LONDON LETTER: Halifax — Diplomatic Riddle
A. Beverley Baxter's
LONDON, December 23. (By Cable)—Downing Street is not a very long thoroughfare, nor is it particularly interesting from an architectural point of view. On one side there are two houses numbered 10 and 11. Is there a Number Nine Downing Street, or a Number Twelve? If so, I cannot remember ever seeing them. On the opposite side is the Dominions Office, with a back entrance on the street that would disgrace a selfrespecting factory. But right opposite Number 10 is the Foreign Office, with pillars, arches, giant stairways and vast rooms; with huge maps and portraits of gentlemen in official dress and innumerable decorations.
Since the present Parliament was elected five years ago, there have been three tenants in Number 10. They were Baldwin, Chamberlain, and now Churchill. There also have been three tenants at the Foreign Office—Samuel Hoare, Eden. Halifax. And now Halifax is moving out to make way for Eden, who is coming back.
There is always something going on in this unobtrusive backwater which slides away from the traffic of Whitehall. The lights are always burning late, and destiny walks the pavement in the grisly hour before the dawn.
While I am writing this, Viscount Halifax is packing up his things before leaving for Washington. His appointment has been a surprise, but it brings to an end a controversy which has been growing in intensity for some time. The six-foot-five Yorkshire peer took the place of Anthony Eden after the quarrel of the latter with Chamberlain over the policy of appeasement. It was felt at the time that it was only a compromise appointment, and that Halifax would probably give it up after a short time. There was another reason to strengthen this supposition. Chamberlain had virtually taken foreign affairs under his own direct control. Certainly one was not conscious of the part Halifax was playing. He seemed content to be an echo of his master, and when I saw him arrive in Rome with Chamberlain he carried himself as if he were a mere observer rather than an important participant.
Then a curious thing began to develop. Unaccountably, whispers commenced to go round that Halifax was a strong man; that his influence over the Prime Minister was great, and that his voice within the Cabinet was listened to with respect. It was even said that he was for a firmer attitude toward the dictators than was being shown by Chamberlain. From that to tipping him as a future Prime Minister was an obvious step. In fact, you may recall my description of a supper party at a club in St. James’s following a long debate in the House of Commons. There were a number of M.P.’s present, and we started to “make a book” on the chances of different ministers for the premiership in case Chamberlain retired. Randolph Churchill, son of Winston, was there as well, but even he did not seem surprised when our book, by unanimous consent, turned out to be something like this: 7 to 4 Halifax; 10 to 1 Hoare, Simon and John Anderson; 100 to 8 Kingsley Wood and Oliver Stanley; 25 to 1 Anthony Eden; 40 to 1 Winston Churchill, Höre Belisha and Archibald Sinclair; 100 to 1 others. In other words, there was no serious contender to Halifax as premier at that time.
The Unpretentious Tripper
THEN came the war, and a strange and equally inexplicable reaction set in. Unlike Mark Antony, I have come neither to praise nor bury Halifax, but it must be
recorded that his reputation slumped badly in the war. This change of attitude was considerably his own fault. Traditionally, Britain likes its Foreign Secretary to speak in a voice of thunder, and when he walks abroad they like to know that Europe trembles to his step. Halifax has never satisfied this conception. When he went to Germany in 1937 it was the first time he had ever visited that country. It is true he had been in India for some time, but how can one account for a man of great wealth and high position never having possessed curiosity enough to cross the North Sea and look at the most significant nation in Europe? And how did he travel when he finally took the plunge? Quite forgetting that the Prussian is half Asiatic, and therefore addicted to pomp, he took with him an ancient Yorkshire retainer who spoke no word of any foreign language. A corps of German Foreign Office officials in their gorgeous uniforms were drawn up to receive him at the station when he alighted like Don Quixote with his servant Sancho Panza. Hitler dismissed him at Berchtesgaden just before lunch, and a miserable little special train took him away to Munich, passing en route the Fuehrer’s superb white and silver train in the station. No one could have played the role of British Foreign Secretary worse than he, not even John Simon.
At Rome. Berchtesgaden, Godesberg, Munich, he had little to do but hold Chamberlain’s umbrella.
