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

Circular Cablegram B75 LONDON, 23 March 1938, 3.19 p.m. [1]


Circular B. 73 and 74. [2]

Following for Prime Minister:-

Following are provisional statements [3]:-

His Majesty's Government have expressed the view that recent events in Austria have created new situation and think it right to state conclusions to which consideration of those events has led them.

They have already placed on record their judgment upon action taken by the German Government and to that they have nothing to add. The consequences of the action however remain. There has been a profound disturbance of international confidence. In these circumstances the problem before Europe, to which in the opinion of His Majesty's Government it is their most urgent duty to direct their attention, is how best to restore this shaken confidence and seek peaceful solutions to questions that continue to cause anxiety.

Of these, the one necessarily most present to many minds is that concerning relations between the Government of Czechoslovakia and the German minority in that country and it is probable that the solution of this question, if it could be achieved, would go far to re-establish a more normal situation over an area wider than that immediately concerned.

Accordingly His Majesty's Government have given special attention to this matter, and in particular they have fully considered the question whether the United Kingdom in addition to those obligations by which she is already bound by the Covenant of the League of Nations and the Treaty of Locarno should as a further contribution towards preserving peace in Europe now undertake a new and specific commitment in relation to Czechoslovakia.

It is right that I should here remind the House what our existing commitments are which might lead to the use of our arms for purposes other than our own defences and the defence of the Territories of the other parts of the British Commonwealth of Nations. They are first of all the defence of France and Belgium against unprovoked aggression in accordance with our existing obligations under the Treaty of Locarno as re-approved in the arrangement drawn up in London on 19th March, 1936.

His Majesty's Government have also obligations by the Treaty to Portugal, Iraq and Egypt. These are our definite obligations in relation to particular countries. There remains another case in which we may have to use our arms; a case which is of a more general character but which may have no less significance. This is the case arising under the Covenant of the League of Nations which was accurately defined by the former Foreign Secretary [4] when he said:-

'In addition our armaments may be used in bringing help to a victim of aggression' (and this might of course include Czechoslovakia) 'in any case where in our judgment it would be proper under the provisions of the Covenant to do so.' The ex Foreign Secretary went on to say 'I use the word "may"

deliberately since in such an instance there is no automatic obligation to take military action. It is moreover right that this should be so for nations cannot be expected to incur automatic military obligations save for areas where their vital interests are concerned.' His Majesty's Government stands by these declarations and I cannot but feel that the knowledge that any such action which it may be within the power of Great Britain to take will be determined by His Majesty's Government of the day in accordance with the principles laid down in the Covenant, will not be without its influence on the course and development of any dispute should such unhappily arise.

The question now arises whether we should go further. Should we forthwith give an assurance to France that in the event of her being called upon by reason of German aggression on Czechoslovakia to implement her obligations under the Franco-Czechoslovakian Treaty we would immediately employ our full military force on her behalf Or alternatively should we at once declare our readiness to take military action in resistance to any forcible interference with the independence and integrity of Czechoslovakia and invite any other nation which might so desire to associate themselves with us in such a declaration.

The first thing that emerges from a consideration of these two alternatives is that under either of them the decision as to whether or not this country should find itself involved in war would be automatically removed from the discretion of His Majesty's Government and the suggested guarantee would apply irrespective of the circumstances which brought it into operation and over which His Majesty's Government might have been able to exercise no control.

This position is not one that His Majesty's Government could see their way to accept in relation to an area where their vital interests are not concerned in the same degree as they are in the case of France and Belgium and it is certainly not the position that results from the Covenant and His Majesty's Government cannot conceal from themselves that to accept such a position would be likely to involve the risk of grave divergence of opinion in this country, and throughout the British Commonwealth of Nations at a time when it must be a primary purpose of any Government to maintain greatest measure possible of national unity as well as of unity within the Empire. (There is also another consideration which has weighed with His Majesty's Government and which it is right to state with complete frankness. It is not necessary for His Majesty's Government to emphasize how great is the importance that they attach to the maintenance of most close and cordial relations with the French Government. But they cannot doubt that anything would more unhappily affect these relations than if the people of Great Britain had occasion to feel their own participation in war was in fact owing to such guarantee dependent upon prior decisions of the French Government).

For these reasons His Majesty's Government feel themselves unable to give the prior guarantee suggested. But while plainly stating this decision I would add this-where peace and war are concerned legal obligations are not alone involved and if war broke out it would be unlikely to be confined to those who have assumed such obligations. It would be quite impossible to say where it might not end and what Government might not become involved. The inexorable pressure of facts reveals that threats of vital interest might well prove more powerful than formal pronouncements and it would be probable that a Government though not party to the original dispute would almost immediately be involved. This is especially true in the case of two countries with long association of friendship like Great Britain and France which are devoted to the same ideals of democratic liberty and are determined to up- hold them.

