Henderson to FO, tel 69, 22 Feb 1939, FO 371/23653/N958/64/63, minutes.
â€˜Notes on C.P. 32(39)â€™, Collier, 7 Feb 1939, FO 371/23681/N734/92/38; Nicolson
diary entry, 9 Feb 1939, in N. Nicolson, ed., Harold Nicolson. Diaries and Letters 1930â€“
1939 (London, 1966), 391.
Amery diary entry, 25 Feb 1939, in J. Barnes and D. Nicholson, eds., The Empire at
Bay. The Leo Amery Diaries 1929â€“1945 (London, 1988), 543.
Chamberlain as Buridanâ€™s ass 269
Board of Trade, and R. A. Butler, Maisky was suspicious. He wondered
aloud whether the British government wished to improve relations with
Soviet Russia only to gain Soviet assistance against Germany. Collier
found Maiskyâ€™s suspicions understandable, and anticipated that the
economic discussions would be difficult and slow, especially â€˜if at the
same time we show ostentatious friendliness at Berlin, Rome or Tokyoâ€™.
Vansittart echoed these sentiments, and emphasized the value of Soviet
Russia. He reminded Halifax â€˜(1) that we had both Russia & Italy with
us in the last war, & then only just scrambled through (2) that France w
[oul]d have had no chance of survival whatever in 1914, if there had not
been an Eastern front. She only just survived as it was.â€™ For Vansittart,
such considerations pointed towards an alliance.55 This was attractive,
and was supported by an earlier suggestion from Seeds in Moscow that
Britain should pursue â€˜an active pro-Chinese and anti-Japaneseâ€™ policy
as a means to â€˜lureâ€™ Soviet Russia into closer relations.56 But this idea
foundered on the simple fact that Britain had no means of providing any
concrete support in the Far East, beyond a loan to China (which the
Cabinet finally approved on 28 February),57 and this inducement was
felt insufficient to coax Moscow into closer relations.
This returned matters to defence. On 1 March, the newly created
Strategical Appreciation Sub-Committee (SAC) of the CID held its first
meeting.58 It attempted to answer the Foreign Officeâ€™s earlier point
about sending ships to the Far East.59 While Chatfield was adamant
that a fleet would be sent, it was evident both that this would require the
French to concentrate their efforts in the Mediterranean and that an
American presence at Honolulu or Singapore would â€˜greatly improveâ€™
the British position in the Far East. However, the general conclusion of
the SAC was that a three-front war was unlikely to be won.
At the Foreign Office, the SACâ€™s discussions were of substantial
interest. They underscored both just how complicated British strategic
defence policy was and how vital Soviet Russia and the United States
were for the defence of the Far East. J. W. Nicholls, who served in the
newly created Co-ordination Section (dealing with CID matters) of the
15 Feb 1939, by S. D. Waleyâ€™s (Treasury) conversation with Maisky and Leith-Ross, 15
Feb 1939, memo, Leith-Ross, 16 Feb 1939, both FO 371/2368/N878/92/38; Hudsonâ€™s
conversation with Maisky, 8 Mar 1939, FO 371/23677/N1389/57/38, Vansittartâ€™s
minute (13 Mar); Butlerâ€™s second conversation with Maisky, 9 Mar 1939, FO 371/
23677/N1342/57/38, Collierâ€™s minute (16 Mar); Harvey diary entry, 9 Mar 1939,
Harvey Papers, Add MSS 56395.
Seeds to Oliphant, 21 Feb 1939, and reply (20 Mar), FO 371/23697/N1459/1459/38.
Minutes, Cab 8(39), 28 Feb 1939, Cab 23/97.
Minutes, 1st meeting SAC, 1 Mar 1939, Cab 16/209.
â€˜European Appreciation, 1939â€“40â€™, COS 843, COS, 20 Feb 1939, Cab 53/45.
