touchâ€™. He linked all his betes noires together in a plot. An offer by Eden
to go to Moscow as a negotiator (a suggestion that Lloyd George not
only had repeated but also had augmented by suggesting that Churchill
might serve as an alternative go-between if Eden were thought unsuit-
able) was viewed with profound distrust: â€˜I have no doubt that the three
of them talked it over together, and that they saw in it a means of entry
into the Cabinet and perhaps later on a substitution of a more amenable
PM!â€™180 This tendency to conflate matters of state with matters of
personal and political import meant that much in the Anglo-Soviet
negotiations depended on Chamberlainâ€™s personal whims, irritations
and fears, a dangerous state of affairs at a time when â€˜our Russian
negotiations are now the most important factor in the situationâ€™.181
While Seeds and Strang negotiated with Molotov, suddenly the Far
East intruded. The refusal of the British in the Tientsin Concession to
hand over four accused terrorists to the Japanese resulted in the latterâ€™s
blockading the territory.182 The British were now faced with two crises,
creating the worst possible strategical problems. Nevile Henderson was,
indeed, right for a change when he summarized that British policy now
had to decide on coming to terms with â€˜Japan or Russia, or both?â€™183
Both issues were discussed at the FPC on 19 June.184 The circumstances
in Europe and the realities of power in the Far East circumscribed British
options. The COS made it clear that â€˜without the active co-operation of
the United States of America, it would not be justifiable, from the
Minute, Peake (News Department) for Cadogan, 9 Jun 1939, FO 371/23068/C8370/
3356/18; following quotation from Harvey diary entry, 9 Jun 1939, Harvey Papers, Add
N. Chamberlain to Ida, his sister, 10 Jun 1939, Chamberlain Papers NC 18/1/1102.
Halifax to Henderson, 14 Jun 1939, Halifax Papers, FO 800/315.
Antony Best, Britain, Japan and Pearl Harbor. Avoiding War in East Asia, 1936â€“1941
(London and New York, 1995), 71â€“4; â€˜Background of the Tientsin incidentâ€™, ns, nd
(but c. 16 Jun), Prem 1/316.
Henderson to Halifax, 17 Jun 1939, Halifax Papers, FO 800/315.
FP(36), minutes, 52nd meeting, 19 Jun 1939, Cab 27/625.
302 Britain, Soviet Russia and the Versailles Order
military point of view, having regard to the existing international situ-
ation, to take any avoidable action which might lead to hostilities with
Japanâ€™. This view was shared by the Foreign Office, and only an â€˜em-
bargo and/or discriminatory dutiesâ€™ were thought likely to provide the
British with any lever to use against the Japanese.185 More information
was needed. A flurry of telegrams ensued. In London, Halifax spoke
with the American and Japanese ambassadors.186 These consultations
made Craigieâ€™s suggestion that he be allowed to attempt to ameliorate
matters in Tokyo the most attractive option. This conclusion was re-
inforced at a political level by Runcimanâ€™s opinion that â€˜to adopt a
pugnacious attitude in the present position would be most imprudent
and might indeed be suicidalâ€™.187 Thus, it was not surprising that, at the
FPC on 20 June, Craigie was authorized to find a compromise suitable
to both sides, a position that the Cabinet confirmed the following day.188
But Tientsin had revealed the precariousness of the British position.
â€˜Foreign policy is a unitâ€™, Harvey noted on 24 June, â€˜we cannot be weak
in China and strong in Europe. It is all or nothing.â€™189 How to do this?
The negotiations with Soviet Russia spoke directly to both geographic
locales. Craigie had warned, even before Tientsin, that any Anglo-Soviet
agreement would affect Anglo-Japanese relations for the worse and influ-
ence the Japanese decision whether to sign a new Anti-Comintern
Pact.190 All would depend on events. On 15 and 17 June, Seeds and
Strang presented the British proposals to Molotov. The Soviet commis-
sar was adamant that, if the British continued to refuse to name the
Baltic states, the negotiations were clearly â€˜not . . . ripe for settle-
mentâ€™.191 Cadogan, beset by Tientsin on the one hand and Molotov
(â€˜an ignorant and suspicious peasantâ€™) on the other, was frustrated and
Amery to Buchan, 19 Jun 1939, Buchan Papers, Box 11; â€˜Economic Retaliation
Against Japanâ€™, FP (36) 94, Halifax and Stanley, 16 Jun 1939, â€˜Retaliation for the
Tientsin Blockadeâ€™, FP (36) 95, secret, Halifax, 16 Jun 1939, â€˜The Situation in the Far
Eastâ€™, FP (36) 96 (also COS 928), COS, 18 Jun 1939, all Cab 27/627.
