841.20/6–1147: Telegram

The Ambassador in the United Kingdom (Douglas) to the Secretary of State

top secret
u.s. urgent

3173. For Acheson from Douglas. In your top secret 2155 of May 171 you asked for my preliminary views on Empire defense, Bevin’s position [Page 752] and that of the Cabinet as a whole, apparent failure of British Government to supply British press with background information on questions of importance to US and on various phases of the economic situation. My preliminary views on these and related questions follow. With reference to questions of Empire Defense, I have, of course, been in touch with our service representatives here.

Empire Defense, general.

Current official British views and policy on Empire Defense is based on the assumption that except for unpredictable developments another World War is improbable for 10 to 15 years. Accordingly British objective is to bridge successfully this period. Thereafter it is hoped UN” will be effective international agency for World Peace, or alternatively, that Britain will have so recovered a position of authority that she, with the US, will be able to preserve the peace.

General considerations covering British defense policy appear now to be:

(a) USSR is the only important potential enemy Soviet action in Germany and Middle East must therefore be carefully observed and assessed; and Soviet war potential must not be fostered. (b) The US will be either, at worst a benevolent neutral, or at best an active ally in any war involving the Empire. Accordingly the Empire Defense Program involves close cooperation between the U.S. and the Dominions on the one hand and UK on the other, (c) The re-establishment of economic and military potential of Western Europe modeled on UK and US democratic principles.
The reduced UK economic and manpower resources indicate voluntary curtailment, if not abandonment, of certain former overseas commitments on the presumption that they can best be met by transferring certain of them to the members of the Commonwealth, certain of them to US, accepting certain of them in cooperation with the Dominions and US, and by reposing certain of them in the UN.
Compact modern forces will enable UK to meet reasonable curtailed overseas peace-time commitments. Such forces can, it is believed, fight holding and delaying action until reinforcement from Allies (US and the Dominions) provides adequate military support. Delayed demobilization, plus peace-time conscription and heavy service appropriations will serve to implement these commitments. The willingness of the government and the people to accept peace-time conscription and large service expenditures are the best indication of the present attitude toward commitments. This attitude is, however, subject to change and cannot be taken as permanent reflection of British views.
The defense of the British Isles, vulnerable as they may be to modern warfare, is the key to the Empire Defense system which rests upon the control of the sea approaches and which is related to possible [Page 753] dispersion of the economic and industrial potential throughout the Empire and the reliance upon the economic and industrial might of the US.

Observations on defense covering specific geographic areas follow next.


The new independence of Burma and India has in British eyes in no way diminished the strategic importance to Britain of the Mediterranean Area. Satisfactory defense arrangements for the Mediterranean are imperative to Britain. Momentarily Britain’s one basic tenet is that no outside power other than the US shall be allowed to acquire a strategic position in the area. Britain welcomes US taking over any degree of responsibility for the three most crucial problems of Mediterranean—Greece–Turkey–Middle East and North Africa. Britain welcomes the influence that the American Ambassador in Teheran wields in Iranian affairs.

A great concern to Britain at the moment is Italy because it is felt here that, if Italy goes Communist, France would have small hope of escaping the same fate, and the position of Greece and Turkey would be made even more precarious.

Britain’s actual military and naval position in the Mediterranean is weak and during the next decade is likely to be weaker before it grows stronger. Here again Britain is operating on the calculated risk of no war for at least ten years. Aside from retaining Gibraltar, Malta, and Cyprus, Britain does not now know where its bases in the Mediterranean area will be in 1957.

The future of Palestine is most uncertain. Although the Treaty of 1936 with the Egyptian Government permits the use of Egypt as a strategic base for British forces it is not thought that she will for long be available for this purpose. Accordingly, the UK seeks Cyrenaica as a suitable substitute for Egypt as a base for military, naval and air defense of the Eastern and Middle Mediterranean. Until, however, the disposition of the Italian Colonies is finally made Britain cannot assume that Cyrenaica will or will not serve her purpose. Even in Iraq the British are not certain to what extent concessions to Iraqi Nationalism must be made re RAF bases. Britain would like to set up a strong base in Cyrenaica which could be the major Anglo-Saxon bastion in the area. Britain would like to retain its present relationship to the Sudan. Britain hopes at the very least for continuing privileges in Iraq. Britain wants to retain troops in Palestine, although the Palestine situation is so onerous and uncertain that Britain is reconciled to giving up Palestine as a base provided this does not leave a vacuum which any power other than the US might fill.

In the long view, Britain is convinced that there can be no “Maginot [Page 754] Line” of bases which will assure security of the Mediterranean against Soviet Russia. The British believe that the best defense of the Mediterranean area will, in the final analysis, be achieved by neutralizing if not eradicating the virus of Communism in the area by improving the well-being of its people and thus establishing their allegiance to Anglo-Saxon democracy.

