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minute and Cadogan™s minute (1 May 1939) on a copy of FP(36), 44th meeting, FO
371/23064/C6206/3356/18. The following paragraph, except where indicated, is also
based on this source.
Chamberlain as Buridan™s ass 285

I am convinced, as I believe you are too, that Russian support, even if of no great
military value, is well worth having . . . and if it is worth having at all we ought not
to boggle at paying the obvious price “ an assurance to the Russians, in return for
their promise of help, that we will not leave them alone to face German expan-
sion. Any other policy is to my mind not only cynical (which perhaps does not
matter in dealing with people like the Russians) but foredoomed to failure.

Most of this could not have been said better by Maisky himself (and
many later historians), but both Strang and Cadogan found weak points.
Strang made the obvious ripostes: Germany was not being left alone to
expand eastwards and Soviet Russia was not being left alone to face such
a threat due to the simple fact that ˜we have guaranteed Poland &
Roumania™. Cadogan noted that the Romanian foreign minister, Grigory
Gafencu, who had come to London, would not align himself with Soviet
Russia and would view Collier™s amendment to the French formula as
˜tying him up [to Soviet Russia], in present circumstances “ on
the Euclidean principle that countries which are allied with the same
country are allied with one another™.114
Collier™s blast had singled out Chamberlain™s remark that ˜the effect of
the French proposals in Berlin would be very bad indeed™ as evidence
that the prime minister was planning on pushing Germany east.115 But,
in fact, the prime minister™s view of Soviet policy was a mirror-image of
Collier™s (and the Soviets™) fears about British motives. As Chamberlain
wrote to one of his sisters on 29 April about his negotiations:
Our chief trouble is with Russia. I confess to being deeply suspicious of her. I
cannot believe that she has the same aims and objects as we have or any
sympathy with democracy as such. She is afraid of Germany & Japan and would
be delighted to see other people fight them. But she is probably very conscious of
her own military weakness and does not want to get into a conflict if she can help
it. Her efforts are therefore devoted to egging on others but herself promising
only vague assistance. Unfortunately she is thoroughly mistrusted by every one
else except our fatuous opposition and indeed it has been pretty clear to us that
open association with her would be fatal to any hope of combining Balkan
powers to resist German aggression.

In these circumstances, Chamberlain™s policy was ˜to keep Russia in the
back ground without antagonising her™.116
This was not easy. The same day that Chamberlain wrote to his sister,
Halifax had an interview with Maisky, the latter freshly back from
Moscow and talks with Stalin. The foreign secretary argued that the

For further evidence of Gafencu™s attitude, see Dalton diary entry, 23 Apr 1939, in
Pimlott, Dalton Diary, 260“1.
See archival sources in n. 113.
N. Chamberlain to Hilda, his sister, 29 Apr 1939, Chamberlain Papers NC 18/1/1096.
286 Britain, Soviet Russia and the Versailles Order

Soviet fear that they would be committed to helping Poland and Romania
while Britain and France remained aloof was ˜a mistaken conclusion™.117
While Maisky seemed somewhat mollified, a few days later he was
reported as being ˜in a rather truculent mood™ and quite unwilling to
support anything but a British acceptance to the Soviet offer of 17 April.
Maisky refused to admit that Soviet Russia would necessarily ˜come in™
to a conflict in which Poland or Romania were attacked, and instead
hinted darkly about ˜how strong the isolationist tendency [in Moscow]
had been after Munich™ and the ˜considerable conflict of views in the
Soviet Government™.118 In conversation with others, the Soviet ambas-
sador blamed the prime minister for the British unwillingness to accept
the Soviet offer.119 In such circumstances, Halifax contemplated going
to Geneva for direct discussions there with Litvinov. That was not to be.
The latter™s dismissal on 3 May came as a ˜complete surprise™ to the
Foreign Office.120 It began a swirl of speculation in London, including
the half-facetious remark: ˜Will he be shot?™ For Collier the ˜obvious
assumption is that M. Stalin is disgruntled at what he regards as the
failure of those [British and French] Governments to respond ad-
equately to the Soviet overtures, regards or affects to regard the whole
of M. Litvinov™s policy as a failure and desires to demonstrate to the
world (including the Germans, who are already putting this interpret-
ation upon his action) that he is returning to the policy of isolation™. That
Soviet policy was headed in this direction was also believed by Oliphant,
while Vansittart thought that isolation would ˜only be a prelude to
something worse™. Some thought that ˜worse™ might be a Soviet“German
Speculation was fuelled by further reports that the Germans were
leaning on the Japanese to convert the Anti-Comintern Pact into a

