â€˜Anglo-Italian Relationsâ€™, Sargent, 3 Nov 1936, FO 371/20412/R6642/226/22, min-
utes; Drummond to FO, tel 695, 16 Nov 1936, FO 371/20412/R6867/22, minutes.
194 Britain, Soviet Russia and the Versailles Order
much in favour of this idea, and also concerned about the possibility of
Italyâ€™s joining the Anti-Comintern Pact:
From the purely defence point of view it is not too much to say that, if it is
impossible to prevent the formation of an anti-Russian block comprising the
three powers mentioned above, it is essential that the British Empire does not
become involved in hostilities on the side of Russia.124
The latter fear derived from concerns that Britain might be drawn into a
war in Europe. Should Germany attack France, and should Soviet
Russia and Britain both support that country, â€˜we may find ourselves
engaged in assisting Russia to defeat Germany or in other words co-
operate with Russia to reduce Germany and possibly the rest of Europe
to Bolshevismâ€™.125 The reach of the Anti-Comintern Pact was potentially
On 4 December, the Far Eastern Departmentâ€™s view of the Anti-
Comintern Pact was ready.126 The pact was seen as resulting from the
Japanese military and the Nazi Party each having outflanked its foreign
office.127 The Japanese required a â€˜â€śbig friendâ€ťâ€™ in Europe to â€˜obtain
some reinsurance against the USSRâ€™. Because of Soviet Russiaâ€™s military
strength in the Far East, the Far Eastern Department saw the pact as
â€˜thoroughly ill-advisedâ€™ for Japan. First, rather than improving Japanâ€™s
position against Soviet Russia, it â€˜irritated rather than frightenedâ€™
Moscow.128 Second, it could not â€˜fail to give an impetus to Russian
armamentsâ€™. Third, it was likely to increase efforts to infiltrate commun-
ists into the areas of the Far East that Japan wished to control. Finally, it
â€˜must . . . tend to bring Great Britain and the United States closer
together in the Far Eastâ€™, to Japanâ€™s detriment. The Germans had hoped
to do two things: to gain an ally against Soviet Russia and to use the pact
as a lever to force Britain to join with them in an anti-communist bloc.
The latter was unlikely, for the pact â€˜has done little to persuade this
country that an anti-communist crusade is either desirable or necessaryâ€™.
Therefore, the results for Britain were unpleasant but not fatal. Since
the â€˜suspicion of Japanese policy and Japanese designs becomes mixed
Adm to FO, 21 Nov 1936, FO 371/20412/R4974/226/22, minutes.
â€˜Imperial Conference 1937 â€“ Chiefs of Staff Review of Imperial Defenceâ€™, JIC 16, 17
Nov 1936, Cab 56/2.
This and the following paragraph, except where indicated, are based on untitled memo,
secret, FED (with ND and CD), 4 Dec 1936, FO 371/20286/F7504/303/23. The text
of the pact likely was obtained from code-breaking (Best, Britain, Japan and Pearl
For Germany see John P. Fox, Germany and the Far Eastern Crisis 1931â€“1938. A Study in
Diplomacy and Ideology (Oxford, 1982), 175â€“208; for Japan, Carl Boyd, â€˜The Berlinâ€“
Tokyo Axis and Japanese Military Initiativeâ€™, MAS, 15, 2 (1981), 311â€“38.
Clive to FO, tel 368, 12 Dec 1936, FO 371/20286/F7650/303/23.
Soviet Russian assertiveness 195
up with suspicion of German policy and German designsâ€™ due to the
Anti-Comintern Pact, â€˜a new disquieting factor [had been] introduced
into international politicsâ€™. More directly, Soviet Russia had immediately
announced a new naval building programme, which would affect
German construction plans and endanger the Anglo-German Naval
Agreement.129 However, the likelihood of increased Russo-Japanese
tension and a possible warming of Anglo-American relations made the
Anti-Comintern Pact much less unpalatable than would otherwise have
been the case.130
The Foreign Office continued to explore the details of the Anti-
Comintern Pact.131 However, of much greater significance was the future
of Franco-Soviet relations, something also entwined with British defence
policy. On 8 December, Vansittart warned the prominent French right-
wing politician Paul Reynaud that advocating transforming the Franco-
Soviet Pact â€˜at least to some extent into the reality which at present it is
notâ€™ would have a â€˜mixed receptionâ€™ in Britain and be seized upon by the
Germans as their excuse for not joining the five-power talks.132 Reynaud
took Vansittartâ€™s point, but added that Soviet support was needed be-
cause Britainâ€™s â€˜military powerâ€™ was â€˜practically non-existentâ€™.133 Eden
rejected this assertion â€“ â€˜What rubbish!â€™ he wrote in the margin. He
argued that the Royal Navy was â€˜by far the bestâ€™ in Europe and the Royal
Air Force would be better than its French equivalent in 1937, although
he conceded that the army â€“ â€˜never a principal factor in British aidâ€™ â€“ was
not up to the standards of 1914. But this latter point was the key.
