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Britain and Russia

ISSUE:  Autumn 1943

The question of our future relations with Russia is one of the fundamental problems of American postwar policy which soon will have to be answered, We are still undecided as to what course to follow—the desire of one group for close collaboration with the Soviet Union after the war is fiercely resisted by another group which is deeply suspicious of Moscow. At this writing it is still too early to say which way we will turn.

Hitler’s bombers spared Britain similar qualms. There, too, to be sure, certain misgivings could first be observed when Prime Minister Winston Churchill ranged his country on the side of Russia the very day Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. British officialdom balked at the public playing of the Internationale, the Russian national anthem. There were suggestions for Britain to assume the role of the tertim gaudens who would emerge as the dominant power in Europe once Nazis and Communists had bled themselves white. And when Sir Stafford Cripps signed a mutual assistance agreement with Foreign Commissar Molotov a few weeks after the invasion, some civil servants were at pains to speak of the Russians not as allies but as “co-belligerents.”

Yet these were the views of a small minority. On the whole, whatever reluctance there was at rallying to the support of the country which only days before had seemed on intimate terms with the enemy was soon overcome. Britain followed Mr. Churchill’s lead and warmly welcomed her newly won ally. Political and religious leaders competed in their efforts to justify the alliance on grounds deeper than mere strategic necessity. Historians drew parallels between Russia’s and Britain’s history and discovered striking similarities. And both the Archbishop of Canterbury and Cardinal Hinsley sought to allay religious misgivings against the alliance by reiterating in speeches, broadcasts, and articles their firm belief that “there are some features in Russian Communism which are compatible with the principles of Christianity.”

Soon a wave of pro-Russian enthusiasm swept through the country, which was all the more noteworthy as nothing suggested a similar enthusiasm for Britain on the part of the Russians. Hammer and sickle became popular emblems. “Tanks-for-Russia Weeks” were organized to speed up the output of arms for the Russians. At the risk of weakening their own defenses, the British sent substantial quantities of materiel to the Soviet Union. At the same time they began to clamor for a Second Front to relieve the pressure on the Red Army. Public opinion forced the removal from the Government of two Ministers who were suspected of anti-Russian views. What was most remarkable in all this was the fact that these pro-Soviet feelings were not limited to the working class, but were shared whole-heartedly by the right. Such mainstays of British conservatism as the National Union of Manufacturers, The Times, The National Review, and The Nineteenth Century and After were among the foremost advocates of greater aid to Russia. “This enthusiasm,” wrote one observer, “is probably the most significant fact of our future politics. Heaven help any politician or any party which runs counter to it or even ignores it.”

Some months later the Government satisfied the demands for a closer association with the Soviet Union. On May 26, 1942, the Anglo-Soviet Treaty was signed. This pledged both signatories to mutual collaboration for twenty years after the war.


The conclusion of this alliance was a revolutionary event in English politics. It constituted a radical break with Britain’s traditional foreign policy, which had always refrained from becoming too deeply involved on the Continent. Never before in her long history had Britain pledged herself so far in advance to come to the aid of a great European Power. Whenever she had reluctantly given up her insular isolation and entered a Continental alliance, she had been careful to limit her commitments to the actual emergency and to reclaim her freedom of action as soon as the crisis had passed.

Like America, Britain had never brought herself easily to meet events even half-way. Essentially opportunist in her foreign policy, she preferred to let events decide for her the course to follow rather than to commit herself in advance. In her island position she could afford to wait. By balancing the strongest Powers on the Continent against each other, she tried to maintain peace in Europe without assuming any direct responsibility for its preservation. If the balance on the Continent was permanently upset, the Channel and the help of Continental allies shielded her from immediate attack and gave her time to organize her defenses. In this way she had always been able to “muddle through.” Such muddling through, to be sure, often involved mistakes costly enough to spell the ruin of any Continental nation. But as long as Britain was not an integral part of the Continent, she thus managed to win her wars after losing almost all her battles.