Halifax™s memo of an interview with Maisky, 29 Apr 1939, FO 371/23065/C6338/
The minute by Ewer (correspondent, Daily Herald) of a conversation with Maisky,
private and confidential (nd, but c. 1“2 May 1939), FO 371/23065/C6743/3356/18,
and the minutes by Strang (2 May), Cadogan (3 May) and Halifax (3 May).
Dalton diary entry, 7 May 1939, in Pimlott, Dalton Diary, 264.
˜Note of an Interview with Sir Alexander Cadogan™, R. Cecil, 4 May 1939, Cecil
Papers, Add MSS 51089. Halifax™s remarks are at FP(36), minutes 45th meeting, 5
May 1939, Cab 27/624. For discussions of why Litvinov was dismissed, See David
Dunn, ˜Maksim Litvinov: Commissar of Contradiction™, JCH, 23 (1988), 240“1;
Geoffrey Roberts, ˜The Fall of Litvinov: A Revisionist View™, JCH, 27 (1992), 639“
47; and Albert Resis, ˜The Fall of Litvinov: Harbinger of the German“Soviet Non-
Aggression Pact™, E“AS, 52, 1 (2000), 33“56.
Seeds to FO, tel 81 immediate, 4 May 1939, FO 371/23685/N2253/233/38, and the
minute by Collier (4 May); Seeds to FO, tel 83, 4 May 1939, FO 371/23685/N2282/
233/38, and the minutes by Collier (5 May), Oliphant (6 May) and Vansittart (9 May);
Channon diary entry, 3 May 1939, in Rhodes James, Chips, 197.
Chamberlain as Buridan™s ass 287

military alliance, aimed at Britain and France, by raising a fear in
Japanese minds that otherwise there might be a possibility of a Soviet“
German alliance.122 Despite such problems, the Far East was not going
to determine Anglo-Soviet relations. As Howe noted in the Far Eastern
Department, ˜H[is] M[ajesty™s] G[overnment] may at any time find it
necessary to come to some military understanding with Russia, in spite
of the adverse effect which such a decision will have on our relations with
Japan and on the situation in the Far East.™ If it were necessary to do so,
then the British would have to rely on American influence ˜in preventing
Japan from committing herself too far in the direction of a military
alliance with the Axis™.123 While the British were willing to reassure the
Japanese that any Anglo-Soviet agreement would be limited to Europe,
they were not willing to be coerced into ending negotiations with Soviet
Russia by Tokyo™s threatening closer relations with the Axis Powers as a
consequence.124 Thus, in Tokyo Craigie countered this tendency by
pouring into Japanese ears ˜triple distilled poison™, suggesting the possi-
bility of a Soviet“German rapprochement to Japan™s detriment if Britain
were to reject the Soviet overtures for an alliance.125 But, of course, the
fate of the alliance had not yet been decided.
The Soviet offer of 17 April was discussed at the Cabinet on 3 May.
˜[A] tri-partite pact on the lines proposed™, in Halifax™s view, ˜would
make war inevitable. On the other hand, he thought that it was only fair
to assume that if we rejected Russia™s proposal, Russia would sulk. There
was also always the bare possibility that a refusal of Russia™s offer might
even throw her into Germany™s arms.™ For the Admiralty, Stanhope
pointed out that a Soviet alliance would ˜create great difficulties™ with
Spain, whose position athwart British lines of communication was of
crucial importance. Chatfield concurred, although he noted that a
Soviet“German agreement would at least ˜decrease the risk that Japan
would make a military pact with Germany™.126

