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9-08-2015, 22:07

A LEGACY TOO HEAVY TO BEAR

Victorious British armies had shared with the Americans the reconquest of Italy, France and Germany in arduous campaigns from the beachheads of Salerno and Normandy to the Elbe. What the British now feared was that the Americans would depart from Europe and simply return to pre-war isolationism and so leave Britain facing the Soviet Union alone. The British people rejoiced on VE (victory in Europe) Day and saw it as proving the powers of endurance and the superiority of the British; Churchill’s government knew better and recognised the serious problems that lay ahead. The war in Asia against Japan had still to be won. Hidden from general public recognition were other facts: the bleak position of Britain’s financial resources, its foreign assets decimated by the purchase of war supplies; the extent to which the US had provided essential foods, raw materials and weapons under the wartime ‘Lend-Lease’ arrangement which meant postponing payment, not avoiding it altogether. Without US help, the British economy – geared until mid-1945 to the war effort – was not able to provide the British people even with the standard of living possible during the war. And now in addition came the cost of maintaining the minimum living standards of the former enemy in the British zone of occupation. The food imported into Germany had to be paid for by Britain from its small dollar reserves. If continental Western Europe was to be prevented from sliding into chaos and protected from Soviet expansion or subversion, the active support of the US was essential. Yet there were considerable and persisting Anglo-American differences. In the US there was still a widespread belief that Britain remained an unrepentant imperialist power and a potentially formidable trading rival. British policies in Palestine restricting Jewish immigration caused bitterness on both sides of the Atlantic. Finally, despite his robust language, President Harry S. Truman thought that the US and the Soviet Union could reach an accommodation and that it was Britain, bent on defending its worldwide colonial interests, that might provoke the Soviet Union into conflict. Until the US was ready to recognise its new responsibilities in regions of the world which it had hitherto not regarded as falling within spheres essential to its own security, Britain had to fill the vacuum. Meanwhile, there was uncertainty about America’s long-term commitment to Western Europe, and about US readiness to defend Western interests in Asia, the Middle East and the Mediterranean. So, until March 1947, it was Britain that financially as well as militarily took up the burden of supporting the anticommunist government in Greece. With resources so overstretched, there was an urgent need to limit Britain’s more costly responsibilities. India had been promised its independence, and after the end of the war it could no longer be delayed. The Labour government grasped this nettle: Lord Mountbatten arrived in Delhi as the last viceroy to India on 22 March 1947. On 14 and 15 August India and Pakistan gained their independence. Partition had proved unavoidable, and the tragedy of communal violence and murders marred Britain’s wise decision to give up willingly the ‘jewel’ of its empire. The first important post-war decision to be taken was a political one – who was to govern Britain? The election in July 1945 took place while the war was still continuing in the Pacific. British troops were fighting in Burma and the Japanese were fanatically resisting the advance of the Americans on the island approaches to their homeland. The war was expected to last many more months, until the atomic bomb revealed its awesome power and unexpectedly ended the fighting. But in the weeks following Germany’s surrender all this was momentarily put aside. VE Day, victory in Europe, was celebrated. There were parties in every street. Burma was far away except for those with relatives still fighting there or whose next of kin were starving in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. The great majority of people in Britain were now hopefully anticipating the rewards of peace. Churchill wanted the coalition with Labour to continue until the defeat of Japan; when the Labour ministers in his government rejected this proposal, he fought the election in July on the appeal that he should be given the mandate to ‘finish the job’. Outside Britain it seemed incredible that the British people, who owed so much to Churchill, should now with apparent ingratitude turn him out of office. Even in his own constituency the Labour candidate attracted substantial support. But the election was not about the conduct of the war. Indeed, Churchill’s electoral tour was a personal triumph, with ordinary people everywhere mobbing him to express their gratitude and genuine affection. The Labour leader Clement Attlee appeared a colourless little man by comparison. Yet it was Attlee not Churchill who entered 10 Downing Street after the biggest landslide since the election of 1906, which had given the Liberals victory. However much the British ‘first-past-the-post’ electoral system might