The Minister in Switzerland (Wilson) to the Secretary of State

Dear Mr. Secretary: The Council session11 has reached a satisfactory termination with creditable work done in certain items of the agenda. However, the most interesting feature of the session was the revelation of an evolution in the concern with which different questions are regarded. Three months ago the thoughts of the statesmen of Europe were concentrated on Africa; the Abyssinian question was [Page 184] paramount. A month ago a phase of that question, namely the military situation in the Eastern Mediterranean, was the focus of all thought. Today a further evolution has fixed the minds of these men on the intensity of the rearmament of Germany,12 leading to the realization of the implications throughout the whole of Europe of the return of Germany as a first class military power.

Representations of Great Britain have brought about undertakings in respect to assistance from the Mediterranean Powers13 which, together with Britain’s vigorous military effort, have taken the edge off the apprehension with which a number of Britishers regarded the threat to their strategic position in Egypt and the possibility of an assault by Mussolini. They believe now that time is working for them. They believe that however stout an effort the Italians are making from a military point of view, nevertheless this effort is exceedingly costly, and that the sanctions already in effect are rapidly curtailing Italy’s resources and ability to maintain the present effort. Hence they can turn their minds to the question of German rearmament, a question which causes them more profound concern—if not more immediate concern—than a threat by Mussolini.

Whether Italy suffers to the extent believed in Geneva from the sanctions now in force, I have no way of knowing. It is stated here that the stock of foreign exchange is rapidly being diminished by enormous purchases of oil from Rumania, etc. and that this foreign exchange cannot be replaced while the sanctions are operative. It is stated that some of the Powers hitherto reluctant to apply economic sanctions now find themselves in the happy position of supplying the goods previously purchased from Italy and are now disposed to carry on the present situation indefinitely.

For the foregoing, I cannot vouch. What has struck me, however, has been a change of tone on the part of the Italians here: their suggestion of war at any mention of the oil embargo, if heard at all, is less convincing; they are more inclined to take the position that they have adequate stocks for their present needs. They express openly the hope that a peace can be negotiated, although there is no evidence that they are considering a peace which could be acceptable to the League Powers. In any case we seem for the moment to have passed the danger of hostilities in the Mediterranean, and an unstable situation, if I may use the expression, seems temporarily to have reached a position of stable equilibrium.

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I cannot conceal from myself the belief that the actual application of an embargo on petroleum by the League States will be dependent largely upon the decision of the United States Congress in respect to the Neutrality legislation.14 I hope that no step will be taken here which will make the League’s action appear to be openly dependent upon ours. A number of the men influential in this matter are convinced that it would be a mistake to do so. Nevertheless, I doubt whether the embargo will be applied by the League States unless they feel that in some way the supply from the United States will not replace that which they cut off. The reverse also appears true. If the United States curtails its shipments, the States of the League will feel it not only expedient, but morally imperative to put on the embargo. Since sending you my cables Nos. 36314a and 364,15 Vasconcellos, the President of the Committee of Eighteen,16 has come to see me. He believes that while Eden’s methods may seem less aggressive, his determination in respect to sanctions has not diminished. I need not recapitulate the arguments for the necessity of the establishment of the oil sanction. Suffice it to say that in the minds of most of the Delegates, it is the test of strength between the League of Nations and Mussolini and must be established as a precedent for use against Germany, if necessity arises.

The extension of the idea of collectivity into a series of military guarantees against the risk involved in the application of sanctions is the most recent step in increasing pressure against the aggressor. It is of the highest importance and cannot fail profoundly to affect the future relationships and political development in Europe. You will remember that Aloisi17 termed such action a military alliance against Italy in the Mediterranean, and deplored the fact that the League of Nations could be led by England to assume this shape. Germans who have talked to me during this session take an analogous position. They point out that nobody hides the fact that the present action against Italy is in the nature of a rehearsal for action against Germany. They feel convinced that once it has been proved that the League can take the form of a military alliance, the threat of that alliance will be used as a means of coercion against Germany, after this Italian question is liquidated. They recognize that though the phrases used are against Italy, the instrument itself is being forged for eventual use against their own country. Hence the Italians and the Germans are inspired by like apprehension and by like mistrust of what they both deem to be a form of coercion. This in [Page 186] contrast to the League conception, namely, that the military agreements are precautionary only against possible Italian retaliation.

As to whether this manifestation of force in regard to Italy, together with the possibility of such a manifestation in respect to Germany will be effective in bringing Germany to a mood of negotiation is a question of psychological appreciation. Certainly Paul Scheffer of the Berliner Tageblatt, a believer in international co-operative action, makes no secret of his conviction that what he calls a threat of force will have results on Germany completely the opposite of what it is designed to effect. The overwhelming opinion of the representatives of other States here is, however, to the contrary and we can only hope that the future will show that they are right.