Craigie to FO, tels 594 and 595, 18 Jun 1939, and reply, tel 306, 19 Jun 1939, all FO
371/23400/F6017/1/10; Craigie to FO, tel 608, 19 Jun 1939, FO 371/23400/F6036/1/
10; Clark Kerr to FO, tels 569 and 570, 19 Jun 1939, FO 371/23400/F6074/1/10;
Halifax to Chamberlain, 19 Jun 1939, and enclosures, Prem 1/316; Cadogan diary
entry, 19 Jun 1939, in Dilks, Cadogan Diaries, 188â€“9.
Runciman to Chamberlain, 19 Jun 1939, Prem 1/316.
FP(36), minutes, 53rd meeting, 20 Jun 1939, Cab 27/625; minutes, Cab 33(39), 21
Jun 1939, Cab 23/100.
Harvey diary entry, 24 Jun 1939, Harvey Papers, Add MSS 56395.
Craigie to FO, tel 487, 26 May 1939, FO 371/23561/F5061/456/23; Craigie to FO, tel
521, 7 Jun 1939, FO 371/23561/F5433/456/23; Craigie to FO, tel 536, 9 Jun 1939, FO
Seeds to FO, tel 125, 15 Jun 1939, FO 371/23068/C8506/3356/18; Seeds to FO, tel
127, 17 Jun 1939, FO 371/23068/C8598/3356/18.
Chamberlain as Buridanâ€™s ass 303
annoyed by the â€˜intolerable â€“ and suspicious â€“ mulishness of the Rus-
sians in our negotiationsâ€™.192 â€˜The Russian blackmailâ€™, one disgruntled
observer noted, â€˜is never-ending.â€™193
But matters had to move on. By 21 June, London had decided that
Soviet Russia would be guaranteed against Polish aggression despite any
objections from Warsaw.194 Equally, the British would accept a â€˜no
separate peaceâ€™ clause if necessary.195 However, on that same day, the
Soviet commissar rejected any proposal that did not specifically name
the eight countries that Britain, France and Soviet Russia would defend.
Halifax professed himself â€˜bewilderedâ€™ by Molotovâ€™s reply. The foreign
secretary adjured Seeds to attempt â€˜to find out what is really at the back
of M. Molotovâ€™s mind and what he is holding out forâ€™. In a tactfully
excised phrase, Halifax also noted: â€˜I realise the difficulty of dealing with
a man of such inarticulate obstinacy.â€™196
This point was important. Personalities complicated negotiations.
From Moscow, Strang reported on the difficulties of dealing with
Molotov.197 While Molotov was â€˜genialâ€™ in manner, in contrast to â€˜pre-
vious occasionsâ€™, the â€˜mechanics of negotiationâ€™ were clumsy. Molotov
knew â€˜no foreign language; he knows very little at first hand about the
outside world; and he is not yet familiar with the subject matter of
foreign relations or the technique of diplomatic negotiationâ€™. While
Molotovâ€™s position as a confidant of Stalin meant that the former was
â€˜nearer to the final source of authority than Litvinov ever wasâ€™ and â€˜has
very clear ideas about the essential objects of Soviet policy in these
negotiations, there is little give and take in the discussions and he seems
to be quite impervious to argumentâ€™. It was no wonder that at the
Foreign Office someone could note that â€˜We knew already that M.
Molotov was one of the most tiresome men in Europe, but we are still
in the dark as to what â€“ if anything â€“ is at the back of his mind.â€™198
But if Molotov was hard to bargain with, Strang also was aware that
much of the difficulty was due to the weakness of the British position.
