abandoning China, forgoing Britainâ€™s established position at the League
and alienating the other Powers â€“ the United States and Soviet Russia â€“
that had interests in the region. â€˜[T]he Chinese determination to resist is
strongâ€™, Brenan wrote, â€˜the army has been reorganised with German
assistance, the Russians are helping with equipment; and the recent
Chinese successes in Shantung have shown that there is a large reserve
of moral and material strength still left in the country.â€™ This all pointed
towards a â€˜stalemateâ€™, something which had many advantages. Turning
Craigieâ€™s presupposition of a decisive Japanese victory against him,
Halifax pointed out that â€˜the earlier the war ends the more likely Japan
is to be able to finance and prosecute her schemes outside China proper,
the extrusion of the Russians from the Maritime Province and the
The same arguments were used by Halifax at the Foreign Policy Com-
mittee on 1 June when he advocated helping China to obtain a loan
designed to prop up its war effort.166 However, despite Halifaxâ€™s advo-
cacy, the loan died in Cabinet.167 Using Craigieâ€™s arguments, the fears
of the COS about a three-front war and with support from Chamberlain,
Simon and the Treasury managed to block the loan unless it were made
as a joint endeavour with the United States. Thus, by mid-July, with
Washington unwilling, the Dominions desiring no trouble with Japan
and the European situation menacing, the loan scheme collapsed.168
However, despite this one victory, throughout the summer of 1938
Craigieâ€™s advocacy of improving relations with Japan was consistently
(36) 63, Halifax, 14 Jun 1938, FO 371/21724/C5870/1941/18; FP (36), minutes, 31st
meeting, 16 Jun 1938, Cab 27/624.
Craigie to FO, tel 524, 26 Apr 1938, Halifax to Craigie, 17 May 1938, both FO 371/
22180/F4462/71/23, minute, Brenan (2 May).
FP(36), minutes, 30th meeting, 1 Jun 1938, Cab 27/623.
Minutes, Cab 31(38), 6 Jul 1938, Cab 23/94.
Minutes, Cab 32(38), 13 Jul 1938, Cab 23/94.
Bradford A. Lee, Britain and the Sino-Japanese War 1937â€“1939 (Stanford, 1973), 141â€“
5; Best, Britain, Japan and Pearl Harbor, 52â€“60; Craigie, disp 509, 14 July 1938, FO
Chamberlainâ€™s interlude 243
During that same summer, the British also attempted to free their
hands in Europe. They did so by trying to convince the Czechs and
French to restructure both their alliance and their relationship with
Soviet Russia. This was a continuation of the effort to prevent Britain
from being tied to the coat-tails of Franceâ€™s eastern European policy. On
1 July, Phipps began the process by suggesting to Bonnet that the Czechs
should become a guaranteed neutral in the fashion of the Belgians.170
Phipps emphasized the fact that Germany is â€˜bent on [the] disruption of
a Czechoslovakia which is allied to Russiaâ€™ and that this latter was a
â€˜perpetual menace to Germanyâ€™.171 Bonnet delayed his reply, and, in
the interim, there were leaks about this proposal to newspapers resulting
in a hostile reaction from the Czechs.172 There was also opposition in
Paris, where senior officials at the Quai dâ€™Orsay â€˜were not very keenâ€™ on
demands for a neutral Czechoslovakia. The reasons were varied. First,
the end of the Little Entente would have â€˜dangerous consequencesâ€™;
second, a neutral Czechoslovakia would spell the end to using Czech
territory as a launching pad for French aerial attacks on Germany and,
finally, â€˜[w]e could not hope that Germany would involve herself in an
adventure with Russiaâ€™ should Czechoslovakia become a neutral.173
In mid-July, Phipps again pushed Bonnet to pressure the Czechs.
Bonnet, however, told the British ambassador that the Czech president,
Edvard Benes, was in a â€˜very unyielding moodâ€™. But Benes also had
asked Bonnet to â€˜sound Russia as to the help that Power would be
willing to give to Czechoslovakia in the event of war with Germanyâ€™.174
Phipps warned Bonnet that it should not be assumed that Britain would
â€˜take joint military actionâ€™ with France if Czechoslovakia were attacked.