exaggerate the disparity of the parties’ fortunes, it was a striking turnaround from the last election, held in 1935, when the Conservatives and their supporters had returned 432 members and the opposition parties could muster only 180. Why was the swing of votes to Labour so large, especially among the servicemen? Churchill himself, as the electoral asset on which the Tory Party managers were banking, proved insufficient to turn the tide. Conservative promises of a new deal based on the Beveridge Report of 1942 were not so very different from those of the Labour Party, but the electorate doubted whether the Conservative heart was really in reform. It is also true that Churchill mishandled the electoral campaign by overdoing his condemnation of ‘socialism’ as embodied in the Labour Party’s programme. He denounced Labour as setting out on a path to totalitarian rule that would lead to a British Gestapo. He derided Attlee as a ‘sheep in wolf’s clothing’. It was impossible to persuade a sophisticated British electorate that Attlee, Bevin and Morrison were now not to be trusted despite their outstanding accomplishments as ministers in Churchill’s all-party War Cabinet. The Gestapo jibe badly misfired. But probably none of this explained the magnitude of the Conservative defeat. There was one factor more powerful than any other: the memories of the bitter hardship of unemployment during the 1930s, of slums, of ill health and of a society that had failed to provide fair opportunities to the majority of the British people. In July 1945 millions of troops faced imminent demobilisation. Were the Conservatives likely to have their interests at heart? Would the government ensure that worthwhile work was found for everyone or would the employers be allowed to pick and choose, to depress wages in free-market style, careless of the poverty of the masses? It was this deep distrust of the Conservative Party, regarded by Labour supporters as the party of the well-todo, that induced a larger proportion of working people and soldiers than ever before, together with traditional Labour supporters, to put their faith in a socialist government and in a prime minister, Clement Attlee, who had previously been overshadowed by Churchill. Ernest Bevin and Herbert Morrison had had a far greater impact during the pre-war and war years. Yet Attlee proved a most effective and even wily leader; with his pipe, his baggy trousers and his mousey moustache, his mild-mannered image was in sharp contrast to the larger-than-life Churchill. The transfer from military service to peacetime employment was managed by the Labour government with considerable skill, an effective example of good planning. But the women who had manned the factory benches now frequently had to give up their jobs to the men. This time soldiers, unlike after the First World War, were demobilised in an orderly and fair fashion and only as fast as they could be reabsorbed in civilian work. This meant Britain still had more than 900,000 men in the forces in 1948. The free ‘utility’ civilian clothes supplied to everyone on leaving the army were just the first sign that the future had been thought out. Retraining facilities and vacancies in industry became available as wartime production was switched to that of peacetime. There was great demand for goods and a need for new housing and public works. A most important feature of the celebrated Beveridge Report of 1942 agreed by all three parties at the time, Conservative, Labour and Liberal, was a commitment that the government’s running of the nation’s economy would ensure full employment. Never again should the hungry 1930s, with the hated means test, be allowed to return. Labour and Conservative governments were able to fulfil that pledge for a generation, unemployment rarely rising above 2 per cent or half a million. The other promises of the Beveridge plan, more wholeheartedly supported by Labour and the Liberals than by Conservatives, were to provide insurance for the whole of the population for the basic needs of life, and on death a grant for their burial. The state would take care of its citizens from the ‘cradle to the grave’. A health service would provide medical treatment for the whole family regardless of who was working and who was not. Together, these measures laid the foundations of the post-war welfare state. They represented a tremendous advance in working people’s standards of living, an indirect ‘social wage’ provided by the Exchequer from the differential contributions and taxes of the whole population. The Conservatives doubted from the start whether the state could afford to make such farreaching promises entailing vast expenditure. There were reforming Tories in the wartime coalition too, but by 1945 they had passed only one important measure through Parliament, R. A. Butler’s Education Act of 1944, which when implemented raised the school-leaving age to fifteen and reorganised the educational system so that better opportunities would be opened to all. The Labour government translated theoretical welfarism into practical measures. The Insurance Act of 1946 and – after a struggle between Aneurin Bevan, the fiery Welsh minister of health, and the doctors, which