It took Britain a long time to realize that her cherished insular isolation was gradually being swept away by technological advances. Even the First World War with its Zeppelin raids on London failed to put an end to her faith in the advantages of insular aloofness. When the war ended, she returned to her traditional noncommittal balance-of-power policy. The Anglo-French entente cordiale never survived the war. After Germany was presumably defeated and France seemed the strongest Power on the Continent, London again dissociated herself from her former ally and more often than not sided with the Reich. Only after 1934, when Germany was once more rising in power, did she resume her close collaboration with Paris.

Hitler’s bombers finally convinced Britain that she was no longer just “of Europe,” as the British geographer Mackinder once had put it, but “in Europe.” In the age of the airplane she had ceased to be an isolated island; the air tied her irretrievably to the Continent. Sea power was no longer sufficient to protect her against attack. Her vaunted navy had to stand by helplessly while Junkers and Messerschmitts crossed the Channel and rained death or her cities. She survived this onslaught, not because her Home Fleet held off the Nazi invasion, but because her air force was able to repel the attack and because the enemy, unprepared to stage an aerial invasion, had not at his disposal an air force adequately equipped for the task in hand. Once more Britain was able to muddle through, but this time the country saw the handwriting on the wall.

How clearly this was seen, the country demonstrated by its insistence that the Government abandon its traditional policy of aloofness and conclude a formal alliance with Russia. Not a single dissenting voice was raised against the pact. Even the fact that it made Britain the ally of a Bolshevist Power passed virtually without comment. The country realized that as an integral part of Europe it could no longer shy away from the task of maintaining peace on the Continent and that its traditional noncommittal policy had to be replaced by a permanent system of collective security in which it must actively participate. Convinced that, strong or defeated, Germany remained her major enemy, Britain knew that her security was predicated upon her continued collaboration with the Soviet Union—the one great Power close to Germany which has the manpower and resources to curb any future German aggression. She refused to let tradition or moral scruples stand in the way of her close cooperation with Moscow. Twice before, in 1812 and in 1914, Russia had helped Britain defeat an aggressor who was trying to establish himself as the sole master of Europe. Conversely, neither Napoleon nor William II nor Hitler could have gone as far as they did if Britain and Russia had been pledged in advance to mutual assistance against an attack on either Power. No one knew this better than the Germans; from the davs of Bismarck it has been a fundamental principle of German diplomacy to sabotage any close Russo-British collaboration. The geopolitical blueprints of General Haushofer in particular revolved around the permanent separation of the “pirates of the steppe and the pirates of the sea.” But in both World Wars German aggression forced the two countries into a common front, and thus defeated Germany’s hope of attaining Continental supremacy. The present permanent association of Britain and the Soviet Union is to preclude any future attempt on the part of Germany to reach for the mastery over Europe by playing one Power against the other.

As the sole means of permanently curbing German aggression, Britain values her alliance with Russia highly. She has made it abundantly clear that she will go to great lengths to satisfy her newly won collaborator. She is ready to give Moscow a free hand in Eastern Europe. She may even go further. A recent Times editorial suggested that Russia might well consider the Oder her frontier (just as Britain sees hers on the Rhine), and as conservative a magazine as The Nineteenth Century and After stated repeatedly that it would prefer to see Russia rather than Germany in control of all of Europe east of the Rhine. Britain is likewise discountenancing all schemes of throwing another cordon sanitaire around the Soviet Union. The pleas of the Haps-burgs and the Hungarian legitimists fell on deaf ears in London. And by her handling of the recent Russo-Polish rift she has given unmistakable proof that in any showdown concerning the future of Eastern Europe she intends to side with Russia.

The Russians, in turn, seem prepared to consider Western Europe Britain’s sphere of interest. They have indirectly approved Britain’s plan of resurrecting France as a strong Power closely allied to the United Kingdom. Of all exiled movements, the Fighting French, who likewise advocate close Anglo-French collaboration after the war, enjoy, next to the Czechs, the greatest popularity in Moscow.