Benesâ€™s query made the British suspicious of Soviet Russiaâ€™s commit-
ment to Prague, despite earlier reports that this promise was unequivo-
cal.175 While Bonnet stalled, Nevile Henderson suggested that the entire
Czech imbroglio could be solved by means of a four-power conference
involving Britain, France, Italy and Germany.176 Vansittart pointed out
371/22051/F8491/12/10, minutes; Craigie to FO, tel 1000, 22 Aug 1938, FO 371/
Phipps to FO, tel 446, 2 Jul 1938, FO 371/21726/C6624/1941/18.
Henderson to FO, tel 290 decipher, 1 Jul 1938, FO 371/21726/C6606/1941/18,
Newton (Prague) to FO, tel 297, 11 Jul 1938, FO 371/21727/C6980/1941/18.
Campbell (Paris) to Strang, 13 Jul 1938, FO 371/21728/C7274/1941/18, minutes.
Phipps to FO, tel 473, 16 Jul 1938, FO 371/21728/C7155/1941/18, minutes, F. K.
Roberts (CD, 20 Jul) and Strang (20 Jul).
Chilston to FO, disp 296, 28 Jun 1938, FO 371/21776/C6534/5302/18, minute (13
Henderson to FO, tel 319, 21 Jul 1938, FO 371/21729/C7375/1941/18, minutes,
Vansittart and Halifax (both 25 Jul); Strang to Henderson (30 Jul).
244 Britain, Soviet Russia and the Versailles Order
that such a conference would be the â€˜thin edge of the German wedge for
excluding Russia from Europeâ€™. Further, if Italy were invited, why not
Soviet Russia? Halifax agreed, and Henderson was informed of the
thrust of Vansittartâ€™s arguments, although the ambassador ignored
At the same time, the British had decided to deal directly with the
Czech issue by sending Runciman to Czechoslovakia.178 Maisky sug-
gested suspiciously that this mission was being sent for the purpose of
â€˜bludgeoning M. Benes and co[mpany]â€™ and asserted that the British
were â€˜not being sufficiently firm with Germanyâ€™.179 This linked up with
French views. On 10 August, Bonnet finally replied to the British queries
about Czechoslovakia.180 He insisted that this was politically impossible.
Unless Britain were to make some â€˜positiveâ€™ offer â€“ by which he meant a
promise of support â€“ to France, Bonnet could not â€˜justify to the French
publicâ€™ giving up even Pragueâ€™s limited assistance against Germany.
Maisky simultaneously pushed hard in London, telling Halifax that
German strength was more apparent than real, and asserting that Soviet
Russia would â€˜in his phrase â€ścertainly do their bitâ€ťâ€™ if Czechoslovakia
were attacked.181 From Moscow and Prague came similar statements of
The question remained: did the British believe in either the sentiment
or the ability of the Soviets doing â€˜their bitâ€™? From Romania, there were
reports that Soviet overflights (in aid of Czechoslovakia) might be con-
veniently ignored, but that the passage of Soviet troops across Romanian
territory would be resisted.183 In Paris, Bonnet reported being â€˜pesteredâ€™
by the Soviet ambassador to show more firmness towards Germany and
Henderson to Strang, 2 Aug 1938, FO 371/21730/C7876/1941/18, minutes.
Vaughan Burdin Baker, â€˜Selective Inattention: The Runciman Mission to Czechoslo-
vakia, 1938â€™, East European Quarterly, 24, 4 (1991), 425â€“45; Tony McCulloch, â€˜Franklin
Roosevelt and the Runciman Mission to Czechoslovakia in 1938: A New Perspective on
Anglo-American Relations in the Era of Appeasementâ€™, Journal of Transatlantic Studies,
1, 2 (2003), 152â€“74.
Oliphantâ€™s talk with Maisky, 9 Aug 1938, FO 371/21731/C8218/1941/18.
Campbell (Paris) to FO, tel 505, 10 Aug 1938, FO 371/21731/C8128/1941/38, min-
utes, Mallet (13 Aug), Sargent and Oliphant (both 15 Aug); Campbell to Sargent, 13
Aug 1938, FO 371/21731/C8329/1941/18.
