Skip to main content

Historical documents

154 Mr M. MacDonald, U.K. Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, to Mr J. A. Lyons, Prime Minister

Circular Cablegram B75 LONDON, 23 March 1938, 3.19 p.m. [1]


Circular B. 73 and 74. [2]

Following for Prime Minister:-

Following are provisional statements [3]:-

His Majesty's Government have expressed the view that recent
events in Austria have created new situation and think it right to
state conclusions to which consideration of those events has led

They have already placed on record their judgment upon action
taken by the German Government and to that they have nothing to
add. The consequences of the action however remain. There has been
a profound disturbance of international confidence. In these
circumstances the problem before Europe, to which in the opinion
of His Majesty's Government it is their most urgent duty to direct
their attention, is how best to restore this shaken confidence and
seek peaceful solutions to questions that continue to cause

Of these, the one necessarily most present to many minds is that
concerning relations between the Government of Czechoslovakia and
the German minority in that country and it is probable that the
solution of this question, if it could be achieved, would go far
to re-establish a more normal situation over an area wider than
that immediately concerned.

Accordingly His Majesty's Government have given special attention
to this matter, and in particular they have fully considered the
question whether the United Kingdom in addition to those
obligations by which she is already bound by the Covenant of the
League of Nations and the Treaty of Locarno should as a further
contribution towards preserving peace in Europe now undertake a
new and specific commitment in relation to Czechoslovakia.

It is right that I should here remind the House what our existing
commitments are which might lead to the use of our arms for
purposes other than our own defences and the defence of the
Territories of the other parts of the British Commonwealth of
Nations. They are first of all the defence of France and Belgium
against unprovoked aggression in accordance with our existing
obligations under the Treaty of Locarno as re-approved in the
arrangement drawn up in London on 19th March, 1936.

His Majesty's Government have also obligations by the Treaty to
Portugal, Iraq and Egypt. These are our definite obligations in
relation to particular countries. There remains another case in
which we may have to use our arms; a case which is of a more
general character but which may have no less significance. This is
the case arising under the Covenant of the League of Nations which
was accurately defined by the former Foreign Secretary [4] when he

'In addition our armaments may be used in bringing help to a
victim of aggression' (and this might of course include
Czechoslovakia) 'in any case where in our judgment it would be
proper under the provisions of the Covenant to do so.' The ex
Foreign Secretary went on to say 'I use the word "may"

deliberately since in such an instance there is no automatic
obligation to take military action. It is moreover right that this
should be so for nations cannot be expected to incur automatic
military obligations save for areas where their vital interests
are concerned.'
His Majesty's Government stands by these declarations and I cannot
but feel that the knowledge that any such action which it may be
within the power of Great Britain to take will be determined by
His Majesty's Government of the day in accordance with the
principles laid down in the Covenant, will not be without its
influence on the course and development of any dispute should such
unhappily arise.

The question now arises whether we should go further. Should we
forthwith give an assurance to France that in the event of her
being called upon by reason of German aggression on Czechoslovakia
to implement her obligations under the Franco-Czechoslovakian
Treaty we would immediately employ our full military force on her
behalf Or alternatively should we at once declare our readiness to
take military action in resistance to any forcible interference
with the independence and integrity of Czechoslovakia and invite
any other nation which might so desire to associate themselves
with us in such a declaration.

The first thing that emerges from a consideration of these two
alternatives is that under either of them the decision as to
whether or not this country should find itself involved in war
would be automatically removed from the discretion of His
Majesty's Government and the suggested guarantee would apply
irrespective of the circumstances which brought it into operation
and over which His Majesty's Government might have been able to
exercise no control.

This position is not one that His Majesty's Government could see
their way to accept in relation to an area where their vital
interests are not concerned in the same degree as they are in the
case of France and Belgium and it is certainly not the position
that results from the Covenant and His Majesty's Government cannot
conceal from themselves that to accept such a position would be
likely to involve the risk of grave divergence of opinion in this
country, and throughout the British Commonwealth of Nations at a
time when it must be a primary purpose of any Government to
maintain greatest measure possible of national unity as well as of
unity within the Empire. (There is also another consideration
which has weighed with His Majesty's Government and which it is
right to state with complete frankness. It is not necessary for
His Majesty's Government to emphasize how great is the importance
that they attach to the maintenance of most close and cordial
relations with the French Government. But they cannot doubt that
anything would more unhappily affect these relations than if the
people of Great Britain had occasion to feel their own
participation in war was in fact owing to such guarantee dependent
upon prior decisions of the French Government).

For these reasons His Majesty's Government feel themselves unable
to give the prior guarantee suggested. But while plainly stating
this decision I would add this-where peace and war are concerned
legal obligations are not alone involved and if war broke out it
would be unlikely to be confined to those who have assumed such
obligations. It would be quite impossible to say where it might
not end and what Government might not become involved. The
inexorable pressure of facts reveals that threats of vital
interest might well prove more powerful than formal pronouncements
and it would be probable that a Government though not party to the
original dispute would almost immediately be involved. This is
especially true in the case of two countries with long association
of friendship like Great Britain and France which are devoted to
the same ideals of democratic liberty and are determined to up-
hold them.