ended in a compromise over the continuation of private medicine – the National Health Service Act of the same year were the two most important measures of the new government, which carried out and extended the Beveridge plan. The commitment to socialism, however, remained largely a matter of theory. In practice the Attlee administration’s approach was pragmatic, aiming at the gradual transformation of the British economy. This reflected the electorate’s mood accurately enough. The majority of the people were interested, not in theories of socialism but, rather, in gaining a better standard of living, a fairer share of the nation’s production, more equal opportunity – in short, ‘social justice’. The continued rationing of food was one way of sharing out what was essentially in short supply. Basic foods were subsidised, so even the poorest people could afford to buy their rations. The people had never enjoyed better health. State ownership was extended only where it seemed necessary. The Bank of England was nationalised, but not the commercial banks or the insurance companies. The coal mines, civil aviation, the railways, and gas and electricity production were also brought under state control by the close of 1947, with the employers and shareholders receiving compensation. But although now ‘owned by the people’, the workers did not play a new and significant role in running state industries. The government appointed a management team, who were frequently none other than the former managers, and the workers at best exchanged one set of employers for another. Consequently nationalisation had little impact on good industrial relations. More important in this respect was the Trade Disputes and Trade Union Act 1946, which repealed the restrictions placed on trade union power after the General Strike of 1926. A generation later new efforts would be made by both Labour and Conservative governments to restrict trade unions once again in the actions they could take without incurring legal penalties. By then, the majority of the electorate had come to feel that the balance of power had swung too far in favour of the trade unions and against the national interest. The ability to feed Britain during the immediate post-war years, to pay for raw material and to revive industry was dependent not only on following sound policies, which Labour did, nor on the mobilisation of Britain’s depleted capital resources, but also on American help. By themselves, the British could not earn enough dollars to pay for the imports necessary for Britain and the German zone of occupation. There were no illusions about the country’s plight in this respect. The problem appeared to be a transitional one. The Roosevelt administration had made it clear that it was prepared to help in post-war reconstruction and that it would not return to isolationism. It was obvious that the US would emerge from the war as the world’s economic superpower unscarred and unscathed by the ravages of fighting at home. In this task of reconstruction, Britain was America’s principal partner, and Anglo-American economic plans for the postwar world had been prepared in continuous rounds of discussion since 1942. They took concrete form at a conference held under the aegis of the United Nations in a Washington suburb at Bretton Woods. In their planning of the world economic future the British and American administrations knew they were dealing with crucial problems that went far beyond technical details. If the mistakes after the First World War, which led to international economic warfare, mass unemployment and the great depression, were not simply to be repeated, a sensible method of achieving economic cooperation and mutual support would need to be worked out. The US would, for a time at least, have to provide massive assistance. On this the Americans and the British were agreed. It corresponded to American custom that the form of this cooperation should be institutionalised. At Bretton Woods the foundations were soundly laid, even though solutions were not found for every international economic problem likely to arise in the post-war world. The details of the Bretton Woods agreements are complex, but the essential points can be simplified and understood without expertise in high finance. The key was US concern about discrimination in worldwide trade. Individual countries in the 1930s had rigidly attempted to control their foreign imports. One important mechanism that national governments could most effectively use to this end was exchange control: the imposition of restrictions on the exchange of their own currency for those of other countries. Sterling was a currency used in world transactions; if its exchange into dollars were restricted, then Britain, the Commonwealth (except Canada) and many other countries trading in sterling would not be able to buy from the US, and worldwide there would be a barrier to trade. An important part of the Bretton Woods agreements was an undertaking to make all currencies freely convertible after a transitional period of five years; exchange rates between currencies, including the dollar, would be fixed and regulated by a new international institution, the International Monetary