Mr S.M. Bruce, High Commissioner in London, to Mr F.K. Officer, Australian Counsellor at U.K. Embassy in Washington

Letter LONDON, 12 December 1939


Many thanks for your letter of the 30th November. [1] I am extremely obligcd to you for having cabled to Stirling [2] about the Ambassador’s appreciation of the Far Eastern position .[3] You were quite right in your surmise, in suspecting my hand in the request for the appreciation which was sent by the Foreign Office.

Times are so strenuous now-a-days that it is impossible to sit down and write an intelligent and thought-out letter on any subject. I propose, however, as I have a spare half hour to think aloud on paper so as to give you some idea of what is in my mind and what has been going on here.

First-With regard to your giving us the tip about the Ambassador’s telegram-this was particularly useful as probably without your advising me I would never have seen his most admirable cable. The reason for this is that over the last few months the position of our information has deteriorated seriously since the day when you knew it. The reason for this is that in a moment of misguided enthusiasm they suddenly came to the conclusion it was desirable that the Dominion High Commissioners should see something of the current communications coming in from abroad. The result of this inspiration was that boxes are solemnly sent round every day to all the High Commissioners with what are described as ‘general distribution communications’, which is another way of saying those which have nothing of outstanding importance in them. The necessity for this limited distribution, if it was to be to all High Commissioners, was obvious, particularly prior to the war when they went to the High Commissioner for Eire and also until the change of Government in South Africa. The Ambassador’s cable was not included in the general distribution and had I not got the tip from you I would probably have missed it.

I am now busily engaged in trying to restore the position whereby we will keep in touch with everything that is going on. The method I have adopted is to say that I do not want the boxes sent round to me, but that I am prepared to rely upon the information that Stirling obtains, pointing out that Stirling is in the Cabinet Office, is subject to the discipline that applies there and that he is a completely discreet and reliable person. By this means I hope that we shall once more get a sight of everything without upsetting the arrangement they have made with regard to the other High Commissioners.

Having disposed of this minor point I might, before I go on to the main things I want to write to you about, say a word with regard to our new Legation in Washington. I have been in some difficulty in writing to you about it owing to the fact that the Prime Minister [4] was most anxious that I should transfer from London and become the first Minister. This was the subject of cabled exchanges between us, running over about a month. The first point we reached was to decide that important as Washington is, during the war London must inevitably be the main centre and as apparently I was regarded as the star turn it would be a mistake for me to leave. Eventually a compromise was arrived at whereby I was to go to Washington on a special mission to establish the Legation but making it quite clear that I was not to be the Minister myself, but had merely come with the specific object of inaugurating the new system. This arrangement had not got much sense in it, but it appealed to the Prime Minister who, for some reason, was most desirous that I should go to America at all events for a short period. After I had inaugurated the Legation, the idea was that you should be left as Charge d’Affaires until such time as a Minister was nominated. When the Prime Minister and I had agreed upon this compromise the necessary steps were taken to give effect to it, namely, by asking the Foreign Office to move the Ambassador [5] to approach the Administration in Washington.

When this formal approach was made, Anthony Eden [6] became all het up at my going away, even for a short time, and the Prime Minister here [7] was brought into the picture and cabled privately to the Prime Minister in Australia stressing the necessity of my remaining here and urging that the matter should be reconsidered. This was agreed to and it was arranged that I should not go to America but the Legation should be initiated with a Charge d’Affaires until such time as the Minister was appointed.

The next move was that while Richard [8] was over here the Prime Minister cabled suggesting that he should go to Washington and after some exchange of cables this was agreed upon and no doubt by the time you receive this letter the formal announcement that he is to be the first Minister will be made, the Legation in the meantime being established with you as Charge d’Affaires. I am frankly somewhat amazed at this decision as the number of Cabinet Ministers of first class calibre in Australia is very limited and our Richard is certainly the outstanding member of the Government, apart from the Prime Minister. With so few useful colleagues to rely upon, nothing on earth would have induced me to part with Richard if I had been in the Prime Minister’s place. That, however, is his business and not mine. I am quite sure that Richard will be extraordinarily good and do the maximum that it is possible for any Australian to do in Washington.

