Memorandum by the Chargé in the United Kingdom (Atherton)36

At Sir John Simon’s request I called on him this afternoon. He said that as a member of a friendly Embassy he desired to keep me fully in touch with the Anglo-French negotiations to date. I intervened at this point and said that I could not but feel the outcome of these were a personal triumph for him, due to his able handling of the question ever since he had made his visit to Paris on December 22nd. He stated in reply that he very much appreciated what I said, and [Page 189] that in substance I was correct, for the present negotiations had begun on December 22nd when he had conversations with Laval in Paris. They had discussed then the European situation and Laval had stated the first step, from the French point of view, was to carry through the proposed Boncour37 visit to Mussolini, but that nevertheless he was unable to go to Rome unless he had some assurance of success beforehand. In the course of the conversations Laval asked Sir John Simon to use British good offices with Mussolini, which Sir John agreed to do and confidentially advised Mussolini that Laval was anxious to pay a visit to Rome if he could be assured of the successful outcome of such conversations; that Mussolini must realize a successful outcome of such Franco-Italian conversations would mean a Laval visit to London, which would tend towards the stabilization of Europe and an approach to united action in the great question of German rearmament. Mussolini was very much influenced by Simon’s message. Simon added that he was quite confident even in December that the Saar Plebiscite would be very largely in favor of Germany, although Laval did not share this point of view. However, Simon persuaded Laval that if the Plebiscite was very much in favor of Germany it would go to Hitler’s head like a cocktail, and then he would be on the lookout for his next success, which undoubtedly would tend towards Austria. Therefore, in Simon’s opinion it was of great importance that the Austrian matter should be out of the way before the Saar Plebiscite. Laval was excessively interested in this point of view, as indeed was Mussolini, and Simon was obviously personally pleased with the Franco-Italian conversations, particularly in regard to Austria. He pointed out that England made no commitments as regards the integrity of Austria beyond agreeing to consult. The inclusion of the Austrian clause in the official statement issued on the evening of February 3rd,38 after the Anglo-French conversations, had, Simon learned, given satisfaction to Mussolini as intended.

Simon’s conversations with Laval in Paris were followed by very secret conversations in Geneva during the Council meeting, for although Laval was willing to come to London directly after his visit to Rome, Simon preferred he should await the Saar Plebiscite results. Hence the Geneva conversations. In these Laval said that as regarded the German situation he saw only three alternatives: first, to let matters drift, which was unthinkable; second, to use force, which [Page 190] in the face of public opinion was impossible; and, third, to negotiate with Germany, which Simon said was the only one he could contemplate. Laval thereupon agreed to return to Paris and stake his whole position before the Cabinet on his undertaking to work with Britain along this line of negotiation. Simon said that he undertook a task which was quite contrary to the general line of British policy, namely to prepare in the Foreign Office the basis of discussion for the Laval-Flandin visit to London. He said he had to be very particular in preparing this, since the French had at first balked at any inclusion of the subject of Part V; but the British had insisted.

Simon then turned to the official statement of February 3rd, which he said laid down the method of simultaneity; in other words that the four questions—1) armaments, 2) security, 3) general abrogation of Fart V of the Versailles Treaty, and 4) cancellation by Germany of her withdrawal from the League—should all be discussed together and as of equal importance. This basis of discussion was forwarded to Paris, and about January 23rd or 24th was the basis of preliminary discussions there by the British Ambassador with Laval. Up to this time, although in the Autumn of last year Simon had in connection with aerial bombing very briefly touched on the question of air aggression with the French, the matter of an air pact had not been broached. Simon said that this question had been conceived both by Flandin and himself, thinking separately, and he said it was a test worthy of note of the ability of the British Cabinet to work quickly that although the matter of this air agreement had not been broached until Thursday evening, January 31st, and many members of the Cabinet had not heard of it until they met together in special session on Saturday, February 2nd, nevertheless it was very carefully studied—particularly from the French point of view that upon unprovoked aggression by air France must have immediate assistance by air—and a decision reached. Simon added that he pointed out to the Cabinet that he did not mean any such accord to extend beyond Locarno, because he realized British public opinion would not stand for an extension of this commitment. But on the other hand Britain only benefited by Locarno indirectly, and he proposed in this air pact that Britain should benefit directly by French, and indeed German, assistance in case of unprovoked air aggression. The French strongly pressed in the beginning for a bilateral air pact, but Britain insisted upon the inclusion of Germany. Simon does not consider this matter settled yet, and thinks France will undoubtedly return to the question of a bilateral pact, which view Britain will not consider unless she has had a distinct refusal from Germany.

