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Chamberlain’s colleagues quickly ran to shelter themselves from the ‘red
rain’ under Chamberlain’s ‘League umbrella’. But what remained to be
determined was the sincerity of Chamberlain’s conversion and whether
the Soviets would accept this new communicant’s offering.
Some indication of the former was in a letter Chamberlain wrote to his
sister on 28 May. In it, the prime minister outlined his travails, and
revealed the complicated nature of his position. Chamberlain was aware

May 1939, Cab 24/286; ‘Negotiations with Russia’, CP 116(39), Bridges, 17 May
1939, Cab 24/286; ‘Anglo-Soviet Negotiations’, CP 123(39), Halifax, 22 May 1939,
Cab 24/287.
159
For examples, see Lord Muirhead to Halifax, 19 Apr 1939, and James Muir (editor,
Catholic Times) to Halifax, 20 Apr 1939, both Halifax Papers, FO 800/322.
160
Cockett, Twilight of Truth, 11–15, 161–5, for examples, and see Cockett, ‘Ball, Cham-
berlain and Truth’, HJ, 33, 1(1990).
296 Britain, Soviet Russia and the Versailles Order

of the political pressure in favour of an alliance, but retained his ‘deep
suspicions of Soviet aims and profound doubts as to her military capaci-
ties even if she honestly desired & intended to help. But worse than that
was my feeling that the alliance would definitely be a lining up of
opposing blocs and an association which would make any negotiation
or discussion with the totalitarians difficult if not impossible.’161 Here
were many of the beliefs and characteristics that had underpinned
Chamberlain’s view of strategic foreign policy since 1931. He disliked
the Soviets and doubted their power, he was concerned about dividing
Europe into groupings in the fashion of the pre-1914 era and, relatedly,
he wished to keep a free hand so that Britain could negotiate with both
sides. As Leo Amery noted, ‘The trouble with Neville is that he is being
pushed all the time into a policy which he does not like, and hates
abandoning the last bridges which might still enable him to renew his
former policy. So he vainly tries to avoid a war alliance with Russia.’162
At bottom, Chamberlain wished to avoid war. Hitler’s seizure of the
rump of Czechoslovakia and Italy’s invasion of Albania on 7 April had
not yet disabused him of his belief that these two Powers could be dealt
with by means of appeasement.
Chamberlain’s ‘League umbrella’ allowed him to satisfy most of his
concerns: ‘In substance’, he told his sister,
it gives the Russians what they want but in form and presentation it avoids the
idea of an alliance and substitutes a declaration of our intentions in certain
circumstances in fulfilment of our obligation under Art[icle] XVI of the Coven-
ant. It is really a most ingenious idea for it is calculated to catch all the mug-
wumps and at the same time by tying the thing up to Art[icle] XVI we give it a
temporary character. I have no doubt that one of these days Art[icle] XVI will be
amended or repealed and that should give us the opportunity of revising our
relations with the Soviet if we want to.163
Chamberlain’s desire to avoid definite commitment and to play for time
is evident, although there is also little doubt that, if forced by events, he
would honour Britain’s pledge. But, would such a reluctant promise be
acceptable in Moscow? Seeds met Molotov on 27 May, and the Soviet
commissar termed the British proposal ‘unacceptable’. Molotov’s reply
went to the essence of what Chamberlain was trying to avoid; the draft
showed that the British and French wanted ‘to continue conversations
indefinitely and not to bind themselves to any concrete engagements’.

