Japanâ€™s actions had become so provocative that Britain should denounce
the Anglo-Japanese Commercial Treaty and create the legal means
to initiate trade sanctions against Tokyo. Howe agreed, terming the Japan-
ese actions in the Far East â€˜the Axis policy of calculated blackmailâ€™.76
However, the Board of Trade intervened.77 The latter department op-
posed such a drastic measure, and the matter stalled. Instead, the issue of
the Far East became tied up with the wider issue of a possible Anglo-Soviet
But that is to get ahead of events. The last two weeks of March were
filled with frantic efforts to discover the attitudes of the various eastern
and northern European nations both to Germanyâ€™s action and to any
possible Soviet involvement. There were rumours that the occupation
of Czechoslovakia was a prelude to some German action against
Romania and hence Hungary and Ukraine. From Poland, there was an
evasive reply as to whether Warsaw would contemplate an alliance with
Bucharest to resist German aggression. This answer was interpreted in
Paris as foreshadowing that the Poles would â€˜lean on Germanyâ€™ without
an Anglo-French guarantee.78 The Romanians allowed that they would
â€˜welcome Soviet military assistanceâ€™ against Germany, and the French
said that they would support Bucharest if the British would.79
What about Soviet Russia? While the Soviets accepted the British
proposal for a four-power consultation on 22 March, the ramifications
of Moscowâ€™s participation were not straightforward.80 One issue was
the attitude of Poland and Romania. The French feared, despite the
Romanian attitude noted above, that neither country would be willing to
Untitled memo, Ronald, 28 Feb 1939, FO 371/23560/F3478/456/23, Howeâ€™s minute
Willis (B of T) to Ronald, 14 April 1939, FO 371/23560/F3695/456/23.
Kennard to FO, tel 58, 18 Mar 1939, FO 371/23060/C3454/3356/18; Phipps to FO,
tel 114, 18 Mar 1939, FO 371/23060/C3455/3356/18; Kennard to FO, 20 Mar 1939,
tel 61 decipher, FO 371/23061/C3665/3356/18.
Gladwyn Jebbâ€™s interview with Tilea (Romanian minister to London), 18 Mar 1939,
FO 371/23060/C3576/3356/18; Campbell (Paris) to FO, tel 121, 20 Mar 1939, FO
371/23060/C3540/3356/18; Cadoganâ€™s conversation with Corbin (French ambassador
to London), 20 Mar 1939, FO 371/23060/C3598/3356/18. For Romania, see Dov B.
Lungu, â€˜The European Crisis of Marchâ€“April 1939: The Romanian Dimensionâ€™, IHR,
7, 3 (1985), 390â€“414; for France, see Peter Jackson, â€˜France and the Guarantee to
Romania, April 1939â€™, INS, 10, 2 (1995), 242â€“72.
Seeds to FO, tel 42, 22 Mar 1939, FO 371/23061/C3821/3356/18.
Chamberlain as Buridanâ€™s ass 275
permit Soviet troops to move on to their territory, and that the Poles, in
particular, would rather remain neutral than do so. Sargent concurred, and
thus counselled asking for Soviet economic assistance only. Cadogan
pointed out that at present only â€˜consultationâ€™ was contemplated, but agreed
that the French concerns would have to be considered when (and if ) later
discussions involved what each Power â€˜might be prepared to doâ€™.81 On 21
and 22 March, the official French views arrived. Georges Bonnet, the
French minister for foreign affairs, made it clear that it was â€˜absolutely
essential to get Poland inâ€™, as this was the only way that â€˜Russian helpâ€™ could
The fears about Polandâ€™s policy became fact on 21 March. On that
date, Jozef Beck, the Polish foreign minister, indicated that, if Poland
aligned itself with Soviet Russia, this would â€˜undoubtedlyâ€™ lead to a
â€˜seriousâ€™ German reaction. He â€˜implied that the participation of the
Soviet Government might lead to difficulties but that Poland might be
able to associateâ€™ with Britain and France â€˜if Soviet Russia were omittedâ€™.
