What one clerk said to another

A.J.P. Taylor

  • Britain and the Cold War 1941-1947 by Victor Rothwell
    Cape, 551 pp, £16.00, January 1982, ISBN 0 224 01478 1

Maybe there was once a time when the British Foreign Secretary, occasionally assisted by the staff of the Foreign Office, conducted British foreign policy single-handed. This was by no means the case during the Second World War or even after it. Winston Churchill, when Prime Minister, ran foreign policy with only expostulations here and there from the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, and Eden certainly did not take much notice of the Foreign Office when making his interventions. The Treasury had one foreign policy, the Ministry of Economic Warfare had another. The Chiefs of Staff had a foreign policy – usually rather wild – and so did the Political Warfare Executive. The War Cabinet counted for more than the Foreign Office, as did the press, especially the Times when expressing the views of that former member of the Foreign Office, Professor E.H. Carr. Rothwell says apologetically: ‘At the very least, to study British foreign policy from the standpoint of Foreign Office officials can scarcely be an invalid exercise.’ I doubt whether this book tells the reader much about British foreign policy and its motives. At best, it is a competent précis of ‘what one clerk said to another clerk’ during a period when great events were happening a long way from Whitehall.

The book has some odd features. Rothwell never defines the Cold War of his title. Does it merely describe the uneasy relations between allies that usually follow a victorious war? In that case I agree with him. Such relations were by no means new. In 1815 Great Britain and Austria, victor powers, actually made an alliance with their former enemy France against their former ally Russia. Great Britain and the United States did not get as far as that, though the Foreign Office clerks occasionally got near it. I assume that Rothwell means something more bellicose: a near-war on one side or the other, or perhaps on both. In that case the dates are curious. Can it really be supposed that Great Britain and Soviet Russia were potential antagonists in the autumn of 1941 when the Germans were at the gates of Moscow? For that matter, did uneasy relations between the two end in 1947? I had always thought that something like a real Cold War between Soviet Russia and the United States began in the autumn of 1947, but maybe the concept of Cold War is too nebulous to merit any precise date.

Rothwell himself is something of a Cold Warrior. In his eyes it is the duty of a historian to regard Great Britain as always morally right, the United States as usually morally right and Soviet Russia as always morally wrong. Anyone who does not share that view is dismissed as a ‘revisionist’ or something even worse. I fear I come into that category. I think that the Russians got rather a raw deal after bearing the heat and burden of the day. I also think that they deserved it or very nearly. At all events, I am glad that I never had to negotiate with them. But then I am also glad not to have had to read the interminable minutes exchanged between members of the Foreign Office.

Now for a lucky dip into the anthology that Rothwell has provided. Since the Foreign Office could not win the war it worried about what was to happen afterwards. Germany must be punished, even weakened, but not weakened too much. Some time Germany must be allowed to revive; in any case, she might be needed as an ally against Russia, especially if France went Communist. British policy in Germany after the war was highly honourable and very sensible into the bargain. Rothwell handles it well. Indeed, he is a good historian when he can forget about the Cold War. He does full justice to a strange twist in British policy. Since socialism was a success in Great Britain or was supposed to be, it was assumed that socialism would be equally successful in Germany and British diplomats spent much time explaining to the Americans that socialism was necessary for Germany. These explanations carried little weight.

The Foreign Office had time for problems other than Germany. They covered a good deal of paper speculating which areas of pre-Munich Czechoslovakia should be distributed among her neighbours: some to Germany, some to Hungary and so on. Other dream projects were for a federation of Eastern Europe in one shape or another. The first runner was for a federation of Poland and Czechoslovakia, a plan which President Benes spoilt by becoming for a short time Stalin’s favourite. Then there was a projected federation for south-east Europe, centred on Bulgaria. At one time the Chiefs of Staff agreed to provide three divisions with which to liberate Bulgaria. Turkey was rejected for membership as making the federation too openly anti-Russia. These plans were designed for the benefit of the Balkan peoples. When the Russians produced similar plans, and indeed executed them, this of course was purely to extend Soviet power. These dreams were carried furthest with the idea of an independent Macedonia, carved out of Bulgarian, Yugoslav and possibly Greek territory, which should become the centre of a Balkan federation.

The interest of the volume livens up a good deal with the end of the war and the replacement of Eden as Foreign Secretary by Ernest Bevin. Eden had a lifelong association with the Foreign Office. Bevin came into it from outside. Also Eden had been overshadowed by Churchill. Bevin was his own master, closely aligned with Attlee but not subordinate to him. There were differences of emphasis. Both Attlee and Bevin wanted Great Britain to remain a Great Power, though Bevin had some doubts whether it could be done. Attlee had always been anti-Soviet. Bevin struggled for a long time to maintain good relations with Soviet Russia and even to extend them. It is a great merit of Rothwell’s book and a rather surprising one that it brings out Bevin’s patience during the prolonged wrangles with Molotov and other Russians. Even Bizonia – the merging of the British and American zones in Germany – was designed by Bevin as a weapon for forcing the Russians to raise the Iron Curtain. Bevin wrote: ‘What we must get into the minds of our people is Western security and less anti-attitude.’

The end of British policy on a grand scale came with the Truman doctrine and the Marshall Plan, both welcomed by Bevin but a retreat from independence all the same. It was at this point surely that the Cold War really set in. Or rather these two events accepted the division of the world in a way that even the partition of Germany had not done. The speculations chronicled in this book are now remote from reality. Who then could have foreseen that Western Germany would become the mainstay of constitutional democracy in Europe? For that matter, who could have foreseen in 1947 that Tito would quarrel irreparably with Stalin? As a matter of fact, I foresaw it and gave great offence to my Yugoslav friends by saying so. The Foreign Office, however, continued to regard Tito as a dangerous enemy.