270 Britain, Soviet Russia and the Versailles Order
Western Department, argued that it was important to â€˜try & knockâ€™ Italy
out of the war as soon as possible in order to maintain Britainâ€™s diplo-
matic influence in the Mediterranean. Vansittart agreed, adding that â€˜I
trust that we shall not send any ships to the Far East till we have
knocked-out Italy.â€™60 This was contentious.61 Nicholls asserted that no
fleet should be sent to the Far East and that British possessions in the
latter area should be defended with what was locally available. His
reasoning reflected bleak facts: â€˜a defeat in Europe would mean the
defeat of the Empire as a whole . . . [while] a defeat in the Far East
could be turned into a victory if we could first assure ourselves of victory
Fitzmaurice rejected both points. He argued that it was â€˜quite illusory
to suppose . . . that having won the war in Europe we should then be able
to recover the lost ground in the Far Eastâ€™. Having lost Hong Kong and
Singapore, Britain would have no point dâ€™appui from which to operate,
and Japan would acquire resources in South-East Asia that would make
it invulnerable to economic pressure. And, he was â€˜scepticalâ€™ that victory
in Europe could be won if the Far East were lost. He preferred to
support Craigieâ€™s idea of sending a small fleet to the Far East in time
of peace and, by so doing, providing a deterrent to Japan. The reason
was simple: if a fleet were at Singapore, the Japanese
would have to bring practically the whole of their fleet to bear, which it is very
unlikely they would in fact do, in view of the possibility of complications with the
United States, and even more with Soviet Russia, occurring in the absence of the
Howe agreed with this line of argument. Nicholls rebutted that the
choice was â€˜between defeat in Europe as a whole and abandoning the
Far Eastâ€™, and various members of the Egyptian Department empha-
sized that abandoning the Mediterranean (as Fitzmauriceâ€™s argument
required) would be catastrophic. These points were raised at the SAC on
13 March, and, there, too, they were not resolved.62 But the important
Minutes, Nicholls (13 Mar 1939) and Vansittart (16 Mar 1939) on a copy of minutes,
1st meeting SAC, FO 371/23981/W4683/108/50.
The remainder of this and the following paragraph are based on untitled memo,
Nicholls, 1 Mar 1939, commenting on COS 843, â€˜European Appreciation, 1939â€“40â€™,
the minutes by Fitzmaurice (8 Mar), Howe (8 Mar), Nicholls (9 Mar; original em-
phasis), Kelly (head, Egyptian Department, 13 Mar); â€˜Probable Effect on British
Position in Egypt if a Large Fleet is Sent to the Far East in the Event of War with
Japanâ€™, Cavendish-Bentinck (Egyptian Department), 18 Mar 1939, all FO 371/23981/
Minutes, 2nd meeting SAC, 13 Mar 1939, Cab 16/209; â€˜Despatch of a Fleet to the Far
East. Memorandum by the Deputy Chief of Naval Staffâ€™, SAC 16, 5 Apr 1939, Cab 16/
209, written as a result of the meeting.
Chamberlain as Buridanâ€™s ass 271
conclusion, towards which all discussion pointed, was that the only way
to avoid these difficult choices for British strategic foreign policy in the
Far East was co-operation with Soviet Russia and the United States. But
could this be achieved? In the interim, however, faute de mieux, the
Foreign Office plumped for defending the Mediterranean, with an eye
to knocking out Italy, so as to free up the fleet for subsequent action in
the Far East.63
While this was going on, Chamberlainâ€™s foreign policy tumbled like a
house of cards. Despite the prime ministerâ€™s facile belief after his visit
to Rome that Mussolini would â€˜stand byâ€™ the Anglo-Italian agreement,
il Duce had been unimpressed by Chamberlain.64 On 4 February,
Mussolini moved troops into Libya. But Chamberlain remained oblivi-
ous. He continued to believe the promises of dictators, asserting that
â€˜when Germans & Italians declared that they had no territorial ambitions
in Spain & would get out as soon as the war was over, they mean what
they said & should be believedâ€™. His distrust of the Foreign Office
remained: â€˜Unless the FO are constantly reminded that is & always has
been our attitude they are tempted to follow the old Eden line and
chortle at the prospect of â€śdefeating Fascist armsâ€ť.â€™65 In fact, by 19
February, Chamberlain was convinced that everything â€˜seems to point in
the direction of peace and I repeat once more that I believe we have at
last got on top of the dictatorsâ€™.66
Hitlerâ€™s occupation of the rump of Czechoslovakia on 15 March
finally ended Chamberlainâ€™s delusion. On the 18th, Chamberlain told
the Cabinet that Hitlerâ€™s actions meant that it was now â€˜impossible to
negotiate on the old basisâ€™.67 Chamberlainâ€™s new policy â€“ to the disgust
of some, who lamented that Britain must â€˜be very low in the water
indeedâ€™ to â€˜flirt with Russiaâ€™ â€“ was to sound out Soviet Russia, Poland,
Yugoslavia, Turkey, Greece and Romania to discover whether they
â€˜The Arguments for and against the Despatch of a Battle-Fleet to The Far East in War-
Timeâ€™, Nicholls, 15 Mar 1939, and Palairet (at the direction of Cadogan and Halifax)
to Adm, 22 Mar 1939, both FO 371/23981/W4831/108/50.
