with Italy) must be made aware of the fact that, without an Anglo-Italian
agreement, Britain must take greater account of the Japanese. Thus,
France would not only have to defend the Mediterranean, but also to
help patrol â€˜the Home areaâ€™.135 Some felt this would be an admission of
weakness and would affect Anglo-French relations detrimentally.136 But
most believed that, if the Franco-Soviet alliance were to have teeth, and
to strengthen the British bite, then British concerns about the Far East
and defence matters generally would have to be considered, and France
would have to adjust its policy accordingly.
But Europe remained at the centre. How would Britain respond to the
Anschluss? Would Germany now threaten the rest of eastern Europe
(particularly Czechoslovakia)? And what role would Soviet Russia play?
On 17 March, Litvinov publicly offered Soviet participation in any act of
collective security. Cadogan was profoundly suspicious of Soviet mo-
tives. â€˜The Russian objectâ€™, the PUS wrote, â€˜is to precipitate confusion
and war in Europe: they will not participate usefully themselves: they will
hope for the world revolution as a result (and a very likely one, too).â€™
Vansittart, now able to comment only from the sidelines, pointed out
that the Soviet offer of aerial assistance might be of some worth.137 But
there was scepticism about both Soviet intentions and capabilities. Even
the Soviet ambassador at Rome seemed to think that the likelihood of
Soviet assistance to Prague was small, while the Czech military attache
in the Eternal City noted that his country had accepted a Soviet alliance
only â€˜because France had insisted on itâ€™.138
Once again, everything centred round the issue of whether France,
despite its commitments and alliances in eastern Europe, should be
supported. Once again, Soviet Russia was a complication. This emerged
at the Foreign Policy Committee meeting on 18 March. Halifax ob-
served that â€˜the more closely we [associate] ourselves with France and
Russia the more we [produce] on German minds the impression that we
were plotting to encircle Germanyâ€™. There were two options: either to
â€˜mobilise all our friends and resources and go full out against Germanyâ€™,
Minutes, CID, 319th meeting, 11 Apr 1938, Cab 2/7.
Halifax to Duff Cooper, 11 Apr 1938, Halifax Papers, FO 800/309.
Duff Cooper to Halifax, 11 Apr 1938, Hankey to Halifax, 12 Apr 1938, both Halifax
Papers, FO 800/309.
Maisky to Halifax, 17 Mar 1938, FO 371/21626/C1935/95/62, minutes, Cadogan (17
Mar), Vansittart (18 Mar).
Charles (Rome) to Ingram, 18 Mar 1938, FO 371/21712/C1965/1941/18.
238 Britain, Soviet Russia and the Versailles Order
or to â€˜remind France of what we had often told her in the past, namely
that we were not prepared to add in any way to our existing commit-
mentsâ€™ and to tell Paris that it â€˜must not count on military assistanceâ€™
if a war with Germany broke out over Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain
added that helping the latter country was a â€˜hopelessâ€™ task and that
it would lead to a â€˜war on Germanyâ€™,139 something for which Britain
was not yet prepared. Both men had little confidence in Soviet
Russia: Halifax was reported as being â€˜very suspiciousâ€™ of Moscow.140
Chamberlain was even more distrustful. He told his sister that he saw
â€˜the Russians stealthily and cunningly pulling at the strings behind the
scenes to get us involved in war with Germany (our Secret Service
doesnâ€™t spend all its time looking out of windows)â€™, and he denigrated
Churchillâ€™s calls from the back benches for a â€˜Grand Allianceâ€™ against
Germany as impractical.141
However, at a later meeting of the Foreign Policy Committee, the
entire policy was revisited.142 Here, the COS outlined all the problems
that going to war over Czechoslovakia would entail. But there was
opposition to telling France that Britain would not support it. Oliver
Stanley, the president of the Board of Trade, argued that to do so
would have a â€˜catastrophicâ€™ effect on France, and it was decided to
enquire in Paris about French attitudes. From the French capital,
Phipps was unequivocal. It was â€˜wiser to assume that the French
genuinely intend to fulfil their engagementsâ€™.143 What of the Soviets
and the Czechs themselves? The reports were mixed. From Berlin, the
British military attache felt that the Czechs would fight if France and
Soviet Russia did too, but he was â€˜personally doubtfulâ€™ that the French
would come in and believed that the Soviets would be â€˜unlikely to do so
effectivelyâ€™.144 Vansittart opposed this evaluation. He cited approvingly
the pro-Soviet remarks of Edouard Herriot, a major opposition political
figure in France:
Is he not right in saying that it is â€˜absurd to ignore her [Soviet Russia]â€™? Is he not
right in thinking she is a â€˜useful counterweight to Germanyâ€™? Surely everybody
recognises that political fact â€“ unless the two countries, with their not far
different systems, ultimately coalesce. And it is quite conceivable that this may
FP(36), minutes, 26th meeting, 18 Mar 1938, Cab 27/623.