With Richard’s arrival the question of your future will have to be considered and I had a long talk to Richard on the subject while he was here. While I think he should keep you for a certain time, until he picks up the ropes, I think after a few months it would be desirable you should be moved on to new activities as you have had a long time in Washington now and have gained invaluable experience.

I personally feel you could be better utilised than off-siding to Richard indefinitely. This, however, is another matter which is not my business.

With regard to the appreciation the Ambassador was asked to send of the Far Eastern position, the circumstances behind this request are as follows.

For some months now I have been very concerned that the United Kingdom Government had not got a sufficiently constructive policy with regard to the Far East; were not being sufficiently forthcoming, and, if you like, indiscreet in their relations with the United States Administration on this question; were concerning themselves too much with minor questions and were running the serious risk of getting off-side with the American Government with resulting suggestions that once more the United Kingdom had let America down. I kept on harassing Halifax [9] on this matter and eventually when challenged as to what I suggested was the proper policy to pursue sent the enclosed memorandum in September [10], making it clear that all it purported to be was a few rough ideas I had in my mind which I would like to discuss with them. From this nothing resulted as you, with your knowledge of Foreign Office methods, will realise was what was to be expected.

With the outbreak of the war I became increasingly apprehensive of the position in the Far East, particularly when I saw the difficulty we were having at sea in coping with the Germans, notwithstanding the fact that our anticipations had been that when war came we would have to deal with three opponents, namely, Germany, Italy and Japan, instead of one.

An opportunity occurred to give voice to these anxieties during Richard’s visit here when the question of the despatch of an Australian Expeditionary Force was under consideration. The Australian Government made it clear that before it could agree to the despatch of any forces from Australia it desired to be reassured as to the probable attitude of Japan in the future and to be informed of the steps of a naval character the United Kingdom would contemplate taking should hostilities break out in the Far East. As a result of this attitude of the Australian Government the Foreign Office prepared an appreciation of the Far Eastern situation [11] and my Lords of the Admiralty prepared an appreciation of the naval situation. [12] Both documents were obviously framed in order to reassure Australia and make certain that the Expeditionary Force should be despatched at an early date. In this objective they were successful as you will have seen that the Commonwealth Government has now announced that the first Division of the Expeditionary Force will embark in the near future.

My own impression of both documents was that they drew a somewhat over-optimistic picture. The Foreign Office appreciation stressed the fundamental divergence in the aims and interests of the Soviet and Japan which is perfectly accurate, and drew the comforting conclusion that there was little likelihood of an understanding between them, of which I am by no means sure. This document had rather bad luck, because it had scarcely been presented to us when the Press began to ring with the possibility of a Soviet-Japanese understanding and a cable was received from Craigie giving a joint appreciation of the position by himself and his French and Polish colleagues which indicated that the possibility of an understanding was a very real one. [13]

Close on the heels of Craigie’s communication came the cable from Lothian of the 23rd November. This is a most encouraging document and is the best contribution I have seen from Washington up to date. What I liked about it was that it made it perfectly clear that the Ambassador is going to see to it that no misunderstanding is allowed to arise between the U.S.A. and ourselves. That it shows a greater measure of frankness than has been customary and that it puts forward a definite and constructive policy but makes it clear that if the U.S.A. is not prepared to accept such a policy we are prepared to concert an alternative policy with them, but makes it clear to the Americans that if, resulting out of that alternative policy, trouble should arise, the U.S.A. would have an obligation in face of the position which would have to be met.

Using Lothian’s cable as a lever, I induced Richard to come with me to see Halifax and we had a long talk to him with regard to the Far East position. [14] Broadly what we put to him was that the Far East is Australia’s main preoccupation but that it was impossible to separate the Far East from the European situation because the seriousness and even the probability of any development in the Far East would to a great extent, if not entirely, be governed by how events moved in the European area.

We then drew a harrowing picture of what might occur in Europe, somewhat down the following lines.