161
N. Chamberlain to Hilda, his sister, 28 May 1939, Chamberlain Papers, NC 18/1/
1101.
162
Amery diary entry, 19 May 1940, in Barnes and Nicholson, Empire at Bay, 553.
163
See n. 161.
Chamberlain as Buridan’s ass 297

Molotov was all too aware of the ‘cumbrous’ nature of the League’s
deliberations: ‘the British and French were prepared to visualise
Moscow being bombed by the aggressor while Bolivia was busy blocking
all action in Geneva’.164 Cadogan might term Molotov ‘almost impos-
sible to deal with’, but ‘the Hammer’ understood the realities of the
situation perfectly.165
On 29 May, Seeds had a further talk with Molotov, and attempted (as
was done also in London with Maisky) to explain that the reference to
the League Covenant was only to ‘its principles not to its procedures’.166
Seeds found Molotov difficult. The ambassador stated that the latter was
a ‘man totally ignorant of foreign affairs and to whom the idea of negoti-
ation – as distinct from imposing the will of his party leader – is utterly alien’
and was possessed of ‘a rather foolish cunning of the type of the
peasant’. This characterization was likely due to the contrast between the
urbane and sophisticated Litvinov and the rough-hewn Molotov, but in
substance, as Seeds himself noted, the new commissar merely repeated
in blunter terms what Litvinov had maintained.167 Molotov termed the
Franco-Soviet Pact a ‘paper delusion’, and called instead for ‘an imme-
diate concrete arrangement’, not circuitous, flexible drafts. This was met
with sympathy at the Foreign Office, but neither Seeds nor London
was willing to accept Molotov’s demand that ‘guarantees of protection’
could be forced on countries – particularly the Baltic states and Finland
– that did not desire them. As Molotov made clear in a public announce-
ment at the Supreme Soviet on 31 May, an impasse had been reached:
Soviet Russia was unwilling to pull other people’s chestnuts out of the
fire.168
None the less, Seeds retained some guarded optimism. Even in such
circumstances he felt that an agreement with Soviet Russia could be
obtained, though he advised of a need for firmness, as the Soviets were
‘hard bargainers and must be met in similar spirit’. On the other hand, if
Soviet Russia were ‘playing with us and [were] really out for isolation,
no further concessions on our part will serve any useful purpose’. He
also doubted the possibility of a German–Soviet rapprochement – ‘so

164
Seeds to FO, disp 156, 28 May 1939, FO 371/23067/C7936/3356/18, Cadogan’s
minute (10 Jun).
165
‘Molotov’ was a nom de guerre derived from the Russian ‘molot’, ‘hammer’. For a
perceptive reaction, see Harvey diary entry, 29 May 1939, Harvey Papers, Add MSS
56395.
166
This paragraph, except where indicated, is based on Seeds to FO, tel 105, 29 May
1939, FO 371/23067/C7758/3356/18; Harvey diary entry, 29 May 1939, Harvey
Papers, Add MSS 56395.
167
Seeds to FO, disp 161, 30 May 1939, FO 371/23067/C3737/3356/18, minutes.
168
Seeds to FO, tel 108, 31 May 1939, FO 371/23067/C7886/3356/18.
298 Britain, Soviet Russia and the Versailles Order

remarkable a volte face’ – coming to pass, as he believed that the British
commitments to Poland, Romania and Turkey ‘sufficiently covered’
Soviet security needs.169
In London, Cadogan searched for a compromise. He admitted the
strength of the Soviet concerns about the Baltic states, noting that the
British would regard a German occupation of the Netherlands as a casus
belli, even if the Dutch did not resist. However, the PUS rejected forcing
a guarantee ‘on either the Baltic States or Holland’. To take the advice of
Seeds and refuse to compromise further seemed unwise, as to do so
risked both public indignation and a possible Russo-German rapproche-
ment. Cadogan suggested a way round the impasse. Britain would avoid
forcing guarantees on the Baltic states, Switzerland and the Netherlands,
but would ‘make it clear . . . that our promise of assistance will become
operative not only in the event of an act of aggression against Russia
proper but in the event of any action against the Baltic States which con-
stitutes such a threat to the security of Russia that the Soviet Govern-
ment are compelled to embark on hostilities’. This smacked of sophistry,
for it admitted the Soviet case concerning ‘indirect aggression’ in all but
name, and – in a phrase that Chamberlain noted also ‘might occur to us’
– ‘would probably be displeasing to the Baltic States on the ground that
our offer of assistance was no longer dependent on their asking for help,
was entirely dependent on the judgment of the Soviet Government’.170
Sargent raised another issue. He pointed out that Britain’s guarantees,
existing and in negotiation, were directed against ‘any European state’.
Thus, the possibility existed that Britain might be in the ‘embarrassing’
position of defending Soviet Russia against Poland and Poland and
Romania against Soviet Russia. He preferred to add a ‘contracting-out
clause’ so as to exclude such eventualities. However, he realized that to
do so ‘may arouse [suspicions] in the mind of the Soviet Govern-
ment’ and give the Germans a chance once more to trumpet the cry of
‘encirclement’.171
These matters went before the Foreign Policy Committee on 5 June.
Here, Halifax pointed out the difficulties with the Soviet concept of
‘indirect aggression’. Chamberlain’s unwillingness to accept either this
or Cadogan’s suggested compromise was evident. The prime minister
preferred that, if any of the states refused to resist German aggression,
then Britain, France and Soviet Russia would have to discuss the issue