In reply to my question, Simon pointed out definitely that the language of the joint communiqué, “unprovoked aerial aggression”, [Page 191] was really the language of Locarno, and added expressly that any mutual arrangement in this matter between France and Britain was not in effect now. Simon pointed out that Britain and Italy were only guarantors under Locarno, but received no benefits directly thereunder from other nations or members thereof. Therefore it was unwise, in view of public opinion, to extend the commitments of Locarno by Britain extending benefits under this air pact to Italy, and vice versa Italy extending benefits to Britain. Hence this pact was referred to in the joint communiqué as a mutual arrangement for “Western Europe”. With reference to the inclusion of other nations, Simon doubted, as a matter of fact, whether the British air force would be of much use in defending Sicily or the Italian air force of much benefit in defending Wales; but a regional pact which included Italy and another regional pact which included Britain would probably be of more benefit, though in both of these regional pacts France and Germany were included.

As for the future, Sir John pointed out that Britain must wait for the reaction of other countries, Germany, Belgium, etc.; that meanwhile he was considering the pros and cons of completing at an early date and prior to other considerations this proposed air Locarno against unprovoked aerial aggression. Sir John felt there were arguments on both sides, and that the French likewise had two views on this matter. But I distinctly gained the impression that Simon favored an early negotiation of such a pact by itself, particularly if the reactions to all the proposals of the official statement were not pretty definitely favorable and immediate.

I asked Sir John if he anticipated general continuation of bilateral conversations through diplomatic channels, and he said of necessity for the moment, but he hoped for quick action and envisaged the possibility of some sort of round table discussion in February or March, very much as in paragraph 3 of my 4, January 7, 11 p.m.39

I asked Sir John on what he considered the French attitude towards Soviet Russia was based, and whether in truth he believed the possibility of a Soviet-German rapprochement was possible. At first Sir John rather hedged on this question. I then asked him why such particular stress in the general statement had been laid on the Eastern Pact if not upon French insistence, since this subject obviously did not mean much to Britain. Sir John said that France’s insistence on the Eastern European Pact was based largely on the need for taking care of her allies, i.e. Czechoslovakia and Poland. I then asked Sir John as to French assurances to Litvinov personally, and Sir John said that Litvinov had very consistently urged Soviet cooperation with France and therefore was demanding of France that if a satisfactory [Page 192] Eastern European Pact was not completed, then there must be a satisfactory bilateral Soviet-French agreement, or, failing that, obviously Litvinov had threatened France with the possibility of Moscow looking to some other country for an agreement, which obviously implied a Soviet approach to Germany if France held back.

Sir John concluded his conversation with me by outlining more fully the arguments he advanced in the opening part of his remarks, i.e. his desire that the United States should fully comprehend the scope of the present discussions. Sir John added that the United States, as a neutral Power, had great weight, and any opinion expressed by the President or the Secretary of State would have great weight in a troubled world. Accordingly if either the President or Secretary Hull found that the trend of the present conversations was in their opinion towards the establishment of world confidence, any public utterance of approval by either the President or Secretary Hull would undoubtedly carry great weight in Germany, and Sir John felt that Germany’s reaction to this was of the utmost importance. He was satisfied that the first reading of the general Anglo-French statement had met with favorable comment in Germany, and he read me a series of telegrams from Sir Eric Phipps40 quoting various German newspapers to support his views.

R[ay] A[therton]
  1. Copy transmitted to the Department by the Chargé in his despatch No. 1218, February 12; received February 21.
  2. Jean Louis Paul-Boncour, chief French delegate to the League of Nations.
  3. British Cmd. 4798, Miscellaneous No. 1 (1935): Joint Communiqué Issued on Behalf of His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom and the Government of the French Republic as the Result of the Conversations Between the French and British Ministers in London, February 1st to 3rd, 1985; also printed in British Cmd. 5143, Misc. No. 3 (1936): Correspondence Showing the Course of Certain Diplomatic Discussions Directed toward Securing an European Settlement, June 1934 to March 1936, p. 15.
  4. Not printed.
  5. British Ambassador in Germany.