740.0011 European War 1939/6126

Memorandum of Conversation, by the Assistant Secretary of State (Berle)

The Turkish Ambassador13 came in today, at his request. He said, first, that he wished to exchange views on the general situation, over which he was very much concerned.

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Turkey, he observed, had sedulously maintained correct and friendly relations with Russia.14 On one occasion these had been gravely strained; but they had stood by their historic position, maintaining peaceful intentions, and maintaining their obligations and agreements with respect to the Straits. In the long run this had worked out well; and he believed that there was respect between the two governments.

Now, the situation was shifting and the appearance of German troops in Roumania indicated that the tide was coming very close. Turkey, he said, was prepared for every eventuality, and proposed to resist any attempt at invasion.

But, he said, each of the European nations had been handling its affairs as though it were buying a ticket in the sweepstakes: if the number turned up, the nation might win, or preserve itself. Actually, it had meant disaster. He considered that there was still “the nick of time”, as he put it, to work out a bloc between certain of the remaining countries, which might save the situation. Specifically, he had thought of a bloc of Russia, Turkey, possibly Greece, and Bulgaria (in the latter country he said it would not be hard to separate the Russophile nation from its pro-German King); in which case they would like, of course, to count on the support of the United States. In this case he considered there might be a reasonable chance to avoid the continuance of the disaster.

He said that Russia had always been an enigma, and probably would continue to be so; that no one was altogether sure of her real intentions; but that the Russians must know that the moment there was a sweeping Axis victory, she was completely helpless. Even a threat, let alone an invasion, would cause the whole Russian edifice to crumble. He considered that Turkey had a unique position by reason of geography and her relationship with Russia.

I asked if this last suggestion were a suggestion inspired by instructions from his government. He said no; but that he had been turning over in his mind the possibility of some measure which might lead to a healthier situation. The Turkish position he thought was very like our own. I said that I could, of course, only give him my personal analysis of the situation. At the time of the Russo-German agreement in 1939,15 we had reason to believe that the Germans had given the Russians to understand that they would not come to the Black Sea. There had been a certain suspicion between the two governments, though it did not impede their staying by the agreement. But at the time of the Hungarian-Roumanian settlement a few weeks [Page 959]ago, the Germans had guaranteed the Roumanian frontier,16 which in practice meant going to the Black Sea, and taking into their orbit an area which Russia had marked out for her own. We had reason to believe that this had not been done after previous consultation with the Russians, and indeed Russia had felt that her rights in the Danube had not been adequately recognized. The appearance of German troops in Roumania reinforced this conclusion. I thought, therefore, that there; had been a real breach of the spirit of the Russo-German agreement.

Further, I said, we had no reason to believe that the Germans had consulted Russia when they acquired transit rights across Finland. Finally, we had every reason to believe that though Russia was told about the Axis-Japanese agreement17 before it was announced, the notification had been pro forma, and had not been a consultation in the sense envisaged by the Russo-German agreement.

Further, that the Axis-Japanese agreement had itself created certain tensions. The “greater Asiatic area” in the Japanese mind had always included certain areas which belonged to Russia now, such as I the maritime provinces and eastern Siberia, and possibly part of Mongolia, and Sakhalin. Unless there had been discussions and some secret agreement by which Japan had limited her aspirations in these areas, which seemed unlikely, the alliance would appear to be a new threat to the Russian position. Grounds of national interest and expediency therefore would seem to lead the Russians towards some cooperation with powers not dominated by Germany.

But, I said, it was my view that the Russian policy would be more dominated by the proximity of a very large German army on her border, than by these obvious considerations. Her policy was not to risk war, if possible; she would therefore cooperate, at least in appearance, with the Germans until forced to do otherwise.18 I said that it sounded plausible to believe that Russia had been promised some compensation in Persia; perhaps even to the extent of authorizing her to take over Persia and establish herself on the Persian gulf.

I said that I considered the invasion of Britain now improbable, and that the winter would presumably be spent in some sort of activity in the Mediterranean. This might be either by thrust towards Gibraltar; or by using the Italy–Sicily–Tunis route to strengthen the Italian attack on Egypt; or by a thrust through the Balkans, with a view [Page 960]ultimately to attacking Suez through Syria and Palestine. This last involved either making arrangements for transit through Russia—difficult, and probably impossible; or a thrust through Turkey, using the Turkish railway system. We had no information as to which of these alternatives Germany and Italy might choose; we had no information as to any decisions reached between Hitler and Mussolini; the Roumanian occupation seemed to indicate that demands might be made on Turkey, though this of course was a pure supposition.

Mr. Ertegün said that this was very much his own view; except that he leaned strongly to the idea that the eastern Mediterranean really was the key to the situation. By consequence, he regarded the situation as very serious. He felt that American public opinion had not given adequate attention to the eastern Mediterranean theatre; it was this, in part, which moved him to explore the possibility of the “bloc” which he had mentioned.

I said that I should be glad to think over the suggestion he made, and more particularly his indication of closer relations with Russia. As to that, I said that one point had to be kept in mind. We could not make arrangements of mere expediency. Our tangible difficulties with Russia were relatively small: questions of export rights, the handling of nationals, etc. These obviously were susceptible of ready adjustment.19 But I thought firm relations with Russia would never be really established until two matters were cleared up. The first was the cessation of Russian revolutionary propaganda in the United States, directed against this government. The second was the Russian assertion of the right to take and seize territory by violence, as she had done in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia20 and had attempted to do, with some success, in Finland,21 despite the fact that she herself had played a large part in setting these countries free. The United States had definitely set its face against that kind of thing; and we would find it difficult to establish really cordial relations with a country which pursued a policy of this kind. This was an objection of principle; but if we abandoned our principles in this matter, we had very little to stand on.

The Ambassador said that he conceded both points, at once. The fact that we did pursue policies based on principle made it possible, for instance, for him to talk to us thus frankly. But, he said, some of these questions could be minimized or left over for the time being, without prejudice to the position.

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I repeated that I would consider what he said; and after some friendly interchange about the chrome they had just sold us and the tetra-ethyl lead we had sold them (“It would never go to the Germans: the last drop would have been expended before they took over”, said he), he departed.

A. A. Berle, Jr.
  1. Mehmet Münir Ertegün.
  2. For correspondence concerning activities of the Soviet Union in the Balkans and Turkey, see vol. i, pp. 444 ff.
  3. Treaty of non-aggression, signed at Moscow on August 23, 1939; for text, see Documents on German Foreign Policy, 1918–1945, series D, vol. vii, p. 245.
  4. For the Vienna Award of August 30, 1940, by which Rumania ceded large amounts of territory (in Transylvania) to Hungary, see telegram No. 3826, August 30, from The Chargé in Germany, vol. i, p. 501. For the simultaneous guarantee of the territorial integrity and inviolability of Rumania given by Germany and Italy, see telegram No. 3827, August 30, from The Chargé in Germany, vol. i, p. 502.
  5. Signed at Berlin, September 27, 1940, Foreign Relations, Japan, 1931–1941, vol. ii, p. 165.
  6. For correspondence on wartime cooperation between Germany and the Soviet Union, see vol. i, pp. 539 ff.
  7. For correspondence regarding attempts to find a solution to difficulties and to improve relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, see pp. 244 ff.
  8. See vol. i, pp. 357 ff.
  9. For correspondence on the Winter War and relations between Finland and the Soviet Union, see ibid., pp. 269 ff.