Campbell (envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary, Paris) to FO, tel 478, 29
Jul 1939, and reply, tel 236, 1 Aug 1939, both FO 371/23071/C10621/3356/18.
Henderson to FO, tel 414, 31 Jul 1939, FO 371/23071/C10615/3356/18; FP(36),
minutes 60th meeting, 1 Aug 1939, Cab 27/625.
The itinerary and the composition of the British delegation in ‚Ä˜Staff Conversations with
Russia‚Ä™, DCOS 158, Hollis (secretary, CID), 3 Aug 1939, Cab 54/10. The decision to
travel by (slow) boat has often been taken as evidence of Britain and France‚Ä™s reluc-
tance to treat with Moscow ‚Ä“ for example, Geoffrey Roberts, ‚Ä˜The Alliance That Failed:
Moscow and the Triple Alliance Negotiations, 1939‚Ä™, EHQ, 26, 3 (1996), 406. This
DCOS, minutes 43rd, 45th and 46th meetings, 27 Jul, 30 Jul and 31 Jul 1939, Cab 54/2.
312 Britain, Soviet Russia and the Versailles Order
containing influence on Japan in Manchukuo and China‚Ä™. Negotiations
with the Soviets were expected to be difficult, as ‚Ä˜the Russian is suspi-
cious by nature and a hard bargainer‚Ä™. Equally, ‚Ä˜the Russian is himself
given to exaggerating, and may therefore expect it from others. It may be
well, therefore, for us to make the most of, rather than to minimise, what
we have got.‚Ä™237
The implications of these and the rest of the instructions were dis-
cussed at the CID on 2 August. At the meeting, Drax pointed out that,
while he ‚Ä˜assumed‚Ä™ that the military mission should ‚Ä˜reach a quick
decision‚Ä™, his instructions directed that he ‚Ä˜go slowly and cautiously until
such time as the Political agreement was reached‚Ä™. The admiral was
concerned that the latter line might make it difficult to reach the political
accord. Halifax agreed that this was so, and admitted that the military
mission ‚Ä˜had a very difficult task‚Ä™. With the difficulties admitted, Drax
professed himself ‚Ä˜quite content‚Ä™, but enquired as to whether it was felt
that the Soviets actually intended to conclude the political agreement.
Halifax‚Ä™s reply, ‚Ä˜that it was almost impossible to say whether the Rus-
sians really wished to conclude this agreement‚Ä™, reflected the annoyance
and suspicion that several months of negotiating with Molotov had
produced.238 These feelings were exemplified by Chamberlain; as he
had told the Foreign Policy Committee on 26 July, ‚Ä˜[i]t was most
humiliating to have our proposals consistently and summarily rejected‚Ä™
by the Soviets and Molotov in particular.239
While these deliberations took place, Seeds pushed ahead at Moscow.
The issue of indirect aggression seemed intractable, and Molotov, pen-
ding the arrival of the military mission, opposed making any commu-
nique about the state of the talks.240 Thus, Butler‚Ä™s statement in the
House of Commons on 31 July on the state of the negotiations raised
some ire in Moscow.241 With the Poles continuing to oppose any ‚Ä˜com-
mitments involving Poland or the Baltic countries‚Ä™, it was evident that
the negotiations in Moscow would be difficult.242
‚Ä˜Staff Conversations with Russia‚Ä™, R. F. Adam (DCIGS), R. E. C. Peirse (deputy Chief
of Air Staff) and T. S. V. Phillips (deputy Chief of Naval Staff), 31 Jul 1939, Cab 54/10.
Minutes, 372nd meeting CID, 2 Aug 1939, Cab 2/9.
FP(36), minutes 59th meeting, 26 Jul 1939, Cab 27/625.
Seeds to FO, tel 179, 27 Jul 1939, FO 371/23071/C10580/3356/18; untitled memo,
Kirkpatrick, 29 Jul 1939, Prem 1/409.
Seeds to FO, tel 185, 2 Aug 1939, FO 371/23072/C10821/3356/18; Butler to Strang, 5
Aug 1939, Strang Papers, STRN 4/5. Butler preferred a settlement with Germany: Paul
Stafford, ‚Ä˜Political Autobiography and the Art of the Plausible: R. A. Butler at the
Foreign Office, 1938‚Ä“1939‚Ä™, HJ, 28, 4 (1985), 901‚Ä“22.
