Memorandum by the Military Attaché in Germany (Smith)27

A German general staff officer recently expressed the opinion in a private conversation that it was German bayonets which were making possible the Japanese conquest of China, just as in 1935 and 1936 German bayonets had made possible the Italian conquest of Abyssinia. The officer in question by these remarks did not mean to imply that Germany approved Japanese or Italian action. He was merely stating what he considered to be a fact: that the German rearmament had altered the balance of power in Europe and in so doing had prevented Great Britain from opposing Japan in Asia.

The interrelation of European and Asiatic factors in determining the course of developments in the Far East, is no doubt now fully appreciated in Washington. That England’s inactivity in Asia is due to her worries on the European continent and in the Mediterranean must be as apparent on one side of the Atlantic as on the other. That also in her dilemma, she is seeking to induce the United States to take the lead in East Asia and maintain the white man’s position there, is a matter of gossip in every European capital.

In German military circles, it is the firm belief that under no circumstances will Great Britain weaken its military position in Europe or on the Mediterranean by any diversion of its strength to East Asia, [Page 14] no matter whether America becomes involved with Japan or not. In other words, if a major war is to come in East Asia, Great Britain’s contribution will be purely nominal—that is about on a par with Great Britain’s participation in the Tsingtam [Tsingtao] expedition of 1914.

So marked are Britain’s and France’s fears of European developments, if they become involved in East Asia that it is fair to speak of a paralysis of their foreign policies in the latter part of the world. Both fear that Germany and Italy will use the opportunity to strike a deadly blow in unison, once they themselves have become involved in the Far East.

This fear of England and France may or may not be correct. Nevertheless it is today the governing factor in the world political situation.

It therefore becomes advisable to examine the possible courses open to Germany under the assumption Great Britain becomes involved in East Asia. This is necessary in order to understand the reasons for English passivity in the face of Japanese aggression against the British position in China.

The same examination of possibilities should be done no doubt in the case of Italy, but this cannot be done with any authority by an observer in Berlin.

The German Hitler foreign policy and attitude in the present situation appears in its larger outlines fairly clear.

Germany on February 1, 1938, is out to benefit herself and to extract such profit as she may from the Asian embroilment. Hitler is not himself interested in either Japanese aggression or Chinese resistance. German commercial interests in the Far East, while large, also do not influence his political thinking. He is thinking in terms of Europe. He realizes Germany is no world power and cannot be a world power until Germany’s European position is secure. Therefore, if he concludes an anti-communist alliance with Japan, he is not thinking of Asiatic matters, but purely of the effect of this treaty on Russia’s European position.

Were Great Britain to become seriously involved in Asia, it is axiomatic that her position in Europe will be weaker and that this weakness will in turn communicate itself to France’s position. If we assume a Great Britain involved in China, we can accept for granted that France would be less likely to take up arms in favor of Czechoslovakia or Austria, were Hitler to proceed to liquidate these states. That is the case at the present time. The above hypothesis is not intended to suggest that Hitler will release the German armed forces, at the moment England sends its fleet to Singapore. Hitler might well decide to lay low for a time and strengthen his own finances and economic position, and await the gradual weakening which England would inevitably undergo, if she really seriously put forth her [Page 15] strength in Asia. Whether Germany would seek her profit by military or financial measures remains undetermined. But that she intends to come out of an entanglement of Britain in an Asiatic war stronger than she is today, is as certain as any political fact can be. This England knows full well. Uncertain is only how Germany would seek to profit from England’s distress. In all English political calculations there is ever in the background that powerful German military force which is gradually coming to be the most powerful army in the world.

In the present crisis when English interests in Asia are receiving one body blow after another and America gives no sign that she will take up the fight in British behalf, the European diplomatic world awaits with interest the next British move. To all it seems axiomatic that Britain will continue to lose ground in Asia until she has secured her European base of operation. This she can achieve by an understanding with Germany, Italy, or perhaps with both together. This is the true meaning of the Halifax visit in December [November]28 and will be equally the true meaning of the German-British conversations, which may be expected to begin not later than the middle of March.

An English-German understanding is Hitler’s first principle of diplomacy in 1938, just as it was in 1934, or in 1924 when he wrote Mein Kampf. Four years ago England could have had Germany for a bagatelle. Today she must pay through the nose. The question of 1938 is merely the question of price. The next four months should settle the question of an English-German understanding and undoubtedly decide whether Europe is to have peace for a decade.

If no agreement is reached, it may be today estimated with fair certainty that England’s Asiatic position will be destroyed without any corresponding strengthening of her European position.

  1. Copy transmitted to the Department by the Ambassador in Germany in his despatch No. 1, March 4; received March 21.
  2. Viscount Halifax, Lord President of the Privy Council, while in Berlin in an unofficial capacity, November 16–22, 1937, engaged in conversations with Chancellor Hitler and other German officials; see telegram No. 751, December 3, 1937, 8 p.m., from the Chargé in the United Kingdom, and memorandum by the Under Secretary of State, December 15, 1937, Foreign Relations, 1937, vol. i, pp. 183 and 195, respectively.