N. Chamberlain to Hilda, his sister, 15 Jan 1939, Chamberlain Papers, NC 18/1/1082;
H. James Burgwyn, Italian Foreign Policy in the Inter-war Period 1918â€“1940 (Westport,
CT, 1997), 184â€“6; William C. Mills, â€˜Sir Joseph Ballâ€™, 308â€“09; Paul Stafford, â€˜The
Chamberlainâ€“Halifax Visit to Rome: A Reappraisalâ€™, EHR, 98, 386 (1983), 61â€“100.
N. Chamberlain to Ida, his sister, 12 Feb 1939, Chamberlain Papers, NC 18/1/1085.
N. Chamberlain to Hilda, his sister, 19 Feb 1939, Chamberlain Papers, NC 18/1/1086;
for a corresponding â€˜wave of optimismâ€™, see Earl of Crawford and Balcarres to Buchan,
14 Mar 1939, Buchan Papers, Box 10; doubts can be found in Vansittartâ€™s minute (17
Feb) on Nevile Henderson to Chamberlain, 15 Feb 1939, Halifax Papers, FO 800/315;
untitled minute, Cadogan, 26 Feb 1939, Cadogan Papers, FO 800/294.
Minutes, Cab 12(39), 18 Mar 1939, Cab 23/98.
272 Britain, Soviet Russia and the Versailles Order
would join Britain in opposing further German aggression.68 This
became, on 20 March, the British proposal for a four-power consultative
pact limited only to Britain, France, Poland and Soviet Russia.69 It was
then essential to determine Soviet attitudes and capabilities. The initial
Soviet response was predictable: they saw the annexation as â€˜the direct
and inevitable result of the Anglo-French policy of â€śappeasementâ€ť and
capitulationâ€™.70 The need for information was common to both sides. On
18 March, Litvinov pressed Seeds about Britainâ€™s response to Hitlerâ€™s
actions, while Maisky called on Halifax to propose a â€˜conference at
Bucharest to discuss joint actionâ€™.71
But, regardless, the British needed to determine Soviet strength. On
22 March, Collier received the War Officeâ€™s estimate, one which Halifax
â€˜wanted urgentlyâ€™. Little had changed since the Czech crisis in May 1938.
Firebrace concluded that the Red Army would be a â€˜serious obstacle to an
attackerâ€™, but would have â€˜much less valueâ€™ on the offensive, although the
Far Eastern forces were thought rather more capable. This merely con-
firmed Oliphantâ€™s own view. Vansittart was more practical, and spoke
more to policy:
Nobody expects Russia to take the offensive against Germany anyhow . . . [but]
what I do hope â€“ &, given good management[,] expect â€“ to see Russia do is to
stiffen and reinforce Rumanian and/or Polish resistance. That is an entirely
different task, and it is well within Russian powers if we can get her to do it.
And we should endeavour to get her to do so. It is certainly not a very brilliant
performance, but it is an absolutely indispensable one, if Poland & Rumania are
to resist Germany, as they must in our interest as well as their own. You cannot
make a silk purse out of a sowâ€™s ear, but there has never been any earthly reason
why a purse should be silk. There is sometimes â€˜nothing like leatherâ€™.72
Vansittartâ€™s hope for a functional â€˜purseâ€™ was not surprising. Over the
previous six years, Soviet Russia had been thought of, at best, as a
counterweight, not a roadblock, to German power.
Channon diary entry, 18 Mar 1939, in R. Rhodes James, ed., Chips. The Diaries of Sir
Henry Channon (London, 1967), 187; for Anglo-Soviet relations from March to May,
see Robert Manne, â€˜The British Decision for Alliance with Russia, May 1939â€™, JCH, 9,
3 (1974), 3â€“27.
