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150 Mr M. MacDonald, U.K. Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, to Mr J. A. Lyons, Prime Minister

Circular Cablegram B73 LONDON, 22 March 1938, 11.32 p.m.


Following for Prime Minister:-

Will no doubt have seen from press telegrams Prime Minister [1] has undertaken to make in the House of Commons on Thursday [2] a comprehensive statement on the international situation. This statement must, of course, include an intimation as to the attitude of His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom in relation to the possibility of future aggression by Germany against Czechoslovakia. In the present state of international tension it is clearly desirable that the attitude of this country should be made clear at the earliest possible moment. The whole position has been under close examination here during the last few days, and I hope to telegraph the terms of the proposed statement after the meeting of Cabinet tomorrow (Wednesday). [3]

The provisional conclusions reached by the Government are as follows:-

'The existing obligations of His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom in connection with a possible attack on Czechoslovakia are comprised in- (1) Their obligations under the Covenant as a member of the League of Nations.

Although in the present circumstances [the ability of] the League to fulfil all the functions originally contemplated for it is reduced nevertheless His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom will do their best to fulfil their obligations. as a member of the League of Nations within the measure of their capacity, and to the extent to which common action can be secured;

(2) Their obligations as a signatory of the Treaty of Locarno as re-affirmed by the arrangement drawn up in London on 19th March, 1936. [4]

For reasons connected both with domestic politics and with our association with the other parts of the British Commonwealth which preclude us from surrendering our liberty of decision in advance, we cannot assume any further commitments in Europe beyond those embodied in the Covenant of the League and the Treaty of Locarno which, in our view, are not the means to contribute to the maintenance of peace in Europe.

In particular we could not go so far as to state what action might be taken in the event of an attack on Czechoslovakia by Germany.

At the same time if war broke out, it is impossible to say where it might not end or what Governments might not become involved.

The military position of Czechoslovakia has been seriously weakened by the incorporation of Austria in the Reich. The absence of fortifications along the former Czechoslovakian-Austrian frontier lays the heart of Czechoslovakia open to German attack.

There is little hope therefore that military operations against Germany by France and the Soviet Union could be made effective in time to prevent military occupation of Czechoslovakia by Germany.

The restoration of Czechoslovakia would therefore have to await conclusion of a victorious campaign against Germany by those who had taken up arms in Czechoslovakia's defence. The war in any case would be likely to be long and if we became engaged we would not be in a position to contribute at the outset such forces as would help to secure an early victory. Our main contribution in early stages would be exercised by economic pressure, by means of sea power which would be slow in operation and tardy in its effects.

We feel therefore that every possible step should be taken both by the French Government and by His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom to help to remove the causes of friction or even of conflict by using their good offices with the Czechoslovak Government to bring about a settlement of the questions affecting the position of the German minority such as would be compatible with ensuring the integrity of the Czechoslovak State while retaining that minority within the frontier of Czechoslovakia. We propose to urge upon the French Government that this matter is one for joint and early consideration between the two Governments' (ends).

It is proposed to ask our Ambassador in Paris [5] to speak on the above lines to the French Government after meeting of Cabinet tomorrow at which precise terms of aide-memoire which he may leave with that Government as well as of statement for Parliament will be decided.

1 Neville Chamberlain.

2 24 March 1938.

3 23 March 1938 4 See Document 29, note 3. On 19 March 1936 after Germany had withdrawn from the Locarno system, the United Kingdom affirmed that its obligations to France and Belgium had not lapsed.

5 Sir Eric Phipps.

[AA : A981, GREAT BRITAIN 8B, ii]
Last Updated: 11 September 2013

Category: International relations

Topic: History