Fund (IMF). It was intended that exchange rates should be stable and that they should be changed only with the consent of the IMF. The resources of the Fund were to be made up of contributions from each member country in gold and currencies in proportion to the strength of its economy. The US supplied by far the biggest single contribution. Each country could draw on the Fund to make up a shortfall in foreign currency if its trade was not in balance; but if it drew on the Fund beyond a certain limit the IMF could prescribe conditions for its loan and demand that measures it thought necessary should be adopted to correct the trade imbalances. The decision-making apparatus of the IMF was a crucial feature. Members did not each have an equal vote with decisions by majority on important issues. It was intended that rates of exchange, for instance, could be changed only by a four-fifths majority of the Fund’s board of directors. Each member country appointed one director, but his vote was weighted in accordance with his country’s share in the IMF. This gave the US a preponderant influence, and the IMF is appropriately located in Washington. In return for the large US contribution to the resources of the IMF, conditions were agreed that were aimed at preventing discrimination in world trade, and thus discrimination against the US for lack of dollars. A twin to the IMF is the World Bank, which provides development loans, but it has played a much less important role than the IMF in post-war international trade and the world economy. But the hopes placed in these institutions for facilitating the free flow of world trade and the free convertibility of currencies were only partially realised after 1945. It is curious that, in the pursuit of freer trade, import duties or tariffs did not play a more important role in American thinking. The US retained its own high tariffs against imports and thought only in terms of their gradual international reduction by international agreement. The bargaining for reductions of tariffs began in April 1947 when twenty-three countries met in Geneva; in October that year they concluded the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). What the US particularly wanted to achieve was the elimination of large trading blocks which traded among themselves preferentially, erecting higher tariffs against outsiders. The British Commonwealth had set up such a system in 1932 by the Ottawa Agreement, which established imperial preference. The American negotiators offered large reductions in US tariffs, but Britain – faced with myriad financial difficulties – clung to imperial preferences until obliged to eliminate most of them when joining the European Economic Community in 1973. Further rounds of trade bargaining continued under the auspices of GATT without resulting in the freeing of all trade barriers as originally envisaged. The arrangements worked out at Bretton Woods did not, however, solve Britain’s or Western Europe’s immediate problems. With the US alone able to supply what Britain and the Western European nations needed for their reconstruction, and with inadequate recovery in Europe producing insufficient exports to the US, not enough dollar funds were available to make the necessary purchases in America. This was called the ‘dollar gap’. In fighting Nazi Germany, Britain had subordinated all its economic policies to just one aim, to maximise the war effort. As a result its export trade had dwindled to a third of the pre-war level; not enough was produced at home to match wages, so inflation resulted; Britain’s dollar and gold reserves and its large overseas assets had been used to finance the war; Britain had also accumulated large sterling debts as a result of wartime expenditure; the national debt had tripled and Britain’s industry, adapted to produce armaments, now had to be transferred to peacetime manufacture for the domestic and export markets. The dislocation was enormous, in Britain as elsewhere. Millions were still in the services and could only gradually be demobilised. The dilemma for Britain was that it had to import food and raw materials to supply its people and industry, and to pay for them it needed to export manufactured goods as well as to earn returns from the city of London’s financial and insurance services (invisible earnings). It was impossible to achieve such a turnaround from wartime production instantly. During the war itself, Britain’s essential needs had been met by American Lend- Lease. Then came the crunch. In August 1945, with the president’s economic advisers judging that the special circumstances of war were now over, and with Congress unlikely to agree to fund the arrangement in peacetime, Truman abruptly ended Lend-Lease. Something had to be done about the yawning dollar gap that was immediately in prospect. Britain’s most distinguished economist, John Maynard Keynes, was despatched to Washington to negotiate a loan to tide Britain over. The Lend-Lease debts now had to be settled. This seemed especially unjust in British eyes since the money had been spent fighting the common enemy: furthermore, Lend-Lease had been made available only in 1942 when Britain had been at war for three years. By