16th Earl of Perth

The English statesman James Eric Drummond, 16th Earl of Perth (1876-1951), was the first secretary general of the League of Nations.

Eric Drummond, Earl of Perth, was born on Aug. 17, 1876. He was educated at Eton and began his Foreign Office career in 1900. He advanced slowly but in 1906 became private secretary to Lord Edmond Fitzmaurice, the parliamentary undersecretary. Perth held this post until 1910 except for a short interval in 1908. In 1908 and again in 1910-1911, he was précis writer for Sir Edward Grey, the foreign secretary.

Perth's work with Grey was the beginning of a period extending to 1919 in which he developed close friendships with his chiefs. From 1912 to 1915 he was private secretary to Herbert Asquith, the prime minister, and then to the succession of foreign secretaries from 1915 to 1919, Grey, Arthur Balfour, and George Curzon. His ability was so highly regarded that when a candidate was needed for the position of secretary general of the League of Nations, Balfour nominated Perth.

Accepted by Georges Clemenceau of France and Woodrow Wilson of the United States, Perth became permanent head of the League. During his 14-years tenure, he set up the secretariat to provide a body of expert opinion on technical matters and to permit the delegates to concentrate on settling controversial issues. Perth was particularly active in the continuing disarmament question and in the negotiations for the admission of Germany to the League of Nations.

Perth left the League in 1933 and was appointed British ambassador to Mussolini's Italy. At Rome he attempted to represent British policy and report the Italian government's intentions in a full and fair way. He did not see all the dangers of fascism, but he was skeptical of Italy's motives. Perth did not foresee the close alliance between Germany and Italy, and he shared some of the responsibility for Britain's policy of appeasement. In his favor, Perth was always loyal to the Foreign Office; he did not support attempts by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to use irregular diplomatic channels in dealing with Mussolini. He also had a part in influencing Italy to remain neutral during the early months of World War II.

It was while Perth was in Rome, that he inherited the title of his half brother, and from Aug. 20, 1937, he was known as Lord Perth. He retired from the diplomatic service in May 1939. Later he served in the British war effort as chief adviser on foreign publicity in the Ministry of Information (1939-1940). After the war, as deputy leader of the Liberal party in the House of Lords, he spoke frequently in defense of the diplomatic corps.

Perth was married and had one son and three daughters. He died on Dec. 15, 1951.

Further Reading on 16th Earl of Perth

Perth's League of Nations career is discussed in Francis P. Walters, A History of the League of Nations (2 vols., 1952). His more controversial role of ambassador in Rome is the subject of Felix Gilbert's "Two Ambassadors: Perth and Henderson" in Gordon A. Craig and Felix Gilbert, eds., The Diplomats (1953), and in Count Galeazzo Ciano, The Ciano Diaries, 1939-1943 (1946) and Hidden Diary, 1937-1938 (trans. 1953).

Additional Biography Sources

Barros, James, Office without power: Secretary-General Sir Eric Drummond, 1919-1933, Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.