Then came the war, and the fox-hunting, God-fearing Halifax found himself head of Britain’s foreign policy and a member of the War Cabinet. Never did he electrify the nation by his speeches. He seemed to prefer leaving it to
Churchill to rouse the enthusiasm of our friends and chill the courage of our enemies. A. Beverley Baxter, M.P. In the meantime, Ribbentrop was stealing the headlines all the time. He was like a meteor
flashing across the European sky. Arrayed as even Solomon never was, he journeyed to Moscow. Then he went to Rome, and Europe held its breath. Back to Berlin, then to the Brenner Pass; to Bucharest, to Budapest, to Vichy, to Potsdam, to the Wilhelmstrasse, to the Vatican. Never in his champagne days did he peddle his wares more assiduously. The British looked on admiringly. “You can say what you like,” they muttered, “but that feller does get about. Why doesn’t our bloke go somewhere?”
Triumph followed for the pale-eyed lago of Berlin. Hungary was drawn into the Axis. So was Roumania.
Then came the grand coup. Japan put her signature to the bond, and the Axis stretched like a mighty sword from the blue waters of the Mediterranean to the mighty reaches of the Pacific.
“Ask for the stars,” said Ribbentrop to his master, “and I will bring them to you on a silver plate.” “Never mind the stars,” Hitler is supposed to have replied, “bring me Bulgaria, Jugoslavia, Turkey, and, above all, Russia.” Out went Ribbentrop again with that thrustfulness that made him so cordially detested by the good burghers of Montreal when he lived among them before the last war. Again his magic touch succeeded. “Molotov to Visit Berlin,” roared the headlines, and we in Britain braced ourselves for something definitely unpleasant. Obviously Hitler would not invite the Russian premier to Germany unless a deal had been agreed upon beforehand.
“Have we a Foreign Minister, or have we not?” growled the British public. The Sunday Pictorial, whose whisper is another paper’s shriek, led the attack against Halifax. There were rumors he would be allowed to resign. Then, rather diffidently, the British Foreign Office announced that it had made a sort of offer to Russia, promising her an equal place with Britain at the peace conference, pledging never to join any coalition against her, and agreeing that she could keep some of the little Baltic States which she had stolen.
The murmurs grew to mpqnings. Russia had not bothered even to reply. Why should she? What was the matter that Churchill would not put a real tough fellow at the Foreign Office, one who would know how to talk to the Russians? So we waited while Molotov, Hitler and Ribbentrop talked into the late hours of the night. We were convinced the result would be serious. There was no defeatism anywhere, but just realization that the situation was taking a very ugly turn. If Russia toed the line, then Bulgaria and Jugoslavia would submit to any threat, and Turkey would be helpless. It looked as if Ribbentrop had made a clean sweep of the chips on the table. Ah, well, we still had our Navy and Air Force, but what a pity we didn’t have a Foreign Secretary as well.
Then Molotov went home. Berlin was very pianissimo about the announcement that was to have convulsed Europe and would send the British lion into the last fatal decline. Greece met the onslaught of Italy like a brave little mountain goat, and butted the Italian jackal so vigorously that he squealed to the vulture of Berchtesgaden for help. Bulgaria declined to be used as a corridor to the East. Jugoslavia indicated she would defend her territory against one and all. Something had gone wrong with Ribbentrop’s threeringed circus.
And the answer to the riddle? Let us go to Downing Street and cross over to the Foreign Office so as to have a talk with Lord Halifax while he packs his belongings.
I KNOW Foreign Secretaries do not give interviews in real life, but we shall make this a purely hypothetical affair. It isn’t even off the record, as they say in Washington. This interview, as published here, never took place, and all similarity to anyone living or dead (or half dead) is mere coincidence. If that does not cover me, nothing will. Lord Halifax receives us with a sad sort of schoolboy smile, and one becomes aware of his obvious fatigue and withered arm. He is, however, gentle, calm, gravely courteous and by no means lacking in humor.
THE EXPIRATION NOTICE
The notification from Maclean’s Magazine of the approaching expiration of yonr subscription is sent out well in advance. This is so that there will be no need of your being disappointed by the missing of a single issue.
The demand for copies to fill new orders is so great that, despite our constantly increased press-run, we seldom have any copies left for mailing to subscribers who are even one Issue In arrears.
Subscribers receiving the “expiration” notice are reminded of the importance of sending in their renewal order promptly.
