Political and External Affairs
CHAPTER 25 — East and West
East and West
FROM 25 April to 25 June 1945 an oft-repeated drama was re-enacted on the ample stage of San Francisco. The setting was more spacious, if less elegant, than it had been at Vienna and Versailles. Two hundred and eighty-two delegates laboured with the help of 2500 experts while 2636 journalists proclaimed the results to the world.1 Nevertheless, the basic pattern remained that of 1815 and 1919. Men whose minds were imprisoned in the past conceived themselves to be preoccupied with the future. In the effort to transform a temporary wartime co-operation into a permanent basis for peace, the shape of what was to come was only dimly perceived, and men's hopes only gradually adjusted themselves to disagreeable realities. Problems and solutions alike were expressed in formulae which less and less conformed with reality. Out of the San Francisco Conference emerged something which all delegates declared should be at all costs avoided, the possibility of a third world war and the actuality of a vociferously proclaimed ‘cold war’ splitting the world, with localised, undeclared ‘hot wars’ as fierce as those that had devastated Spain and Abyssinia. The most important event during the conference, in fact, was the meeting of Russian and American troops on the Elbe on the day of the formal opening in San Francisco. With the collapse of Germany active co-operation was no longer compulsory, and from that fact strife flowed irresistibly.
1 McNeill, p. 592.
1 PM's notes for secret session, September 1940.
3 UKHC to SSDA, 6 Feb 1940.
This particular group of problems disappeared with the ending of the Soviet-Finnish war on 13 March 1940, but others remained. Hopes that Hitler might be running short of oil, for instance, led the Allies to attach great importance to the supplies which might be provided from Russia. The possibilities of cutting off this source of supply by bombarding the Caucasian oilfields were accordingly studied by British and French experts, and at the end of March the French proposed immediate action.2 Such suggestions fortunately never got beyond the stage of study and discussion; but they indicated possibilities alarming to the New Zealand Government. Fraser made it clear that New Zealand would be opposed to action against Russia except in response to Russian aggression against Britain or one of her close allies. Anything that might appear as British aggression against Russia, he thought, would be undesirable in itself, and in addition likely to rouse uncomfortably strong opposition within the Dominion.3
1 UKHC to SSDA, 3 Mar 1940.
2 SSDA to UKHC, 30 Mar 1940.
3 UKHC to SSDA, 31 Mar 1940 and 23 Apr 1940.
5 Standard, 2 Oct 1941.
3 The quotation is from a draft telegram prepared in the Prime Minister's Department in October 1940. It was not sent.
New Zealand's attitudes towards Russia and Poland were made clear in the early years of the war. As regards the Poles, added warmth of interest came both from the energetic work of a capable Polish Consul-General in Wellington and from the presence of a substantial group of refugees–748 children together with 88 adults–who came via Iran in 1944. It was perhaps not surprising, therefore, to find some signs of uneasiness at the Russian failure to assist the Polish rising in Warsaw in August 1944, but the problem arose in a new and intractable form in the following January.
In that month the Russians recognised as the Government of Poland the ‘Polish National Committee’ which they had established in Lublin. This immediately raised the problem as to whether New Zealand should or should not in this context show the same concern for moral principle as in the past by continuing to recognise the government-in-exile. She reacted with some sharpness to the attempted compromise which emerged from discussions between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at Yalta shortly afterwards. The Yalta proposals for Poland were based on the Lublin Committee, which had now become the Warsaw government. That government, it was agreed, should be ‘reorganised on a broader democratic basis’, with the help of a joint Russo-British-American Commission, and with the addition of some democratic Polish leaders drawn both from Poland itself and from Poles then in exile. The resulting provisional government would be pledged to hold as soon as possible free elections in which ‘all democratic and Anti-Nazi parties’ were to participate, and would be recognised by Russia, Britain and the United States.2 The Big Three added that the Poles' new eastern frontier should roughly follow the ‘Curzon Line’, that they should gain considerable territory to the north and the west, and that the finalisation of their western frontier should await the Peace Conference.
1 PM to SSDA, 28 Apr 1942.
2 McNeill, p. 558, quoting Stettinius, pp. 309–10.
Fraser went on to comment on the frontier arrangements, again in surprising detail. ‘From the very imperfect knowledge I have of this complicated question,’ he wrote, ‘it does appear that Poland has a just claim for Lwow with or without the neighbouring oilfields and we should continue to give our support to such adjustments in Polish favour.’ He was more concerned, however, regarding the western frontier where, he argued at some length, the case that ‘just as… the British endeavoured to persuade the Poles from accepting the liability of vast areas east of the Curzon line after the last war, so we should endeavour to impress upon them the dangers of making a similar mistake in the west on this occasion.’ Here he felt the alternatives were the transfer of population on an impossibly large scale or the creation of a vast minority problem which would ‘embroil Poland so deeply with Germany as to compel her to depend permanently on the Soviet Union for her security. While I believe that a settlement which requires Poland to maintain good relations with Russia is essential, one that makes her future security almost exclusively dependent upon Russian support is clearly unwise.’ Fraser concluded by remarking on the increasing tendency of the major powers to settle problems piecemeal instead of bring- page 363 ing them to a Peace Conference, ‘which alone will be in a position to examine these problems in all their bearings and effect satisfactory settlements1.’