Vansittart pointed out that the French â€˜count, & always will count, on
us for a substantial supply of ground-troopsâ€™ and that, if Britain were
unable to provide them â€˜we shall not be able to keep on close terms with
the French â€“ and so shall drift toward isolationâ€™.134 Here, the PUS was
Craigieâ€™s (15 and 19 Dec) and Oliphantâ€™s (9 and 17 Dec) minutes on Chilston to FO,
disp 683, 1 December 1936, FO 371/20344/N6018/58/38; minutes on Adm to FO, 9
Dec 1936, FO 371/371/20354/N6142/5205/38; arms-limitation context is in Greg
Kennedy, â€˜Becoming Dependentâ€™.
Intimate Anglo-American discussions of the pact and Japanese initiatives soon
followed; see Cadoganâ€™s conversations with Ray Atherton (counsellor, US embassy,
London), 17 Dec 1936, FO 371/20286/F7926/303/23, and 13 Mar 1937, FO 371/
21029/F1633/28/23; Cadogan diary entry, 16 Dec 1936, Cadogan Papers, ACAD 1/5.
Chilston to Orde, 28 Dec 1936, FO 371/21828/F26/26/23; Chilston to Orde, 25 Jan
1937, FO 371/21828/F634/26/23.
Vansittartâ€™s talk with Reynaud, 8 Dec 1936, FO 371/19916/C8892/4/18, Edenâ€™s mar-
ginalia and minute (nd, but c. 10 Dec), Vansittartâ€™s minute (11 Dec); Peter Jackson,
France and the Nazi Menace, 236â€“7.
Likely prompted by pressure from the French Communist Party to put military teeth in
the Franco-Soviet Pact: Charles (Brussels) to FO, tel 64 saving, 16 Dec 1936, FO 371/
Based on archival sources in n. 133.
196 Britain, Soviet Russia and the Versailles Order
opposing Neville Chamberlainâ€™s attempt in the Cabinet to limit the size of
the British army in any potential role on the continent.135 The result of the
chancellorâ€™s effort, Vansittart warned Eden, was that it would be â€˜impos-
sible . . . to retain any continental confidenceâ€™ in the value of Britain as an
ally; Britain risked â€˜receding into impotent isolationâ€™.136 But Vansittartâ€™s
advice was so unpalatable that Eden made yet another attempt to send the
PUS to Paris.137
Frustrated by the direction of policy and worried about his own
position, Vansittart penned a long memorandum outlining his views on
â€˜The World Situation and British Rearmamentâ€™, and circulated it to
Hankey, Chatfield and the various departments in the Foreign Office.
It was partly a reiteration of his anti-German DRC position. However, it
was also a comprehensive examination of British strategic foreign policy
and the problems facing it, which meant that Soviet Russia was never far
from the PUSâ€™s thoughts. In the Far East, Vansittart argued that, due to
the increased strength of the Soviets, the Japanese had â€˜now lost any
stomach for armed adventure against Russia, save with iron companions
and golden opportunityâ€™. This â€˜deadlockâ€™ was to Britainâ€™s advantage, and
â€˜any easement is to our lossâ€™, for, if the Japanese became convinced that
Soviet Russia were impenetrable, â€˜the aside of southward aggression
[against British interests] may be as likely drama as an attack on bristling
Russia despite the doctrinal mouthings of mid-stageâ€™. Vansittart argued
that the significance of the Anti-Comintern Pact was that it â€˜clearly . . .
introduce[d] Japan into the orbit of European affairs at a particularly
delicate and dangerous phase, and . . . increase[d] the probability that, in
given circumstances, Germany and Japan would now act togetherâ€™.
