the slowness and reluctance with which we first tackled . . . Soviet
Russia. This Government will never get anything done.â€™210
Molotovâ€™s reply was discussed at the Foreign Policy Committee on 4
July.211 Halifax saw two possible responses: â€˜to break off the negoti-
ationsâ€™ or â€˜to fall back on the limited Tripartite Pactâ€™. He favoured the
latter, arguing that â€˜our main object in the negotiations was to prevent
Russia from engaging herself with Germanyâ€™ and that prolonged nego-
tiations were dangerous. This was an interesting admission, but it em-
phasized Halifaxâ€™s belief in the limited utility of actual Soviet aid.
However, the FPCâ€™s discussion turned on other points. Hoare argued
that Molotovâ€™s definition of â€˜indirect aggressionâ€™ was harder to accept
than the â€˜exclusion of Switzerland and the Netherlandsâ€™. Runciman was
all for the pact, maintaining that the public paid little attention to details
of such agreements and â€˜would be quite satisfied with a simple Tripartite
Halifax to Henderson, 30 Jun 1939, Halifax Papers, FO 800/315.
Seeds to FO, tel 148, 1 Jul 1939, FO 371/23069/C9229/3356/18, Robertsâ€™s minute (3
N. Chamberlain to Hilda, his sister, 2 Jul 1939, Chamberlain Papers, NC 18/1/1105.
See also Dalton diary entry, 28 Jun 1939, in Pimlott, Dalton Diary, 276.
Harvey diary entry, 1 Jul 1939, Harvey Papers, Add MSS 56395.
This and the following two paragraphs, except where indicated, are based on FP(36),
minutes, 56th meeting, 4 Jul 1939, Cab 27/625.
Chamberlain as Buridanâ€™s ass 307
Pactâ€™. Stanley â€˜entirely disagreedâ€™. He asserted that such an anodyne
agreement would be seen as â€˜concealing a complete breakdown of the
negotiationsâ€™. It would not cover Danzig and Poland generally, which
was the point of the exercise.
Halifaxâ€™s response highlighted his difficulties. Further discussions
would be â€˜interminableâ€™, the Soviet government had â€˜not been helpfulâ€™
in the talks to date and, most importantly, â€˜M. Molotovâ€™s definition of
indirect aggression was very difficult to swallow and would put us in
Russiaâ€™s powerâ€™. Stanley demurred. He argued that, â€˜if we cared to be
cynicalâ€™, Molotovâ€™s definition might be accepted and that â€˜if it ever came
within sight of having to be implemented we could differ from Soviet
Russia on every point of its implementationâ€™. When Simon professed
that to do what Stanley suggested would prove â€˜most embarrassingâ€™ in
Parliament, Halifax made clear what he thought of the entire matter:
on the day the Soviet Government would act as suited them best at the time, and
without the slightest regard to any prior undertakings written or otherwise. If, for
example, war arose out of the Polish situation, and the Soviet Government
thought the moment opportune for the partition of Poland they would partition
it with Germany without a qualm. If, on the other hand, they thought it prefer-
able in their own interests to fight Germany then they would support and assist
â€˜This might be a very cynical appreciationâ€™, he concluded, â€˜but it went
far to reconcile him to making a narrower arrangement with Soviet
Russia, i.e. a simple Tripartite Pact, than he would be prepared to make
with a partner in whom he felt trust and confidence.â€™
Further discussion centred on the matter of â€˜indirect aggressionâ€™.
Stanley maintained his position that such a definition could be accepted
in order to get an agreement (and be disputed in the implementation).
Morrison, Inskip, Simon and Chamberlain demurred, with their argu-
ments ranging from the objections of the states to be named, through the
idea that the â€˜definition embodied and resurrected the old notion of an
ideological warâ€™, to the argument that it â€˜seemed to implyâ€™, in Inskipâ€™s
confused words, â€˜that we should come to the assistance of Soviet Russia
in any case, where, in the view of the Soviet Government there had been
a change of regime in a European country in the interests of some other
country which was ready and willing to take advantage of that change of
regimeâ€™. After further tangled discussion, it was agreed that the Soviets
should be asked to choose between two alternatives: (1) one in which the
British dropped Switzerland and the Netherlands from the secret proto-
col in exchange for the elimination of the Soviet definition of indirect
aggression; (2) a Tripartite Pact. At the Cabinet on 5 July, it was agreed
308 Britain, Soviet Russia and the Versailles Order
that the Soviet definition of indirect aggression was â€˜entirely unaccept-
ableâ€™ and the FPCâ€™s decisions were confirmed.212 The next move would
The process of negotiation was tiring and caused tempers to flare.
