317 Attlee to Chifley

Message, [LONDON, 2 February 1948]


1. I have now been able to consider with the Foreign Secretary your message of the 22nd January[1] about foreign policy which was conveyed to me by our High Commissioner. I must thank you for your frank comments but I am bound to say that we were surprised at your reaction to our proposals.

2. It goes without saying that Australia cannot be committed except by the Australian Government and there is no misunderstanding here of the constitutional position. Moreover you need have no misgivings that we shall expect the support of Australia without fullest prior consultation.

3. But the policy advanced in the Foreign Secretary's speech will have all the better chances of success if it is known that it is backed by Australia and the other countries of the British Commonwealth and by the United States. It was for this reason that I was at pains to consult you as soon as possible on the conclusions we had reached here and we are anxious to remain in close touch with you on this as on other aspects of policy of common interest. I am sorry if the time left for consultation before the date of the Foreign Secretary's speech was short but we should not have felt justified in consulting with you until our proposed course had been discussed by the Cabinet here. As regards your reference to lack of consultation with you about the Middle East in particular I would refer to our High Commissioner's conversation with you on the 16th October on our talks with the United States and to your letter to me of the 10th January[2] in reply to mine of the 11th December.

4. We for our part are convinced that it was high time to make it clear that we had been more than patient towards the Soviet Union and that measures must be taken by this country to protect ourselves and all those who share our spiritual values. The lead we are trying to give is in no sense a military one. Our object is primarily to consolidate the ethical and spiritual forces inherent in Western civilization, thereby building up for the countries of Western Europe a counter-attraction to the baleful tenets of communism within their borders and recreating a healthy society wherever it has been shaken or shattered by war.

5. This, in our opinion, applies in particular to Western Europe. As we have already indicated in the message sent on the 13th January to our High Commissioner for conveyance to you[3], the Soviet Union, having themselves formed close alliances with the States of Eastern Europe for the purpose of welding them into a communist bloc, have now launched their attack in France, Italy, Trieste and Greece and show signs of attempting to assimilate the Germans of the Eastern Zone in order to increase their sphere of control. We therefore consider that if we are to preserve peace and our own safety we must mobilise a moral and material force which will create confidence and energy in the West and inspire respect elsewhere.

6. We are not planning to form an offensive alliance directed against the Soviet Union. This phrase was used to describe the manner in which without, in our opinion, any justification the Soviet Union would doubtless stigmatize the Western democratic system that we have in mind.

7. It is precisely because of the obvious danger of the United States setting the pace for a policy which they would not themselves be prepared to carry through that we think it desirable to exchange views with the Americans with complete frankness and to do what we can to ensure the crystallisation of an American policy which is in our common interest and is thoroughly co-ordinated.

8. As regards the inclusion of Spain in the Western democratic system we used the words 'when circumstances permit'. We are all agreed that the present circumstances in Spain do not permit.

9. As regards Greece it is surely not in accordance with the facts to claim that the Government of Greece is undemocratic. We have been critical of their acts and methods and have let them know our views; but the Greek Parliament was freely elected and represents broadly speaking the views of the electorate. The elections were admittedly boycotted by parties of the extreme Left but independent opinion has put the percentage of those boycotting at some nine percent and even if this figure were doubled it cannot be claimed that the parties in the Parliament and (since Sophoulis[4] returned to power) in the Government are unrepresentative. We agree of course that we do not wish to ask our people to go to war over Greece; but the point surely is that Greece is one of those countries upon which Soviet pressure to impose its own totalitarian system is being exerted most forcefully and cynically. Apart from our traditional and moral obligations to Greece (and from strategic considerations) it is surely necessary for us to decide now at what point we and the Western world as a whole must make a stand against Soviet expansionism. We believe that as things are now we stand no chance of coming to terms with the Soviet totalitarian bloc unless, and until, we have first convinced the Kremlin that we are not going to be pressed any more. We must negotiate and intend to negotiate for a settlement from a position of strength. Greece may well be the turning point.

10. Regarding the Council of Foreign Ministers, it was not the Foreign Secretary who broke off discussions but it was clear to us that the position had been reached where it would have been useless to prolong them. We could not agree with the view that the reparations issue can be isolated.

11. As regards the suggestion in your paragraph 10 about trade in munitions of war, we are convinced that there is no chance that the Soviet will, in fact, cease to supply arms to any communist sympathisers. To deny arms to those who are trying to defend themselves against communist aggression, direct or indirect, would be to play into the hands of communist policy of expansion into Western Europe and the Mediterranean. This would be repeating the mistake of appeasement.

12. Indeed, in the situation in which we have been placed by Russian policy, half measures are useless. We must face the facts. For three years now communism has been gaining ground in Eastern Europe and gradually spreading westwards. It has undoubted attractions for less developed countries and for others that have been ravaged by war. We are convinced that if it is to be countered a positive conception is required and it is this that we now are offering. If communism were to sweep through Europe we, in these islands, should be the first to suffer. The inhabitants of this country have lived next door to the greatest conflagration the world has ever seen. We should never forgive ourselves if we thought that we had not done all in our power to prevent another by proposing to the peoples of the West a constructive alternative policy.

13. It is clear that this country cannot shoulder this burden alone, nor are the countries of Western Europe alone strong enough to give us the backing we must have. No Western European system can be solidly established and defended without American military backing in the last resort, as the two last wars demonstrated. The United States went some way towards recognising this when they put forward their proposals for the Four Power Byrnes Treaty.[5] This project seems now unlikely to be realised but the pressure of events may yet impel the United States Government to involve themselves in Western security in some other way. We have been greatly encouraged by Mr. Marshall's response to the plan for the Western union and by the welcome the plan has received not only in Western Europe but in the British Commonwealth generally. In all this we are working on a narrow margin. If the present fatal drift is to be arrested and the tide turned in our favour we shall need - and need badly - the wholehearted backing of the Americas and of the Commonwealth.

14. To sum up the Foreign Secretary's speech in Parliament explained our position. The measures we have taken are in no way intended to lock the door to the Soviet Union and to the countries in Eastern Europe. Such measures as we have taken have been taken tardily after giving benefit of the doubt on every occasion to the Soviet Government.

15. We recognise of course the compelling interest of Australia in the Pacific area and vigour with which you are tackling these problems. But when all is said and done the key to the situation lies in Europe and in dealing with this immense problem we are confident that we can look forward to the frankest and fullest co-operation with the Australian Government.

16. As you sent a copy of your message to Mr. Fraser I am repeating this message to him.

[1] Document 313.

[2] Document 14.

[3] Document 312.

[4] Themistocles Sophoulis, Prime Minister.

[5] A draft treaty on the disarmament and demilitarization of Germany presented by James F. Byrnes, US Secretary of State, to the Council of Foreign Ministers at Paris on 30 April 1946.

[AA : A1838, TS78/7]