Memorandum by Mr. Carl F. Norden of the Division of European Affairs21

Mr. Pares,22 British Embassy, has left the attached aide-mémoire23 on the subject of Yugoslavia by way of supplementing the document handed Mr. Dunn by Mr. Wright on the previous day.

The aide-mémoire gives further details of Mr. Churchill’s message to Tito which assures the latter that the British will seek to give him all possible aid whilst depriving General Mihailovitch of material support and requests Tito’s cooperation including a cessation of polemics. The British Government will, in any case, retain relations with King Peter. The aide-mémoire goes on to say the British Government has been considering giving advice to King Peter in the near future to dismiss General Mihailovitch from the Cabinet and from his military command on the basis of unspecified “good evidence” that the General is at least indirectly implicated by his subordinates’ collaboration with the Neditch regime24 and the Germans and that he is the greatest barrier between the King and the majority of his people. However, it is proposed first to await the reaction of Tito to Mr. Churchill’s message. We are requested to state whether we will concur in the proposed action and whether we will be willing to join in British representations to the King. A similar communication is being made to the Soviet Government.

I asked Pares what course he thought his Government would take in the event Tito decides to stand firm on the so-called “Yugoslav anti-Fascist Council for National Liberation” decision to forbid the return of King Peter until the question of King and Monarchy has been solved by the people themselves after the liberation of the country and to disown any future actions of the Government-in-Exile or its successor. Pares replied that he had no idea but supposed they would have to wait and see. He has since implied that this is only a first step in bringing about a more satisfactory state of affairs.

You will recall that the British Ambassador in Cairo recently expressed serious doubts regarding the success of a plan similar to the one outlined and that the Yugoslav Government has made it clear that it would resign rather than disown Mihailovitch. In Yugoslav series, telegram no. 15 [13], January 17, (received since this memorandum [Page 1336] was originally drafted) Mr. MacVeagh states that Ambassador Stevenson believes the Prime Minister’s letter will merely result in an expression of pleasure on Tito’s part with regard to the decision on Mihailovitch and an expression of understanding with regard to the British position toward the King. Ambassador Stevenson believes that in such an event Mihailovitch should nevertheless be cut off, but solely on military grounds, and that this would probably entail the fall of the Pouritch Government, In case the King should then request British advice in forming a new Government, Ambassador Stevenson believes he should be counseled to form one prepared to support all resistance elements, whatever their political color. It may be inferred from the foregoing telegram, that the British Ambassador in Cairo does not favor an official British demand that Mihailovitch be ousted on political grounds. Under the circumstances, and in view of the apparent “trial and error” character of the British approach, I take it that we will not want to commit ourselves to a definite stand on the British request at least until we know the nature of Tito’s reaction to the Churchill letter, although elimination of Mihailovitch, at least as Minister of War appears to be necessary if a really broad solution of Yugoslav difficulties is to be achieved.

The considerations which have led the British to take the present step are evidently not stated fully in their aide-mémoire. We have no evidence even from British sources, that Mihailovitch is tacitly cooperating with the enemy or with Neditch other than the unsubstantiated assertions in the official version of the Maclean report.25 On the contrary, the one report from the chief British liaison officer with Mihailovitch26 in our possession, (via OSS27) whilst stressing Mihailovitch’s stubborn, evasive and difficult character mentions his fear of Neditch and his deep distrust of the British, responsibility for which it attributes largely to British policies. The report does however make clear that Mihailovitch is in the first place preoccupied with his own and Serb national interests, and with the fight against the Germans only in second place. We have not yet had a definitive report from our own officers, the majority of whom have now been withdrawn. While the British doubtless have other information, it is to be assumed that it would have been made available to us had it been of a nature to strengthen their case.

It is therefore likely that the decision to support Tito exclusively was taken with reference to considerations similar to those which [Page 1337] appear to have prevailed in Greece28—i.e. that to back both factions would only lead to civil war, and that in view of the great difficulty of dealing with Mihailovitch on a mutually satisfactory basis it would be best to back the more dynamic group which in any case cannot be disposed of, for the sake of its military contribution and in the hope that a moderating influence can with time be exerted. This is a so-called realistic approach especially in view of the inevitable effect of the Red Army’s westward march upon the imagination of Slav peoples, but it takes for granted that the moderate and national elements in the Tito camp will ultimately prevail and contains the implicit hope that in some manner not as yet apparent it will be possible to rally the population of old Serbia to an active role in the Allied camp and to a cooperative attitude with respect to a reconstituted and presumably federal Yugoslavia. British support of the King shows an awareness of the importance of the Serb element, and the decision to drop Mihailovitch does not in itself preclude support of Serb resistance under new leadership.

The British decision does not greatly change the de facto situation in so far as military supplies to the two factions are concerned, as Mihailovitch had in any case been about cut off whilst considerable aid has been going to Tito with our help.29 It is, however, fairly sure to provoke a serious cabinet crisis in Cairo, whether or not Mihailovitch’s ouster is requested, and this may well be one of the British objectives. The effect in Serbia itself cannot be estimated on the basis of the information available to us.