Cadogan, overworked and anxious to get away on holiday, was particu-
larly vehement: the Soviets were â€˜dirty sweepsâ€™, while â€˜being incredibly
tiresomeâ€™ and â€˜simply mulishâ€™.213 No one was immune to this discon-
tent. â€˜The Russian business is quite infuriatingâ€™, Halifax wrote on 7 July,
â€˜it blocks everything and frays everybodyâ€™s nervesâ€™, and Henderson was
suspicious that â€˜the interminable haggling of the Sovietsâ€™ might be a
mask for their desire to end the talks.214 Molotovâ€™s response to the
British proposal did not improve matters.215 On 8 and 10 July, he offered
a new definition of indirect aggression, which Halifax termed â€˜unaccept-
ableâ€™. After substantial discussion, the FPC decided to attempt to trade a
British agreement to hold immediate military talks (which had the added
advantage, in Halifaxâ€™s words, that â€˜so long as the military conversations
were taking place we should be preventing Soviet Russia from entering
the German campâ€™) for a Soviet agreement to drop their definition of
indirect aggression.216 The British also agreed to accept the Soviet list
of states. This willingness to compromise, Harvey believed, meant that
â€˜H[is] M[ajestyâ€™s] G[overnment] [were] getting more ready for agree-
ment at any price for political reasonsâ€™.217 This was not the case. Despite
the advice of Sir Edmund Ironside, the CIGS, that an alliance with
Soviet Russia â€˜was the only thing we could doâ€™ to defend Poland,
Chamberlain remained adamantly opposed.218 The â€˜stiffâ€™ British note
of 12 July made further concessions unlikely: â€˜we are nearing the point
where we clearly cannot continue the process of conceding each fresh
demand . . . [and the British government] may have to reconsider their
Minutes, Cab 35(39), 5 Jul 1939, Cab 23/100; FO to Seeds, tels 160, 161 and 162, 6
Jul 1939, FO 371/23070/C9295/3356/18.
Cadogan diary entries, 28 June, 3 Jul and 4 July, in Dilks, Cadogan Diaries, 190â€“1.
Halifax to Phipps, 7 Jul 1939, Phipps Papers, PHPP 1/23; Henderson to Halifax, 11 Jul
1939, Halifax Papers, FO 800/316.
Seeds to FO, tel 155, 8 Jul 1939, and reply, tel 164, 10 Jul 1939, both FO 371/32070/
Molotovâ€™s offers in â€˜Anglo-Soviet Negotiationsâ€™, Roberts, 10 Jul 1939, FO 371/23070/
C9709/3356/18; FP(36), minutes, 57th meeting, 10 Jul 1939, Cab 27/625.
Harvey diary entry, 9 Jul 1939, Harvey Papers, Add MSS 56395.
Ironside diary entry 10 Jul 1939, in R. Macleod and D. Kelly, eds., The Ironside Diaries
1937â€“1940 (London, 1962), 78.
N. Chamberlain to Hilda, his sister, 15 July 1939, Chamberlain Papers, NC 18/1/1107;
FO to Seeds, tel 167, 12 Jul 1939, FO 371/23070/C9709/3356/18, Chamberlainâ€™s
attached note; minutes, Cab 37(39), 12 Jul 1939, Cab 23/100.
