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 gain good will by accepting them? But the more significant fact is that this was a game at which two could play. If Eden made it his business to “secure the position of the anti-communist Serbs” in Yugoslavia, was it so surprising that Molotov made it his business to secure the position of the anti-western Poles in Poland? There is little profit in the game of the pot calling the kettle black; but it is hard to think of any surer recipe than Eden’s for rousing suspicion and ill will on the Russian side.
It is the orthodox view today that the cause of post-war troubles was the “softness” of Churchill and Roosevelt towards Stalin at Yalta and earlier. Eden, characteristically, endorses the verdict. He himself, he claims, was quick to foresee Soviet ambitions, and the implication is that if more attention had been paid to his advice, they might have been successfully parried. But Churchill fell “under Stalin’s spell,” and Roosevelt refused pointblank to “gang up” with the British against Russia. The truth, of course, is not so simple. Churchill and Roosevelt, with a wider vision than Eden, planned to work with, not against Russia; and we should not too easily assume that this policy was foredoomed to failure. It is easy to accuse the Russians of bad faith; but even as late as Yalta, on Eden’s evidence, they were “relaxed” and “friendly,” and Stalin scrupulously observed his agreement with Churchill when the British intervened in Greece. If there was a sharp deterioration in the relations between Russia and the West between the Yalta and the Potsdam Conferences, it is by no means clear that one main reason may not have been the intense suspicion of Russian designs which Eden evinced.
Certainly there is no sign, in anything written in this volume, that Eden was aware of the likely effects on the Russians of the policies he advocated. Nowhere is this clearer than in regard to Poland. As early as 1943 the Russians had made it plain that they would accept nothing less than “the Curzon line, with minor adjustments.” Was it good policy, considering Britain’s inability to take positive action, to resist this demand, or to treat it (as Eden did) as negotiable against a quid pro quo? It is true, of course, that its agreements with the Polish government in exile made the position of the British government exceedingly uncomfortable; but it is also true that Eden’s moralistic emphasis on his obligations to the London Poles looked in Moscow like a cloak for an attempt to reconstruct the pre-war cordon sanitaire against the Soviet Union. And, to judge from a number of remarks scattered through this book, this suspicion was not entirely false. In 1944 and 1945, Eden admits, the British set out “to shape their policies to counter Soviet designs” in the Balkans; if they were unable to do as much in Poland, it was only because “the result was beyond our reach to decide.”
It would be wrong, of course, to draw a sharp antithesis between Churchill and Eden, any more than between Roosevelt and Stettinius or between Stalin and Molotov. What distinguished them was methods rather than aims. Nevertheless the fact remains that Roosevelt and Churchill saw the issues, particularly the Polish question, in a different light. It was, said Roosevelt, for Britain, the United States, and Russia to decide “what was a just solution, and Poland would have to accept.” It is easy to condemn Roosevelt’s judgment as harsh and unfeeling; but the outcome for the Poles might have been a good deal happier if it had been unflinchingly applied. The trouble with Eden’s policy was the discrepancy between means and aims. “To go on trying” to squeeze out concessions for the London Poles looked well in the record; but it created a tension from which Poland was the first to suffer. “It was important,” Eden said, for “Mikolajczyk to be able to show his people that he had done everything in his power.” Roosevelt and Churchill, looking further, saw that there was something even more important for the future peace of the world; and that was for Britain and the United States to convince the Russians that they had done everything in their power to ensure that Russia’s legitimate demand for security in the west would be acknowledged and respected.
It was old Cordell Hull who put his finger on Eden’s main characteristic as Foreign Secretary. “My, Mr. Eden,” he said, “I had no idea you were such a politician.” If there is a difference between a politician and a statesman, this observation was both shrewd and accurate. Eden’s conception of diplomacy turned on small strategies and maneuvers. This, without doubt, as well as the strain of wartime events, accounts for the frequent outbursts of irritation he aroused in Churchill. “Sulky,” “bad-tempered,” and “febrile” were some of the epithets Churchill used of Eden; and he might have added vain and pompous as well. Surrounded by nonentities like Kingsley Wood and Sir John Anderson, Churchill perforce looked on Eden as his “only really intimate friend among his colleagues,” his “chief lieutenant,” and his “right arm.” But temperamentally the two men were poles apart. Above all else, Eden was essentially a backward looking man, who pinned his faith on “reconstruction within the framework of that traditional civilization which is our common heritage,” and had little inkling how fundamentally the world had changed since 1939. The impression left by this book is of a man who failed to measure up to the magnitude of events, as he was to do again in 1956. In the new world, which did not respond to the conventional rules of diplomacy, he was out of his depth; lions were prowling in the garden Eden, and the only remedy he could think of was to put salt upon their tails.
June 17, 1965