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considering whether gaining Soviet Russia as an ally was worth making
Spain an enemy (as was thought likely due to the latter™s fervid anti-
communism), the chiefs were equivocal. If Soviet Russia were ˜at least
neutral™, then ˜the advantages of an alliance with Russia would not offset
the disadvantages of the open hostility of Spain™. However, ˜the active
and whole-hearted assistance of Russia as our ally would be of great
value™, and ˜the greatest danger to which the British Empire could be
exposed would be a combination of Russia and Axis Powers™.136 This
latter concern led to a reconsideration on 16 May, but in the interim
there were political developments.
On 11 May, Maisky again told Halifax that Soviet Russia demanded
˜complete reciprocity™ in any agreement. By this, he meant that Moscow
wished to be covered should its commitments to the Baltic states
involve it in war. Halifax pointed out that Soviet commitments were
not Britain™s concern, but that a failure to grant what Maisky wished in
no way affected the idea of ˜reciprocity™ towards Poland and Romania,
the matter under discussion. Maisky then turned towards a consider-
ation of the ˜military discussions™. Without Anglo-Soviet-French talks,
the Anglo-French military commitment to aid Poland and Romania
could be delayed, and ˜the Soviet Government would not know when such
intervention would take place™.137 Soviet suspicion was evident. Halifax™s
reply was brisk: ˜our guarantee to Poland and Roumania involved
us in coming immediately to their assistance, if our conditions were

134
Halifax™s conversation with Maisky, 9 May 1939, FO 371/23065/C6812/3356/18.
135
Minutes, Cab 27(39), 10 May 1939, Cab 23/99.
136
COS, minutes 293rd meeting, 9 May 1939, Cab 53/11; ˜Balance of Strategical Value in
War as Between Spain as an Enemy and Russia as an Ally™, COS 902 (in draft), COS,
10 May 1939, Cab 53/49, and a paper with the same title, COS 904 (JP), JPC, 8 May
1939, Cab 53/49.
137
Halifax™s interview with Maisky, 11 May 1939, FO 371/23065/C6922/3356/18.
Chamberlain as Buridan™s ass 291

fulfilled, and that, if words meant anything, it was impossible for us to
give any assurance more complete™.138 Despite this assurance, the offi-
cial Soviet reply on 14 May rejected the British draft.139 Moscow™s
concerns had been adumbrated by Maisky; what was required was
˜reciprocity™, an extension of the guarantees to the Baltic states and a
˜concrete agreement™ as to the ˜forms and extent of assistance™ to be
offered.
Mutual suspicion abounded. Chamberlain was annoyed that the
Soviet rejection had been published, and his adjectives reflected both
his prejudices and his dislike of anyone who failed to see the rectitude of
his own position: ˜It is an odd way of carrying on negotiations, to reply to
our reasoned & courteous despatch by publishing a tendentious & one
sided retort in their press. But they have no understanding of this
countries [sic] mentality or conditions and no manners.™ As was fre-
quently the case with Chamberlain, he saw a link between all of those
who disagreed with him:
they [the Soviets] are working hand in hand with our opposition. The latter don™t
want to see anything that doesn™t exalt & glorify Russia or perhaps they might
understand that if alliance with Russia which is incapable of giving much effect-
ive aid were to alienate Spain & drive her into the Axis camp we should lose far
more in the West than we could ever hope to gain in the East.140
However, the Soviet rejection meant that the matter needed to be
considered more carefully.
The 16th of May was full of such reconsideration. On that day, the
COS met to re-examine the value of Soviet Russia.141 Fearing the
possibility of some sort of Russo-German understanding, the COS
decided that an agreement with Soviet Russia would not further increase
Spain™s animosity towards Britain. Equally, the defence of eastern
Europe required active Soviet co-operation, a decision sent to the For-
eign Policy Committee for consideration that evening.142 Between these
two meetings, Halifax convened an informal discussion at the Foreign
Office. Discussion there went to the crux of the matter: ˜It is a question

