted such methods, the maintenance of any independence vis-à-vis authoritarian states would become impossible”. He also considered that it was undesirable and unprecedented to appoint a person who was not acceptable to all three interest groups.

Butler may still have entertained the hope of reaching an agreement, but on 3 March 1938 the French journal Candide published a strong political attack on Viple and his supporters, Jouhaux, CGT and the Government, as well as on the ILO Paris Office and its cost to the ta:<payers, while explaining Butler’s own attitude because he was English. As Butler wrote “it was not the article itself, but its implications which opened my eyes”.

Butler came to realize “that Viple had incurred enmities who would expose him and through him the Office, to attack”. He foresaw that he “should be bound to defend [Viple]”which he *might not be able to do conscientiously, and that further bad blood was likely to be caused between the French Government and [himself]”. Even if in France the three parties “had agreed on the appointment”, Butler himself “would nonetheless be solely responsible”. On the other hand, if he did not appoint Viple, an open breach with the Government and the CGT was inevitable, an unacceptable position for the ILO vis-à-vis one of the most important and influential member States and in a period of world crisis. “Moreover, reflection convinced [him] that in any event it was impossible to recreate confidence between the French Government and [himself”. These revealing considerations are quoted from Butler’s own statement of 6 March.

There is no doubt that it was between 4 and 6 March 1938 that Butler took the decision to cancel the planned meeting in Paris with the Minister of Labour (as proposed in his letter of 12 February) and go straight to London to offer his resignation to the Chairman of the Governing Body F.W. Leggett. On the eve of his departure, he had prepared a statement on the case and the dilemma in which he found himself. On 8 March he met Leggett who persuaded him to withhold the letter of resignation because it, as Butler wrote the following day, “… at the present moment might do serious injury. If I attribute it to personal motives, as has been my intention, it might be interpreted as deserting the Office in time of need because I no longer believe in its future; if, on the other hand, I invoke the difference with the French Government it would be clear that there are serious dissentions within the ranks of the Organization”. The two Vice-Chairmen Oersted and Mertens were subsequently consulted, but the crisis was not resolved. Also Godart was informed of the action Butler had taken. On 19 March Tixier wrote a seven-page memo to Butler, setting out his view and strongly advising him to come to terms with the French Government “the support of which is indispensable” for the ILO.

Butler stands firm

If Butler hoped that the appointment of a new Minister of Labour, P. Ramadier, would change the French position he was to be disappointed. On 16 May they had a full and frank exchange of views, at the end of which Butler said that as it was “impossible for him to agree to the French proposal” he would have to resign as “the only way to avoid a serious conflict with the French Government which would be extremely harmful to the ILO”. He followed it up in a letter the next day proposing that other candidates than Viple should be considered, to which Ramadier apparently responded on 27 May, firmly maintaining the position of the Government (letter not on file). Butler wrote again on 27 May complaining of the French refusal to take the Director’s right of a free choice of his staff into account, which “if imitated by other countries, would make it impossible to manage an international institution”. To this communication the Minister reacted only on 13 August, long after the resignation of Butler had been accepted, proposing that the filling of the post of Director of the Paris Office be suspended until the end of the year, that is after the departure of Butler as ILO Director.

Also Butler’s old friend on the Governing Body Justin Godart had remained unmoved by his arguments. It seems that neither he nor the other French partners had any serious sympathy and understanding with the ILO position.

In a long letter of 17 May to Godart (his last on the subject?) Butler wrote: “You accuse me of bringing an incident of national character unto an international sphere. I wish simply to say that, by its very nature, the ILO is exclusively an international institution and any appointment of an official can be nothing but an international matter”. He again tried to justify his position hoping that it would contribute “to disperse the misunderstandings which have arisen between us”, and suggesting a meeting in Paris on 24 May, about which (if it took place) there is no record on file. Few letters between them have survived on file, but it seems clear from Butler addressing him “Mon Cher President et Ami” and signing “Bien amicalement à vous” in September 1937 to May 1938 when the “Ami” disappears and the closing becomes the formal “Je vons prie de croire, …mes sentiments les meilleurs”, that he feels disappointed and personally hurt.