169
Seeds to FO, tel 109, 1 Jun 1939, FO 371/23067/C7895/3356/18.
170
Cadogan to Chamberlain, 3 Jun 1939, covering ‘Soviet objection to Anglo-French
Proposals of May 26th’, ns, 26 May 1939, Prem 1/409, Chamberlain’s marginalia.
171
Untitled memo, Sargent, 5 Jun 1939, FO 371/23067/C8064/3356/18.
Chamberlain as Buridan’s ass 299

before action could be taken. Chamberlain ‘feared that M. Molotov
wanted to get us to accept a formula under which it would be open to
him to decide in any particular cases whether a casus foederis had arisen
or not’. Not all agreed. Inskip argued that the Soviets merely wished to
‘prevent delay’. What were possible future steps? Halifax outlined three
options: to send a mission to Moscow, to invite the Soviets to come to
London or to recall Seeds for consultation. The first choice he deemed
unwise because ‘it was undesirable to give the impression that we were
running after the Russians’; the second was thought imprudent because
no Soviet representative would be given full powers to negotiate a
binding settlement. This left the third option, but the FPC preferred
instead to send to Moscow experts from the Foreign Office who knew
the FPC’s views. This, it was felt, ‘would give the impression that no
great political difficulties were outstanding’ and that only details
remained.172 In the event, it was decided not only to recall Seeds, but
also to send experts back with him when he returned to Moscow.173
Everything was discussed at the Cabinet two days later.174 Halifax was
optimistic about finding a solution to the difficulties surrounding ‘indir-
ect aggression’. He also noted that negotiation via the exchange of
telegrams was ‘undesirable’, and raised the issue of sending experts to
Moscow. Seeds could not now be withdrawn as he had become ill, and
the Cabinet decided that Sir William Makins, the legal adviser to the
Foreign Office, could not be spared to go to Moscow. Halifax reiterated
the point about not appearing to run after the Soviets. The Cabinet
agreed, and Chamberlain outlined the state of negotiations in the Com-
mons the following day. By 8 June, matters were proceeding, if slowly.
By this time, it had been decided that Strang should go to Moscow.
Some were aware of the need for care: ‘The Russians are so suspicious’,
Harvey wrote, ‘that it is essential if we are to get our agreement to take
the most extraordinary precautions that our procedure or approach does
not arouse mistrust.’ However, he concluded: ‘But the PM cannot see
this and even H[alifax] is not very imaginative where the Bolshevites are
concerned.’175
Halifax did, however, attempt to smooth any possible rufflings of
Maisky’s feathers. On 8 June, the foreign secretary told the Soviet
ambassador of the state of British thinking. Halifax reiterated the points
he had made in Cabinet, and told Maisky that any insistence that

