Considering the prominent position he held from 1940 to 1945, Anthony Eden’s war memoirs are curiously unexciting. Of course, so much has been written on Anglo-American-Soviet relations and the “Big Three” that it would have been enrealistic to expect startling disclosures at this late stage. Even so, much in this volume of 700 pages is small, and sometimes rather flat, beer. Its interest lies mainly in what—unconsciously rather than deliberately—it allows us to see of the undercurrents that muddied the wartime waters. It tells us much of Eden himself, and his limitations as a person and as a Foreign Secretary; it tells us a great deal about Churchill and a little about Stalin and Roosevelt; and it casts an oblique light on what for most people is the outstanding feature of the diplomacy of the period—the genesis of the “cold war.”
“The Foreign Office,” Churchill once exclaimed in a moment of exasperation with Eden, is “always on small points, like chrome and ships in Sweden.” This chance outburst provides a key to the essential difference between the two men. Churchill, in common with Roosevelt and (be it said) with Stalin also, had a vision of a new international order which would deliver the world from the self-destroying cycle of crisis and war—a vision based, like Wilson’s in 1917, not on a “balance of power” but on “a community of power.” Eden was “always on small points.” His conception of diplomacy was entirely conventional, a matter of compensations and national interest narrowly conceived. The Western powers, he told Churchill, should refuse “concessions about what Stalin wants except in return for concessions in respect of what we want.” There may have been nothing wrong with this argument in principle; but it was a curious application of it for Eden to tell Molotov that Britain wanted “more voice in Bulgaria and Hungary than we had accepted in Rumania.” In 1944 Britain had no conceivable interest in Bulgaria or Hungary and could have done nothing about it, if it had. To Molotov Eden’s demand must have sounded like an echo from the days of Disraeli, Bismarck, and Gorchakov, a threat of a return to the conditions of 1878. No wonder that, immediately afterwards, Churchill complained that Eden “had dispelled the good atmosphere he had created.”
This was, indeed, the crux. There were two ways, and only two ways, of conducting inter-allied negotiations. The one was to create an atmosphere of good will, and this entailed recognizing Russia’s preponderant role in eastern Europe; the other was to fight a step by step engagement, contesting every yard of territory. It was the second that Eden represented. “I do not think,” he advised Churchill on the eve of the Yalta Conference, “we should indicate straight away that we regard any proposals put forward by the Russians as well founded.” The ordinary reader, unversed in the ways of diplomacy, will regard this extraordinary suggestion with astonishment. Why, if the Russian proposals were well founded, miss the opportunity to…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.