Minutes, Cab 13(39), 20 Mar 1939, Cab 23/98.
Chilston to FO, tel 9, 17 Mar 1939, FO 371/22995/C3691/19/18.
Seeds to FO, tel 35, 18 Mar 1939, FO 371/23060/C3430/3356/18; Harvey diary entry,
19 Mar 1939, Harvey Papers, Add MSS 56395.
Lt-Col Brownjohn to Collier, 16 Mar 1939, FO 371/23688/N1542/485/38 enclosing
Firebrace, â€˜The Value of the Red Army for Warâ€™, 7 Mar 1939, minutes, Oliphant (16
Mar), Cadogan (16 Mar) and Vansittart (17 Mar; original emphasis); see also Kennard
(minister, Warsaw) to FO, disp 65, 22 Mar 1939, FO 371/22996/C3946/19/18.
Chamberlain as Buridanâ€™s ass 273
But there was also a Far Eastern dimension to Anglo-Soviet rela-
tions.73 On 23 March, Craigie reported that Japan was considering its
options in the light of the German occupation of Czechoslovakia. De-
ningâ€™s view was that any Anglo-Soviet arrangement was potentially
dangerous. A â€˜security pactâ€™ between the two countries, if it applied
equally to Europe and to the Far East, would â€˜turn the majority of
Japanese against usâ€™. His views coincided with similar concerns that
Japan might then look with favour on the Germanâ€“Italian proposal to
â€˜transform the existing Anti-Comintern Pact into a military allianceâ€™. In
this light, it was best to attempt â€˜to convince Japan that this is a Euro-
pean crisis and that she had better keep out of itâ€™, to strengthen Britainâ€™s
own forces in the region and to work with the Americans. The â€˜really
vital point, however, is really the question of our commitments to Soviet
Russia . . . It is on that [that] the Japanese Cabinetâ€™s decision will most
probably depend.â€™ Sir John Brenan saw the situation differently. As
Japan was â€˜already engagedâ€™ in a war with China and â€˜cannot in present
circumstances seriously fear an unprovoked attack from either Russia or
the democratic nationsâ€™, he doubted whether any Anglo-Russian agree-
ment would â€˜be a menace to Japan unless she herself contemplated
further unprovoked aggressionâ€™. R. G. Howe agreed. While no one had
any definitive answers, it was clear that the European and Far Eastern
situations were closely linked.
This was also evident to the War Office.74 There, it was believed that
the Japanese were pursuing â€˜a cautious diplomacyâ€™ and would walk a fine
line â€˜until the European situation has clarified itself considerablyâ€™.75 The
War Office believed that Japan had the resources both to continue the
war with China and to attack Soviet Russia, â€˜but it would be a very big
undertaking for Japan, for although the various â€śpurgesâ€ť have weakened
Russiaâ€™s military strength, her Far Eastern armies are still strong and
they would be, to a great extent, self-contained, even if Russia is fighting
simultaneously on two frontsâ€™. More â€˜temptingâ€™ for Japan, the War Office
opined, would be â€˜action against Great Britain, if the latter were deeply
involved in Europeâ€™. That conclusion, however, was tentative and con-
tingent upon Soviet Russiaâ€™s actions. When making decisions about
This paragraph is based on Craigie to FO, tel 275, 23 Mar 1939, FO 371/23560/
F2876/456/23, original emphasis, minutes, Dening (23 Mar), Brenan and Howe (both
25 Mar); minute, Howe, 23 Mar 1939, FO 371/22944/C4311/421/62, minutes, Moun-
sey (23 Mar) and Cadogan (24 Mar); minutes on Craigie to FO, tel 269, 23 Mar 1939,
This paragraph, except where indicated, is based on â€˜Japanâ€™, MI2, 21 Mar 1939, WO
For a Japanese probe of British attitudes to Russia, see Kirkpatrickâ€™s talk with Kase
(Japanese embassy), 23 Mar 1939, FO 371/23061/C3942/3356/18.
274 Britain, Soviet Russia and the Versailles Order
Soviet Russia, Britain would have to consider the impact in both Europe
and the Far East.
How to act in the Far East was also complicated by the fact that
British policy there had been contentious even before the absorption of