172
FP(36), minutes, 49th meeting, 5 Jun 1939, Cab 27/625.
173
FO to Seeds, tel 129, 6 Jun 1939, FO 371/23067/C7970/3356/18.
174
Minutes, Cab 31(39), 7 Jun 1939, Cab 23/99.
175
Harvey diary entry, 8 Jun 1939, Harvey Papers, Add MSS 56395.
300 Britain, Soviet Russia and the Versailles Order

military conversations had to be concluded before a pact could be agreed
upon ‘tended to make dangerous delay’. Further, he thought that the
inclusion of a ‘no separate peace’ clause was premature, and that this
should await ‘if and when we were launched into war and were all agreed
as to the aims we sought to achieve’. Finally, he explained that he himself
could not go to Moscow due to the press of business. Surprisingly,
Maisky did not object, and spoke highly of Strang’s abilities, citing the
latter’s work in Moscow during Eden’s trip.176
However, it was difficult to know Maisky’s true views (possibly the
Soviet ambassador tailored his remarks to fit his audience). On 9 June,
the ambassador contradicted much that he had said to Halifax in an
interview with Ewer of the Daily Herald. Maisky characterized the British
negotiations as being â€˜â€śoriental and [employing] bazaar technique”’.
Soviet suspicions resulted from the fact that it seemed as if the British
government was ‘at bottom opposed to a pact and was reluctantly and
gradually being pushed against its will into making one’. He also pro-
fessed himself ‘very unenthusiastic about Strang’s going . . . [as] Strang
was not “big enough”’. However, there were points of substance in the
interview. Ewer gained the impression that the issue of indirect aggres-
sion could be worked out, but that the issue of a separate peace – despite
(or perhaps because of) the fact that it would ‘not be honoured if duress
or strong self interest dictated otherwise’ – might ‘decide the success or
failure of the whole negotiation’. Ewer also made the point that military
conversations seemed ‘a test of bona fides’ to the Soviets. He suggested
that the Foreign Office might state that they would begin ‘the moment the
agreement is signed’. This suggestion was thought apposite by Cadogan
and essential by Vansittart. The chief diplomatic adviser argued that the
negotiations ‘badly need[ed] a leg up’ if they were to succeed and that
such a proposal might provide the necessary impetus for success.177
On 9 June, Strang was briefed as to his mission by the FPC.178 As he
prepared to depart, a minor problem arose when Francis Lindley, the
former British ambassador to Japan, addressed the Conservative Foreign
Affairs Committee of the House of Commons, denounced the negoti-
ations with Soviet Russia and stated ‘that it would redound more to our
prestige if these negotiations failed than if it were thought we had
accepted them on Russian terms’. As Lindley had ‘been the PM’s host
at Whitsun, it is taken as further proof here and in Russia that the PM is

176
Halifax’s conversation with Maisky, 8 Jun 1939, FO 371/23068/C8214/3356/18.
177
Ewer’s talk with Maisky, 9 Jun 1939, FO 371/23068/C8701/3356/18, minutes, Cado-
gan (15 Jun), Halifax (15 Jun) and Vansittart (16 Jun). It was perhaps significant that
Ewer had been a Soviet agent earlier in the decade.
178
FP(36), minutes, 50th meeting, 9 Jun 1939, Cab 27/625.
Chamberlain as Buridan’s ass 301

not genuine in his desire for the agreement’.179 This, of course, was not
entirely wide of the mark. Chamberlain was pursuing the negotiation out
of necessity, and was full of suspicion: ‘I can’t make up my mind’, he
wrote to his sister, ‘whether the Bolshies are double crossing us and
trying to make difficulties or whether they are only showing the cunning
& suspicion of the peasant.’ While he ‘incline[d] to the latter view’, the
prime minister revealed his tendency to see all matters only as they
affected him, his career and his control of events. He believed that the
Soviets were ‘greatly encouraged by the opposition and the Winston
[Churchill] Eden Lloyd George group with whom Maisky is in constant

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