his part, Halifax wanted to see if Franco-German relations showed any
sign of improvement â€˜before taking any action ourselvesâ€™.15
This reflected the fact that he and Chamberlain were still following, as
the prime minister told the Cabinet on 31 October, a policy of â€˜appease-
appeasementâ€™, which meant that Britain â€˜must aim at establishing rela-
tions with the Dictator Powers which will lead to a settlement in Europe
and to a sense of stabilityâ€™.16 One aspect of this was to ratify the â€˜Easter
Accordâ€™ in an attempt to â€˜liberate Signor Mussolini by degrees from the
pressure to which he was subjected from Berlinâ€™.17 This was done on 16
November and led to Chamberlainâ€™s visit to Rome early in 1939. The
continuation of appeasement had ramifications for Britainâ€™s diplomatic
position, particularly with regard to France (and, indirectly, Soviet
Russia). Halifax outlined his views to Phipps on 1 November.18 In the
foreign secretaryâ€™s opinion, â€˜assured peace in Europeâ€™ could result only
from â€˜genuine agreementâ€™ among Britain, France and Germany. â€˜One of
the chief difficulties of the pastâ€™ in achieving this had been â€˜the unreal
position which France was occupying in Central and Eastern Europeâ€™, as
this had been a â€˜continual irritant to Germanyâ€™. Now, in the aftermath of
Munich and with the â€˜drastic change in French policy in Central
Europeâ€™, Halifax believed that â€˜Franco-German relations should have a
The implications for British strategic foreign policy were twofold:
Germany would be predominant in â€˜Central Europeâ€™ and Britain and
France â€˜have to uphold their predominant position in Western Europeâ€™,
all the while â€˜firmly maintain[ing] their hold on the Mediterranean and
the Near Eastâ€™. Further, the two countries â€˜should also keep a tight hold
Phipps to FO, tel 686, 20 Oct 1938, FO 371/21600/C12637/55/17, minutes, Sargent
(22 Oct), Cadogan (24 Oct) and Halifax (25 Oct).
Minutes, Cab 51(38), 31 Oct 1938, Cab 23/96. Attitudes to Germany would change
over the next four months: Bruce Strang, â€˜Two Unequal Tempers: Sir George Ogilvie-
Forbes, Sir Nevile Henderson and British Foreign Policy, 1938â€“1939â€™, D&S, 5, 1
(1994), 107â€“37; Peter Neville, â€˜Rival Foreign Office Perceptions of Germany 1936â€“
1939â€™, D&S, 13, 3 (2002), 145â€“9.
Minutes, Cab 50(38), 26 Oct 1938, Cab 23/96; â€˜The Anglo-Italian Agreementâ€™, CP
231(38), most secret, Halifax, 21 Oct 1938, Cab 24/279; William C. Mills, â€˜Sir Joseph
Ball, Adrian Dingli, and Neville Chamberlainâ€™s â€śSecret Channelâ€ť to Italy, 1937â€“1940â€™,
IHR, 24, 2 (2002), 307â€“9.
The remainder of this and the following two paragraphs, except where indicated, are
based on Halifax to Phipps, 1 Nov 1938, Phipps Papers, PHPP 1/21.
Chamberlain as Buridanâ€™s ass 259
on their Colonial Empires and maintain the closest possible ties with the
United States of Americaâ€™. For this reason, Halifax welcomed any
Franco-German rapprochement. He downplayed any possible negative
consequences: he felt that France would not accept â€˜a direct non-
aggression agreement with Germany, in return for which she would drop
the Franco-Soviet pact and would receive a guarantee of her overseas
possessionsâ€™. More likely was that France might â€˜turn so defeatistâ€™ that it
would not defend itself; this was to be avoided by Britainâ€™s â€˜using every
opportunity of encouraging her by precept and example to rearm as soon
What would be the result of this â€˜time of more or less painful readjust-
ments to the new realities of Europeâ€™ for Soviet Russia? Halifaxâ€™s
assumptions were evident:
Soviet Russia, on the other hand, can scarcely become the ally of Germany so
long as Hitler lives . . . she may choose to go into isolation or else she may prefer
to maintain contact with the Western Powers through the French alliance . . .