Assuming, contrary to the general Foreign Office view, that relations between Germany and the Soviet are not becoming strained, the possibility of a move by the Soviet against Finland had to be visualised as a first step in a German-Soviet domination of the Scandinavian countries, the Soviet having Sweden and Norway as its sphere of influence, and Germany [having] Denmark as its sphere. That having completed their programme in the Baltic and Scandinavian countries there might then be a German-Soviet move in the Balkans and the Near East. Simultaneously the Soviet might start something in the Middle East.

The point we made was that should all these unpleasant possibilities eventuate and even excluding further unpleasant possibilities, such as Italy being drawn in on the German-Soviet side out of sheer fear, or Turkey for the same reason refusing, or with all the will in the world being unable to do anything effective, France and Britain would find their hands so full that they would certainly be unable to take on another adventure in the Far East.

We therefore put it that it was essential to take any steps humanly possible to prevent an understanding being arrived at between the Russians and the Japanese, particularly in view of the fact that if such an arrangement was arrived at the Germans would probably be in the picture and you would have something in the nature of a German-Soviet-Japanese rapprochement, which however loose it might be would constitute a very serious danger.

We stressed that this danger would become increasingly serious in so far as Britain and France were in trouble in Europe and it was difficult to see how they would not be in very serious trouble if the horrible possibilities we had visualised, and which I have indicated above, had eventuated.

The conclusion we drew was that it was essential that the line which Lothian had suggested in his cable, namely the fullest exploration with the U.S.A. as to the possibilities of bringing about a settlement of the Sino-Japanese trouble and if the conclusion were that action in this direction was impossible, then the fullest discussion as to the alternative line which should be followed in the course of which Lothian could follow up the admirable line he has already taken of bringing home to the Americans their responsibilities in the event of trouble resulting [sic].

Halifax’s reaction was that he appreciated our great interest in the Far East but that he thought we had rather exaggerated the dangers at both ends of the world. With regard to Europe he pointed to the obvious objection of Germany to a Soviet domination of Sweden, particularly in view of the fact that Germany has to draw her vital supplies of iron ore from that country. He also pointed out that in the Danubian basin and the Near East there were irreconcilable divergences of interests between the Soviet and Germany, as, for example, the control of the mouth of the Danube and Constantinople. With regard to the Far East he stressed all the points in regard to the fundamental differences in aims between the Japanese and the Russians and broadly his reply to us was that while the United Kingdom policy was to try to get an understanding with the Japanese, and he instanced what had been done in connection with Tientsin and the Silver question, he did not feel that the position was quite as serious as I had been picturing it.

He then came to the question of our relations with the United States in connection with the Far East and outlined what had been taking place, but stressed that we must move with a certain amount of circumspection in order to avoid arousing American suspicions that we were going back on Chiang-kai-Shek [15] as it would have a most deplorable effect if they got that idea in their minds. To this I replied that I appreciated that fact, but I felt very strongly that one of the main reasons that tended to make the Americans suspicious of us was that we were always apprehensive of being completely frank with them and putting all our cards on the table. As exemplifying this point I put it to him that it was not sufficient to talk to the Americans about the Far East and the problems that were likely to arise there. What I felt we had to do was to put the whole world position to the Americans as we saw it.

If we were to do this it would mean painting the whole picture that I had been putting to him as to the possibilities of the close association between Germany and Russia as the two aggressive Powers, showing their possible line in Scandinavia, which incidentally should have a greater appeal to the Americans with their large Scandinavian population, indicating the possible developments in the Balkans and Near East that might follow the Scandinavian adventure, the possible developments in the Middle East and frankly put it to the American[s] that an understanding between the Russians and Japanese with the blessing of Germany would be adding something that would be beyond the powers of Britain and France to cope with.

With this background I suggested it was quite possible for us to say without any fear of being misunderstood that we wanted to discuss the Far Eastern position with the Americans with the utmost frankness. I said that I felt that in this atmosphere there could be no misunderstanding and it would have the advantage of bringing the Americans hard up against the fact of how vital it is for them to face up with us to the possibilities of the future if they want, not only to keep out of the war, but also to avoid finding themselves in the future the only defenders of civilisation against a triumphant combination of aggressive Powers.