If treated as equals and if given reason for establishing a strong attachment to the Anglo-Saxon way of life and therefore a willingness to accept guidance and direction in the development of their own defense machinery, Britain feels confident that in the event of a conflict the governments of the area will, if not definitely under obligation to do so, welcome Anglo-Saxon forces in their defense. Indeed, if these countries are well disposed towards the US and UK they can be persuaded to maintain at their own expense large scale air-fields and other facilities. What has been lost to them in Egypt and may be lost to them in Palestine the British hope will be freely handed to them in time of crisis as a result of good will and respect.

Central Africa.

Taking an ultra long range view there is possibility that the largest British base east of Gibraltar will be located in Kenya. This location takes into account the vast potentialities of Africa from the point of view of climate, population, waterpower, agriculture, and industry; under such a plan Kenya would be developed into a British “heartland” where strategic industries would be dispersed and soldiers trained. However, this costly development of Kenya will take many years and, so far as the Mediterranean is concerned, Kenya in the foreseeable future will not offer much more than it did in the last war.


Until the smoke clears away from the Indian situation and the fate of the Indian army is known, it is extremely difficult for the British even to assist the Indians in drawing up their defense plans. However, India has sufficient population, industry, and wealth for the Indians themselves to assume responsibility for their defense like any other dominion. On a much smaller scale the same is true of Burma although the Burmese may seek at the outset more direct aid and advice from Britain.

North Atlantic.

Traditional heavy naval commitments in the Greenland, Iceland and Spitsbergen areas are being relinquished on the primary interest doctrine to Canada and the United States. Efforts are also under way to develop closer military and political cooperation among Scandinavian countries to prevent Soviet infiltration and to enlist future Scan-dinanvian participation in defense [of the] North Atlantic. In this way UK hopes to contain USSR in Arctic area without heavy demands on home fleet.

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British economic, strategic and scientific interests in Antarctica are important but remoteness of area from UK makes its defense a burden on navy. Determined to maintain UK claims there against Argentina, Chile and other claimants, London has decided to act first through Australia, New Zealand and South Africa and possibly as last resource through the UN.

Far East, general.

In considering the overall British position toward the Far East, it is necessary to bear in mind the fact that Britain no longer has the power or the resources required to pursue a strong and independent policy in that part of the world. This state of affairs has obtained since 1939 and is likely to continue in the foreseeable future. Plainly, British Far Eastern policy is now compounded of the major elements of retrenchment and withdrawal. In general, it is British policy to follow the lead of the US in the Far East, and in the settlement of most Far Eastern issues Britain may be expected to cooperate closely with the US. At the same time, however, Britain will work intimately with Australia and New Zealand and further their participation in Far Eastern questions.


Britain, by and large, is satisfied with the US administration of Japan and will support US on most occupation issues, and particularly against divisive tactics employed by the USSR. While apparently not so sanguine as General MacArthur2 about the “reformation and democratization” of the Japanese people, the British have gone on record as favoring a reasonably early treaty of peace with Japan. Just now British policy vis-à-vis Japan is focused largely on the re-opening of Japan to private foreign trade. In connection with the occupation of Japan, it should be remembered that the UK has already withdrawn a brigade of its occupation forces. This, taken in conjunction with the present shortage of British manpower, suggests that progressive withdrawal of Commonwealth forces from Japan is only a matter of time with the Indian contingent the first to go.


Britain deplores the current American-Soviet impasse over Korea, and would like to see a settlement effected which would leave Korea free and independent. But the essence of present British policy toward Korea—wholly negative in character—is an abiding desire to avoid embroilment in the American-Soviet controversy. Clearly, Britain hopes the US and the Soviet Union will be able to resolve the Korean deadlock between themselves, but if the issue were taken to the UN [Page 756] or some other international forum, Britain would undoubtedly support the US.


Britain desires the cessation of Kuomintang-Communist strife and has all along supported US efforts to bring about peace and unity. Britain may be expected in future to keep in step with US policy toward China. But Britain is neither able nor willing to bring more than moral pressure to bear in the settlement of Chinese internal differences.

Hong Kong.

The British purpose to retain Hong Kong, not so much as a military and naval base (for which purpose it proved valueless in the Pacilic war) but as a gateway for trade to the Chinese mainland. With a view to diminishing Chinese Irredentist agitation, the British are at present revamping the municipal administration of Hong Kong so as to allow a measure of administrative participation on the part of the Chinese populace.


This is the one important area in the Far East which the British evidently have no intention of abandoning. This is so because Malaya is a vital link on Britain’s lines of communications to Australia and New Zealand, because Malaya is rich in rubber and tin and therefore a source of substantial dollar exchange, and because the Malayan people are politically immature and not ripe for self-government. Britain aims to establish efficient and liberal administration in Malaya to facilitate its retention under British control, and to present it as an example of forward-looking government which the British hope the French and Dutch will see fit to emulate in French Indochina and in Indonesia, respectively. Indeed, Britain seeks the achievement of the maximum possible political and economic harmony among Malaya, Indonesia, Indochina, Burma and Siam. To assure Malaya’s security, Britain will do all in her power to prevent Communist infiltration of that strategic and rich area.