Subject only to the consideration that I should hope France would protect herself
â€“ and us â€“ from being entangled by Russia in a war with Germany, I should
hesitate to advise the French Government to denounce the Franco-Soviet Pact as
the future is still far too uncertain!
â€˜Russiaâ€™, Halifax concluded, â€˜for good or evil, is part of Europe and we
cannot ignore her existence.â€™
In the Far East, the repercussions of Munich were more muted. In late
August and early September, reports from the Tokyo embassy made
clear that, once Japan was able to free itself from being tied down in
China (and able to secure its border with Soviet Russia), Tokyo would
drive southwards. Cadogan saw the dilemma for British policy clearly:
The fact is that we are faced, as on the other side of the world, with a situation
not unlike the one that confronts us here . . . And the problem, fundamentally, is
the same: are we to fight Japan now, and prevent her possible accession of
strength, or wait for a possible war later? . . . It is as difficult to find the answer
to our Far Eastern problem as it is to the European one.20
Halifax was wrong: Peter Jackson, â€˜Intelligence and the End of Appeasementâ€™, in
Robert Boyce, ed., French Foreign and Defence Policy, 1918â€“1940 (London and New
York, 1998), 234â€“60; Talbot Imlay, â€˜Retreat or Resistance: Strategic Re-Appraisal and
the Crisis of French Power in Eastern Europe, September 1938 to August 1939â€™, in
Kenneth Moure and Martin S. Alexander, eds., Crisis and Renewal in France, 1918â€“1962
(New York and Oxford, 2002), 105â€“31.
Craigie to FO, disp 686, 9 Sept 1938, FO 371/22185/F10299/152/23, Cadoganâ€™s
minute (10 Oct). During July and early August, there had been a major clash: Paul
W. Doerr, â€˜The Changkufeng/Lake Khasan Incident of 1938: British Intelligence on
Soviet and Japanese Military Performanceâ€™, INS, 5, 3 (1990), 184â€“99.
260 Britain, Soviet Russia and the Versailles Order
Craigieâ€™s policy of coming to terms with Japan was difficult. While the
new Japanese government continued to drop hints that Anglo-Japanese
collaboration was possible, this could be had only on Japanese terms.
And Japan had other options.21 One was to strengthen the Anti-
Comintern Pact.22 At the Foreign Office, such an eventuality was
thought to be â€˜directed against Soviet Russiaâ€™ rather than against Britain.
But the value of Moscow for British policy in the Far East was believed
to be diminished.
By the end of October, with the euphoria of Munich still in the
London air and the Anglo-Italian negotiations near completion, a new
direction in the Far East was considered. It was suggested that London
try to use Britainâ€™s supposedly improved relations with the Germans and
Italians to ease the tensions in the Far East.23 This approach resulted
from new thinking. First, there was the common view at the Foreign
Office that â€˜in Japan Munich appeared in the light of a knock out blow to
Russiaâ€™s influence in Central Europe and as a proof of the incurable
vacillation if not actual impotence of France and Great Britainâ€™.24
Second, there was the linked fear that Britain was simultaneously losing
influence with China (due to not giving it a loan) and irritating Japan
(due to rejecting its overtures and giving support to China).25 But this was
a difficult matter. Cadogan put the problem clearly on 10 November:
We probably could not combine it [co-operation with Germany and Italy] with
cooperation with the US in the Far East. The US Govt will not gladly cooperate
with the Dictators. We must try to work with the latter here & with the US in the
Halifax agreed with this suggestion, and asked for practical advice about
how to proceed.
Such advice came from N. B. Ronald, a senior clerk in the Far Eastern
Department. He suggested that the United States might be willing to
â€˜swallow their ideological scruplesâ€™ to achieve a settlement in the Far
East without resorting to far-reaching economic sanctions (about which
Craigie to FO, tel 1146, 3 Oct 1938, FO 371/22185/F10438/152/23, minutes.