138
British aid for Poland had been decided: ˜Anglo-French Action in Support of Poland™,
COS 905, COS, 3 Jun 1939, Cab 53/49.
139
Seeds to FO, tel 93, 14 May 1939, FO 371/23066/C7065/3356/18.
140
N. Chamberlain to his sister, Hilda, 14 May 1939, Chamberlain Papers, NC 18/1/
1099.
141
Minutes 295th and 296th meetings COS, both 16 May, Cab 53/11; Keith Neilson,
˜“Pursued by a Bear”: British Estimates of Soviet Military Strength and Anglo-Soviet
Relations, 1922-1939™, CJH, 28, 2(1993) 217“18.
142
´
Yielding ˜Negotiations with Soviet Russia. Aide Memoire by the Chiefs of Staff™, as
appendix II in FP(36), minutes, 47th meeting, 16 May 1939, Cab 27/625.
292 Britain, Soviet Russia and the Versailles Order

of mutual trust. It is difficult for a British Conservative Government to
negotiate an agreement with a Russian Communist one.™143 At the FPC,
Chatfield made the case for the Soviet alliance that the COS had recom-
mended.144 Chamberlain and Halifax continued to avoid any commit-
ment that would embarrass or annoy Poland and Romania, although
Cadogan now believed that it was best to ˜go the whole hog™ with Soviet
Russia if only to head off a deal between Moscow and Berlin.145 There
was also concern that the Soviet proposal would both commit Britain to
defend purely Soviet interests and place the decision as to war or peace
in Soviet hands. Chatfield, Stanley and Hoare favoured making such a
commitment, but Halifax and Chamberlain did not. The result was a
call for further discussions. As Henry Channon, Butler™s parliamentary
private secretary, shrewdly noted: ˜I gather that it has now been decided
not to embrace the Russian bear, but to hold out a hand and accept its
paw gingerly. No more. The worst of both worlds.™146
Further discussions took place informally and semi-officially, through
conversations between Vansittart and Maisky.147 On 16 and 17 May, the
diplomatic adviser was able to pare down “ by the likely elimination of
the Baltic guarantees “ the Soviet demands to an irreducible minimum:
immediate military discussions.148 A rapid decision was needed.149 On
17 May, the Cabinet was informed of all the discussions, but took no
decision. ˜To hug the bear™, Channon noted in his diary that same day,
˜or not?™150 The essential arguments were made at the FPC two days
later. There, Halifax relayed the news that Maisky had only that morning
gone back on his tentative concessions to Vansittart and now took the
position that ˜the only basis on which the Soviet Government were
prepared to proceed was that of a Triple Pact between Great Britain,
France and Russia™.
Halifax was in a dilemma. While recognizing ˜how serious would be the
consequence of a breakdown of the present negotiations™ with Moscow,

143
Harvey diary entry, 16 May 1939, Harvey Papers, Add MSS 56395.
144
FP(36), minutes, 47th meeting, 16 May 1939, Cab 27/625.
145
Cadogan diary entry, 16 May 1939, in Dilks, ed., Cadogan Diaries, 180.
146
Channon diary entry, 16 May 1939, in Rhodes James, Chips, 199.
147
This and the following two paragraphs, except where indicated, are based on Vansit-
tart™s account of a lunch with Maisky, 16 May 1939, FO 371/23066/C7268/3356/18;
Halifax to Chamberlain, 18 May 1939, Prem 1/409; minutes, Cab 28(39), 17 May
1939, Cab 23/99; FP(36), minutes, 48th meeting, 19 May 1939, Cab 27/625; Cado-
gan™s diary entries, 17“19 May 1939, in Dilks, Cadogan Diaries, 180“1.
148
Minute, Peake (News Department, FO), 17 May 1939, FO 371/23066/C7556/3356/
18.
149
Peake™s minute of a conversation with Ewer (Daily Mail), 18 May 1939, FO 371/
23066/C7468/3356/18.
150
Channon diary entry, 17 May 1939, in Rhodes James, Chips, 199.
Chamberlain as Buridan™s ass 293