While Halifax, who is a most charming person, listened to all this with exemplary patience, I am sure in his heart he feels that my views are extreme and my methods far too dashing. Notwithstanding this fact I have continued to press him because while I feel that my unpleasant forebodings may never be realised, we will be incredibly foolish if we refuse to recognise that they are possible and to visualise our line of action to meet the circumstances that would arise in the event of their unhappily becoming true.

With regard to Scandinavia, I have suggested that the German objection to a Russian domination of Sweden might be overcome by a joint attack after Finland has been overcome, the Russians coming in from the north and the Germans from the south, with an arrangement for partition of spheres of influence which would safeguard the Germans in regard to their supplies of iron ore.

With regard to the divergence of interests in the Danubian Basin and the Near East, I have admitted the difficulties of an arrangement but have suggested that this does not appear to me a more insoluble problem than the bringing about of the original agreement between the Soviet and Germany in August last.

I am glad to say this pressure has had some effect, as in the last few days the War Cabinet has asked for an appreciation from the Foreign Office of the possible developments in Scandinavia, and as soon as it has been received and considered by the War Cabinet it will go on to the Chiefs of Staff.

With the recognition that is now gradually coming that there may be serious developments in Scandinavia, the necessity of a real understanding with the Americans about the Far East becomes increasingly imperative. The line which the Ambassador in Washington is following is, to my mind, admirable and will get us somewhere if he receives proper backing from this end.

Incidentally I have only in the last few days seen the reply to him from the Foreign Office of the 30th November and his cables 871, 872 and 883. [16]

In a conversation with Halifax this week, he referred to them and was amazed when I told him I had not seen them. The fact that I had not was, of course, due to the unfortunate system which has grown up, to which I have referred above. He immediately had them made available to me and as a result of this episode I think we shall get back to our old position, and this view is strengthened by the fact that Hankey [17] to whom I spoke about the matter is doing everything in his power to help. From what I have written above you will grasp how cordially I would agree with the line the Ambassador has been taking.

The somewhat reassuring views as to the probable developments in the Far East that both Sumner Welles [18] and Hornbeck [19] put forward are, I think, discounted by the fact that they are obviously based upon the war going satisfactorily in the European theatre. What we are concerned with, however, is the position in the event of the war not going too satisfactorily, and our finding our hands very full as they certainly will be if any of the horrible suggestions I have put earlier materialise. In that event I do not think either of them would be so comforting as to the improbability of a Japanese adventure and Hornbeck practically says this in his conversation with the Ambassador recorded in cable 883. [20] This is a reason why it is essential that the background to the Ambassador’s conversations should be a realistic appreciation of the possibilities of adverse developments in the European theatre. The point we have to keep constantly in mind is the one brought out by the Ambassador that the Japanese cannot remain indefinitely in a state of war with China, and a state of strained relations with the Soviet and the Democracies.

What I have dictated is, I am afraid, long, rambling and somewhat incoherent. It may, however, convey something of what is in my mind to you.

The other matter which is giving me a lot of thought is what is going to happen if and when we have got rid of this infernal war.

I will try and take an opportunity of sending you something on this subject later.



1 Not printed (on file FA: AA1975/223, 1939, Far East Policy (U.S.) Japan & China).

2 A.T. Stirling, External Affairs Officer in London.

3 See Document 405.

4 R.G. Menzies.

5 Lord Lothian.

6 U.K. Dominions Secretary.

7 Neville Chamberlain.

8 R.G. Casey, Minister for Supply and Development.

9 Lord Halifax, U.K. Foreign Secretary.

10 Printed as enclosure to Document 239.

11 Document 371.

12 Document 372.

13 See Document 405.

14 This conversation took place on 24 November 1939 (see AA: M100, November 1939).

15 Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, Commander-in-Chief of Chinese armed forces and member of Central Executive Committee of the Kuomintang.

16 Not printed.

17 Lord Hankey, Minister without Portfolio in U.K. War Cabinet.

18 U.S. Under-Secretary of State.

19 Dr Stanley K. Hornbeck, Adviser on Political Relations, U.S.

Department of State.

20 Not printed.


[ANL: OFFICER MS 2629/1/875-885]