“Yes,” he says in his deep rich voice, “there has been lot of criticism of the Foreign Office and myself recently. I don’t resent criticism of myself, for a politician stands to be shot at. It is pretty tough, though, when it is extended to officials who carry out my policy and cannot defend themselves.”
With extraordinary one-handed dexterity he takes a cigarette from his case, lights it, replaces the case in his pocket, all more or less in one movement.
“You were speaking of our diplomacy as compared with Germany’s,” he drawls. “Yes, it is an interesting study. Take Roumania, for example, I wonder what any British Foreign Secretary would have said to them that could have had the same effect as six German mechanized divisions on their border? In fact, there are parts of Europe where it is difficult to make our voice heard at all. Certainly Hungary, Roumania come into that category.”
A deep silence comes over the famous old room. It is all so peaceful, so impressive, so leisurely. It is the shrine of that strange, elusive, undying phenomenon called British Foreign Policy.
“Japan?” Halifax looks up in answer to our question. “Yes, Japan wasn’t being very polite. We annoyed the Chinese frightfully by closing the Burma Road. I told them we might open it in November. But, of course, they didn’t believe it. Encouraged by our obvious weakness, Japan joined the Axis. That, if I may say so, was a mistake for Japan. In fact, the Japanese now say it was their greatest blunder. It brought the United States sharply into the Far Eastern situation, which doesn’t suit the Japanese book at all. And, by the way, we reopened the Burma Road in November, and it had a
remarkable effect both on the Chinese and Japanese. Good for our prestige, don’t you think? You see the tide had turned, as I rather thought it would.
“The offer to Russia? Yes, it has been greatly criticized. I don’t know whether Molotov used it as a bargaining factor in Berlin or not, but there it was in case he wanted to use it.”
“Then you think you torpedoed the Berlin conference?”
Halifax smiles. “You must not attribute anything so clever to anyone as innocent as myself.”
At this point we shall allow Lord Halifax to light another imaginary cigarette with a hypothetical match. Then, in answer to an unuttered question on our part, he gives this unspoken reply:
“Greece? Oh, yes, certainly we had many talks with Greece. A fine people, and tremendously brave. The Axis tried very hard to get them away, but didn’t succeed. No, I don’t think Bulgaria will go Hitler’s way somehow, and I rather imagine Jugoslavia won’t. And of course, our relations with France are improving all the time. Weygand is a firm friend of ours now. There was a clamor at first that I should be frightfully rude to Pétain and Weygand, but it seemed to me that if we wanted another enemy we needn’t go to all that trouble.
“As for the United States, our understanding with her is complete. I am afraid our policy has not been very spectacular. In fact, when you have no troops in Europe it is rather foolish to breathe like a dragon. We just did what we could to see that Ribbentrop’s plans went wrong. I am sure many people could have done it much better, but I happened to be here, so there you are.”
Well, fellow-citizens of the Empire, what
do you make of it? How strong or how weak is Halifax? How far has he guided events or merely been the detached observer of them? I do not know the answer myself, but perhaps we should remember that the British are very much like the Chinese. In human affairs they go in for ancestor worship, and in diplomacy they have an almost oriental patience and a record behind them that has covered a quarter of the globe’s surface with blotches of red.
As for Joachim von Ribbentrop, with his colorless eyes and the sallow skin of the semi-Asiatic Prussian, he must be looking at the jigsaw puzzle and wondering why, when every piece was so perfect, it would not come right. Has Germany lost the battle of diplomacy as she lost the battle of the daylight bomber and the battle of London? I believe there is every evidence she has. Halifax is not a man great in the same sense as Palmerston or Castlereagh, but I believe history will say of him that he did his work thoroughly, shrewdly and courageously in a period when Britain was weak and had to play for time. It is not a discredited man, but a distinguished one that goes to America.
♦ + +
CRANBERRIES, graduated from the laboratory recently, came out with a product worth $80 an ounce ! Chemists call it “ursolic acid.” Cranberry growers call it a lucky break. This hitherto rare, emulsifying agent which helps to make oil and water mix, is derived from the skins discarded in the manufacture of cranberry sauce. From the same “waste” product, cranberry seed oil, a rich source of vitamin A, can be obtained. Plans are afoot for a $50.000 “pilot plant” to pioneer the manufacture of the two new products. —Scientific American.