Harvey diary entry, 19 Mar 1938, Harvey Papers, Add MSS 56394.
N. Chamberlain to Ida, his sister, 20 Mar 1938, Chamberlain Papers, NC 18/1/1042.
FP(36), minutes, 27th meeting, 21 Mar 1938, Cab 27/623.
Phipps to Cadogan, 24 Mar 1938, FO 371/21713/C2250/1941/18.
Newton (Berlin) to FO, 29 Mar 1938, FO 371/21714/C2340/1941/18; minutes,
Newton to Ingram (CD), 28 Mar 1938, FO 371/21714/C2361/1941/18.
Chamberlainâ€™s interlude 239
happen if we make Russia â€˜feel isolatedâ€™; and even if she only â€˜withdraws more
and more into Asiaâ€™, we and the small countries stand to be the eventual losers,
as Germany wakes.145
But Phipps was contemptuous of Herriot: â€˜He weeps . . . over red
Spain: he revels in Soviet blood baths and feels convinced they will
enormously increase the efficiency of the beloved Soviet Army.â€™146 With
such varied views, Halifax was not completely won over by Vansittartâ€™s
argument. The foreign secretary contended that â€˜[w]e should not, I
fancy[,] be assisting the chances of peace between us & Germany if we
were to â€śdraw nearerâ€ť to Russia in such fashion as to draw further away
Throughout April, the Foreign Office speculated about what Soviet
policy would be in eastern Europe, particularly with respect to Czecho-
slovakia. Vansittart counselled that Britain should not â€˜cold-shoulder the
Russians, nor drive them into isolationâ€™.148 Collier contended that, with
Soviet â€˜preoccupations . . . becoming more and more exclusively in-
ternalâ€™, the Soviets would be unlikely to observe their treaty with
Czechoslovakia by giving â€˜military assistance . . . even if the German
attack on the latter were to take the form of open and unprovoked
military invasionâ€™. Instead, the Soviets would most likely â€˜continue to
support French efforts to maintain the Little Entente and to keep the
Roumanian and Yugoslav governments from falling under German in-
fluenceâ€™.149 This view was supported by the views of the British military
attache in Moscow. Since the Red Army was viewed as being a formid-
able force only on the defensive, both Colonel R. C. W. G. Firebrace and
opinion at the Foreign Office were â€˜doubtfulâ€™, in Oliphantâ€™s words, that
â€˜it w[oul]d be used for the beaux yeux of the Czechsâ€™.150
Halifax was convinced by these views, noting on them: â€˜Let me have
this paper for [the] French discussionsâ€™, scheduled for 28â€“29 April.151 In
fact, the Foreign Office drew up a memorandum on Soviet strength
specifically for the talks. The paper concluded that â€˜for a year at least,
Minute Vansittart (7 Apr) on Phipps to FO, tel 205, 26 Mar 1938, FO 371/21612/
Phipps to Halifax, 19 Apr 1938, Halifax Papers, FO 800/311.
