Memorandum by the Counselor of Embassy in the United Kingdom (Atherton)1

The following views which Sir Robert Vansittart expressed in the course of a conversation on the international situation may be of interest and are given as near verbatim as possible:

Vansittart began by pointing out that today’s world is not a normal world and this applied to Europe especially; that normal subjects of discussion cannot be carried on with abnormal people; thus any sound economic discussion with Hitler or Mussolini or their governments is impossible; their idea of economics is splashing a new place on the map green or, if there is unrest in a certain area, sending troops to quell it, or issuing a forced loan with the central bank of the country already pledged to take over more than three-quarters of it.

England has attempted to discuss both politics and economics with both these countries and has failed. In a memorandum of a year [Page 75] ago last March,2 England put forward her program concerning which Hitler became vaguer and vaguer each time it was brought up for discussion. It is true the Western Locarno Pact3 has never been denounced, but what could be negotiated today is doubtful, even on such a vague theory of non-aggression as contained in that. On the other hand, would England want to conclude a pact that tied Western Europe’s hands without touching Eastern Europe? English public opinion demands what Mr. Chamberlain said in his speech this year—that first and foremost some political appeasement must be made by the dictator countries to show their good-will and good faith. Important economic and financial concessions can only be made on the basis of a general settlement. On the other hand, Vansittart pointed out that any recent remarks by Eden suggesting possible international economic cooperation had been invariably badly received in Germany and by the German press.

It is difficult today to distinguish in some particulars between Hitler and Mussolini. Both are surrounded by “Yes” men, but while some of those advisers about Hitler give him very frank expressions of opinion before they eventually join the chorus of agreement, Mussolini has no such check around him. He is supreme, but in a situation that is getting constantly more difficult for him, both from the internal aspect and from the repercussions of the Abyssinian situation which are constantly bearing down more acutely on Italian economics. The reason that Hitler, according to Vansittart, remains Olympian now is that he cannot decide upon his future policy. He realizes when he marched into the Rhineland he lost an opportunity to march into Czechoslovakia at the same time, probably without any European repercussion. Today, however, if Hitler has a success in Czechoslovakia unimpeded, then all Eastern Europe will tend to “landslide into dictatorship.”

Meanwhile, England remains the outstanding democracy in Europe, supported by a daily more unsettled France. In all other countries in Europe today, with the exception of some of the smaller northern countries, individual thought is atrophied and while France is in this internal turmoil which affects her economic life, her military strength and her outlook on foreign affairs, since it is due to her present downgrade that she is seeking feverishly disarmament and other international appeasement, England must maintain to the limit of her ability her present rearmament program to fill the gap left by the enfeeblement of France, and England must maintain to the limit of her ability that program of strengthening herself in all ways, including rearmament, [Page 76] until France is again on the upgrade. Vansittart said he understood that the Foreign Secretary had dwelt on this angle in his conversations with the Ambassador and that this British viewpoint had also been made clear to Mr. Norman Davis.

Vansittart referred to the Berlin communiqué of last evening on Lansbury’s4 visit to Hitler and said of course with another winter facing him, Hitler would be only too anxious for some sort of international conference which he could attend to buoy up German hopes. An international economic conference such as Lansbury spoke about would be very acceptable to Hitler. He could enter it without any political engagements and if he could obtain nothing from it, he could go to his people and explain that Germany had again been let down by the other great powers.

Vansittart frankly stated that the German economic position was better today than had been anticipated and that the regime was in no danger. He went on to say it is not an idle question to ask, with Germany in its present frame of mind and France apparently moving down hill, would not some movement by Germany be justified in the current year before England had gone too far on her rearmament program? He said he thought in this very fact lay the reason for the importance of 1937 and 1938 and the fact that no international conference could succeed until 1939, when the dictators would forcibly be more conference-minded.

Vansittart stressed again that English public opinion had no confidence in the word of Germany or the German leaders and consequently would be very skeptical of an international economic agreement which Germany signed, unless some previous commitment had been made by Hitler as to a satisfactory foreign policy. English public opinion, Vansittart went on, remembered the Great War started in Southeastern Europe and continued suspicious of another war starting in that same quarter.

Vansittart then went on to say again he could not consider a great portion of Europe as normal and he wondered how far normal negotiations or conversations were possible with Hitler or Mussolini.

He then went on to explain the German mentality as regards colonies. He said that England faced the coming Imperial conversations5 at the time of the Coronation and it was more and more realized that it would be a discussion between various independent commonwealths, with perhaps the probable greater advantage accruing to the Dominions rather than to England. It was true that in Malaya England had sources of raw material, such as tin and rubber. This was Germany’s idea of colonies—lands that could be exploited for her benefit, [Page 77] but there were no such areas in the world today and even if Germany obtained the colonies she held before the war, these lands would not supply the raw material and needs which Germany was claiming only a colonial regime could satisfy.

In conclusion Vansittart gave me to understand that the British Cabinet constantly had in mind British public opinion and Germany as she was today under Hitler’s leadership, and was weighing how big a price England would be justified in paying in any attempt to bring Germany back on some lasting basis into international comity.

Ray Atherton
  1. Transmitted to the Department by the Ambassador in the United Kingdom in his despatch No. 3026, April 23; received May 1.
  2. British Cmd. 5134, Germany No. 2 (1936), contains text of proposals made on March 19, 1936, by the four Locarno Powers.
  3. Treaty of mutual assistance between Germany, Belgium, France, Great Britain and Italy, signed October 16, 1925, Foreign Relations, The Paris Peace Conference, 1919, vol. xiii, p. 841.
  4. George Lansbury, Labour Party Member of British Parliament.
  5. Imperial Conference held in London, May 14–June 15, 1937; see British Cmd. 5482.