Churchill replied with customary vigour. He recognised the force of many of Fraser's criticisms, which ‘are indeed inescapable and have throughout been very much in our minds.’ Nevertheless, he went on, ‘Great Britain and the British Commonwealth are very much weaker militarily than Soviet Russia and have no means short of another general war of enforcing their point of view. Nor can we ignore the position of the United States. We cannot go further in helping Poland than the United States is willing or can be persuaded to go. We have therefore to do the best we can.’ He discussed the problem of Poland's western boundaries, offered some defence of the three-power international commission, and then assured Fraser in conclusion that ‘We are only committed on the basis of full execution in good faith of the terms of our published communique. Personally in spite of my anti-communist convictions I have good hopes that Russia or at any rate Stalin desires to work in harmony with the western democracies. The alternative would be despair about the future of the world. We shall not flinch however from our duty as we conceive it to the last scrap of our life and strength.’
Thereafter the matter dragged. It seems that Fraser was still dissatisfied with the Yalta formula, and said so at the Commonwealth Conference held at London in April before the meeting at San Francisco. He also, it would seem, was in touch with the leaders of the Polish government-in-exile and helped to persuade them that they ‘should make a constructive effort and play their part in reaching a settlement instead of maintaining the completely negative attitude adopted since Crimea2.’ It was, however, only after five months of negotiations, which incidentally left little doubt as to Russian intentions in Poland, that a positive move was made. In June, after considerable unsuccessful pressure by Britain on the government-in-exile, and hard negotiating by Harry Hopkins with Stalin, a group of Polish exiles was invited to Moscow. It was then agreed that the Warsaw government should be enlarged by the inclusion of Mikolajczyk–a former prime minister in the government-in-exile–and a few other Poles from abroad.3 The new government was recognised on 5 July by the United Kingdom and the United States.
1 Minister of External Affairs to SSDA, 20 Feb 1945.
2 SSDA to Minister of External Affairs, 25 Apr 1945.
3 McNeill, pp. 586 ff.
The Polish problem reached a climax during the San Francisco Conference, and was at once an education for New Zealand in the diplomacy of the newly emerging world, and a demonstration of the limited importance of a small power's policy. Nevertheless, for what it was worth, New Zealand sustained her own consistently held viewpoint in face of a complex problem. Her attitudes were also tested in a brief but tense episode which, at much the same time, illustrated the problems of East-West relationships in another frontier area.
1 Though recognition was not thereby extended to the Warsaw government. It was not until April 1947 that the Minister of External Affairs advised the New Zealand Minister in Moscow that ‘While we do not propose by any specific formal act to recognise the Polish Government we shall in future act as if we have extended such recognition.’
Faced by Tito's drastic assertion of his rights, Truman reacted sharply, with Churchill's warm approval. President and Prime Minister agreed that Tito was taking the law into his own hands in a manner ‘all too reminiscent’ of Hitler and Japan, and thereby challenging ‘the fundamental principles of territorial settlement by orderly process against force, intimidation, or blackmail2.’ The tactic adopted was not, they thought, different in principle when adopted by an ally and by an enemy. They would have been less than human if they had not found Tito all the less likeable because of his regime's frankly communist character and because of the methods and success with which he had risen to supreme power in his own country. Nevertheless, the issue as they saw it was one of principle with long-term implications. It was at the same time an urgent practical instance of a problem which had to be faced in the interests of post-war stability, namely, the westward thrust of communist power and the necessity somewhere to draw a firm boundary to its further expansion. In particular, Tito was feared to have designs in southern Austria. Churchill was particularly pleased that the new President should grasp so firmly ‘the moral essentials of the cause for which we have fought’ and be willing ‘to take firm and bold action without fear of being accused of entanglements in Europe.’ A firm stand in Trieste, he added, might ‘lead to a showdown with Russia on questions like the independence and sovereignty of Poland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia…. I feel we are safe as well as right in closing ranks with the United States upon this matter3.’ It seemed, in fact, that Tito's intransigence might be a powerful factor in promoting a development which Churchill ardently desired but dared not count upon: active American participation in post-war Europe in counterpoise to the Russians.