then Britain had already spent most of its foreign reserves and assets. The Lend-Lease debts were settled with a loan, not cancelled. A loan of $3,750 million at 2 per cent interest was granted to Britain to overcome its dollar shortage. Repayments were to begin in 1951 in fifty equal annual instalments. The loan was not as much as Britain had hoped for but the Canadians helped with an additional $1,287 million. The total was sufficient to cover Britain’s own immediate needs, including those of the British zone in Germany, though not those of the whole sterling area. There was also the serious problem of the ‘sterling balances’. (If all the sterling-area countries sought to convert their holdings of sterling at the same time, Britain could not have paid and would therefore have defaulted.) At Bretton Woods, Britain had reserved to itself the way it would settle the large sterling balances with its creditors during the transitional period, rather than accepting American help and making a joint Anglo-American approach to its creditors. Britain, with some justice, was suspicious of US antiimperialist attitudes and did not wish the Americans to be able to meddle in Britain’s Commonwealth and colonial relationships. Nevertheless these sterling balances were a Damocles’ sword overhanging the British economy because they were so large at $3,355 million. The US, in loan negotiations concluded in December 1945, made it a condition that within one year of drawing on the loan (that is, early in 1947) all current transactions by all the sterling-area countries should be freely convertible. As for the huge credits, the parties could do no more than reach an agreement in principle, without figures attached: some small part of these balances were to be immediately convertible to dollars; another tranche would become convertible in 1951; and as regards the rest Britain would seek agreement to write them off. Without figures this was a pretty meaningless arrangement except that in some magical way, which no one could really envisage, the sterling balances would be made to disappear. There was much opposition to these American conditions in Britain, but there was little choice. They were accepted. In February 1947 Britain honoured the loan agreement and made sterling convertible. The result was a disaster. The British treasury could not control all the countries that now converted sterling into badly needed dollars. Not only current transactions as provided for in the loan agreement but some sterling balances held by other countries were converted as well. In August 1947, with the dollar reserves near exhaustion, Britain was forced to suspend convertibility. Its recovery was not far enough advanced to stand the strain. Exchange control was reintroduced and thus one important plank of Bretton Woods was abandoned. The Americans had misjudged the situation and had forced the issue of free convertibility too soon. By the 1950s sterling became partially convertible and in December 1958, almost thirteen years from the time of the first dollar loan, it became fully convertible. By then West European exports had recovered, the European dollar gap had disappeared and American overseas trade and expenditures were beginning to move into deficit. Other planks of Bretton Woods, however, continued to function for three decades. Fixed exchange rates were adjusted from time to time until they were abandoned in the early 1970s. Back in 1947, for Britain and Europe the situation would have become serious, with a new dollar gap in prospect once more, had not Marshall Aid come to the rescue the following year. The effect of these abstract financial matters on the lives of ordinary people in Britain was very damaging. The man-made financial crisis came on top of an act of God, a terrible winter of heavy snowfall and ice. Coal was running out, unemployment temporarily soared, and now in the summer the government announced an austerity programme to cut imports. Rationing became more severe. Sir Stafford Cripps, gaunt and ascetic, symbolised the new era of austerity when he took charge of the treasury as chancellor of the exchequer in November 1947. Food rations were small, though the population judged as a whole was in better health than before the war. Wages were low, and modest increases kept them low. Working people were asked to produce more without more pay – a theme to become familiar in the post-war era. Britain was probably one of the few countries in the world where a sense of fair play and discipline could make rationing work year after year without a large black market developing. Output in 1948 was already 36 per cent higher than before the war, and this production was being directed to support an export drive. Given the difficult conditions with which the government was faced, it could take credit for its achievements so far. ‘Better times’ for the people were nevertheless still a long way off. Full employment was taken for granted, so Labour would run into difficulties when people tired of the unending prospect of austerity. Britain’s dire financial plight forced the Cabinet to sort out British priorities in the rest of the world; Hugh Dalton, when at the treasury (1945–7), constantly