There is indisputable evidence of the magnitude and intensity of the German effort in military preparation. There may be question as to the exact stage of the development of this preparation but there is no doubt that it is on a scale to cause alarm and that it proceeds with a rapidity which none of the democratic States can equal. The ability of a dictator to devote practically the entire resources of his country to armament cannot be matched by democratic countries in times of peace. Rightly or wrongly, the idea is becoming prevalent that German rearmament on this scale and in this tempo can be designed only for the purposes of aggression. I believe that in making this statement I am reflecting the profound conviction of most of the statesmen on this Continent.

It seems to be generally believed that there will be no German aggression towards the west. Germany will presumably make every effort not to give Great Britain apprehension as to the Low Countries. Her present policy is predicated on not giving offence to Great Britain. Many French themselves appear to believe that they need fear no attack on their eastern frontier or through Belgium and Holland. If Germany does contemplate aggression, it is generally expected that it will be to the east or down the Danube.

In either case the rôle of Poland is of primary importance. It is giving the deepest concern not only to the French but to the British and the Little Entente. It is the great enigma of Europe at the present time. It is an enigma which is the more puzzling because of the baffling personality of Beck, the Minister for Foreign Affairs. It is hard to see how the hostility between Germany and Russia, even taking into account its fundamental conflict of régime, can reach a point of armed conflict so long as Poland maintains a neutral position. Speculations as to Poland’s position are many and varied. There are those who believe that it may definitely throw in its lot with [Page 187] Germany in an attempt to seize the Ukraine and permit Germany to dominate Central Europe. In discussing with Massigli18 the Far Eastern situation, he was of the opinion that a Japanese-Russian conflict in Mongolia would not remain a Far Eastern conflict; that the Germans would dazzle the Poles with the idea of the conquest of the Ukraine while the Russian forces were in Siberia and that this might well involve Europe in a conflagration. Others here familiar with the Far East have observed the speed with which Japan is obtaining hegemony over the Mongols and wonder how long Russia can tolerate it.

In the event of such a disturbance, France would be faced with a terrible choice. Would French soldiers have to be mobilized to save the existence of the Bolshevik régime? Indeed could such a mobilization take place in the present temper of the French people? I have talked with a member of the French General Staff who thinks it would be a profound mistake for France to attack Germany under such conditions. On the other hand, as will be seen from my memorandum, Titulesco19 believes that in the final analysis the French would march.

The matter is further complicated at the moment by the weakness of French diplomacy, distracted by its internal controversies. I believe that this situation is only ephemeral. History has shown too often that France can pull itself together in a crisis. Nevertheless, the indecision of France at the present time is causing grave concern to those statesmen of Europe within the French orbit. The fact that Great Britain is showing such vigor and determination in Continental matters is a consolation but it is on France, not Great Britain, that many of these States depend for existence.

I have gone into this speculation, Mr. Secretary, with no desire to be alarming but because it is a reflection of the type of thought that is occupying the minds of those on the Council. It is the type of thought that has led to a feeling of apprehension which has brought about the conviction that only by an agreement with Germany, both of a political nature and for the limitation of armaments, can a cataclysm be avoided. It is a time in which wisdom and statesmanship are needed on this Continent as never since the end of the War.

I am [etc.]

Hugh R. Wilson
  1. Ninetieth session of the Council of the League of Nations, January 20–24, 1936.
  2. See Foreign Relations, 1935, vol. ii, pp. 294 ff.
  3. Effected by exchanges of notes, January 22, 1936, between the British Government and the Governments of France, Turkey, Greece, and Yugoslavia; statements were also made by Czechoslovakia and Rumania, January 22, and by Spain, January 24. For texts, see British Cmd. 5072, Ethiopia No. 2 (1936): Dispute between Ethiopia and Italy, Correspondence in connexion with the application of Article 16 of the Covenant of the League of Nations, pp. 2–8.
  4. See pp. 165 ff.
  5. Dated January 23, 8 p.m., vol. iii, p. 97.
  6. Dated January 24, 5 p.m.; not printed.
  7. Appointed on October 11–12, 1935, by the Coordination Committee of the League of Nations from its own membership.
  8. Baron Pompeo Aloisi, chief Italian delegate to the League of Nations.
  9. René Massigli, Assistant Director of Political and Commercial Affairs, French Ministry for Foreign Affairs.
  10. Nicholas Titulescu, Rumanian Minister for Foreign Affairs. The Minister reported his conversation with Mr. Titulescu in telegram No. 364, January 24, 5 p.m., not printed; the memorandum to which he refers is not in the Department files.