Dening™s minute (5 May) on Craigie to FO, tel 380, 3 May 1939, FO 371/23561/
Howe™s minute (10 May) on Craigie to FO, tel 381, FO 371/23561/F4212/456/23.
Halifax did his best to assure the Japanese that any Anglo-Soviet co-operation would be
limited to Europe; see his minute of a conversation with the Japanese ambassador, 27
Apr 1939, FO 371/23561/F4055/456/23. On the rumoured pact between Tokyo and
Berlin, see the minutes on Maj. C. R. Major (WO) to Ronald, secret and personal, 29
Apr 1939, FO 371/23561/F4133/456/23; the minutes on Craigie to FO, tel 421
decipher, 13 May 1939, and reply, tel 237, 22 May 1939, both FO 371/23561/
Howe™s minute (17 May) on Craigie to FO, tel 428 decipher, 15 May 1939, FO 371/
Minutes, Cab 26(39), 3 May 1939, Cab 23/99.
288 Britain, Soviet Russia and the Versailles Order

With opinions divided in the Cabinet, discussion of the Soviet pro-
posal was taken up at the FPC on 5 May.127 But that morning,
before the meeting, Chamberlain had defended himself against public
pressure to make an alliance with Soviet Russia. He was ˜most scathing™
in the House of Commons, ˜and clearly revealed his dislike of both the
“Bollos” [Bolsheviks] and of Russia™ and their Parliamentary support-
ers.128 At the FPC meeting that afternoon, tempers were calmer. The
dismissal of Litvinov and what it portended for Soviet policy coloured
the entire meeting. The Soviet proposal of 17 April was quickly dis-
missed because it was felt to offend the states of eastern Europe (includ-
ing Turkey, a key to British defence plans in the Middle East and Eastern
Mediterranean). The meeting then discussed the Soviet demand for a
˜no separate peace™ clause. This divided the committee. Stanley, Hoare,
Chatfield and Malcolm Macdonald (the colonial secretary) were in
favour; Chamberlain, Halifax, Morrison and Inskip were opposed. The
former group felt that the clause added nothing to Britain™s commit-
ments and, if it were the Soviet price for an agreement, it should be paid.
The latter group felt that to do so would tie Britain™s hands in all future
circumstances. Further, as Chamberlain put it, ˜a tripartite “no separate
peace” agreement . . . might find . . . [Britain] faced with an entirely new
situation™, particularly in the light of Litvinov™s dismissal. With Halifax
noting that there was no ˜reliable information™ as to why Litvinov had
gone, speculation was rampant. Chatfield™s vision was the most ominous:
Litvinov™s ˜successor . . . [might] favour some isolationist or even
pro-German policy™, a possibility supported by Maisky™s enigmatic
The result was two telegrams to Seeds, outlining the British position.
Seeds was asked whether the Soviet proposal of 17 April still stood in
light of Litvinov™s dismissal (in which case Britain would be ˜very willing™
to discuss the issue of a separate peace) and to request that Soviet Russia
make a unilateral public declaration about eastern Europe in line with
the Anglo-French utterances. The latter request was accompanied by
Halifax™s explanation that ˜this formula does, in fact, give the Soviet
Government a reciprocal assurance of common action, since the declar-
ation . . . only places them under a conditional obligation in a case where
ex hypothesi Great Britain and France are already engaged™.129 An openly