Kennard to FO, 31 Jul 1939, FO 371/23072/C10745/3356/18, minutes.
Chamberlain as Buridan‚Ä™s ass 313
When the mission arrived in Moscow, Seeds immediately put his
finger on the issue raised at the CID about whether to go slow with the
military talks.243 The ambassador pointed out that to do so would
compromise the political talks and trigger ‚Ä˜Russian fears that we are
not in earnest, and are not trying to conclude a concrete and definite
agreement‚Ä™. This concern was referred to the DCOS, and Drax was
given new instructions to move quickly.244 The sticking point in the
negotiations was raised on 14 August. This was the issue of how to get
Soviet Russia‚Ä™s neighbours to agree to talks ‚Ä“ including about such
matters as military assistance and indirect aggression ‚Ä“ before events
made them ‚Ä˜too late‚Ä™.245Strang, now returned to London, also put this
matter to the DCOS on 16 August, where it was agreed that Britain and
France should ‚Ä˜approach‚Ä™ the Poles and Romanians on the issue.246
These efforts were fruitless. Neither the French ambassador to Poland
nor his British counterpart, Sir Howard Kennard, could budge Beck.247
While this was occurring, on 17 August the conference in Moscow
adjourned until 21 August, pending the results of the Anglo-French
efforts.248 The negotiations had not been easy.249 Drax had found the
Soviets to ‚Ä˜speak contemptuously of Britain and France as the yielding
(or surrendering) Powers‚Ä™. The Soviet manner was galling: ‚Ä˜The way
they hand to us their demands (not requests) is somewhat in the manner
of a victorious power dictating terms to a beaten enemy. They make it
plain that in their opinion we come here as supplicants.‚Ä™ In typical
Russian fashion, however, ‚Ä˜unofficially, our relations with the Soviet
Military Mission have become steadily more cordial since our arrival,
partly as a result of two banquets and the consumption of much vodka‚Ä™;
however, ‚Ä˜officially . . . they remain stubborn and dictatorial‚Ä™.250
Over the weekend of 19‚Ä“20 August, the British attempted to push the
Poles further. On 20 August, the Poles were informed that continued
intransigence on their part would ‚Ä˜in all probability‚Ä™ result in the
Seeds to FO, tel 196, 12 Aug 1939, minute, Strang (14 Aug), FO to Seeds, tel 209, 15
Aug 1939, and FO to Drax, tel Military Mission 1, 15 Aug 1939, all FO 371/23072/
DCOS, minutes 49th meeting, 14 Aug 1939, Cab 54/2.
Seeds to FO, tel 197, 14 Aug 1939, FO 371/23072/C11323/3356/18, Strang‚Ä™s minute
DCOS, minutes 51st meeting, 16 Aug 1939, Cab 54/2.
Kennard to FO, tels 270 and 273, 18 Aug 1939, FO 371/23073/C11580 and C11582/
Seeds to FO, tel Military Mission 5A, 17 Aug 1939, FO 371/23073/C11579/3356/18.
The minutes are DP(P) 70, ‚Ä˜Anglo-French-Soviet Military Delegation Meetings
August 1939‚Ä™, H. L. Ismay, 31 Aug 1939, Cab 16/183.
Drax to Chatfield, 16‚Ä“17 Aug 1939, FO 371/23073/C12064/3356/18.