This carried its own difficulties for the British, as â€˜having brought the
Russians in we do not want to push them out again immediatelyâ€™.83 But
the Poles were not alone in being reluctant to associate with Soviet
Russia. The Finns, too, expressed â€˜astonishmentâ€™ that London might
â€˜consider [that the] Russians can be relied onâ€™.84 This view was shared
by some at the Foreign Office; Lascelles noted (and Oliphant agreed)
â€˜that we fully realise â€“ I hope we do â€“ the completely unreliable character
of the Soviet govtâ€™. From Rome, Perth reported that many countries â€“
including Italy â€“ would automatically reject any alignment that included
Soviet Russia.85 Maisky was contemptuous. He told Cadogan that â€˜too
many people here and elsewhere were talking of now detaching Italy
from the Axisâ€™. For the Soviet ambassador, that would happen only if
Mussolini felt that the â€˜Peace Front was stronger than Germanyâ€™. While
Cadogan â€˜heartily concur[red]â€™ that Italy could not be bought off, he did
not favour Soviet Russia or oppose coming to terms with Italy.86 â€˜If the
position could be so simplifiedâ€™, Cadogan noted on 24 March, â€˜as to be
Sargentâ€™s discussion with Cambon (French charge dâ€™affaires in London), 20 March
1939, FO 371/23061/C435/3356/18, minute, Cadogan (20 Mar), original emphasis.
â€˜Record of an Anglo-French Conversation held in the Secretary of Stateâ€™s Room at the
Foreign Office, on March 21, 1939 at 5 pmâ€™, â€˜Record of an Anglo-French Conversation
held in the Prime Ministerâ€™s Room at the House of Commons, on March 22, 1939, at 5
pmâ€™, both Halifax Papers, FO 800/311.
Kennard to FO, tel 68, 21 Mar 1939, FO 371/23061/C3727/3356/18, minute, Makins
(23 Mar); Kennard to FO, tel 63, 21 Mar 1939, FO 371/23061/C3724/3356/18.
Snow (minister, Helsingfors) to FO, tel 22, 23 Mar 1939, FO 371/23061/C3849/3356/
18, minutes, Lascelles (27 Mar) and Oliphant (28 Mar).
Perth to FO, tel 213, 23 Mar 1939, FO 371/23061/C3907/3356/18.
Cadoganâ€™s talk with Maisky, 23 Mar 1939, FO 371/23062/C4155/3356/18.
276 Britain, Soviet Russia and the Versailles Order
put in the form of the question â€“ Italy or Russia? â€“ I w[oul]d unhesitat-
ingly plump for the former.â€™87
Halifax had to clarify the Polish position. On 23 March, the Polish
ambassador proposed a secret agreement between Warsaw and London
that the two would consult if Poland (or Romania) were threatened.
This desire for such an arrangement was based on Warsawâ€™s reluctance
to offend the Germans by any linkage with Soviet Russia. Halifaxâ€™s
thinking about this tied together many of the strands outlined above:
H[alifax] feels adherence of Poland is essential to any effective scheme to hold up
Germany in event of aggression. He also feels we should not make it too difficult
for Italy to betray her Ally. He therefore thinks we cannot have Russia in the
forefront of the picture although both for internal reasons and because of her
ultimate military value, if only as our arsenal, we must keep her with us . . . What
we want to secure is the certainty for Germany of a war on two fronts â€“ East and
West â€“ in the event of any aggression by her.
Halifax intended to bring this about by obtaining a Polish undertaking
that the country would defend itself against German aggression and then
promising Warsaw Anglo-French support. Further, if Poland were
willing to fight for Romania, then France and Britain would also pledge
their support. Having achieved this, the foreign secretary would ask
Romania for similar, reciprocal assurances. However, getting Polish
agreement would be difficult. As Halifax noted on 25 March, â€˜it has
been forcibly borne in upon us during these last two days, that Poland is
most reluctant, and indeed, I think, would be definitely unwilling, to be
publicly associated in any way with Russiaâ€™. â€˜As regards Russiaâ€™ itself,
Harvey noted, â€˜his [Halifaxâ€™s] idea at present is to suggest that she and
France should simplify the Franco-Soviet Pact . . . and turn it into a
straight defensive allianceâ€™.88
Chamberlainâ€™s view of this policy was expressed both privately and
publicly.89 Chamberlain stressed Polandâ€™s fear of Germany, and noted
that, in such circumstances, he doubted that Warsaw would ever accept
the four-power proposal. Should Britain then bother with Soviet Russia?