While Britain is thus drawing ever closer to the Continent, her status as a World Power is undergoing corresponding changes. She had always refrained from Continental involvements in order to be free to devote herself more fully to the conduct of her imperial affairs. Order on the Northwest Frontier was of greater concern to her than the troubles of the Balkans, and in order to maintain the former, she preferred to overlook the latter. On the other hand, whenever she did become involved in Continental difficulties, she did so at the expense of her extra-European interests. The loss of her naval supremacy in the first decades of this century, the steady weakening of her position in the Western Hemisphere which reached its climax in the turning over of air and naval bases to the United States in 1940, the loss of her Far Eastern possessions can all be attributed to her simultaneous preoccupation with Europe.

While it is yet too early to say how Britain’s extra-European interests will be affected by her new permanent alliance with a European Power and her correspondingly greater preoccupation with the Continent, one possible development is already discernible: the new Anglo-Russian rapprochement will have definite repercussions on future Anglo-American relations. The turning over of British bases from Newfoundland to the Caribbean to the United States virtually completed Britain’s withdrawal from the New World; her possessions in the Western Hemisphere are now entrusted completely to American guardianship. In the light of such subsequent events as the Anglo-Soviet Treaty, however, this step proves to be more than a mere deal of expediency: it symbolizes the shifting of the center of gravity of the British Empire from the Atlantic back to Europe. While up to the present war Britain considered Anglo-American command of the sea the best safeguard of her imperial interests, she now sees their basic protection primarily dependent on the preservation of peace in Europe. “One does not need to doubt the desirability of an Anglo-American Union,” Time and Tide recently remarked, “to perceive that the root of all our troubles lies after all in Europe. Unless this continent can be organized for peace, no Anglo-American Union with all its merits will protect us from another war.” Less than four years before, Lord Lothian had hailed Anglo-American co-operation as the best guarantee for the maintenance of peace!

This change of attitude is the direct corollary of Britain’s changed strategic position. The Anglo-American entente has often been traced back to the existence of a common language, common traditions, and common political institutions. While these factors strengthen the bonds between the two countries, they are, however, not primarily responsible for them. The actual basis of the Anglo-American relationship is the conviction that collaboration best serves the security of both nations. Britain’s policy of balanced power coincided with America’s interest in a balanced Europe in which no single country would be strong enough to bring the entire Continent under its control and thus constitute a threat to the safety of the Western Hemisphere. As such a threat develops, Anglo-American co-operation grows proportionately closer.

However, Britain’s and America’s concepts of security necessarily differ. The distant United States is traditionally slower than near-by Britain to recognize developments in Europe as a menace to its security. In pre-Blitzkrieg days Britain, which then considered herself an isolated island, could—or believed she could—afford to wait until the United States decided that she, too, was directly endangered by Germany’s aggressive designs. With France as an ally and the Channel controlled by the Royal Navy, she felt reasonably safe from any surprise attack.

In the dark days of 1940, however, the views of the two countries as to their respective security needs were found to be so far apart as almost to cost Britain her life. While Hitler’s bomber squadrons revolutionized her strategic outlook and drew her closer into the European orbit, they left the position of the United States seemingly unaffected. The Nazi pilots easily crossed the Channel, but they were still unable to cross the Atlantic. Except for occasional suicide raids, which seemed unlikely, this country appeared to be safe from any immediate Nazi attack. Consequently, isolationist sentiments prevailed and kept it from going outright to the aid of the British. Although the balance of power was completely upset, although Britain, long considered a buffer between Europe and the United States, was in danger of being disastrously defeated, she had to fight on by herself.