Craigie to FO, tel 1151, 4 Oct 1938, FO 371/22185/F10479/152/23, minutes.
The remainder of this and the following paragraph, except where indicated, are based
on Craigie to FO, tel 1300, 3 Nov 1938, minutes, FO 371/22186/F11672/152/23;
minutes, Cab 55(38), 16 Nov 1938, Cab 23/96; Howeâ€™s minute, 14 Oct, on Clark Kerr
to FO, tel 1462, 12 Oct 1939, FO 371/22055/F10731/16/10. â€˜Borodinâ€™ refers to
Mikhail Borodin, who was the Cominternâ€™s emissary to the Chinese Communist Party,
Minute (7 Nov), Ronald, on Craigie to FO, disp 779, 7 Oct 1938, FO 371/22185/
F11368/152/23; cf. Howeâ€™s minute, 17 Oct, on Clark Kerr to FO, tel 1469, 13 Oct
1939, FO 371/22053/F10827/13/10.
Untitled memo, Howe, 10 Oct 1938, FO 371/22110/F10649/84/10.
Chamberlain as Buridanâ€™s ass 261
the Americans had enquired on 3 November, but which the Cabinet had
rejected as too risky).26 Ronald recommended that Craigie sound out
the American ambassador at Tokyo. As for the Germans, he advocated
an approach emphasizing that there was sufficient trade in China for all,
that there needed to be some concrete results flowing from the Munich
settlement, and that
neither of us wishes to see China again run by â€˜Borodinsâ€™. The German Govern-
ment seem to think that the best way to keep the â€˜Borodinsâ€™ out is by making
anti-Comintern pacts. We think that they are best kept out by helping China to
be peaceful and prosperous, for when she is in this condition she is in our view
less likely to be subject to violent convulsions over a political theory.
This was a radical change of position, and one in which Soviet Russia
had been replaced by Germany as an element in the delicate balance that
maintained Britainâ€™s position in the Far East. It did not come to pass.
Craigie warned that Anglo-American co-operation in the Far East
depended â€˜not so much [on] a community of interests, as [on] a com-
munity of idealsâ€™.27 Any truck with the Germans might serve to diminish
the American belief that the latter existed, to Britainâ€™s detriment. In any
case, by the beginning of 1939, strengthened Anglo-German relations
were revealed to be a chimera, and, as the possibility of improvement
vanished, so, too, did the new initiative in the Far East.
The mention of the Anti-Comintern Pact, however, requires more
examination. On 15 November, there was a report from Moscow that
the anti-Comintern was about to become a â€˜tripartite military allianceâ€™.28
This report was confirmed by â€˜information in the Secret papersâ€™, and
Sargent wrote a long analysis, based on deciphered telegrams. The key
element was that the new pact was directed â€˜against any third Power,
instead of against the Soviet Government aloneâ€™. As a result, Sargent
suggested that Japanâ€™s â€˜more truculentâ€™ attitude of late â€“ including
Konoeâ€™s announcement on 3 November of the â€˜new orderâ€™ in Asia â€“
might be due not just to successes in China and â€˜the alleged collapse of
the Western democracies at Munichâ€™, but also to a belief â€˜that the
projected tripartite agreement is certain to eventuate and can be relied
on to place Japan beyond any need for showing respect or consideration
for Great Britain or France, or even the USAâ€™.29 This was troubling for
Minutes, Cab 54(38), 9 Nov 1938, Cab 23/96.
Craigie to Howe, 29 Dec 1938, FO 371/23457/F780/87/10, minute, Ashley Clarke (1
Chilston to FO, tel 191, 19 Nov 1938, FO 371/21639/C14209/14208/62, minute,
Sargent (22 Nov).
Untitled memo, Sargent, 19 Nov 1938, and Sargent to Ogilvie-Forbes, 6 Dec 1938,
both FO 371/21639/C14523/14209/62.