the foreign secretary also realized ˜that the question of encirclement was at
the moment very much in the public mind™. What to do? On the one hand,
he pointed out that the Germans would declare Britain to be ˜the inventor
and creator of the encirclement policy™ no matter what the government™s
decision as to the Soviet proposal. On the other hand, ˜he had the
strongest possible distaste for a policy which meant our acquiescing in
Soviet blackmail and bluff™.151 Discussion then turned on whether the
public or Germany would see any difference between the Soviet proposal
and the more nuanced version that Vansittart had discussed.
Again, opinion was divided. Hoare, Inskip and (to a lesser extent)
Simon believed that neither would see a difference and that the govern-
ment would be blamed if the talks broke down. But Chamberlain was
adamant: the two proposals had a ˜fundamental difference™, in that the
Soviet plan would align the ˜Great Powers . . . in peace just as they would
be if war broke out™, and that this might push Hitler to begin a war. With
no agreement in sight, a decision was delayed until a special Cabinet
could be held on the 24th, by which time Halifax would have returned
from a trip to Geneva scheduled for 21 May. Salisbury put the whole
issue as it faced the British nicely. The decision on ˜whether we should
make a close alliance with Russia is™, he wrote on 19 May, ˜one of the
most difficult we could possibly have to make™. Salisbury pointed out the
ambivalent value of a Soviet alliance: on the one hand, its strength
(however circumscribed) would be useful; on the other, its ideological
inclinations would alienate potential friends and allies. He concluded
that only the possibility of a Soviet“German alliance “ ˜the greatest thing
we have to fear™ “ would make an Anglo-Soviet alliance a necessity.152
At Geneva, Halifax continued his negotiations.153 He spoke with
Daladier, who favoured the Soviet proposal. The French prime minister
argued that any attack on Soviet Russia that did not invoke the Anglo-
French guarantees of Romania and Poland was ˜most unlikely™. Further,
he contended that Britain™s obligations would not be extended under the
tripartite pact. Halifax argued (borrowing Maisky™s hat) to the contrary:
that, if Germany ˜with Polish or Roumanian connivance™ attacked Soviet
Russia, the Anglo-French guarantee would not come into force, whereas,
under the Triple Alliance, Britain would be committed. Daladier
replied simply. In such a case, Paris would be committed under the

151
Issues outlined also in Cadogan to Henderson, 22 May 1939, Cadogan Papers, FO
800/294.
152
Salisbury to Halifax, 19 May 1939, Halifax Papers, FO 800/322.
153
This and the following paragraph, except where indicated, are based on Halifax
(Geneva) to FO, tels 8 LN and 10, both 21 May 1939, FO 371/23066/C7551 and
C7522/3356/18.
294 Britain, Soviet Russia and the Versailles Order

