Only consideration of Europe prevented this suggestion from being
Sovietâ€“Japanese tensions were particularly valuable, since the British
suspected that Japanâ€™s future policy might push it southwards. As
Vansittart had argued continually, southward expansion by Japan was
felt most likely to occur when Britain was involved in a European war.
This â€˜disquietingâ€™ likelihood was also linked to Japanese attempts to
get on better terms with Moscow since, as Ashton-Gwatkin noted, a
Japanese â€˜preoccupation in Manchuria and N. China together with
anxiety about a now much stronger Russia are still the principal checks
on Japanese ambitions in the South: together with a diminishing fear of
The relationships between Britain, Japan and Soviet Russia in the Far
East continued to be complex. Events kept them so. First, in April, the
Japanese continued to offer an olive branch to Britain, an offer that the
Soviets deprecated.30 Second, the Soviets also were suspicious (and
concerned) that Germany and Japan might sign an alliance.31 Finally,
the British loan discussions with Soviet Russia worried the Japanese.
This gave London a â€˜shadowy & at present a toothless assetâ€™ that could
be â€˜dangle[d] in front of the Japanese (& possibly also the Russians) until
we can put teeth into itâ€™. Vansittart was depressed by this state of affairs:
â€˜But this perpetual making of bricks without straw is a heartbreaking task
for any FO in the long run. A pretty task successive governments have
imposed on us for the last decade.â€™ Eden was more practical. His
remarks illuminate his concept of policy. â€˜I agreeâ€™, he wrote, â€˜but our
commitments are today so vast that in a rapidly re-arming world we
cannot hope to have straw enough ever to make all the bricks that would
be needed to carry out the policy declared at Geneva by my predecessor
last September. We must therefore limit our commitments.â€™32
Edenâ€™s means of doing so was to talk to the Germans. This frustrated
and annoyed the Soviets.33 At the Foreign Office, there were many who
resented this Soviet attitude. Sargent was bitter about Moscowâ€™s at-
tempts to put pressure on the French government. In his view, the
Paragraph based on and quotations from Clive to FO, disp 114, 11 Mar 1936, FO 371/
Clive to FO, disp 194, 8 Apr 1936, FO 371/20279/F2493/89/23, minutes.
Minutes, Clive to FO, disp 219, 23 Apr 1936, FO 371/20285/F2763/303/23.
Thyne Hendersonâ€™s minute (c. 20 May) on Clive to FO, private and confidential, 22
Apr 1936, FO 371/20279/F2372/89/23. Eden was referring to Hoareâ€™s efforts to stiffen
the French: Peters, Eden, 129â€“32.
Peters, Eden, 186â€“202; Jonathan Haslam, The Soviet Union and the Struggle for Collective
Security in Europe 1933â€“1939 (London, 1984), 98â€“102.
174 Britain, Soviet Russia and the Versailles Order
â€˜extreme Leftâ€™ in France were â€˜of course in the pockets of the Bolsheviks
and are playing the Russian game, no doubt with the help of Russian
moneyâ€™.34 From Moscow, Chilston commented on the â€˜smug provinci-
alityâ€™ of the Soviet coverage of the Rhineland crisis and the â€˜furious
[Soviet] indignation with His Majestyâ€™s government for attempting to
deal with the problem on its own merits rather than as an object-lesson
for the enemies of the Soviet Unionâ€™.35
There was also speculation about what the Soviets might do militarily,
conjecture resulting from rumours that Soviet aircraft had flown to
Prague in response to the Rhineland crisis.36 While the Soviets termed
this rumour a â€˜complete canardâ€™, Vansittart insisted that â€˜we must get to
the bottom of thisâ€™, in order to prevent the Germans from using it as
justification for their actions.37 At the War Office, the rumours generated
a long analysis of Soviet policy. That department believed that, â€˜other
things being equal, Russia does not want war at the present timeâ€™.