urged Ernest Bevin at the Foreign Office to cut back on Britain’s overseas responsibilities. The Foreign Office, which rapidly came to admire him, had never known a foreign secretary like the tough, blunt and ebullient Bevin, proud of his working-class background and his long experience as leader of the largest trade union, the Transport and General Workers’ Union; he had also been an effective minister of labour in Churchill’s wartime coalition. Deeply committed to the democratic left, he was just as determined as Churchill not to allow communism any power base in Britain or in any region abroad where vital British interests were involved. Nor did he lag behind Churchill when it came to safeguarding Britain’s empire. Thus he supported Churchill’s policy of suppressing the communist-dominated front (EAM) in Greece despite vociferous protest from the British left, because, as he put it, ‘the British Empire cannot abandon the position in the Mediterranean’. In Europe, Bevin in 1945 still regarded resurgent Germany as a greater danger than the Soviet Union. He shared Roosevelt’s vision rather than Churchill’s realism, however, in his belief that war could be avoided by a strong world organisation, the United Nations, with the US, Britain and the Soviet Union each guaranteeing the peace in its own global region. Bevin was at first more ready than the Americans to accept the place of the Soviet Union in this scheme as having special interests and security concerns in Eastern and central Europe; he believed business could be done with Stalin. In the conduct of that business, Bevin’s lifelong experience as a negotiator helped him to appreciate when to be tactically aggressive and when to be emollient. He did not wish to see the wartime Allies split into Eastern and Western blocs, and he was in any case suspicious of US policies. In speaking to Stalin in December 1945, he made it clear that Britain’s intentions were peaceful, but that ‘there was a limit beyond which we could not tolerate continued Soviet infiltration and undermining of our position’. The hostility of Soviet propaganda until the summer of 1946 was directed mainly against Britain, with threats to Turkey and Iran and complaints about Allied policies in Germany souring British relations with the Soviet Union. In March 1946, at Fulton, Missouri, Churchill delivered his famous ‘Iron Curtain’ speech. He saw Britain in the front line of halting communist expansion and subversion beyond the Soviet Union’s own acceptable sphere of power in Eastern Europe. He was now trying to get the Americans to take these threats seriously. Bevin also saw the Soviet threat but he had not yet given up trying to persuade Stalin to work out problems cooperatively while remaining firm towards him. A Western alliance directed against the Soviet Union would only provoke it, and Bevin regarded public condemnations such as Churchill had delivered as counter-productive. Patient firmness was Bevin’s policy until 1948; meanwhile his suspicions of the Germans continued to play a considerable part in his European outlook. Bevin’s main worry was that the US would carry out its stated intention of completely withdrawing its military forces from Europe. He therefore encouraged the French to play a role in Germany as Britain’s ally, but the Anglo-French relationship was not an easy one. After much difficulty, particularly over the French desire to detach the Ruhr from Germany, something Britain opposed, the Dunkirk Treaty of alliance was concluded with the French on 4 March 1947. Its terms were designed to meet the danger of renewed German aggression, but it was also intended to serve as the nucleus of a Western European grouping of nations without causing offence to the Soviet Union and so ruining any chance of future agreement and cooperation. The grouping would strengthen social democracy internally in Western Europe – after all, the communist parties were strong in both France and Italy. In following this policy Britain provided the important lead that two years later became the sheet anchor of Western security, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. In 1947, Bevin was faced with two difficult problem areas on opposite shores of the Mediterranean – Palestine and Greece. The intractable forces problem of Palestine did more than anything else to cast a shadow over his reputation and indeed over the morality of the whole of Britain’s attitude to the persecuted Jews since before the war, when the British government had restricted the entry to Palestine of the Jews wishing to escape from Hitler’s Germany to no more than 75,000 over a period of five years. As a result fanatical Zionists accused Britain of acting as an accomplice to the Holocaust, though other countries, especially the US, were even more reluctant to accept Jewish refugees. During the war British warships had patrolled the Palestine coast and prevented escaping Jews from landing (the Jews were not inhumanely sent back, however, but were interned in Mauritius). This set the secret Jewish militia, the Haganah, against the British. More extreme groups, such as the Irgun Zwai Leumi (National Military Organisation) and a small terrorist group, the Fighters for