Franco-Soviet Pact. And, if France were at war, could Britain stay out?
Given Halifax™s long-standing dislike of the Franco-Soviet Pact, this
could scarcely have been a palatable argument, but it was unanswerable.
Maisky, who had also travelled to Geneva, reiterated all his points to
Halifax on 21 May. At bottom was the Soviet suspicion that, without a
full-blown tripartite pact, there were loopholes that would leave Soviet
Russia in danger of facing Germany alone. By 23 May, the Poles and
Romanians had dropped their objections to a tripartite pact, and, in
Harvey™s words, there was ˜little doubt now that Soviet Russia will take
nothing less™.154 With Halifax moving towards a pact, all depended on
Chamberlain. His attitude was also slowly changing. On 21 May, he
evinced the first display of doubt, both about his position and his
political support:
I have had a very tiresome week over the Russians . . . I wish I knew what sort of
people we are dealing with. They may be just simple straightforward people but I
cannot rid myself of the suspicion that they are chiefly concerned to see the
˜capitalist™ Powers tear each other to pieces while they stay out themselves . . .
Those who advocate the former [an alliance] say that if we don™t agree Russia &
Germany will come to an understanding, which to my mind, is a pretty sinister
commentary on Russian reliability. But some members of the Cabinet who were
most unwilling to agree to the Alliance now appear to have swung toward the
opposite view. In the end, I think much will depend on the attitude of Poland &
Roumania.155
By 23 May, Chamberlain had swung round. However, he was unwilling
to surrender completely, and asked Cadogan to insert a ˜“League um-
brella”™ by means of a reference to Article XVI of the Covenant into a
draft alliance.156 Harvey found this ironic. ˜Really the wheel has come
full circle™, he noted on 24 May, ˜when we have the PM who has done
more than any responsible statesman to sidetrack Geneva, trying to
cover himself with Geneva clothes in order to hide the shame of direct
agreement with Soviet Russia.™157
All was revealed to the Cabinet on 24 May.158 Halifax outlined
Daladier™s and Maisky™s positions. After carefully parsing all arguments,

154
Harvey diary entries, 21“24 May 1939, Harvey Papers, Add MSS 56395; Kennard to
FO, tel 173 decipher, 22 May 1939, FO 371/23066/C7524/3356/18, minute, Sargent
(23 May).
155
N. Chamberlain to Ida, his sister, 21 May 1939, Chamberlain Papers, NC 18/1/1100.
156
Cadogan™s diary entry, 23 May 1939, in Dilks, Cadogan Diaries, 182; Cadogan™s minute
for Halifax, 23 May 1939, FO 371/23066/C7469/3356/18; Cadogan™s draft, 23 May
1939, included with Cadogan to Chamberlain, 23 May 1939, Prem 1/409.
157
Harvey diary entry, 24 May 1939, Harvey Papers, Add MSS 56395.
158
This and the following paragraph, except where indicated, are based on minutes, Cab
30(39), 24 May 1939, Cab 23/99; ˜Negotiations with Russia™, CP 115(39), Bridges, 17
Chamberlain as Buridan™s ass 295

the foreign secretary made his recommendation: ˜he had never disguised
from his colleagues his own views on the subject of a close association
with the Russian Government. In present circumstances, however, he
felt that it was not possible to contemplate a breakdown of the negoti-
ations™ and that a ˜direct mutual guarantee agreement™ with Moscow
should be pursued. Chamberlain, too, made his obeisance to necessity
and a pilgrimage to the Soviet Canossa. But what mattered now to both
men was ˜the question of presentation™. Here, Chamberlain unfurled his
˜League umbrella™. He pointed out that his ˜difficulties would be greatly
decreased if . . . the arrangement could be presented as an interpretation
. . . of the principles of the Covenant, rather on the lines of a regional
Pact on the Locarno model under the League of Nations™.
This reflected both the realities of inter-war British foreign policy and
Chamberlain™s own political position. As he put it, such a presentation
˜would make matters much easier for those who saw strong opposition to
an association between this country and Russia™ “ by which he meant a
goodly number of Conservatives “ ˜but who would not feel the same
objection to an arrangement with Russia under the Covenant of the
League™.159 The latter approach would also find support among Liberals
and Labourites who still nailed their colours to the mast (or at least to
the memory) of collective security, and ensure Chamberlain of cross-
bench support for (or, at least, less opposition to) his policy. To buttress
his arguments, the prime minister also mentioned that several news-
papers had articles suggesting that an arrangement with Soviet Russia
under the auspices of the League™s machinery was both appropriate and
just “ given Chamberlain™s ability to inspire newspaper articles through
the machinations of Sir Joseph Ball, it is a matter for speculation as to
how fortuitous was this coincidence.160 Given this attractive alternative,

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