Halifaxâ€™s conversation with Maisky, 17 Aug 1938, FO 371/21731/C8433/1941/18;
Sidney Aster, â€˜Ivan Maisky and Parliamentary Anti-Appeasement, 1938â€“1939â€™, in
A. J. P. Taylor, ed., Lloyd George. Twelve Essays (London, 1971), 317â€“57.
Chilston to Collier, 23 Aug 1938, FO 371/21733/C8919/1941/18; Newton to FO, tel
468, 26 Aug 1938, FO 371/21733/C8793/1941/18.
Farquhar (charge dâ€™affaires, Bucharest) to Nichols, 25 Aug 1938, FO 371/21776/
C9100/5302/18, minute, Roberts (5 Sept); Henderson to FO, tel 414, 5 Sept 1938,
and Charles (Rome) to FO, tel 206, 10 Sept 1938, both FO 371/21766/C9216 and
Chamberlainâ€™s interlude 245
to encourage Britain to do the same.184 Phipps, however, also reported
that Bonnet had received no firm answer as to what aid Soviet Russia
would give to Czechoslovakia and that the French foreign minister had
suggested that the Sovietsâ€™ â€˜one wish is to stir up general war in the
troubled waters of which she will fishâ€™.185 From Moscow, Chilston
reported that the Czech minister claimed that he had been assured
by Litvinov that Soviet Russia would fulfil its treaty obligations in
case of a German attack. However, the British ambassador did â€˜not
attach very much importance to the somewhat half-hearted assurances
which my Czech and French colleagues from time to time extract from
M. Litvinovâ€™. The Foreign Office agreed. Frank Roberts noted that the
Czechs â€˜have consistently tried to read the maximum degree of comfort
into M. Litvinovâ€™s vague assurances, all of which are in any case made
dependent upon prior action by the Frenchâ€™. Another clerk pointed out
that China had â€˜derived considerable comfortâ€™ from similar Soviet profes-
sions earlier, but in the event had â€˜to content themselves . . . with minor
supplies of war material, military advisers, & incidents on the Manchukuo
frontier â€“ all of which have taken a long time in comingâ€™.186
In London, Maisky lobbied hard to convince everyone of Soviet
Russiaâ€™s sincerity.187 In early September, he told Churchill that Soviet
Russia wanted to co-operate with Britain and France through the
League, although Halifax was unimpressed.188 Ten days earlier, the
Soviet ambassador had told Harold Nicolson that Soviet Russia would
intervene if Britain and France did. If they did not, however, Maisky
noted that Moscow â€˜â€śwould retire into isolationâ€ťâ€™. He reiterated these
points to Vansittart in late August, and chastised the former PUS for
Britainâ€™s policy towards Soviet Russia, which the ambassador character-
ized as â€˜wish[ing] to keep them at arms length [sic] and hav[ing] as little
to do with them as possibleâ€™.189 This, of course, was true, but one-sided.
Neither the British nor the Soviet government based its decision to co-
operate with the other on the common good, but rather on the basis of a
fear of the common enemy.
Phipps to FO, tel 561, 2 Sept 1938, FO 371/21734/C9155/1941/18, minute, Roberts
Phipps to FO, tel 559 saving, 2 Sept 1938, FO 371/21734/C9157/1941/18.
Chilston to FO, tel 165 conf, 4 Sept 1938, FO 371/21734/C9186/1941/18, minutes,
Roberts (5 Sept) and Gage (12 Sept).
John Charmley, Chamberlain and the Lost Peace (London, 1989), 96â€“7.
Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, vol. V, 1922â€“1939 (London, 1976), 968; Churchill
to Halifax, 31 Aug 1938, Halifax Papers, FO 800/314; Churchill to Halifax, 3 Sept 1938,
Halifax Papers, FO 800/322.
Nicolsonâ€™s talk with Maisky, 26 Aug 1938, Vansittartâ€™s talk with the Soviet ambassador,
29 Aug 1938, both FO 371/22289/N4317/97/38; Nicolson diary entries, 22 and 26 Aug
1938, in Nicolson, Harold Nicolson, 350â€“1.