1 Documents, II, pp. 354–5, 398–400.
2 Ibid., p. 415, note 1.
3 Churchill to Fraser, 13 May 1945
Freyberg in Trieste reached the same conclusion. He was on good personal terms with the Yugoslav commanders, but saw the possibility of serious trouble ahead. ‘I do not see how you can do otherwise than authorise the use of the Division,’ he wrote to Fraser,3 ‘nor would any of the force wish you to do otherwise.’ He went on to explain how the course of military operations had carried the Division into a situation where its every action–or abstinence from action–was charged with grave political importance. In Trieste, he wrote,4 the New Zealanders were inevitably offending both sides. Tito's men disliked having outsiders established in what they claimed as their territory and necessarily observing, even if not checking, the actions of the new regime. Italians and conservatives generally resented the Division ‘standing by while … a revolution to bring the country under a Communist Yugoslavia is carried out around us.’ Freyberg's view was, he wrote, that vigorous political–rather than military–action was needed. He agreed in general with Fraser's opinions, but added soberly: ‘I am only a little uncertain when it comes to the application of any ideal or principle in Balkan countries, where terrible things have happened and are still happening.’ A firm stand might produce the desired results; but those who took it must be prepared to fight.
1 Documents, II, p. 418, 16 May 1945.
2 Fraser to Nash, 14 May 1945.–Documents, II, pp. 415–16.
3 Documents, II, p. 418.
Viewed from Wellington, in short, the issue lacked the clear-cut certainties of Fraser's assessment. Three or four men, including the acting Prime Minister, agreed that the actions proposed by Fraser should be taken, ‘after every road of compromise has been fully explored.’ At the other extreme, some thought that the Division should be promptly withdrawn from the area of crisis and New Zealand thus relieved of responsibility. Others pointed out the difficulties of withdrawal, and suggested possible ways of compromise between Tito and the West. The debate was warm but in good temper, and was summarised for Fraser with the conclusion that ‘there is a very strong feeling that we ought not to commit our Division to further fighting unless attacked, and that we should take every step to avoid the possibility of attack.’ Without expressly denying the use of the Division, it was a cable which showed Fraser that the majority of his colleagues and lifelong friends in the Labour movement were uneasy on the issue. They evidently did not think that his prior condition had been fulfilled–it had not been demonstrated to the world clearly and beyond dispute that the only obstacle to just settlement was ‘the obstinate and definitely aggressive attitude of Yugoslavia …’–and they recoiled from the thought that the Division should be too hurriedly pledged to action against gallant allies who had fought so bravely under cruel difficulties.
Nash's report was received by Fraser with stunned silence followed page 368 by three long, closely typed pages of vehement disagreement. The moral issues still seemed to him crystal clear and of great practical importance. ‘It is more important that the methods adopted and practised by the Yugoslav government should be stopped finally and completely than it is for the San Francisco Conference to prove a complete constructive success, which thanks to the decisions of the three great powers now appears impossible of attainment.’ To withdraw the Division at the height of the crisis would be interpreted as a blow struck at the United Kingdom and the United States at the very moment when they ‘were firmly upholding the principles for which the war was fought.’ He admitted the possibility that a policy of firm resistance to Tito might be ‘misunderstood and misconstrued by large sections of the community’–there was a vocal pro–Tito section among New Zealand Yugoslavs–but, he added, ‘in a crisis public opinion must not be feared, it must be met.’
There was, then, disagreement between Fraser in San Francisco and cabinet in New Zealand on the right reading of the Trieste crisis. All agreed in principle that the fate of the territories in question should be decided as part of a general settlement and not by unilateral action. There were differences of judgment, however, on the moral justification for Tito's haste and on the possibilities of a compromise decision. There were evidently differences of opinion also on the underlying problem of relations between the West and Russia. The problem so vividly seen by Churchill, that of the establishment of Russian power and Russian satellites in the heart of Europe was, it seems, only dimly perceived by some New Zealanders. There was perhaps lack of conviction on the need to draw a firm line on which the West could stand and a plain lack of eagerness that New Zealand should assume practical responsibilities in guaranteeing this part of the post-war security system.
It may be said that New Zealand's brief involvement with the Yugoslavs had a happy ending. The New Zealand Division was, at leisure and legitimately, withdrawn from the danger area; and a few months afterwards, at the first meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, Fraser by a graceful withdrawal assured to Yugoslavia a seat on the Social and Economic Council. ‘We have endeavoured to understand the position of Yugoslavia,’ he said, ‘and we have nothing but friendship for that country’; moreover, the public interest demanded a quick ending to the deadlock.3 Nevertheless, the tense incident of Trieste demonstrated, in fact, a most unhappy conclusion. The world had passed from one war to the next without interval: even if the character of the warfare had changed. There is no moment of which it can confidently be said, here the war ended, and the belligerents (New Zealand among them) laid down the tasks of war and took up those of peace.
1 Fraser to Jordan, 25 May 1945. His interpretation of the text seems strained.
2 Documents, II, pp. 424–7.
3 Thorn, Fraser, p. 237.