â€˜I must confess to the most pronounced distrust of Russiaâ€™, the prime
Cadoganâ€™s minute (24 Mar) on Ogilvie-Forbes to FO, tel 172, 23 Mar 1939, FO 371/
Halifaxâ€™s conversation with the Polish ambassador, 24 Mar 1939, FO 371/23062/
C4086/3356/18; Harveyâ€™s diary entry, 24 Mar 1939, Harvey Papers, Add MSS
56395; Halifax to Salisbury, 25 Mar 1939, Halifax Papers, FO 800/315.
This and the following two paragraphs are based on N. Chamberlain to Ida, his sister,
26 Mar 1939, Chamberlain Papers, 26 Mar 1939, NC 18/1/1091; FP(36), minutes,
38th meeting, 27 Mar 1939, Cab 27/624.
Chamberlain as Buridanâ€™s ass 277
I have no belief whatever in her ability to maintain an effective offensive even if
she wanted to. And I distrust her motives which seem to me have little connec-
tion with our ideas of liberty and to be concerned only with getting every one else
by the ears. Moreover she is both hated and suspected by many of the smaller
states . . . so that our close association with her might easily cost us the sympathy
of those who would much more effectively help us if we can get them on our side.
At the Foreign Policy Committee on 27 March, Chamberlain struck
many of the same chords, but added some grace notes, including a
concern that Britainâ€™s linking with Soviet Russia would â€˜consolidateâ€™
the Anti-Comintern Pact. His conclusion showed that any choice
regarding Soviet Russia was rife with difficulty. â€˜It looked, thereforeâ€™,
he told his colleagues, â€˜as if a failure to associate with Soviet Russia
would give rise to suspicion and difficulty with the Left Wing in this
country and in France, while on the other hand insistence to associate
with Soviet Russia would destroy any chance of building up a solid and
united front against German aggression.â€™
What to do? Chamberlain plumped for some â€˜alternative courseâ€™ in
which the â€˜Four Power Declarationâ€™ would be abandoned, and turned to
Halifaxâ€™s plan for an Anglo-French guarantee of Poland and Romania.
By leaving â€˜Soviet Russia out of the pictureâ€™, the prime minister argued,
all the drawbacks to its inclusion would be eliminated. By a modification
of the Franco-Soviet Pact, or by eliminating what Halifax termed â€˜some of
the embarrassing conditionsâ€™ within it, Chamberlain held out the
possibility that there might be some way in which â€˜Russia might be
indirectly and secretly brought into the schemeâ€™. This provoked discus-
sion. Hoare, while reminding the committee that â€˜[n]o one could accuse
him of any predilections in favour of Soviet Russiaâ€™, wanted to ensure
that the front opposing Germany contained â€˜as many countries as pos-
sibleâ€™, and preferred a policy that kept Soviet Russia in, if only through
the Franco-Soviet Pact.
Matters turned on the relative value of Poland and Soviet Russia.
Opinions were divided. Halifax argued that it was â€˜imperativeâ€™ not to
â€˜risk offendingâ€™ Poland, while Inskip and the foreign secretary both
contended that Poland was of more value militarily than was Soviet
Russia. The former also pointed out that Britain should â€˜be very careful
not to get drawn into any commitments with Russia which might involve
us in hostilities from Japanâ€™. Halifax added that, while Britain and
France lacked the resources to â€˜prevent Poland and Romania from being
overrunâ€™, something needed to be done or â€˜we [would be] faced with the
dilemma of doing nothing, or entering into a devastating war . . . In
those circumstances if we had to choose between two great evils he
favoured our going to war.â€™ Those who favoured an arrangement with
278 Britain, Soviet Russia and the Versailles Order
Soviet Russia continued to argue, and Halifax continued to rebut. W. S.
Morrison, the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, wondered whether
negotiations with Soviet Russia could be kept secret, and worried that
Moscow might â€˜react actively when she learnt that she was to be ex-
cluded from the pactâ€™. Halifax replied that Soviet Russia â€˜might sulkâ€™.