246 Britain, Soviet Russia and the Versailles Order
The Czech crisis became acute in early September. What would Soviet
Russia do? On 6 September, Phipps reported that Litvinov had told
Bonnet that Moscow would â€˜wait until France has begun to fulfil
the obligations incumbent on her according to her own pact with
Czechoslovakiaâ€™ and then take the issue to the League. Phipps, with
the full support and concurrence of Cadogan, added that â€˜Bonnet feels
that Russia is showing much more caution in this matter than she wishes
others to show.â€™ Roberts reiterated an earlier position: â€˜Russia will re-
serve her position until everyone else is involved & then come in or fish in
The belief that Soviet support was at best contingent was reinforced
by other reports, none definitive. In Moscow, Chilston spoke with
Vladimir Potemkin, the former Soviet ambassador to France and now
Litvinovâ€™s deputy, who pointed out that Soviet Russia â€˜was not obligedâ€™
to act unless France did, and doubted that Litvinov would raise the issue
at Geneva.191 Reports from Poland made it evident that Warsaw would
remain neutral unless Soviet troops attempted a passage through Polish
territory: in that case, Poland would resist.192 On the other hand, on 8
September, Maisky told Halifax that Soviet Russia would co-operate
with Britain and France in sending a note to Berlin opposing any
aggression against Czechoslovakia. Chilston reported from Moscow that
the French ambassador had been assured that Soviet aid would be
forthcoming, although, significantly, the French ambassador lacked â€˜full
confidenceâ€™ in this assertion.193 On 17 September, the Foreign Office
drew up a memorandum that attempted to clarify matters. The low
opinion of Soviet military abilities that had been evident in the spring
crisis over Czechoslovakia was still held. While Soviet Russia was â€˜active
in suggesting joint representationsâ€™, British information pointed â€˜to sub-
ordination of Russian assistance to previous implementing of the French
obligationsâ€™; to â€˜reference of the question to Geneva; and to evasion of
definite assurances where these have been soughtâ€™. Given that Poland
would not permit Soviet troops passage and that the transportation
routes through Romania were limited, the final conclusion was that
â€˜[e]ffective help is unlikely to reach Czechoslovakia from Russia, at all
Phipps to FO, tel 573 saving, 6 Sept 1938, FO 371/21735/C9289/1941/18, minutes,
Roberts (7 Sept), Cadogan (8 Sept).
Chilston to FO, tel 166, 8 Sept 1938, FO 371/21736/C9429/1941/18.
Kennard to FO, tel 73, 10 Sept 1938, FO 371/21776/C9648/5302/18.
Halifax to Chilston, tel 120, 11 Sept 1938, FO 371/21735/C9415/1941/18; Harvey
diary entry, 9 Sept 1938, Harvey Papers, Add MSS 56395; Chilston to FO, tel 169, 13
Sept 1938, FO 371/21776/C9791/5302/18; Phipps to Halifax, 14 Sept 1938, Halifax
Papers, FO 800/311.
Chamberlainâ€™s interlude 247
events in the early period of a German invasionâ€™. Cadoganâ€™s minute
summed up matters: â€˜Pray God we shall never have to depend on the
Soviet, or Poland or â€“ the USâ€™194
How did all this play in the Cabinet? On 30 August, Chamberlain had
called an informal council of ministers due to the â€˜graveâ€™ international
situation.195 Halifax outlined the state of affairs: the evidence was un-
clear as to whether Hitler would attack Czechoslovakia. If he did, â€˜there
was nothing that we in this country or France, or Russia could doâ€™ to
prevent Czechoslovakia from being overrun. If Hitler did not intervene,
then Britainâ€™s policy should be to â€˜keep Herr Hitler guessingâ€™ â€“ a position
that Vansittart, who was described at this time as â€˜still excitedâ€™, found
frighteningly reminiscent of 1914.196 There were stirrings of opposition.
Duff Cooper argued that the issue was not one of whether to support
the Czechs, but of what to do in a European war, while the Earl of