Chamberlain as Buridanâ€™s ass 309
On 15 July, Chamberlain wrote that Halifax was â€˜at last getting â€śfed
upâ€ť with Molotov whom he describes as maddeningâ€™.220 The foreign
secretaryâ€™s temper could not have been improved by Molotovâ€™s rejection
of the British proposals.221 By 19 July, there was deadlock. At the
Cabinet that morning and at a meeting of the FPC immediately after-
wards, Halifax made it clear that he would prefer a complete breakdown
of talks to an acceptance of the Soviet position.222 While Maisky con-
tinued to try to persuade â€˜left-wing enthusiasts . . . how right is the
Soviet definition of â€śindirect aggressionâ€ťâ€™, this made no impression on
Halifax.223 As the foreign secretary told one correspondent, the Soviet
interpretation was something to which â€˜we cannot, of course, possibly
agreeâ€™. He was confident that he had squared the opposition, and thus
was not â€˜apprehensive of Parliamentary criticism if we were to break with
the Soviet Government on this pointâ€™.224 Both he and the prime minister
rejected the idea of recalling Strang for consultation and believed that it
was time to call what they thought was the Soviet bluff.225 This decision
was sent to Seeds on 21 July.226
The result was movement. On 23 July, Molotov conceded that an
agreement to hold military talks meant that some compromise could be
reached on the issue of indirect aggression. Seeds was mildly optimistic.
He hoped that immediate military negotiations might lead to success
overall, as they would strengthen the position of those Soviets who held
the view that the British, while â€˜imbued with a spirit of â€ścapitulatingâ€ť if
possible to Axis Powersâ€™, could be â€˜squeezed by our press and public and
by Russian pressure, relentlessly applied, into an agreement with this
countryâ€™.227 The FPC agreed on 26 July that no more compromises
could be made and that Seeds should continue to negotiate as best he
could.228 The stage was set for military talks.
However, at this juncture, the Far East again intruded. To Chamber-
lainâ€™s delight, Craigie had got round the â€˜ineptitudeâ€™ of the Foreign
N.Chamberlain to Hilda, his sister, 15 Jul 1939, Chamberlain Papers, NC 1/1/1107.
Seeds to FO, tel 165, 17 Jul 1939, FO 371/23070/C10054/3356/18.
Minutes, Cab 38(39), 19 Jul 1939, Cab 23/100; FP(36), minutes, 58th meeting, Cab
Nicolson diary entry, 20 Jul 1939, in Nicolson, Diaries and Letters, 406.
Halifax to Sir Bernard Pares (academic expert on Russia), 19 Jul 1939, Halifax Papers,
FO 800/309. See also Dalton diary entry, 12 Jul 1939, in Pimlott, Dalton Diary, 280â€“1.
See also Headlam diary entry, 24 Jul 1939, in Ball, Headlam Diaries, 162.
FO to Seeds, tels 175 and 176, both 21 Jul 1939, FO 371/23070/C10054/3356/18.
Seeds to FO, tels 170 and 172 decipher, 23 July 1939, FO 371/2301/C10319 and
C10325/3356/18. Molotovâ€™s quick reply was perhaps due to the fact that he had been
kept abreast of the British position by a spy in the Foreign Office: see D. Cameron Watt,
â€˜Francis Herbert King: A Soviet Source in the Foreign Officeâ€™, INS, 3, 4 (1988), 62â€“82.
FP(36), minutes, 59th meeting, 26 Jul 1939, Cab 27/625.
310 Britain, Soviet Russia and the Versailles Order
Office and was moving ahead with talks with the Japanese. On 24 July,
Craigie had signed an agreement with Arita Hachiro, the Japanese
foreign minister, that allowed the quarrel to be discussed on terms
acceptable to both sides. The linkage between the Soviet negotiations
and Tientsin was immediately apparent.229 On 25 July, Maisky en-
quired pointedly whether the agreement adumbrated a change in Brit-
ish policy in the Far East. The Soviet ambassador was particularly
interested in the pending British loan to China, and suggested that
â€˜many peopleâ€™ would view it as a â€˜test caseâ€™ for British policy. The
implication was plain: if the loan were not granted, the Craigieâ€“Arita
agreement would be seen as marking a British change towards a pro-
Japanese (and, hence, by implication, anti-Soviet) policy.230 From
Tokyo, Craigie pushed to have the loan delayed, lest it affect his
negotiations. To him, even the American denunciation of their com-
mercial treaty with Japan on 26 July did not mean that Washington
could be relied on. This led to a three-cornered debate between
Craigie, Clark Kerr and the Foreign Office, while, in London, the
Cabinet delayed any decision.231 As a result, Craigieâ€™s talks with Arita
were suspended. But while this was primarily an issue that involved
Britain, Japan and the United States, it was clear that Soviet Russia
would be an interested spectator.