What might this mean for Soviet Russia? Vansittart had several
thoughts. The first was that the Anti-Comintern Pact
may have the effect of containing and paralysing Russia in the event of German
aggression in Europe . . . on the other hand, it cannot be assumed that the
arrangement is such as to preclude the prospect of further detente between Russia
Minutes, Cab 75(36), 16 Dec 1936, Cab 23/86; â€˜The Role of the British Armyâ€™, CP
336(36), N. Chamberlain, 11 Dec 1936, Cab 24/265; Vansittartâ€™s minutes (14 Dec) in
FO 371/19882/C9094/6761/62 and FO 371/19882/C9096/6761/62. This was part of
an ongoing debate about possible Belgian neutrality: Brian Bond, British Military Policy
Between the Two World Wars (Oxford, 1980), 232â€“42; Peter Dennis, Decision by Default.
Peacetime Conscription and British Defence 1919â€“1939 (London, 1972), 81â€“99.
His minute (8 Jan 1937) on CP 2(37), â€˜The Role of the British Army and Its Equip-
mentâ€™, CP 2(37), Duff Cooper, Cab 24/267, FO 371/2071/C205/205/62.
Hankey to Phipps and reply, 23 and 29 Dec 1936, Phipps Papers, PHPP 3/3; Eden to
Baldwin, 27 Dec 1936 and 8 Jan 1937, Avon Papers, AP 13/1/48H and AP 14/1/641B;
Cadogan diary entry, 11 Jan 1937, Cadogan Papers, ACAD 1/6. Vansittart lobbied
Baldwin to remain as PUS; see Michael Roi, Alternative to Appeasement. Sir Robert
Vansittart and Alliance Diplomacy, 1934â€“1937 (Westport, CT, 1997), 137â€“8.
Soviet Russian assertiveness 197
and Japan. On this treacherous and speculative position we can but keep a close
watch; and our only security will be the quick completion of the Singapore base
and a strong fleet.
The second was the possibility that Soviet Russia, â€˜still a merchant of
â€śdangerous thoughtsâ€ťâ€™, might move â€˜toward the hoity-toity, if not splen-
did, isolation with which at intervals she threatens the Westâ€™. The PUS
also believed that Germanyâ€™s anti-Bolshevik crusade was â€˜one of the
best-staged feints in historyâ€™ and that there were substantial forces that
favoured a rapprochement between the two states. Thus, although the
Franco-Soviet Pact as it stood at present was â€˜still a scarecrow stuffed
with straw . . . politically it offers scope for dark sayings on dark nights,
and politically all Germans are determined to lynch itâ€™. This was the
German view, but â€˜Russia, in fact, is not at present tempted. The itch is
in some German and not Russian palms; but its presence in hands now
loudest to applaud any hostile reference to the Franco-Soviet Pact
measures the sincerity of the cry.â€™
For the PUS, Spain was a dangerous sideshow. He hoped that the
struggle might push Italy and Germany apart. His position on the
struggle itself was not shaped by ideological considerations, but by
It is ironically true that . . . the victory of the Right would be no worse for us than
the victory of the Left â€“ a very extreme Left â€“ which would spread a dividing and
disintegrating contagion into France and from France to ourselves, and would so
alter the European kaleidoscope as to present Germany with hegemony ready
made. On the other hand, if Franco wins, the now combined weight of the two
larger autocrats . . . will be too great for him . . . We shall then be faced by at least
a temporarily working combination of dictators, major, minor and minimus.
In line with this, Vansittart castigated the â€˜Soviet government, which
seems lately bereft of statesmanship or even card-sense, . . . [as being]
largely responsible for making Spain the scene and cause of the bloodiest
form of that very ideological struggle that we are seeking to preventâ€™.
Vansittartâ€™s advice remained what it had always been: the need to make
â€˜a really impressive display of strength on our partâ€™ and to work hard on
â€˜manufacturing Timeâ€™, at least until 1939 when rearmament might allow
Britain to â€˜breathe with even comparative relief, although much will
remain to be taken in handâ€™. How to manufacture time? Vansittart
advocated keeping the German â€˜tiger sweetâ€™ for two years with colonial
and tariff concessions. But the PUS also emphasized the need to explain
the British actions very carefully, lest sweetening the tiger be mistaken
for weakness and appeasement, especially in the United States: â€˜any
unwise assistance to potential men of prey would alienate Franklin
198 Britain, Soviet Russia and the Versailles Order
Roosevelt the Second â€“ who may be a person very different from
Franklin Roosevelt the First â€“ and so compromise any chance that we
might have of finding a way round the disaster of the American neutrality
The views of Hankey and Chatfield on this document are instructive.