The British guarantees â€˜have relieved the Soviet Government of anxiety
Cadogan diary entry, 20 Jun 1939, in Dilks, Cadogan Diaries, 189.
Earl of Crawford and Balcarres to Buchan, 19 Jun 1939, Buchan Paper, Box 11.
Seeds to FO, tel 134, 20 Jun 1939, minutes, yielding FO to Seeds, tel 146, 21 Jun 1939,
all FO 371/23068/C8711/3356/18.
Minutes, Cab 33(39), 21 Jun 1939, Cab 23/100.
Seeds to FO, tel 135, 21 Jun 1939, and reply, FO to Seeds, tel 148, 22 Jun 1939, both
This and the following paragraph, except where indicated, are based on Strang to
Sargent, 21 Jun 1939, FO 371/23069/C9010/3356/18.
Minute by Kirkpatrick (24 Jun) on Seeds to FO, disp 182, 21 Jun 1939, FO 371/23069/
304 Britain, Soviet Russia and the Versailles Order
for the greater part of their western frontier. They can therefore afford â€“
if we assume that they want a treaty at all â€“ to stand out for their own
terms . . . and, so far as we can see, they have not yet receded one jot.â€™
Strang felt that the Soviets were aware that British public opinion
desired a treaty and thus believed â€˜that if they stand pat our public will
force us to give way to themâ€™.199 Still, he was confident that â€˜we shall
arrive at something in the endâ€™. However, that end might be rather
distant. The French ambassador had remarked humorously to Strang
that â€˜he will probably have reached the age-limit and gone into retire-
ment before I get away from Moscowâ€™.
On 23 June, Seeds told Halifax that no further â€˜argumentation and
skilful formulaeâ€™ were likely to achieve anything. The Soviets were
insistent either that states be named or that â€˜a simple Treaty of Mutual
Guarantee against direct aggressionâ€™ be signed. The reasons for this were
straightforward: the Soviets were â€˜suspicious by natureâ€™ and had â€˜little
confidence in the good faith and resolution of [the] Western Powers in
the light of the past experienceâ€™. As a result â€˜they wish the obligations to
be assumed by the three Powers to be set down in black and white and to
be clear beyond disputeâ€™. Seeds also believed that Moscow wanted â€˜some
international warrantâ€™ should they go â€˜to the assistance of the Baltic
States, even perhaps without the assent or contrary to the wishes of the
Governments concernedâ€™.200 Similar matters were discussed in London.
That same day, Halifax asked Maisky â€˜point blankâ€™ whether the Soviets
desired a treaty. When Maisky replied â€˜of courseâ€™ and asked why Halifax
should make such a query, the foreign secretaryâ€™s irritation at the style of
the negotiations was evident: â€˜Because, I replied, throughout the negoti-
ations the Soviet Government had not budged a single inch and we had
made all the advances and concessions.â€™ Maisky admitted that the
Soviets should perhaps not have set out â€˜their irreducible minimumâ€™
initially, but instead should â€˜have asked for more than they wanted so
as to be able subsequently to make concessionsâ€™. But he did not hint at
any possible compromise. Halifax concluded his interview with yet
another fulmination â€“ â€˜I said that saying No to everything was not
my idea of negotiation and that it had a striking resemblance to Nazi
methods of dealing with international questionsâ€™ â€“ but the foreign
secretary clearly got the point.201
Some in the Labour Party were concerned that to continue to push the government in
the House of Commons would result in the Sovietsâ€™ refusing to compromise: see
Dalton diary entry, 10 Jul 1939, in Pimlott, Dalton Diary, 279.
Seeds to FO, tel 139, 23 Jun 1939, FO 371/23069/C8928/3356/18.
Halifaxâ€™s conversation with Maisky, 23 Jun 1939, FO 371/23069/C8979/3356/18; Mais-
kyâ€™s attitude also from Dalton diary entry, 25 Jun 1939, in Pimlott, Dalton Diary, 272â€“3.