Minute, Halifax (8 Apr) on document in n.145.
Dalton diary entry, 12 Apr 1938, in Pimlott, Dalton Diary, 232.
â€˜What Are the Possible Effects on Soviet Policy of German Penetration into South
Eastern Europeâ€™, Collier, 7 Apr 1938, FO 371/22299/N1735/924/38.
Chilston to FO, 11 Apr 1938, FO 371/22288/N1999/97/38; Chilston to FO, disp 196,
19 Apr 1938, enclosing Firebraceâ€™s disp DO 7, 18 Apr, FO 371/22298/N1993/725/38,
minutes, esp. Halifaxâ€™s; Neilson, â€˜â€śPursued by a Bearâ€ťâ€™, 215â€“16.
The remainder of this paragraph, except where indicated, is based on â€˜Visit of French
Ministers to Londonâ€™, ns, 28â€“29 Apr 1938, FO 371/21591/C3687/13/17.
240 Britain, Soviet Russia and the Versailles Order
Soviet Russia is incapable and unwilling to fulfil Treaty obligations for
Mutual Assistance in case of war and that the Soviet Government would
run great risk of their being overthrown by so doingâ€™.152 Thus, it was
unsurprising that Halifax told the French that Soviet weakness â€˜made it
extremely doubtful whether Russia could be counted upon to make any
great contribution, if indeed she could make any contribution at all, to
the protection of Czechoslovakiaâ€™. Edouard Daladier, the new French
prime minister, dissented, but this opinion was not accepted in London.
While no one knew what were the Soviet intentions towards the coun-
tryâ€™s treaty obligations to Prague, the overall British attitude was that
â€˜[t]he point is not whether the Soviet Govt. will honour obligations but
whether they canâ€™.153
The Anglo-French talks were viewed with â€˜suspicionâ€™ in Moscow.
There were fears about the possibility of a four-power (Britain, France,
Germany and Italy) alliance and a demand for â€˜strict adherence to the
principles of collective securityâ€™.154 Britain was accused of trying to
persuade France to abandon its eastern European commitments. But
the Soviets were unwilling to â€˜commit themselves publiclyâ€™ to any
military support for Prague.155 There is little doubt that there was
substance to the Soviet concerns. The British were concerned about
the tangled connections between France, Czechoslovakia and Soviet
Russia. Halifax referred to the Czech treaty with Moscow as the â€˜greatest
difficultyâ€™ in the situation, and hoped that, if the â€˜temperatureâ€™ could be
reduced, then the Czechs might become willing to abandon the â€˜Soviet
Efforts to weaken the Franco-Soviet link were made in several venues.
In Moscow, the British charge dâ€™affaires did his best to persuade Robert
Coulondre, the French ambassador to Soviet Russia, of Soviet weakness.
Vereker told Coulondre that to accept Litvinovâ€™s and Voroshilovâ€™s as-
sessment of Soviet resolution and strength was â€˜facile optimismâ€™. Vereker
emphasized the need to be â€˜strongly realist in dealing with Russian
mattersâ€™. As far as he was concerned, â€˜even a partial military adventure
or demonstration on their [the Sovietsâ€™] part was improbableâ€™.157 In
â€˜Memorandum. Possible Opposition to Germany in case of an attack upon Czechoslo-
vakiaâ€™, ND, 26 Apr 1938, FO 371/16278/N2072/63, minutes.
Minute, Mallet (CD) on Newton to FO, tel 105, 28 Apr 1938, FO 371/21716/C3620/
Vereker to FO, disp 230, 3 May 1938, FO 371/21591/C4032/13/17; Vereker to FO, tel
22, 9 May 1938, FO 371/21591/C4284/13/17.
Minute (17 May), F. K. Roberts (CD) on Vereker to FO, tel 23, 10 May 1938, FO 371/
Halifax to Henderson, 12 May 1938, Halifax Papers, FO 800/313.