It remains for His Majesty's Government to state their attitude in
regard to the proposal made by the Government of U.S.S.R. that an
early conference should be held for the purpose of discussion with
certain other powers of practical measures which in their opinion
circumstances demand. His Majesty's Government would warmly
welcome the assembly of any conference at which it might be
expected all European nations would consent to be represented and
at which it might therefore be found possible to discuss matters
in regard to which anxiety is at present felt.

In the present circumstances however they are obliged to recognise
that no such expectations can be entertained and the Soviet
Government do not in fact appear to entertain it. This proposal
would appear to involve less a consultation with a view to
settlement than a concerting of action against an eventuality that
has not yet arisen. Its object would appear to [be to] negotiate
such mutual undertakings in advance to resist aggression as I have
referred to, which, for the reason given, His Majesty's Government
for their part are unwilling to accept. Apart from this, His
Majesty's Government are of the opinion that the indirect but none
the less inevitable consequence of such action as is proposed by
the Russian Government, would be to aggravate the tendency towards
the establishment of exclusive groups of nations which must in the
views of His Majesty's Government be inimical to the prospect of
European peace.

His Majesty's Government have repeatedly asserted the principle on
which they consider the peace of world depends and they do not
believe any stable order can be secured unless by one means or
other general recognition can be won for what seems to His
Majesty's Government to be essential conditions of it. The first
is that differences between nations should be resolved by peaceful
settlement and not by methods of force. The second of no less
importance is that a peaceful settlement to be enduring must be
based on justice.

Holding these views, successive British Governments have accepted
the full obligations of the Covenant of the League of Nations, and
done their best to discharge them; they have acceded to special
instruments designed to pledge nations afresh to refrain from
resorting to aggressive war; and they have reinforced general
obligations thus undertaken by specific undertakings within the
framework of the League towards countries with whom they enjoy
special relations or in which they have special interests.

On the other side, they have constantly lent, and are prepared to
continue lending, their influence to revision of relations between
nations established by treaty or otherwise which appeared to
demand review. They will continue whether by way of action through
the League or by direct diplomatic effort to exert all their
influence on the side of bringing to peaceful and orderly solution
any issue liable to interrupt friendly relations between nations.

So far as Czechoslovakia is concerned, His Majesty's Government
have been glad to take note of, and in no way under-rate definite
assurances given by the German Government in this regard and they
will at all times be ready to render any help in their power by
whatever means might seem most appropriate towards the solution of
questions likely to cause difficulty between the German and
Czechoslovakian Governments.

To sum up, His Majesty's Government accepts the obligations which
already rest upon them and have made and are making maximum
efforts to place themselves in a position to adequately fulfil

His Majesty's Government do not differ from those who feel that
the increase of armaments alone is no sure guarantee for peace.

They earnestly hope that it may yet be possible to arrive at a
reasonable balance of armaments by agreement rather than by free
and unlimited competition.

They have, on the other hand, felt it right to make their view
known that, in the present state of the world, reliance upon
assertions of loyalty to the principles of the Covenant was not
enough in the absence of practical strength by which those
professions might be supported. Accordingly the policy of His
Majesty's Government recognises and is based upon the necessity
both of working untiringly to strengthen the cause of peace, and
also of taking all steps requisite to make this country strong
enough to meet whatever calls may be made upon it. In their view,
the knowledge that in all parts of the world such steps are being
taken with determination and despatch will be valuable
contribution towards international re-assurance.

His Majesty's Government have sought to give to Parliament and to
the world as full an indication as possible of their attitude upon
the large matters and causes which are at present occupying the
thoughts of all Nations. They are fully sensible, as I have said,
of the extent to which international confidence has been shaken
and of consequent apprehension existing in many quarters. They
would, however, deprecate preconcerted language here or elsewhere
which can only have the effect of exacerbating the situation, and
of exciting fear which it is permissible to hope events will prove
unfounded. The only result would be the creation of an atmosphere
in which the elements essential to wise judgment would be
dangerously obscuring.

These conclusions have only been reached by His Majesty's
Government after full and most careful review of all the relevant
facts and considerations and with keen sense of great
responsibility that rests upon them. His Majesty's Government do
not believe any difference of opinion exists in any quarter as to
the broad purposes of preservation of peace and association of
peace with justice to which the policy of this country should be
directed and His Majesty's Government have reached the clear
conclusion that the course they have decided to pursue provides
the best means by which this policy can be made effective.

1 This cablegram was sent in five parts between 3.19 p.m. and 6.30
p.m., 23 March 1938.

2 Documents 150, 153.

3 Chamberlain's speech, as delivered in Parliament, may be found
in House of Commons, Parliamentary Debates, fifth series, vol.

333, cols 1403-14.

4 Anthony Eden. For a more extensive reference to this speech at
Leamington, see Document 39.

[AA : A981, GREAT BRITAIN 8B, ii]
Last Updated: 11 September 2013
Back to top