the Freedom of Israel (known as the Stern Gang in Britain after their leader), began attacking British policemen and installations in 1943. In November 1944 the Stern Gang assassinated Lord Moyne, the British resident minister in Cairo. Nonetheless, the majority of Jews in Palestine and those who lived in Allied countries fought with Britain against the common enemy. While the great majority of Zionists condemned terrorism, British sympathies for the Jews after the horrors they had suffered during the Second World War were tempered by the effect that terrorism against British soldiers had on British opinion. One of the worst incidents was the blowing up on 22 July 1946 of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, which housed the British army headquarters. Ninety-one people were killed – forty-one Arabs, twenty-eight British, seventeen Jews and five of other nationalities. Another outrage that caused the deepest revulsion was the hanging of two British sergeants in ‘reprisal’ for the execution of two Irgun terrorists. In all, some 300 people lost their lives as a result of terrorism between August 1945 and September 1947, almost half of them British. After the war, the British government was pilloried for continuing to prevent large-scale immigration of Jewish survivors interned in Europe. Truman pressed for 100,000 entry permits, a plea that Bevin condemned as cynical political pandering to American-Jewish voters. The newsreels meanwhile were showing film of the Royal Navy intercepting ramshackle boats overloaded with refugees and forcibly detaining the ragged passengers. Britain’s policy was far from heroic but it should not be saddled with all the blame for what happened. The search for a peaceful settlement between Arabs and Zionists had been going on since before the war. It always ran into the same blind alley. The Jews were not willing to live in an Arab state; they wished to create their own state in Palestine and to allow unrestricted access to all Jews who wanted to come. This meant some form of partition, which the Zionists would accept. But the Arabs rejected the partition of Palestine, so if partition was the only solution, it would have to be imposed on the Arabs by military force. Yet Britain was not willing to use its troops to fight the Arabs, given its widespread interests in the Arab Middle East. In any case, why should Britain alone be made responsible for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine? It was an international obligation. There was thus a certain logic when Britain in April 1947 decided to end its thankless responsibilities and to hand them back to the United Nations, the successor of the international organisation that had conferred the Mandate on Britain. Britain gave the UN until 15 May 1948 to find a solution. But Bevin’s last hope, that the terminal date of British rule in Palestine might, as in India, force the contending parties to the conference table, proved a vain one. Meanwhile Palestine descended into civil war. It was not so much Britain that seemed to abandon the Jews to the apparently superior might of the Arabs surrounding them, as the nations at the UN, which duly voted for partition but, just as Britain had done, then left the Arabs and Jews to fight out the consequences. For the time being at least the British had safeguarded their own interests in the Middle East, and the Americans had done the same. The need to safeguard British interests, in the Mediterranean as well as the Middle East, also lay behind the support for the royal Greek government against the communists. It was largely due to British intervention that Greece was not taken over by the communists after Germany withdrew in October 1944. The Greeks had fought the invading Italians and Germans courageously in 1940–1, and had been defeated despite the spirited intervention of British troops. In December 1944 British troops returned, for Greece, with Turkey, occupied a vital strategic position in the eastern Mediterranean. Stalin had accepted Western predominance in Greece and did not challenge the British directly, but communist Albanian, Bulgarian and Yugoslav partisans provided aid to the communist-led Greek National Liberation Front (EAM), with its military wing, ELAS. EAM had earned the admiration of the Greek people by their resistance to the Germans during the occupation. George II, the Greek king, was in exile with his government in Cairo. The majority of the Greek people did not wish to return to prewar political and social conditions, with the result that EAM received wide support among noncommunists. Opposed to EAM and ELAS was another, much smaller republican resistance group, EDES. Fighting broke out in Athens in December 1944. With the assistance of the British, EAM was prevented from taking over the country. A truce was patched up in January 1945, but it was to provide no more than a pause in the mounting tension (with atrocities committed by both sides) that led to the outbreak of civil war in May 1946. Britain insisted on elections in March 1946, but these were boycotted by the left, so a right-wing government came to power and, with a plebiscite in his favour in September 1946, the king returned to