314 Britain, Soviet Russia and the Versailles Order
Moscow conference ‚Ä˜break[ing] down altogether‚Ä™.251 Halifax made the
British view clear to Warsaw: a failure of the negotiations ‚Ä˜must encour-
age Herr Hitler to resort to war, in which Poland would bear the brunt of
the first attack. On the other hand I believe that the conclusion of a
politico-military agreement with the Soviet Union would be calculated
to deter him from war.‚Ä™ But this was of little import. On 21 August, the
talks in Moscow were suspended. The text of a Soviet‚Ä“German com-
mercial agreement, signed 19 August, was announced, and Pravda
trumpeted this event as possibly ‚Ä˜prov[ing] to be an important step in
the question of further improving not only economic but also political
relations between the USSR and Germany‚Ä™.252 Two days later, the Nazi‚Ä“
Soviet Pact was signed to the ‚Ä˜bewilderment‚Ä™ of many.253
The British response was predictably bitter. Seeds accused Molotov of
bad faith in his negotiations, and the Soviet commissar returned a charge
of a ‚Ä˜lack of sincerity‚Ä™.254 At the Foreign Office, Roberts argued that the
‚Ä˜Soviet military negotiators‚Ä™ had been ‚Ä˜instructed ‚Äúto lead our people
down the garden path‚ÄĚ so far as possible and to find some suitable
pretext for a break or at least an interruption in the negotiations‚Ä™ in
order to let the German talks come to fruition. Sargent had ‚Ä˜no doubt
at all that this is so‚Ä™,255 while Chamberlain wrote of ‚Ä˜Russian treach-
ery‚Ä™.256 While Molotov ‚Ä˜adopted a manner of almost hearty simplicity‚Ä™ to
Seeds on 25 August ‚Ä“ the same day that the military mission left Moscow
to begin its journey home ‚Ä“ and expressed regret (‚Ä˜what a pity‚Ä™) that the
British had been unable to budge the Poles, it was evident that Anglo-
Soviet relations had plummeted to a low point.257 The outbreak of war
just over a week later only increased the depths of Anglo-Soviet animosity.
FO to Kennard, 20 Aug 1939, FO 371/23073/C11580/3356/18.
Seeds to FO, tels 204 and 205, 21 Aug 1939, FO 371/23687/N3880 and N3881/
Nicolson diary entry, 22 Aug 1939, in Nicolson, Diaries and Letters, 411; cf. Ironside
diary entry, 22 Aug 1939, in Macleod and Kelly, Ironside Diaries, 89. Just when and why
the Soviets decided to accept the German offer for a pact is controversial. The explan-
ation offered by Ingeborg Fleischauer, ‚Ä˜Soviet Foreign Policy and the Origins of the
Hitler‚Ä“Stalin Pact‚Ä™, in Bernd Wegner, From Peace to War. Germany, Soviet Russia and the
World, 1939‚Ä“1941 (Providence, RI, and Oxford, 1997), 27‚Ä“45, seems more judicious
and satisfying, as it explains Soviet policy in its ideological context, than do the
arguments made in Robert Manne, ‚Ä˜Some British Light on the Nazi‚Ä“Soviet Pact‚Ä™,
ESR, 11 (1981), 83‚Ä“102; see also Geoffrey Roberts, ‚Ä˜The Soviet Decision for a Pact
with Nazi Germany‚Ä™, SS, 44, 1 (1992), 57‚Ä“78.
Seeds to FO, tel 211, 23 Aug 1939, FO 371/23073/C11740/3356/18.
Minutes, Roberts (23 Aug) and Sargent (28 Aug) on Drax to Chatfield, 16 Aug 1939,
N. Chamberlain to Hilda, his sister, 27 Aug 1939, Chamberlain Papers, NC 18/1/1115.
Seeds to FO, tel 223, 25 Aug 1939, FO 371/23073/C12060/3356/18.
Chamberlain as Buridan‚Ä™s ass 315
The British have been roundly criticized, both at the time and subse-
quently, for not concluding an Anglo-French-Soviet treaty.258 Such an
alliance, according to a recent commentator, ‚Ä˜could and should‚Ä™ have
been made.259 Such an assertion immediately provokes two questions:
how? And why? The British efforts to effect a tripartite alliance foundered
on a number of things, only some of which were under the control of
London. In particular, the British had no ability to end the unwillingness
of Poland and the Baltic states to be ‚Ä˜guaranteed‚Ä™ in any fashion by Soviet
Russia, an issue that was inextricably enmeshed with the arguments about
indirect aggression. It can, of course, be argued (as the Soviets did) that
the wishes of these states should have been ignored, that the ‚Ä˜greater good‚Ä™
of stopping German aggression took precedence over the sensibilities of
lesser nations. This was a line of argument entirely at variance with the
concepts of morality that underpinned British strategic foreign policy in
the period between the wars.260 While the British were just able to bring
themselves, reluctantly, to jettison their concept of collective security, they
were not able to take on board the Soviet concept, which was a triple
alliance with the casus foederis to be determined by Moscow. The unilat-
eral British guarantees to Poland and Romania kept the decision for war
and peace firmly in British hands; the proposed alliance would not.