Chamberlain as Buridanâ€™s ass 305
This was evident at the FPC on 26 June.202 There, Halifax put the
Soviet case clearly. While Chamberlain was irate that Britain had â€˜made
concession after concessionâ€™ without any Soviet reciprocation, the for-
eign secretary noted that the Soviets â€˜were content to go on bargaining so
as to secure the highest terms possibleâ€™.203 The prime minister remained
obdurate about not including the names of those states to be protected in
the treaty, putting forward instead the idea that they might be included
in a â€˜secret protocolâ€™. When Halifax, Stanley and MacDonald all op-
posed this idea as not being practicable, Chamberlain countered with a
proposal for a vague formula that avoided naming names. Here, he
found support from Morrison, who worried that Molotovâ€™s proposal
â€˜gave the document a strong encirclement flavourâ€™. But Morrisonâ€™s
unhappiness went further and underlined the dislike and suspicion of
Soviet Russia that always existed just below the surface for many: he
was apprehensive to [sic] our getting involved in a European struggle with Soviet
Russia standing outside, and he did not, himself, believe that there was an honest
difference of opinion between France and ourselves on the one hand and Soviet
Russia on the other as to the best way of attaining the common objective. He
thought, on the other hand, that the objective of Soviet Russia was a different one
to that of France and ourselves.
Despite this, the decision was to face reality, and to agree that, in the last
resort, Seeds could accept an agreement that named names, providing
that the Netherlands and Switzerland were inserted if the Baltic states
were included. This conclusion was sent to Seeds on 27 June, although it
was noted that Chamberlainâ€™s suggested â€˜private agreementâ€™ would be a
Thus, by the last few days of June, British strategic foreign policy was
in the process of negotiation. Craigie was set to begin talks in Tokyo, and
Seeds was attempting in Moscow to find a diplomatic way out.205 These
conversations were made all the more urgent by the continuing German
pressure over Danzig, about which there were disquieting rumours
emanating from France.206 To stiffen resistance while negotiations
This paragraph, except where indicated, is based on FP(36), minutes, 54th meeting, 26
Jun 1939, Cab 27/625.
See also Dalton diary entry, 28 Jun 1939, in Pimlott, Dalton Diary, 276â€“8.
FO to Seeds, tel 151, 27 Jun 1939, FO 371/23069/C8928/3356/18; minutes, Cab 34
(39), 28 Jun 1939, Cab 23/100.
Craigie to FO, tel 675, 27 Jun 1939, FO 371/23401/F6449/1/10.
Harvey diary entry, 1 Jul 1939, Harvey Papers, Add MSS 56395; N. Chamberlain to
Hilda, his sister, 2 Jul 1939, Chamberlain Papers, NC 18/1/1105; Cadogan diary entry,
3 Jul 1939, in Dilks, Cadogan Diaries, 191.
306 Britain, Soviet Russia and the Versailles Order
continued in Soviet Russia, Halifax made a speech at Chatham House
on 29 June, whose â€˜chief object was to convince the Germans once and
for all that we had reached the limit of unilateral concessionâ€™.207 On 1
July, Seeds saw Molotov, who found the British draft â€˜too vagueâ€™, but
accepted the idea of naming the protected states in an â€˜unpublished
annexâ€™. However, he was not willing to add the Netherlands, Luxem-
bourg and Switzerland to the British list of states and wanted a definition
of â€˜indirect aggressionâ€™ inserted. At the Foreign Office, it was thought
that the Soviets were â€˜only procrastinating and do not want an effective
agreementâ€™,208 and Halifax was â€˜beginning to get impatient with themâ€™.
Chamberlain, too, allowed that he was â€˜grow[ing] more & more suspi-
cious of their [the Sovietsâ€™] good faithâ€™ and was annoyed by continuing
reports in the press that an agreement was imminent. However, he was
aware of the political realities within the Cabinet: â€˜My colleagues are so
desperately anxious for it [an agreement] & so nervous of the conse-
quences of failure to achieve that I have to go very warily, but I am so
sceptical of the value of Russian help that I should not feel that our
position was greatly worsened if we had to do without them.â€™209 In this
situation, it was not surprising that Oliver Harvey noted exasperatedly