However, as Moscow was â€˜terrified of Germany and convinced that it
is only a matter of time before she attacks herâ€™, the Soviets might launch
a pre-emptive assault against the Nazi regime. While it was â€˜widely
believedâ€™ that Japan would attack Soviet Russia whenever the latter
was â€˜committed to war in the Westâ€™, the War Office contended that
Tokyo might not do so if Moscow took the initiative against Germany.
The conclusion showed clearly the War Officeâ€™s distrust of the Soviets:
(i) The present crisis in Europe has presented Russia with the opportunity of
acquiring dazzling prizes at a minimum of risk. It is, therefore, all to her
advantage that Germany should be induced to adopt a truculent attitude and
be mobbed by the rest of Europe.
(ii) The use of Czechoslovakian aerodromes by Russian aircraft would almost
certainly induce Hitler to take desperate measures. Even the rumour of any such
intention might appreciably help to keep the European pot a-boiling.
(iii) It is therefore probable that the Soviets have themselves put a rumour into
circulation. They are past masters at this sort of game.
(iv) The moral to be drawn by us is: â€“ â€˜Watch Russia.â€™
Collier disagreed. He believed not only that the Germans had started the
rumour for their own ends, but also that the War Officeâ€™s â€˜memorandum
Sargentâ€™s memo (19 Mar) on Clerk to FO, tel 146, 18 Mar 1936, FO 371/19894/
Chilston to FO, disp 190, 24 Mar 1936, FO 371/19898/C2422/4/18.
Rumoured, FO to Chilston, tel 31, 14 Mar 1936, FO 371/19892/C1887/4/18, and
reply, tel 32, 15 Mar 1936, FO 371/19892/C1897/4/18, minutes.
Vansittartâ€™s minute (c. 25 Mar 1936) on Phipps to FO, tel 59, 23 Mar 1936, FO 371/
Soviet Russian assertiveness 175
bristles with doubtful statementsâ€™.38 Despite varying interpretations, one
thing was not in doubt: the episode reinforced the War Officeâ€™s earlier
rejection of the Foreign Officeâ€™s Far Eastern policy.
Throughout April and May, the British continued to look for a wider
settlement with Germany. The Soviets were irritated. On 28 April,
Maisky told Eden that Moscow was â€˜perturbedâ€™ with the British ten-
dency to take a firm line with Italy, but to make â€˜excusesâ€™ for German
actions.39 The well-informed Soviet ambassador enquired whether the
British were planning to amend the League Covenant in order to entice
Germany to rejoin the League. Eden avoided giving a direct answer, as
this was indeed the case. To emphasize the friendly Soviet attitude
towards Britain, Maisky dangled the possibility that Soviet Russia would
be willing to â€˜co-operate in the negotiation of a naval agreementâ€™, refer-
ring to the ongoing British efforts to patch up a naval arms-limitation
pact in the aftermath of the Japanese withdrawal from the London
After the ratification of the Franco-Soviet Pact on 2 May, the Soviets
continued to pursue this carrot-and-stick policy towards the British. On
the one hand, Soviet officials attempted to draw the British closer to
Moscow.41 On the other hand, Moscow threatened that, if British dip-
lomacy continued to favour Germany, Soviet Russia would have to look
to its own devices. Collier found this Soviet attitude â€˜not surprisingâ€™,
given what he termed the â€˜almost abject overtures to Germany publicly
made from certain quarters hereâ€™.42
Much of this mixed reception of Soviet policy was tied to events
in France, where the leftist Front populaire, under the leadership of
Leon Blum, won an electoral victory in late Aprilâ€“early May. Again,
Franco-Soviet relations and the influence of the French Communists
seemed likely to impede British efforts to achieve a general settlement.43
â€˜The Soviet attitude Towards the Present crisis in Europeâ€™, MI2, WO, 27 Mar 1936,
FO 371/20376/R1983/1162/12, minute, Collier (13 May).
Eden to MacKillop (charge dâ€™affaires, Moscow), disp 247, 28 Apr 1936, FO 371/19904/
FP (36), minutes 1st meeting, 30 Apr 1936, Cab 27/622; Haslam, Struggle for Collective
Maisky to Collier, 18 May 1936, FO 371/20349/N2687/307/38; MacKillop to FO, disp
289, 18 May 1936, FO 371/20349/N2731/307/38.