Britain has all along sought to effect a harmonious and just settlement of conflicting Dutch-Indonesian differences and aspirations. Now that the Linggadjati agreement, which provides the hard basis for Dutch-Indonesian understanding, has been signed, the British will do all in their power to see that its terms are carried out on a reasonable basis. The British ardently desire peace and understanding between the Dutch and Indonesians because they regard these as conditions precedent to the maximum rehabilitation of Indonesian trade and industry in which they have a substantial stake. For not only are British investments in Indonesia valued at pounds 50 million, but Britain [Page 757] relies on the Indies as a major source of certain commodities which are in short supply all over the world. Moreover, the economic welfare of Malaya is intimately related to that of Indonesia, and the British are anxious for that reason to see that peace and prosperity prevail in Indonesia. It is to be stressed that British interests in Indonesia are overwhelmingly economic in character and not influenced by imperial considerations.

French Indochina,

Like ourselves, the British desire to see the French and Vietnamese work out a peaceful solution of their present impasse. To this end, the British would welcome an amicable French-Vietnamese solution of the matters at issue between them. The British are not prepared to underwrite a French military re-conquest of Indochina and will not intervene in Indochina other than through the use of moral persuasion.

For earlier Embassy reports on British Far Eastern policy please see despatch 204, March 28 and airgram A–700, March 31.3

United Nations.

Britain sees in the United Nations the best hope for the establishment of conditions most conducive to future world peace and we can continue to rely upon her to support and use United Nations machinery to the fullest.

Commonwealth and Colonies.

Britain, it seems, is seeking desperately to cut her cloth to fit her present stature—to reduce her world commitments to balance more nearly her capabilities. Where the pressure in Colonial fields has become irresistible or the burden in her defense structure has become more than she can carry, she will continue to withdraw or to seek, at most, a maintenance of the status quo. Not being able any longer to pay the entire costs of Commonwealth and Empire defense, she has sought with considerable success to spread that burden more evenly over the Commonwealth and Empire. (Canada and Australia now each have their own armed services of increasing size supported wholly by their own taxpayers. Britain aids, of course, with guidance and manpower). Part and parcel of this same program, it seems, is the basic belief in British Commonwealth policy today that, as the UK succeeds in diffusing responsibility for defense throughout the Commonwealth, it will increase the likelihood of Commonwealth unity of purpose, policy and action, thus materially strengthening the British voice in international politics. Some Dominions, such as Australia and New Zealand, agree with this thesis. In others, Canada and South Africa, it meets with opposition. As Britain succeeds or fails in this policy of diffusion of responsibility, so will her international capabilities increase or wane.

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Also, it seems Britain will be able to derive considerable defense strength from her Colonies if, as now seems likely, her enlightened Colonial policy succeeds. Ever since we won our independence, British Colonial policy has tended toward granting to each colony the great amount of self-government deemed feasible under the circumstances. It was under this enlightened policy that the present Dominions grew to full political stature and attained what is in effect complete sovereignty. The Colonial Office today takes great pride in the continuance of that policy although the tendency now is the direct development more toward the interest of the native population than toward garnering profit from the exploitation of the natural resources. By a very flexible system of reserving to the Crown those powers deemed essential to the proper administration of a particular colony and by reducing the number of those powers so reserved, as the political tutelage of the native population progresses, Britain has been able to raise the status of some of her colonies to a position where they are now, or will in the near future, be in a position to take their place among the sovereign nations of the world. [Given?] the upsurge of national consciousness throughout the colonial world which has been particularly evident since the cessation of hostilities, this machinery stands Britain in good stead and, seeing no chance of checking the trend, British colonial policy seeks to guide this national consciousness into channels of ordered progress. By encouraging the improvement of health and education and the development of natural resources in the interest of the native, and by granting the greatest measure of political autonomy thought feasible, the British hope to instill into the natives a loyalty to the Crown which will make it likely that a colony, or group of colonies, upon attaining complete autonomy, will choose to remain in the Commonwealth, thus further strengthening the voice of Britain in international politics. The whole situation is still in a period of transition, yet each additional colony reaching full autonomy and choosing Dominion status, may be counted upon to increase British influence and capabilities as its resources, both natural and political, would likely be used to further policies agreeable to Britain.

[Here follows discussion of the British cabinet situation, the Foreign Office and the press, and economic and financial questions.]

  1. Supra.
  2. Commanding General, United States Army Forces in the Pacific; Supreme Commander, Allied Powers in Japan.
  3. Neither printed.