Prior to the April 1938 (83rd) Session of the Governing Body, an understanding was reached by which the Viple affair should not be exposed to the public, as it would harm the image of the Organization. Instead, Butler would base his resignation on the fact that although in 1932 he had been appointed for ten years, he had then expressed a preference for a seven-year term” which by now was about to come to an end and wished to engage in other activities (viz. as Warden of Nuffield College, Oxford). In his statement to the Governing Body, he said that *in order to avoid misunderstanding, he [Butler] had arranged with the Chairman to make this statement to the Governing Body some days ago and that he had prepared it before certain unauthorized and inaccurate statements had appeared in the press”. He was asked by some of the speakers to reconsider his position and the issue was left for final decision until the following meeting of the Governing Body.

The press had obviously got wind of the conflict, and for instance The New York Times published on 29 April a detailed article on the conflict and Butler’s resignation.

To make his own position clear, Butler spoke to the staff on 9 May, quoting his statement in the Governing Body. He then refuted various erroneous motives given to his decision to resign: neither family reasons, a well-paid post in Great Britain, pushed out by Chamberlain, disagreement with the Governing Body or a violent quarrel with Phelan! Nor had he resigned to make place for Winant as his successor, and he added: “Circumstances had arisen which convinced me after very long and painful reflection that I could no longer discharge my responsibilities as they should be discharged. The position of a Director is at no time an easy one. He is naturally subject to pressures.” … ” The Director is bound to take full responsibility for all his actions. And that is the responsibility which he can only assume if he possesses a necessary minimum of freedom of decision in administrative matters and if he feels that he commands the confidence of all the principal elements which compose the Organization.” … “There are also times and occasions when to provoke a serious conflict would do more harm than good and when it is better and more elegant to withdraw silently rather than to bang the door. The present is one of these times”. Words spoken as a man of honour and responsible international civil servant; perhaps less as a politician!

Butler presented his formal resignation to the Chairman of the Governing Body on 23 May, requesting “to be released of [his] duties as from December 3lst 1938′.

At the Meeting of the Governing Body (84th Session), Private Sitting, of 3l May 1938, the Chairman of the Government group (Godart) presented a draft resolution stating that “The Governing Body decides to accept, with much regret, the resignation of the Director,” … “and further decides to proceed with the election of a Director at a special meeting on 4 June 1938”.

Harold Butler and John G. Winant in 1938

To close the chapter, two candidates presented themselves as Butler’s successor, John G. Winant and Edward J. Phelan the latter withdrawing on 3 June 1938, thus permitting the unopposed election of Winant on 4 June with 28 votes in favour and 2 blank votes.

An understanding had in fact been worked out, by which the post of Deputy Director was reestablished’ and Winant, with the blessing of the Governing Body, immediately appointed Phelan as his deputy. A new team had been created, recalling that of Albert Thomas and Butler, a leadership composed of a politician supported by an administrator.

The ILO survived the crisis unharmed and some even more fateful events with the outbreak of World War II and the collapse of the League of Nations. Butler became Warden at Nuffield College, Oxford 1938-43, Commissioner for Civil Defence and from 194246 Minister at the British Embassy in Washington. As for Viple, he did not become Director of the Paris Office.

During the war, when the ILO’s Working Centre was established in Montreal, he remained in Geneva and subsequently Phelan appointed him Assistant Director-General in January 1947.

He resigned in December 1948 as a result of his election to the Conseil de la République Française.



  1. There are references to letters and notes no longer on file. The present article is based entirely on material in the ILO Archives. I am indebted for permission to reproduce material from the ILO Archives collection and for kind assistance given by the ILO and its archivist, Mr. Remo Becci.
  2. In 1938 Butler decided to resign in order to accept an invitation to be Warden of the newly established Nuffield College at Oxford”. International Labour Review, Vol. LXIIL No.4, Generra 1951.
  3. Marius Viple (1892-1949). Appointed to the ILO 8 March 1920 as press officer and attached to the Cabinet of Albert Thomas; 11 July 1923 acting Chief of Cabinet (nominated 1 January 1924. Appointed 11 July 1932. After the death of Albert Thomas, he was appointed Chief of the Information and Press Service. During the period when the ILO Working Centre was transferred to Montreal he was in charge of the ILO Office in Geneva and relations with the Swiss Government; on 1 January 1947 appointed Assistant Director-General. Resigned in December 1948, having been elected as mernber of the French Conseil de la République; he died on 3l October 1949.
  4. The post was first occupied by Butler himself and fell vacant in 1932 on his appointment as Director. After the appointment of Phelan as a successor to John Winant, the post was not to be revived before 1951 when Jef Rens became Deputy Director-General under David .Morse.

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