It remains for His Majesty's Government to state their attitude in regard to the proposal made by the Government of U.S.S.R. that an early conference should be held for the purpose of discussion with certain other powers of practical measures which in their opinion circumstances demand. His Majesty's Government would warmly welcome the assembly of any conference at which it might be expected all European nations would consent to be represented and at which it might therefore be found possible to discuss matters in regard to which anxiety is at present felt.

In the present circumstances however they are obliged to recognise that no such expectations can be entertained and the Soviet Government do not in fact appear to entertain it. This proposal would appear to involve less a consultation with a view to settlement than a concerting of action against an eventuality that has not yet arisen. Its object would appear to [be to] negotiate such mutual undertakings in advance to resist aggression as I have referred to, which, for the reason given, His Majesty's Government for their part are unwilling to accept. Apart from this, His Majesty's Government are of the opinion that the indirect but none the less inevitable consequence of such action as is proposed by the Russian Government, would be to aggravate the tendency towards the establishment of exclusive groups of nations which must in the views of His Majesty's Government be inimical to the prospect of European peace.

His Majesty's Government have repeatedly asserted the principle on which they consider the peace of world depends and they do not believe any stable order can be secured unless by one means or other general recognition can be won for what seems to His Majesty's Government to be essential conditions of it. The first is that differences between nations should be resolved by peaceful settlement and not by methods of force. The second of no less importance is that a peaceful settlement to be enduring must be based on justice.

Holding these views, successive British Governments have accepted the full obligations of the Covenant of the League of Nations, and done their best to discharge them; they have acceded to special instruments designed to pledge nations afresh to refrain from resorting to aggressive war; and they have reinforced general obligations thus undertaken by specific undertakings within the framework of the League towards countries with whom they enjoy special relations or in which they have special interests.

On the other side, they have constantly lent, and are prepared to continue lending, their influence to revision of relations between nations established by treaty or otherwise which appeared to demand review. They will continue whether by way of action through the League or by direct diplomatic effort to exert all their influence on the side of bringing to peaceful and orderly solution any issue liable to interrupt friendly relations between nations.

So far as Czechoslovakia is concerned, His Majesty's Government have been glad to take note of, and in no way under-rate definite assurances given by the German Government in this regard and they will at all times be ready to render any help in their power by whatever means might seem most appropriate towards the solution of questions likely to cause difficulty between the German and Czechoslovakian Governments.

To sum up, His Majesty's Government accepts the obligations which already rest upon them and have made and are making maximum efforts to place themselves in a position to adequately fulfil them.

His Majesty's Government do not differ from those who feel that the increase of armaments alone is no sure guarantee for peace.

They earnestly hope that it may yet be possible to arrive at a reasonable balance of armaments by agreement rather than by free and unlimited competition.

They have, on the other hand, felt it right to make their view known that, in the present state of the world, reliance upon assertions of loyalty to the principles of the Covenant was not enough in the absence of practical strength by which those professions might be supported. Accordingly the policy of His Majesty's Government recognises and is based upon the necessity both of working untiringly to strengthen the cause of peace, and also of taking all steps requisite to make this country strong enough to meet whatever calls may be made upon it. In their view, the knowledge that in all parts of the world such steps are being taken with determination and despatch will be valuable contribution towards international re-assurance.

His Majesty's Government have sought to give to Parliament and to the world as full an indication as possible of their attitude upon the large matters and causes which are at present occupying the thoughts of all Nations. They are fully sensible, as I have said, of the extent to which international confidence has been shaken and of consequent apprehension existing in many quarters. They would, however, deprecate preconcerted language here or elsewhere which can only have the effect of exacerbating the situation, and of exciting fear which it is permissible to hope events will prove unfounded. The only result would be the creation of an atmosphere in which the elements essential to wise judgment would be dangerously obscuring.

These conclusions have only been reached by His Majesty's Government after full and most careful review of all the relevant facts and considerations and with keen sense of great responsibility that rests upon them. His Majesty's Government do not believe any difference of opinion exists in any quarter as to the broad purposes of preservation of peace and association of peace with justice to which the policy of this country should be directed and His Majesty's Government have reached the clear conclusion that the course they have decided to pursue provides the best means by which this policy can be made effective.

1 This cablegram was sent in five parts between 3.19 p.m. and 6.30 p.m., 23 March 1938.

2 Documents 150, 153.

3 Chamberlain's speech, as delivered in Parliament, may be found in House of Commons, Parliamentary Debates, fifth series, vol.

333, cols 1403-14.

4 Anthony Eden. For a more extensive reference to this speech at Leamington, see Document 39.

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

Category: International relations

Topic: History