262 Britain, Soviet Russia and the Versailles Order
the British, and helped to push Halifax back towards the idea of pursuing
a â€˜stalemateâ€™ in China by providing that country with as much help
as possible, including a loan.30 Soviet Russia was increasingly being
What of Anglo-Soviet relations? In the autumn of 1938, they were
minimal. The focus was on observing Moscowâ€™s interactions with other
states. In late October, there was a discussion about the future of the
Franco-Soviet Pact. One stream of the discussion flowed from an argu-
ment posited by Robert Coulondre, the French ambassador at Moscow.
He contended that Berlin could persuade the Poles to return the Polish
corridor to Germany if Warsaw were in turn allowed to take territory
from Lithuania. The French fear was that Soviet Russia, with German
acquiescence, might then attack Poland, pitting two French allies against
one another. This concern reflected, London felt, the fact that Cou-
londre, â€˜like so many other Frenchmen, is obsessed by the bogey of a
Sovietâ€“German rapprochementâ€™. However, Collier was blunt: â€˜I think it
quite possible that the Russians would acquiesce in a German attack on
Poland; but I agree that there is a contradiction between that idea & the
one of a â€śdealâ€ť over the corridor & Lithuania.â€™31 In contrast to this
gloomy prospect was a report from Paris that Hitler no longer seemed
obsessed with the idea that â€˜the Franco-Soviet Pact should be
The entire issue of Franco-Soviet relations had been discussed with
the French on 24 November.33 Halifax had reiterated the undesirability
of â€˜tak[ing] any action which appeared to give Russia the cold shoulderâ€™,
but had found that the French â€˜were rather anxious to disentangle
themselves from the Russian connectionâ€™.34 In the Cabinet discussions
of this meeting on 30 November, Chamberlain noted that Germany
would not agree to anything â€˜which allowed Russia to be associated
with Czechoslovakiaâ€™, and Hoare added â€˜that we should avoid, if pos-
sible, a position in which we might find ourselves asked to take action
with France and Russia against Germany and Italy on behalfâ€™ of
Czechoslovakia. Domestic considerations suggested that no pressure
should be put on Prague to â€˜abandonâ€™ the Soviet guarantee, and the
â€˜Japanese policy towards Chinaâ€™, Brenan, 29 Nov 1938, FO 371/22110/F13096/84/10,
minutes, Howe (14 Dec), Mounsey (16 Dec), Cadogan (23 Dec) and Halifax (25 Dec);
minutes, Cab 60(38), 21 Dec 1938, Cab 23/96.
Chilston to Collier, 26 Oct 1938, FO 371/22301/N5433/5433/38, minutes.
Phipps to Halifax, 1 Nov 1939, Halifax Papers, FO 800/311.
The remainder of this paragraph is based on minutes, Cab 57(38), 30 Nov 1938, Cab
23/96; â€˜Visit of British Ministers to Parisâ€™, CP 269(38), 26 Nov 1938, Cab 24/280.
Also Phipps to Halifax, 5 Dec 1939, Halifax Papers, FO 800/311.
Chamberlain as Buridanâ€™s ass 263
Cabinet concluded only that the Czechs should be consulted about such
a guarantee. But, with the French no longer enamoured of their pact
with Moscow, with opinion in the Cabinet firm that entanglements in
eastern Europe should be steered clear of and with policy still firmly
fixed on improving relations with the dictator states, Soviet support was
not considered vital.
Collier did not share this view. He had a far more pessimistic opinion
of German policy. Commenting on the likelihood of the Germans setting
up a puppet government in Russia after some future military victory
there, he was gloomy about its effect on Britain. â€˜Whether such a regime
would last longâ€™, he wrote on the same day as the Cabinet considered the
Anglo-French discussions, â€˜is, of course, doubtful; but it might well last
long enough to enable Germany to control Russian resources at the
critical period of their relations with us â€“ which will come, in my opinion,
as soon as they have gained their immediate objectives in Eastern
Europe.â€™35 The signing of an agreement in late November, marking a
detente between Poland and Soviet Russia, did not relieve his pessimism.
â€˜I should think that the only practical result of thisâ€™, Collier remarked,
â€˜will be to hasten the German onslaught on Poland . . . a Polishâ€“Russian