MacKillop to FO, disp 291 important, 19 May 1936, FO 371/20349/N2733/307/38,
Collierâ€™s minute (22 May). These â€˜quartersâ€™ included Baldwin: see Thomas Jones to
Abraham Flexner (director, Institute of Advanced Studies, Princeton), 23 May 1936, in
T. Jones, A Diary with Letters 1931â€“1950 (London, 1954), 209.
Martin Thomas, Britain, France and Appeasement. Anglo-French Relations in the Popular
Front Era (Oxford, 1996), 55â€“6. There were mixed opinions about whether the French
Communists were working to undermine French power: minutes on all of Phipps to
176 Britain, Soviet Russia and the Versailles Order
On 14 May, Hitler conflated the ratification of the Franco-Soviet Pact
and Blumâ€™s victory to argue that this would â€˜dragâ€™ France â€˜down into the
Bolshevist pitâ€™.44 The German leader then dilated on how this made any
suggested general settlement impossible, as â€˜France has â€śbrought back
Russia into Europeâ€ťâ€™. A day later, Blum surprised Eden by telling the
foreign secretary that Soviet Russia favoured a Western European Pact,
but that he, himself, favoured â€˜a Locarno which would apply to Europe
as a wholeâ€™.45 Wigram worried about Blumâ€™s lack of understanding of the
Soviet position, but both he and Vansittart also rejected Hitlerâ€™s argu-
ments. â€˜We shall have to go on with exploration [of an Anglo-German
general settlement]â€™, the PUS noted, â€˜though without illusions.â€™46 Eden
saw a silver lining. Continued negotiations would at least â€˜make it more
difficult for Herr Hitler to take refuge in evasionâ€™.47
Collier was in the midst of this debate over how Moscow affected
British policy. At the end of May, the Soviets argued that any Anglo-
German rapprochement would cause the formation of a bloc of those
powers opposed to Germany. When Collier noted that â€˜Luckily for
Anglo-Russian relations the prospect of an Anglo-German agreement
is rapidly receding!â€™, Wigram was not impressed. â€˜[I]t might with some
justice be observedâ€™, the head of Central Department sniffed, â€˜that it
augurs ill for the future of Anglo Russian relations that it should in any
way be necessary to base them on discord or lack of agreement between
Britain and some third Powerâ€™. Collier fired a broadside at his opposite
number, pointing out the obvious linkage:
It is an inevitable consequence of German policy towards Russia. If we are friends
with Germany without changing that policy, we cannot expect to be friends with
Russia. One might almost as well expect us to be friends with Italy and loved by
Opinions within the FO were divided over the place of Soviet Russia.
FO, tel 190, 12 Jun 1936, FO 371/19857/C4255/1/17; Clerk to FO, tel 132, 15 Jun
1936, FO 371/19857/C4319/1/17; Clerk to FO, disp 833, 27 Jun 1936, FO 371/19857/
Phipps to Eden, tel 175, 14 May 1936, Phipps Papers, PHPP 1/16.
Edenâ€™s conversation with Blum, 15 May 1936, FO 371/19880/C3693/92/62, minute,
Wigram (18 May).
Their minutes (15 and 17 May) and Edenâ€™s (18 May) on Phipps to FO, tel 179, 15 May
1936, FO 371/12205/C3677/4/18.
Eden was more determined and optimistic than his officials about German negoti-
ations: minutes, Wigram (27 May), Sargent (28 May), Vansittart (1 Jun) and Eden (5
Jun 1936), all FO 371/19906/C3879/4/18.
MacKillop to FO, tel 9 saving, 26 May 1936, FO 371/20349/N2828/307/38, minutes,
Collier (29 May), Wigram (4 Jun) and Collier (2nd, 7 Jun), original emphasis.