In late July, the British moved quickly to select the personnel for the
military mission to Soviet Russia and to decide how to co-ordinate with
the French. In the end, it was decided that a British admiral should
represent the Anglo-French naval position, while a French general
should do the same for military matters. How to travel became a point
of some discussion (and later historical contention). The Foreign Office
initially thought that sending the mission to Soviet Russia by means of
a naval squadron would â€˜not only please the Russians but would make a
considerable impressionâ€™ on the Baltic neutrals, as well as serving as
a â€˜gentle reminder to the Germans that we do not regard the Baltic as a
N. Chamberlain to Hilda, his sister, 15 Jul 1939, Chamberlain Papers, NC 18/1/1107;
W. B. Brown (permanent secretary, B of T) to Cadogan, 6 Jul 1939, Prem 1/314;
Halifax to Stanley, 13 Jul 1939, and the minutes on the ensuing correspondence, all
Prem 1/314; Lindsay to FO, tel 315, 15 Jul 1939, FO 371/23527/F7395/6457/10,
minutes. For the negotiations, see Best, Britain, Japan and Pearl Harbor, 79â€“85, which
informs the following.
Halifaxâ€™s interview with Maisky, 25 Jul 1939, FO 371/23528/F7951/6857/10.
Craigie to Howe, 21 Jul 1939, FO 371/23551/F9374/4027/61, minutes; Clark Kerr to
FO, tel 800, FO 371/23528/F8151/6457/10, minutes; Craigie to FO, tel 913, 1 Aug
1939, FO 371/23528/F8245/6457/10, minutes; minutes, Cab 40(39), 2 Aug 1939, Cab
Chamberlain as Buridanâ€™s ass 311
German seaâ€™.232 But the French were divided on this matter. General
Joseph Doumenc, the head of the French delegation, favoured going by
rail across Germany, but General Maurice Gamelin, the French com-
mander-in-chief, preferred that the mission travel either by â€˜cruiser or by
airâ€™.233 At the Quai dâ€™Orsay, there was â€˜a fear that if [the] mission arrived by
[a] method of travel which might appear spectacular, any hitch or dragging
out of discussions might be given correspondingly more serious appear-
anceâ€™. With Henderson advising from Berlin that a trip across Germany by
train â€˜appears to me unnecessarily provocative and might possibly lead to
unpleasantness or incidentâ€™ â€“ and, in fact, suggesting that the â€˜mission
should try to avoid [crossing] Germany altogetherâ€™, even by air â€“ it was
decided to charter a passenger ship for an â€˜unostentatiousâ€™ method of
travel.234 The result was that the mission left on 5 August on board The
City of Exeter, landed at Leningrad and travelled by train to Moscow,
arriving on 11 August.235
The mission, headed by Admiral Sir Reginald Ernle-Earle-Plunkett-
Drax, who had been serving at the Admiralty as a strategical adviser to
the First Sea Lord, also needed to have its terms of reference defined.
This was done at a series of meetings of the deputy chiefs of staff
(DCOS).236 The most interesting aspect was what the DCOS believed
to be the military capabilities of the Soviets and the nature of their
character. With respect to the former, there were three general points:
the Purges had impaired the effectiveness of all branches of the Soviet
armed forces, the size of the Soviet army was â€˜misleadingâ€™ as to its
strength and the Soviets were â€˜most unwillingâ€™ to allow their forces to
be located in areas where they might be infected by â€˜bourgeois influ-
enceâ€™. As a result, â€˜substantial and rapid Russian military support to
Poland is out of the questionâ€™. The value of the Soviet forces in the
Far East was higher. There, the Red Army â€˜would at least exercise a
The minutes in FO 371/23071/C10525/3356/18; â€˜Anglo-French-Soviet Negotiationsâ€™,
R. C. S. Stevenson (acting counsellor, FO), 25 Jul 1939, FO 371/23071/C10634/