The gap between British and American concepts of security became again strikingly evident in the spring of 1941. The sinking of a number of American vessels by Nazi U-boats had roused public opinion in this country to ask for more drastic action; the United States was edging closer to the brink of war. In fact, in June, 1941, after the torpedoing of the merchantman Robin Moor, Washington seemed ready to oppose Germany more vigorously and openly. British hopes for American intervention rose. But at that moment the Nazis invaded Russia, and immediately all thought of entering the war was dropped. The Reich was fully occupied in the East and no longer constituted a direct threat to America.

This reaction was not lost on the British. For obvious reasons comment was restrained at the time, but the admonition of The National Review that Britain and Russia should bear this attitude in mind to guide their future actions refleeted a general feeling. Doubtless it confirmed the British in their desire for close collaboration with the Russians. It was then that the London Times first proposed that Britain and Russia jointly watch over the peace of Europe after the war on the express ground that it was not possible to rely on the co-operation of the United States in such an undertaking.

Another no less important factor contributed to the shifting of Britain’s center of gravity from the Atlantic to Europe. This was the changed relationship of land to sea power. It, too, necessitated a Russo-British rapprochement.

That sea power is no longer able by itself to defend Britain against an invasion has been pointed out. The British have already announced that in deference to this fact they intend to maintain strong land forces even in peacetime. But sea power has also lost some of its effectiveness as an offensive weapon against land power. In previous times Britain’s command of the sea often enabled her to force an enemy into submission simply by blockading his ports. The progress of technology, however, has steadily reduced the effectiveness of the blockade. Even before World War I, mines and submarines made a close blockade of hostile harbors no longer feasible. Germany, for example, was able to carry on maritime trade with the Scandinavian countries throughout that conflict. In the present war the value of the blockade has been reduced further by the increased ability of a highly industrialized country like Germany to exploit its available resources and to make up for any deficiencies by the production of synthetic materials. The blockade of Germany by the British Navy cut the Reich off from all overseas supplies of rubber and oil, two of the most vital strategic raw materials. Yet, after almost four years of war, this has not hampered the Nazi war effort to any appreciable degree. In fact, the British Ministry of Economic Warfare had to admit in a recent survey of Germany’s economic position that economically the Reich might be able to carry on the war for years. While the Allied blockade of Germany was one of the main factors contributing to her collapse in 1918, it has lost much of its importance since that time. It will continue to decrease in effectiveness, as technical progress makes industrial nations increasingly self-sufficient.

Similarly, technical progress has shifted the relationship between land and sea power in another even more fundamental way. Britain’s imperial communications lie across the world’s oceans. She therefore relied upon her navy to safeguard her extra-European possessions. Sea power was more mobile than, and thus greatly superior to, land power. Topography and lack of transportation facilities, natural and political boundaries made it impossible for a land power to send its forces to distant countries. Egypt and India, for example, lay beyond its reach. A sea power, on the other hand, since the world’s oceans are contiguous, could easily rush forces to any point on the globe. By shifting her weight as the occasion required, Britain was able in this way to protect her world-wide possessions and to smother or localize any flare-up in Europe or elsewhere which threatened the existing balance of power. Her command of the sea enabled her during the hundred years between Trafalgar and the First World War to maintain the now almost legendary Paw Britannica in which the Empire reached the height of its power.

Yet what was feasible in the nineteenth century no longer applies in the twentieth. As Halford Mackinder warned his countrymen as early as 1904 in his now famous address, “The Geographical Pivot of History,” land power, thanks to railroads, was becoming just as mobile as sea power. Mackinder clearly foresaw the possibility that since Europe, Asia, and, as he added later in his book “Democratic Ideals and Reality,” Africa form one contiguous landmass, railroads would eventually integrate the three continents into one compact bloc. Once this was accomplished, land power, he predicted, would be able to outflank sea power.