Soviet Russian assertiveness 177
The discussion of the wider ramifications of a deterioration in Anglo-
Soviet relations began in early June, sparked by a dispatch from Moscow
outlining recent anti-British remarks in the Soviet press. Collier saw
wider implications. He did not agree with the Soviet assumption that
Anglo-German relations were getting closer to the detriment of Soviet
interests. However, he was not, he told the British charge dâ€™affaires in
Moscow, confident of Britainâ€™s â€˜invulnerability to Soviet hostility â€“ in
Asia at any rateâ€™. And he noted with regard to the Far East, â€˜we are
rapidly becoming more vulnerable to the Japanese menace than are the
Soviet Government â€“ if indeed we have not become so alreadyâ€™.49 This
spoke directly to the state of affairs in that region. Throughout May, the
Soviets had criticized Japanâ€™s aggression, and border incidents between
the two countries were endemic.50 The Japanese had continued to seek
better relations with Britain, making clear their desire for Londonâ€™s
support against Soviet Russia. The British remained suspicious of
Japanese motives, wondering â€˜[s]hall we not merely be next on the menu
if we help Japan to beat Russia?â€™ But the proper British policy was not
evident, for, on the other hand, â€˜we do not wish to see Russia crush Japan
because that would bring us back to the pre-war Russian menace to
India & possibly Europe also, with the new & insidious weapon of
Communist agitation in Russiaâ€™s armouryâ€™.51 Prudence dictated
remaining neutral and extracting such benefits as could be found in
Russo-Japanese hostility. And this was closely tied to China.
On 19 June, before departing from China for Tokyo, Leith-Ross had a
farewell interview with Chiang Kai-shek. At it, the Chinese Nationalist
leader raised the possibility of a â€˜Sino-Soviet allianceâ€™ and â€˜some sort of
arrangement which would approximate to a Far Eastern regional pactâ€™.
In the Far Eastern Department, Thyne Henderson was sceptical about
the possibility, citing the â€˜classic reluctance of the Soviet Government to
be dragged into wars, except for the protection of the USSR or of Outer
Mongoliaâ€™. He went on to note the close linkage between Europe and the
Far East. â€˜I am inclined to doubtâ€™, he wrote, â€˜whether with their [Soviet]
European pre-occupations they would raise a finger to prevent the over-
running of China by Japan in a conjuncture which in no way involved
Russian interests.â€™ As to a multi-lateral pact, he was dismissive. This
MacKillop to FO, disp 310, 30 May 1936, FO 371/20340/N2957/20/38, minutes, esp.
Collier, 10 Jun and Collier to MacKillop, 11 Jun 1936.
MacKillop to FO, disp 264, 4 May 1936, FO 371/20263/F2610/573/10; MacKillop to
FO, disp 294, 22 May 1936, FO 371/29287/F2930/553/23.
Clive to FO, disp 232, 30 Apr 1936, FO 371/20279/F3115/89/23, Thyne Hendersonâ€™s
minute (6 Jun); Clive to FO, disp 275, 21 May 1936, FO 371/20279/F3476/89/23;
Clive to FO, tel 182, 13 Jun 1936, FO 371/20277/F3417/3390/10.
178 Britain, Soviet Russia and the Versailles Order
would â€˜be of small value without Americaâ€™, and Washingtonâ€™s participa-
tion was â€˜doubtfulâ€™.52 Collier regretfully agreed. The Foreign Office was
not, however, under any illusions about Japanese intentions towards
British interests in the Far East. In mid-June, Vansittart tied the
European, Far Eastern and Soviet aspects together in a minute on an
ominous dispatch from Tokyo. â€˜The Japaneseâ€™, the PUS observed, â€˜are
going south as soon as the Germans go east â€“ or west.â€™53
Over the summer of 1936, several things affected Anglo-Soviet rela-
tions. First, there was Edenâ€™s continued quest for better relations with
Germany. Second, after its outbreak on 18 July, there was the Spanish
Civil War.54 Mixed in with this was the Montreux Conference, held to
reconsider the Straits Convention of Lausanne.55 This was a volatile