The Ambassador in France ( Straus ) to the Secretary of State
[Received February 8.]
Sir; I have the honor to refer to the Embassy’s despatch No. 2456 of January 11, 193684 (pages 14–15), in which reference was made to the December 1935 Franco-British proposals for a settlement of the Italo-Ethiopian conflict as well as to the “leak” which occurred at the time in the columns of two prominent French newspapers. A word as to the situation prior to Sir Samuel Hoare’s arrival in Paris is perhaps relevant in recalling the status of the negotiations then in progress.
It was commonly rumored in Paris that the Hoare-Laval plan had its origin in Rome from where the Quai d’Orsay had been informed of the minimum conditions which M. Mussolini would consent to accept as a basis for negotiation. The Italian claims, however, appeared so unreasonable that the scheme was dropped as being utterly incompatible with League principles. When the question of the embargo on oil became more acute the Italian Government, seriously alarmed, instructed its Ambassador in Paris, Signor Cerruti, to call upon M. Laval and to state in unequivocal terms that an embargo on oil would mean war. The answer that M, Laval is reported to have made to the Italian representative was that if Italy attacked the British fleet in the Mediterranean France would come to England’s help. The unexpectedly resolute attitude of the French Prime Minister brought consternation to the Italian camp and the Ambassador was sent post haste to M. Laval to inform him that Italy would welcome any compromise suggestion that might forestall the application of an oil embargo, especially since the United States Government at that time showed a disposition to reduce its exports of oil to Italy pending the passage of a Neutrality Act.
The French African expert at the Quai d’Orsay, M. de Saint-Quentin, who was then working in close collaboration in Paris with his “opposite number” in the British Foreign Office, Mr. Maurice Peterson, proceeded to a hasty modification of the original plan [Page 101] which, in its final form, met with the approval of certain members of the British Cabinet who were opposed to the idea of an oil embargo on the grounds that such a step would not only starve Italy but would break the Stresa front against Germany, and thereby endanger the Fascist regime in Italy. The plan in its final form was, to the best of the Embassy’s knowledge and belief, ready on Thursday, December 5, and received the approval of M. Laval and Sir Robert Vansittart,85 who had hastened over to Paris for the purpose. Sir Samuel Hoare arrived in the capital on Friday night or Saturday morning, and after further negotiation the plan was approved and communicated as is common knowledge, to the Italian Government, the Negus and the League in the order named. In his acceptance M. Laval is believed to have imposed three conditions; (1) that Signor Mussolini should agree to the plan as offered within twenty-four hours; (2) that, should negotiations begin, the Italian Government should immediately halt the advance of its troops in Ethiopian territory; (3) that the plan should be published immediately upon its acceptance by the Duce. These proposals, which have since been characterized as a flagrant violation of the Covenant, were not, in the opinion of some, altogether undeserving. It was later held that if the French Prime Minister had been able to offer the proposals, as accepted by Italy, to the council as a “peace” plan, the ensuing general feeling of relief would have enabled the League to accept it. Pressure would have almost certainly have been put upon the Negus either to fall in with the scheme or to continue to fight at his own risk with the lukewarm support of the League and with but little possibility of the further application of sanctions in any form.
On December 9, just prior to the date fixed for full publicity, two prominent organs of the French press, the Echo de Paris and the Oeuvre, to the general stupefaction, published the proposals in detail with but one inaccuracy which concerned the longitudinal degree of the zone accorded to the Italians as a settlement area. Copies of these articles are enclosed.86
From two sources, which the Embassy considers as reliable, it was revealed how this “leak”, which was in a measure responsible for the failure of the plan, occurred. It had been generally known that since M. Laval assumed charge at the Quai d’Orsay, he had consistently ignored the advice of his more important subordinates. Such important officials as M. Alexis Léger, Secretary General, and MM. Bargeton, Director, and Coulondre and Massigli, Assistant Directors of Political and Commercial Affairs at the Quai d’Orsay, had often been left completely in the dark as to the directives of M. Laval’s foreign policy. It is alleged therefore that Mr. Léger, who had been [Page 102] present at the final consultations, and was fully acquainted with the proposals, “arranged” matters so that the representatives of the Echo de Paris (Pertinax) and the Oeuvre (Madame Geneviève Tabouis) both notoriously opposed to M. Laval and his foreign policy, should be urgently advised to proceed to London without delay. On arrival they were immediately and secretly informed from Paris by telephone with regard to the details of the proposals and lost no time in telephoning them back to their respective papers. Thus every effort was made so that it should appear that the “leak” originated in London and not in Paris. At the same time M. Poliakoff (Augur) was informed in London and wired the details without comment to the New York Times. The premature publication of the plan, together with other factors which are now past history, combined to render the proposals totally unacceptable. Public opinion in England was aroused to a point which rendered imperative the resignation of the Foreign Secretary and Signor Mussolini, unwilling to appear to weaken his position, maintained more than a discreet silence. M. Laval, according to reports, was then enjoying a brief rest at his home at Chateldun and, when apprised of the turn of events, made a fruitless last moment attempt to “explain” his acquiescence but with little if any success.
The Embassy, while not able to vouch for the truth of the story insofar as M. Léger’s role is concerned, does not consider it improbable that the “leak” emanated from the Quai d’Orsay. As previously stated, M. Laval’s seeming indifference to the advice of his subordinates would indicate that a serious difference of opinion had existed for some time between the more important Foreign Office officials and himself. M. Laval, faced with the slogan “a premium on aggression” found himself with his back to the wall and it was only by a masterful justification of his Foreign Policy before the Chamber that he was able to obtain two extremely slender votes of confidence. The sincerity of his defense won him the day for his most bitter enemies were forced to admit that his motive in accepting the plan was to do all that was humanly possible at the time to prevent the outbreak of hostilities in the Mediterranean.