His warning was to come true only a few years later. The Berlin-Baghdad Railroad was clearly designed to circumvent the British Navy by establishing a direct land connection between Germany and the Middle East. By the same token, the German naval base of Kiaochow on China’s Shantung Peninsula was envisaged as the terminus of a transcontinental Eurasiatic railroad line. And though not originally acquired for this purpose, the colony of German East Africa later, too, figured in these schemes as the terminus of a Eurafrican railroad line—a plan which in somewhat altered form was recently revived by the Geopolitical Institute at Munich.

During the First World War the Central Powers advanced far into the Middle East. A Turkish army even reached the Suez Canal (it was immediately driven back, however). Had Russia collapsed early enough, the road to India would have lain open to Germany. Nevertheless, Britain failed to draw the one obvious conclusion from these facts—that it was necessary for her to come to an understanding with Russia after the war. Only such an understanding could have prevented a recurrence of this threat to her Near and Middle Eastern position. Shying away from all Continental commitments, she likewise abandoned the Balkan countries to German influence and surrendered to the Reich the other road to the Orient. In this way she enabled Germany to strike out again for the Middle East in 1941-42. With Marshal Rommel soon little more than 100 miles from Suez and the Nazi flag waving on Mount Elbrus in the Caucasus, India was once more in mortal danger. And once more it was not British sea power, which had to make a detour of thousands of miles around the Cape of Good Hope to reach Egypt and India, but Russian land power that warded off the attack. If Russia had fallen, no battle of El Alamein could have saved Egypt.

Twice burned, the British no longer entertain their faith in the ubiquitousness of sea power. The Anglo-Soviet Pact testifies to this newly won realization. So does Britain’s willingness to acknowledge Russia’s need for security in Eastern Europe. While the Balkans were easily accessible to the British Navy less than one hundred years ago (as in the Crimean War and the Russo-Turkish War), they are no longer so in the age of railroad, airplane, and motorcar. If any trouble develops in those regions, not distant Britain or the United States, but only near-by Russia will geographically be able to maintain order there.


To the British the Anglo-Soviet alliance is thus much more than merely a fleeting passion. While the present adulation of Russia will eventually subside, and actually is already wearing off slightly—even the leftist New Statesman and Nation has been carrying numerous letters from readers protesting against the present “Soviet worship”—, a deep-rooted attachment to Russia will doubtless remain.

Beyond all geopolitical and strategic considerations the Anglo-Soviet Pact responds to a social trend in England which has been in evidence ever since Dunkirk. Britain is steadily moving to the left, and the Pact thus is in keeping with the prevailing mood of the country. In fact, it is giving the demands for social reforms a new impetus. “A revolution has taken place in the outlook of the masses upon matters of economic and social constitution,” notes Professor Laski. “This revolution is now seeking appropriate forms for its central principles. It is this which at least in part explains the profound enthusiasm among them for the achievements of the Russian ally.” To the British worker Russian successes are successes of the Socialist cause, and his clamor for a Second Front is to a great extent dictated by his desire to see this cause triumph over its enemies. Once before he had come to the aid of the Soviet Union in an hour of dire need, because he believed it to be fighting his own battle. When Prime Minister Lloyd George contemplated going to the aid of the Poles in the Russo-Polish War of 1920, British labor threatened to call a general strike unless the Government kept its hands off Russia, and thus forced it to drop all plans of armed intervention against Moscow. Now, once more, the Russians are in need of help, and the British worker is determined to see that they get it. Aneurin Bevan, one of labor’s most outspoken representatives in Parliament, warned the Government openly last year, that any intentional delay in opening the Second Front might seriously affect the armament output in the factories, which just then had reached new record heights.