The former attributed the bulk of Britainâ€™s woes to two things: the deplor-
able state of its armaments and the difficulties involved in â€˜our strong
adherence to the ideals of the League of Nations, disarmament and the so-
called collective securityâ€™. Hankey advocated using foreign policy to avoid
war. This required being â€˜more cautious in our League of Nations
policy . . . . We ought to place our interests before the idealism of the
Covenant.â€™ Of the four possible policy alternatives â€“ co-operation with the
â€˜Dictator Powersâ€™, the â€˜encirclementâ€™ of Germany, a â€˜defensive alliance
with Franceâ€™ and â€˜to remain â€śon the hedgeâ€ť, as friendly as possible with
allâ€™ â€“ Hankey championed taking the latter, â€˜even if it is not very heroicâ€™.
His rejection of the other alternatives spoke directly to Soviet Russia.
Co-operation with the dictators might improve relations with Germany,
but, as for those who argued â€˜that Russia, with its sinister propaganda, is
more dangerous than Germany, that France is falling under Russian
influence to a dangerous degree, and that Germany is the main protec-
tion against Bolshevismâ€™, Hankey was dismissive. Such arguments, he
contended, were â€˜cynical, selfish . . . out of keeping with the spirit of the
times and not likely to prove acceptable to the British peopleâ€™. Hankey
did not favour an â€˜encirclementâ€™ of Germany via alliances. His reasons
included his distrust of Soviet Russia. â€˜Italy and Russiaâ€™, he wrote,
â€˜would be unreliable members. Russia might even be foremost in pro-
voking a rupture and then standing out, with the object of promoting the
extension through the warring nations of the principles of the Third
International.â€™ Besides, it â€˜would be very difficult to induce our own
people to accept such a commitment or to fulfil it if the occasion arose in
Central or Eastern Poland. The policy would put a great strain on the
Chatfield took a more pessimistic view.140 Earlier in December,
at meetings of both the COS and CID, he had emphasized Britainâ€™s
â€˜The World Situation and British Rearmamentâ€™, most secret, Vansittart, 31 Dec 1936,
FO 371/20467/W18855/18355/50, original emphasis.
â€˜The World Situation and Rearmament. Some remarks on Sir Robert Vansittartâ€™s
Memorandumâ€™, Hankey, 21 Dec 1936, Cab 21/541.
The remainder of this paragraph, except where indicated, is based on â€˜Anglo-German
Naval Treatyâ€™, Chatfield, 25 Dec 1936, FO 800/394. Internal evidence makes clear that
this is Chatfieldâ€™s response; the more aptly titled versions (â€˜Notes by the First Sea Lord
on Sir Robert Vansittartâ€™s Memorandum on the World Situation and Re-armament,
Soviet Russian assertiveness 199
â€˜present unpreparedness for warâ€™ and called on the Foreign Office to
â€˜diminish our chances of getting involvedâ€™.141 Now, the Chief of the
Naval Staff argued that Britain had â€˜no friends we can trustâ€™. Yet Britain
was threatened both in Europe and in the Far East. â€˜To fight two such
wars is really something we should not contemplateâ€™, he wrote, â€˜[i]t must
not happenâ€™. His solution was simple, and in line with what he had
argued at the DRC. The greatest calamity would be â€˜to be involved in
war with Japan before Germany has struck her blowâ€™, because this would
mean that Germanyâ€™s â€˜line of attack would be taken without regard to us
and might well be initially in the west of Europeâ€™. Therefore, an â€˜under-
standingâ€™ with Japan was needed. Even this would not â€˜give us the right
to be involved in war in Europe because it would not stand the strainâ€™.
Instead, a Japanese arrangement would support Hankeyâ€™s policy of
hedge sitting, with the provision that Britain would go to war in Europe
only for its â€˜vital interestsâ€™. These Chatfield defined as an attack on
â€˜France, Belgium or Holland. If Germany, realising this, tries to expand
to the South East, we must accept it. Europe must work out its own