Athens. British troops continued their support, but EAM retained strongholds in the devastated countryside. By the time of the king’s return the civil war had begun. For a country that had already suffered so much from foreign occupation and starvation during the war, this was the crowning tragedy. With the help of communist neighbours Bulgaria, Albania and Yugoslavia, EAM was able to continue the civil war for three years until October 1949. The great majority of the Greek people may have been in favour of change and moderate left policies, but the country was being destroyed by extremists. The civil war in Greece played a major role in the post-war relations of the Second World War Allies. The communist insurrection, it was assumed, was being masterminded from Moscow. As with later crises producing great international tensions, the ‘domino theory’ was brought into play. It was suggested in London and Washington that if Greece fell to communism the whole Near East and part of North Africa as well were certain to pass under Soviet influence. Bevin was in a dilemma. He had no sympathy for the corrupt royal Greek government and sensed that what the Greek people really wanted was social and political change. But his paramount motivation lay in his anti-communism. The foreign secretary decided on a bold stroke to help rivet US attention on the Soviet threat in the Mediterranean and at the same time relieve the financial burden on Britain. On 21 February 1947 he sent a message to Washington that British economic aid to Greece would have to be terminated by the end of March. Militarily the British actually continued to support the royalist government until the communists were defeated in 1949. The US stood in the financial breach. This took the dramatic form of the Truman Doctrine announced on 12 March 1947, which pledged American help to defend the cause of the ‘free peoples’. The Truman Doctrine was followed in June 1947 by the offer of Marshall Aid. Bevin promptly responded by concerting with the French a positive Western European response. Stalin, on the other hand, ordered the Eastern satellite nations to pull out of the conference in Paris which met from July to September 1947 to discuss the details of Marshall Aid. The division of the East and West was becoming ever clearer, as was America’s support for Western Europe. But this support still fell short of a firm military commitment, let alone an alliance. Thus in 1947, despite its weakened state, Britain was still the only major power that could be relied upon to defend Western Europe. The breakdown in December 1947 of the London Foreign Ministers’ Conference on the question of the future of Germany had finally convinced a reluctant Bevin that priority would have to be given to strengthening Western Europe economically and militarily. The communist coup in Czechoslovakia in February 1948 was interpreted in the West as signalling a new phase of Soviet aggression. But Bevin was not willing to place total reliance on an American readiness to defend Western Europe and Western interests in the Middle East and Asia. It was true that Britain and Western Europe were shielded by the umbrella of the US monopoly of nuclear weapons, but America had only a small stockpile of atomic bombs and not until the Berlin crisis of 1948 were US bombers sent to Britain to act as deterrent to the Soviet Union. So Western Europe had to grasp the nettle of providing for its own defence. Bevin tackled this energetically. The outcome of his diplomatic efforts was the conclusion of the Brussels Treaty in March 1948, an alliance between Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and France. Its aims were not only to promote economic collaboration in Western Europe; Article IV provided for military assistance to any member of the alliance who became ‘the object of an armed attack in Europe’. Although the preamble of the treaty referred only to Germany as a potential enemy, the defensive alliance applied to any aggressor in Europe – and the aggressor warned off in March 1948 was the Soviet Union. Britain had now joined a Western bloc and Bevin was its principal architect. The Labour government’s vision of acting as a peacemaker and mediator without exclusive alliances with any one group of nations, a vision that corresponded to a long tradition in British foreign policy, had been abandoned by Bevin and the Attlee Cabinet as the post-war dangers inherent in the Cold War became ever more apparent in 1948. But it was only a partial abandonment. Neither the Conservatives nor Labour intended to join a united Western Europe, a supra-national Europe. Britain’s alliances with its continental neighbours were not exclusive: it valued its worldwide Commonwealth ties too highly. Bevin also believed that Western Europe was not strong enough to defend itself. For him, the Brussels Treaty was a stepping stone to a wider transatlantic alliance to be constructed when the US was ready for it. In the event, that was not to be until 1949, when NATO was created. Thus in a significant sense the British foreign secretary was a principal architect of the most important Western post-war alliance.

 

 

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