Oliver Stanley worried that it might claim that British policy was
â€˜directed to pushing Germany into a conflict with Russiaâ€™. Halifax
â€˜pointed out that Germany could not in fact invade Russia except
through Poland or Roumaniaâ€™. Hoare, out of concrete arguments,
turned instead to the delphic: â€˜All experience showed that Russia was
undefeatable and he was apprehensive of the possible consequences that
might result if at this juncture the enmity of Soviet Russia towards this
country was increased.â€™
The matter stood there, and the policy of Halifax and Chamberlain
was adopted. While the details were worked out, little was said publicly.
Maisky was simply told that Britain now was â€˜contemplatingâ€™ aiding
Poland and Romania, by military force if necessary, a statement rapidly
publicized in Soviet Russia.90 The Cabinet and the leaders of the Labour
Party were also kept generally informed.91 In Cabinet, Hoare and Walter
Elliot, the minister of health, both raised the issue of Soviet Russia, the
home secretary to wonder why France had not done something via the
Franco-Soviet Pact and Elliot to hope that the country could somehow
be included, if only in a separate declaration, for the sake of the â€˜home
frontâ€™. Halifax soothed both their concerns by assuring them that some-
thing might indeed be done in the future; the â€˜essential pointâ€™ was
Poland, while â€˜he would take what steps were possible to keep in with
Russiaâ€™.92 Thomas Jones caught the position nicely: â€˜Chamberlain and
Halifax are determined not to exclude or isolateâ€™ Soviet Russia.93
The Foreign Office also discussed Soviet Russia. Seeds suggested that
â€˜too great importance should not be attachedâ€™ to Soviet assurances to
Bucharest that help would be given to Romania.94 He argued that
Moscowâ€™s reaction to any action by Germany would â€˜depend on circum-
stancesâ€™. Only if it were believed that an attack on Romania was â€˜a
precursor to an attack on the USSRâ€™ would the Soviets move, and then
Cadoganâ€™s conversation with Maisky, 29 Mar 1939, FO 371/23062/C4692/3356/18;
Seeds to FO, tel 50, 30 Mar 1939, FO 371/23062/C4398/3356/18.
Dalton diary entry, 24 Mar 1939, in Ben Pimlott, The Political Diary of Huge Dalton
1918â€“1940, 1945â€“1960 (London, 1986), 257â€“8.
Minutes, Cab 15(39), 29 Mar 1939, Cab 23/98.
Thomas Jones to Abraham Flexner, 2 Apr 1939, in T. Jones, Diary with Letters, 431.
This and the following paragraph are based on Seeds to FO, disp 101, 21 Mar 1939,
FO 371/23061/C3968/3356/18, minutes, Roberts (28 Mar), Strang (28 Mar), Collier
(29 Mar), Oliphant (two, 29 Mar) and Vansittart (31 Mar).
Chamberlain as Buridanâ€™s ass 279
only (barring a guarantee of British and French aid) after due consider-
ation. And, in a phrase that Strang found particularly significant, should
the attack on Romania be felt by the Soviets to be
the prelude, not to an attack on the Soviet Union, but a German move westwards
against France and Great Britain, it seems certain that the Soviet Government
would do everything in their power to keep out of the resulting struggle and
would indeed feel considerable satisfaction at the prospect of an international
conflict from which all the participants would be likely to emerge considerably
weakened and which would thus furnish the Soviet Union with an opportunity of
greatly strengthening its own position.
But this opinion was contentious.
Some supported it. Roberts felt that Seeds had provided a â€˜powerful
justification for our present approach to the problem of collective secur-
ityâ€™, and Strang cited the passage quoted above. Collier disagreed. He
contended that the Soviet leaders, rather than watching the situation
purely with an eye to their own advantage, â€˜must be feeling very uneasy,
that they realise that it will be to their interest to join in preventing a
German attack on either Roumania or Poland, but that they will not
move unless they can be quite sure that we and the French will move
tooâ€™. This was the issue of â€˜chestnutsâ€™ once again. Oliphant was succinct:
â€˜I do not share Mr Collierâ€™s view.â€™ Vansittart was supportive: â€˜I should
have thought it quite clear that the Soviet Govt are feeling uneasy.
Everyone is â€“ and for the same reasons!â€™ As to possible Soviet aid,
Oliphant added that the head of the Secret Service had told him that