This paragraph except where indicated, is based on FP(36), minutes of 45th meeting, 5
May 1939, Cab 27/624.
Channon diary entry, 5 May 1939, in Rhodes James, Chips, 197.
FO to Seeds, tels 98 and 99, 6 May 1939, appendices II and III, Cab 27/624.
Chamberlain as Buridan™s ass 289

tripartite agreement remained unacceptable for the same reasons: the
complications it would cause in all dealings with east European states.130
There was an immediate scurry to determine the Soviet position. On 6
May, Maisky, who announced himself puzzled by Litvinov™s dismissal,
evaded a direct reply to Halifax™s question as to whether that event
˜should be held to signify any change in policy™. Maisky™s rejoinder, ˜that
no change of policy was to be assumed™, was less than a guarantee,131
and Oliver Harvey, Halifax™s secretary, noted the ˜great obscurity about
Russia™ that surrounded the negotiations.132 The answers lay in
Moscow. On 9 May, Seeds saw Viacheslav Molotov, Litvinov™s succes-
sor. Molotov immediately told the British ambassador that the Soviet
proposal was still on the table, but then, in the words of Seeds, ˜subject
[ed] me to relentless cross-examination™ on the British draft. Molotov
laid stress on the need for military talks, contested that the Poles
objected to direct association with the Soviets, enquired as to whether
the British had guaranteed the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland,
and demanded, during a ˜most unpleasant ten minutes™, why the British
and French replies were not identical and whether each had approved
the other™s draft. Seeds replied as best he could, but several of these
points were beyond his brief. In spite of a thinly veiled threat by Molotov
that Soviet policy ˜was liable to alter if the other States changed theirs™,
the discussion ended amiably.133
In London, Halifax endeavoured the same day to make the British
position clear to Maisky. The key to the discussion was the Soviet
concern that ˜there was some possibility of the Soviet Government being
involved either in advance of France and ourselves or alone™. Halifax did
his best to disabuse Maisky of this anxiety, pointing out that the British
draft committed the Soviets only when Britain and France were involved
in hostilities. Maisky professed himself unconvinced, arguing that ˜there
were many ways in which the strategical position might develop™. Halifax
rebutted that, as long as the ˜two conditions™ that Britain had put on its

This is nicely summarized in ˜Negotiations between His Majesty™s Government and the
Soviet Government, March-May 1939™, ns, 7 May 1939, FO 371/23065/C7010/3356/
Nicolson diary entry, 4 May 1939, in Nicolson, Diaries and Letters, 401; Halifax™s memo
of a conversation with Maisky, 6 May 1939, FO 371/23065/C6705/3356/18.
Harvey diary entry, 7 May 1939, Harvey Papers, Add MSS 56395.
Seeds to FO, tel 87, 9 May 1939, FO 371/23065/C6804/3356/18. For Molotov™s
career, see Steven Merritt Miner, ˜His Master™s Voice: Viacheslav Mikhailovich Molo-
tov as Stalin™s Foreign Commissar™, in Gordon A. Craig and Francis L. Loewenheim,
eds., The Diplomats 1939“1979 (Princeton, 1994), 65“100; for his early policies, see
Derek Watson, ˜Molotov™s Apprenticeship in Foreign Policy: The Triple Alliance
Negotiations in 1939™, E“AS, 52, 4 (2000), 695“722.
290 Britain, Soviet Russia and the Versailles Order

guarantee to Poland and Romania were observed, he would be willing to
endeavour to meet any Soviet concerns. The matter rested there, but, in
a passage that Halifax stroked out, Maisky asked the following question:
was the ˜threat™ to Poland or Romania that Halifax had discussed ˜direct
or indirect?™134 This was significant, for over the course of the next three
months, much would turn on the answer. But, at this time, Halifax only
reported his meeting with Maisky to the Cabinet, where both Hoare and
Stanley pushed the foreign secretary to endeavour to get the Soviets
While negotiations continued, another attempt was made to deter-
mine the value of Soviet Russia as an ally. The COS met on 9 May to
consider this very issue. There was no change in their evaluation. In


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