These sentiments towards Russia are not confined to British labor. Far from fearing that the alliance with Russia may prove an entering wedge for subversive activities, most Britons are convinced that the Soviet Union has outlived its world-revolutionary phase. In fact, they believe that closer co-operation between British and Russian labor may well eliminate the British Communist Party as a disruptive force in English politics. Nor is there any apprehension lest British labor might turn Communist altogether under the impact of a close collaboration with Soviet unions. Britain is convinced that her social and economic structure is solid and sound enough to withstand any such possibility. In fact, many a non-Laborite even believes that close Anglo-Soviet collaboration will prove socially beneficial to both sides. It may induce Britain to carry out further reforms, and it may cause Russia to modify many of her views and practices. These people feel that the Treaty is ushering in a new era of better understanding between Russia and the West by leading her out of her former isolation. “They, as individuals,” wrote a contributor to The Contemporary Review in September, 1941, “are interested in us as individuals fighting to a finish for a regime of law and a religion of liberty that they were prepared to fight against; while we, as a country, are interested in them as a community fighting for a regime of collectivism and a religion of civism that we have preferred to fight against. Wherefore, as comrades in a common cause, we are both of us beginning to believe that there may be something in systems we had supposed to be unbearable.” Some months later an editorial in that same publication added that “those who have a taste for the truth do not refuse to face the fact that many sections of British opinion are beginning to look upon Bolshevist Communism with a speculative eye as to future possibilities in their own country.” Similarly, Time and Tide saw the significance of the Anglo-Soviet Treaty not only in its reflection of the present British attitude toward Russia but also in the fact that “it corresponds to what looks like the development of the popular mind in the next period.”

One aspect of Anglo-American relations, as affected by the Anglo-Soviet Treaty, has already been dealt with. It remains to discuss another aspect which concerns the future of this relationship. The British sincerely desire American participation in their collaboration with the Soviet Union. The Times, which last March advocated close co-operation between Russia and Britain in postwar Europe, was at the same time at pains to stress the fact that it did not want to exclude the United States from helping maintain order on the Continent after the war. In this the paper spoke undoubtedly for the overwhelming majority of the English people. American participation would greatly facilitate the huge reconstruction tasks which await the Allies in Europe. It would likewise help to solve the possibly even more baffling problem of administering and re-educating postwar Germany—a problem on which Russia and Britain apparently have not yet reached an understanding. Above all, only the honest postwar co-operation of the United States and the Soviet Union can guarantee the maintenance of world peace in the future.

Yet Britain is fully aware of the fact that a large section of public opinion in this country opposes all postwar association with the Soviet Union. Her mind, however, is made up. By implication (in the above mentioned Times editorials) and expressly (in a subsequent editorial in The Economist), she has served notice on this country that whatever attitude America is going to take toward Russia after the war, she is going to adhere to her alliance with Moscow.

The implications of this attitude may be far-reaching. Assuming that the United States and the Soviet Union do not come to an understanding, several facts should be borne in mind. Britain, it ought to be clear, is more dependent on Russia’s friendship than on ours. While she hopes to serve as a bridge of understanding between Russia and America, a serious estrangement between the two countries may consequently lead to an estrangement between herself and America. There exists no fundamental conflict of interests between her and the Soviet Union, but there are certain potential Anglo-American, controversies looming large on the international horizon. Problems of postwar aviation and shipping are already being heatedly debated between the two countries. For lack of a satisfactory solution Britain may be drawn closer into the Soviet orbit. Britain also expects to lose a large part of her South American market to the Good-Neighbor policy of the United States. Her Dominions have built up industries of their own during the war so that their importance as British export markets will likewise be reduced. In search of new markets, she will naturally look to the Soviet Union, especially if the United States should abandon her reciprocal trade policy. Soviet foreign trade, however, as Ambassador Joseph E. Davies pointed out in “Mission to Moscow,” does not necessarily go to the highest bidder, but frequently is turned over to the better friend.

Needless to say, such hemispheric alignments would be rife with grave possibilities. Eventually they may well pit hemisphere against hemisphere—a development the inevitable consequences of which are too obvious to be discussed here. It will not happen if America and Russia come to terms. To achieve such an understanding will not be easy. That it can be achieved, however, the conclusion of the Anglo-Soviet Treaty has convincingly proven.


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