Vereker to FO, disp 248, 16 May 1938, FO 371/21720/C4656/1941/18, minutes.
Chamberlainâ€™s interlude 241
London, Halifax spoke with Paul Reynaud, the French minister of
justice, about the Franco-Soviet Pact. The foreign secretary made it
clear to Reynaud (who tended, as Phipps put it, to â€˜sing pro-Soviet
and anti-dictator . . . songsâ€™)158 just why there was a British wariness of
the pact: â€˜partly because people had a vague mistrust of Russia and
partly because they were always afraid that through the Franco-Soviet
Pact they might be in danger of being dragged into warâ€™. However,
Halifax was balanced in his account: â€˜on the other hand, a considerable
body of opinion . . . feel not less strongly that, whether we liked Russia or
not, she was yet capable of proving a valuable makeweight to German
By the end of May, the Czechoslovak crisis had temporarily abated.
Soviet Russia had decided that inaction was the best policy. In Geneva,
there were rumours that Litvinov had told Georges Bonnet, the new
French finance minister, that there could be little likelihood of Franco-
Soviet support for Czechoslovakia without first having military staff talks
between Paris and Moscow.160 While Nevile Henderson tended to
blame the entire crisis on Soviet meddling in Prague, his was a minority
(and disputed) opinion.161 More typical was the belief that the â€˜Soviets
. . . have behaved with exemplary discretion and have made no move to
encourage the Czechs or to make matters more difficultâ€™.162 This atti-
tude was attributed primarily to Soviet military weakness: Soviet Russia
â€˜will do everything possible to avoid engaging in war this year and . . .
will find any pretext to avoid the necessity of having to fulfil her engage-
ments to Czechoslovakia and Franceâ€™.163 With Soviet Russia discounted
in Europe, Chamberlain preferred to counter the German moves into
south-eastern Europe by means of the Anglo-Italian agreement, a polit-
ical loan to the Turks and a rewriting of Czechoslovakiaâ€™s treaties with
France and Soviet Russia so as to eliminate German fears of encircle-
ment, with a blithe blind-eye turned towards the effect that this might
have on Moscow.164 But, before we can deal with these issues, it is vital
to understand the situation at that moment in the Far East.
Quoted in Dockrill, British Establishment Perspectives, 98.
Halifaxâ€™s note of a conversation, 20 May 1938, FO 371/21591/C4587/13/17.
Moscow Chancery to FO, 24 May 1938, FO 371/21723/C5421/1941/18.
Henderson to FO, tel 239, parts I and II, 27 May 1938, FO 371/21722/C5063/1941/
18, minutes, Vansittart (29 May) and Sargent (nd).
Harvey diary entry, 26 May 1938, Harvey Papers, Add MSS 56394.
Vereker to FO, disp 267, 31 May 1938, FO 371/21723/C5420/1941/18.
N. Chamberlain to Ida, his sister, 28 May 1938, Chamberlain Papers, NC 18/1/1054;
Harvey diary entry, 8 Jun 1938, Harvey Papers, Add MSS 56394; minutes by Cadogan,
9 Jun, and Vansittart 10 Jun 1938, both FO 371/21725/C6039/1941/18; â€˜Possibility of
Modifying Czechoslovakiaâ€™s Treaties of Mutual Assistance with France and Russiaâ€™, FP
242 Britain, Soviet Russia and the Versailles Order
In late April, Craigie again attempted to initiate an improvement
in Anglo-Japanese relations. The ambassador argued two points: that
Britain could achieve this more easily during rather than after the Sino-
Japanese War and that British interests in North China would be dimin-
ished the longer the war continued. Sir John Brenan demolished this
argument. The latter pointed out that Craigieâ€™s contentions were based
on the assumption of a complete Japanese victory over China, an as-
sumption not shared at the Foreign Office. And, as always, all was