Further, the British were convinced that the Soviet concept of indirect
aggression either would result in the Red Army‚Ä™s moving into Poland and
the Baltic states, supposedly to prevent the latter from falling under
German control, or would provoke those states into adopting a pro-
German stance. It is difficult to see how the aims of British strategic
foreign policy would have been any closer to realization with Warsaw
occupied by the Soviets than with Warsaw occupied by the Germans.
This brings us to the issue of ‚Ä˜why?‚Ä™ Why ‚Ä˜should‚Ä™ the British have
conceded the Soviet demands and signed a treaty? Such an assertion
carries with it several assumptions. The first is that to have done so
would have stopped Hitler from invading Poland (or at least prevented
him from doing so successfully) and thus beginning the Second World
War. There is no definitive proof for the first part of this belief. As to the
ability of the Red Army to check Hitler, it is evident that the British had
Perhaps the most famous contemporary criticism was ‚Ä˜Cato‚Ä™, Guilty Men (London,
1940); most recent criticism is Michael Jabara Carley, 1939. The Alliance That Never
Was and the coming of World War II (Chicago, 1999), and Louise Grace Shaw, The
British Political Elite and the Soviet Union 1937‚Ä“1939 (London and Portland, OR, 2003).
Louise Grace Shaw, ‚Ä˜Attitudes of the British Political Elite Towards the Soviet Union‚Ä™,
D&S, 13, 1 (2002), 56.
See the suggestive Joseph Charles Heim, ‚Ä˜Liberalism and the Establishment of Collect-
ive Security in British Foreign Policy‚Ä™, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th
series, 5 (1995), 91‚Ä“110.
316 Britain, Soviet Russia and the Versailles Order
no confidence in its capacity to provide much useful help to the Poles or
Romanians, much less to defeat Germany. For the British, what a
military agreement would do was to ensure Poland and Romania had a
secure source of military supplies. A second assumption is that the Soviet
offer was genuinely meant and that the Soviets would have carried out
their obligations should an alliance have been concluded (assumptions
that also underpin similar arguments about the Munich crisis). Here, we
are in the dark. But the British certainly were just as suspicious of Soviet
good faith as the Soviets were of London‚Ä™s. And, with respect to this
latter matter, claims for Soviet perspicacity are condemned by the fact
that they strained at the British gnat (by being unwilling to drop their
insistence on a particular definition of indirect aggression) but swal-
lowed the German camel (by signing the Nazi‚Ä“Soviet Pact). By pursuing
old-fashioned Realpolitik, within the bounds of ideological perception
and based on the Leninist concept of ‚Ä˜kto‚Ä“kogo‚Ä™ (literally, ‚Ä˜who‚Ä“whom‚Ä™,
but with the implied meaning of ‚Ä˜who does what to whom‚Ä™) that Molotov
exemplified, the Soviets ensured that their negotiations with Britain
would be difficult and, likely, unsuccessful. If blame is to be had, it
needs to be shared equally.
But all of this fails to understand the basis of Neville Chamberlain‚Ä™s
version of strategic foreign policy and the role that Soviet Russia played
in it. Chamberlain never intended to go to war unless absolutely forced
to do so. Instead, he wanted to deter war: his preference in military
spending to construct a deterrent bomber force and his preference in the
alliance talks to keep Soviet Russia out of the German orbit without
ceding to Moscow the ability to commit Britain to war underline this
approach. Such thinking was revealed on 23 July, when Chamberlain felt
that his policies were bearing fruit. ‚Ä˜One thing‚Ä™, he wrote to his sister, ‚Ä˜is I
think clear, namely that Hitler has concluded that we mean business and
the time is not ripe for the major war.‚Ä™ He then expanded on his views:
Unlike some of my critics I go further and say the longer the war is put off the less
likely it is to come at all as we go perfecting our defences and building up the
defences of our Allies. That is what Winston & co[mpany] never seem to realise.
You don‚Ä™t need offensive forces sufficient to win a smashing victory. What you
want are defensive forces sufficiently strong to make it impossible for the other
side to win except at such a cost as to make it not worth while.261
This was the businessman‚Ä™s calculus that Chamberlain followed, but it
was a form of ratiocination that did not appeal to either Hitler or the
Japanese, whose calculations were based more on crude Social Darwinism