In the event the Pouritch cabinet resigns, there are several possibilities. A new “cabinet of functionaries” could be formed to carry out the original purpose for which the Pouritch Government was set up but which failed because the latter became a Pan-Serb instrument. Such a cabinet would give us a nominal authority with which we could deal, whilst leaving us considerable freedom of action in the field, but it could not be expected to solve outstanding problems, nor would the device be understood within the country where such a Government would have little authority. On the other hand it would leave the road open for an independent understanding between the Big Three looking to an over-all solution of the South Slav problem.

[Page 1338]

Pan Serb circles have recently agitated in favor of a cabinet “the color of the 1941 coup d’état” (General Simovic).30 This and other variations on the Pan-Serb theme would in effect continue the present line and lead to a further deterioration in Yugoslav unity. Its only merit lies in a reductio ad absurdum of Serb intransigence. Given the stubborn and unreasoning nationalism of the Serbs, such a development is an evident possibility, although unlikely unless assured of support from some quarters.

A third possibility is the reconstruction of the Government-in-Exile on a truly national basis to include if possible some representatives from within the country. This would be difficult to bring about, but it would have the great advantage of placing Tito in a defensive position where he would have to show his colors, and would give the Government a chance to take the political initiative from him. Such a cabinet could make a beginning of agreeing on an interim post war machinery for solving the constitutional and racial issues which are at the core of the Yugoslav difficulties. The major obstacle will be the inability of the King, whose chief support is in Old Serbia, to take a Yugoslav line to an extent which would necessarily seem prejudicial to Serb national interests. Serb extremists would certainly wish to dethrone him in such an event. A reformed Government would require personalities of unquestioned integrity and prestige, which are scarcely to be found at this juncture.

I believe it would be unfortunate and dangerous for this Government to become politically involved otherwise than in rather general terms with an internal situation as difficult as this. If we desire to support the British, (subject to Soviet concurrence, and the Soviets are being very careful) I believe it would be preferable to act constructively rather than by supporting the British attempt to disown Mihailovitch, who, whatever his recent record was for a long time the spearhead of Yugoslav resistance to the Axis. I believe we might express to the British in general terms our interest in the attainment of unity for the common purpose of defeating the enemy, whilst refraining from giving approval to the specific British plan. We might also make use of the occasion to restate our wish that the Yugoslav people be assured freedom peacefully to settle internal problems in their own way after liberation.

The really important thing, however, is to seek unity of purpose with the British and Russians, not only as regards Yugoslavia but with respect to South Slav and Balkan affairs in general. There appears to be a strong current in favor of South Slav unity to include [Page 1339] Bulgaria. The old ruling cliques in both Bulgaria and Yugoslavia are pretty thoroughly discredited and it is to be assumed that the peoples of these countries will not want to return to a status quo ante. This current has only begun, but it is unlikely that it can be stopped. The Russians appear to be taking advantage of it. If we could find ways of working in concert with them the evolution might take place in less drastic form than otherwise. Yugoslavia was, after all, the creation of the powers and without unity between them may have a hard time holding together. Unless we have some other feasible alternative in mind and are willing to go in pretty deep in backing it, it would probably be best to throw our weight in the direction of the moderate and democratically minded elements who look to the future rather than to the past. Such a policy also has its dangers, but that is true of any policy in this area. That need not mean support for Tito exclusively. Unless Tito can be brought in some manner to subordinate himself to the monarchy or any other authority which can act as trustee for the people of Yugoslavia, the ultimate aim of securing a free choice of government after liberation will be endangered.

  1. Addressed to James C. Dunn, Director of the Office of European Affairs, and H. Freeman Matthews, Deputy Director of the Office of European Affairs.
  2. Peter Pares, Second Secretary of the British Embassy.
  3. Not printed. This aide-mémoire is filed separately under 860H.01/1–1444.
  4. The government of the German puppet state of Serbia under the presidency of Col. Gen. Milan Nedich.
  5. Report of November 6, 1943, by Brigadier Maclean on “The Partisan Movement in Yugoslavia” was sent to the Department by the British Embassy on December 17, 1943; not printed.
  6. Brigadier Armstrong, report of November 7, 1943, not found in Department files.
  7. Office of Strategic Services.
  8. For correspondence respecting events and conditions in Greece, see vol. v, pp. 84 ff.
  9. In an annex to despatch 10, February 4, 1944, from Ambassador MacVeagh, not printed, the United States Military Attaché at the Embassy in Cairo, Lt. Col. Sterling L. Larrabee, reported that Mihailovich had received in all only about 300 tons of supplies, mostly small arms and medical supplies. In the last three months, “even that trickle has been stopped.” He estimated that Tito, on the other hand, had received from combined American and British sources, about 6000 tons in the last two months alone. (740.0011 European War 1939/33232)
  10. Gen. Dushan Simovich, one of the leaders of the coup d’état of March 27, 1941, in which King Peter II assumed control of the State. See Foreign Relations, 1941, vol. ii, pp. 937 ff.