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The Nyon Arrangements of 1937: A Success sui generis*

  • Donald N. Lammers


Here is a concise, recent and thoroughly orthodox historical judgment on the Nyon Arrangements of 1937:

There was one minor but significant exception to the inaction of of the British and the French. In 1937, pirates in the form of unidentified Italian warships, began sinking British and French merchantmen entering Republican ports. To this, a direct attack and affront, France and Britain responded with firmness. A Conference was called in September at Nyon, in Switzerland, and the law was laid down. The sinkings stopped abruptly. It was a most instructive incident, but no lessons were drawn. Indeed, the governments wished, apparently, to draw no lessons.

Here is another judgment, this one by a Soviet historian, which offers a somewhat different view of this episode:

Bourgeois political persons ignore the positive, determined role of the Soviet Union in the outcome of the conference and assign the achievement of its successful results only to the unity of England and France. [Thus] Eden, in a letter to Churchill written after the conference, explained that its results showed the wholesomeness and effectiveness of cooperation between England and France. “The two Western Powers proved that they could play a decisive role in European affairs.” Eden completely ignores the fact that at the conference in Nyon there took part not two, but three Great Powers. The third Great Power, which played a first-class role in the resolution of the problem of piracy, was the Soviet Union. Eden's statement does not answer the question, why earlier, before the Nyon conference, England did not succeed in attaining such results.



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I wish to thank the Russian and East European Studies program at Michigan State University for supporting the research on which this paper is based.



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1 Lafore, Laurence, The End of Glory (Philadelphia and New York, 1970), p. 175.

2 Popov, V. I., Diplomaticheskie otnosheniia mezhdu SSSR i Angliei 1929-1939 (Moscow, 1965), p. 307.

3 For general accounts of the background to Nyon and the conference itself, see Royal Institute of International Affairs, Survey of International Affairs 1937, II (London, 1938), pp. 339–52; Fischer, Louis, Men and Politics: An Autobiography (New York, 1941), pp. 444–7; Cattell, David, Soviet Diplomacy and the Spanish Civil War (Berkeley, 1957), chap, x; Thomas, Hugh, The Spanish Civil War (New York, 1961), pp. 475–8; and Kleine-Ahlbrandt, W. L., A Policy of Simmering (The Hague, 1962), pp. 6171. Lord Avon made Nyon the subject of a chapter in his memoirs: Facing the Dictators, 1923-1938 (Boston, 1962), Bk. II, chap. viii.

4 See Documents on German Foreign Policy, 1918-1945, C/III (Washington, 1950), Nos. 407–10 (cited hereafter as DGFP). On August 20, Mussolini, speaking at Palermo, insisted that Italy would not permit Bolshevism or anything like it to establish itself around the shores of the Mediterranean. The French wanted to refer the prima facie evidence of Italian intervention to the Non-intervention Committee; Avon, , Facing the Dictators, p. 519.

5 The meeting was called at Eden's request. The British already had some destroyers in the Mediterranean, where they acted as part of the Non-intervention Committee's patrol to prevent foreign troops from entering Spain. W 15727/23/41 of 8/17/37, in FO 371/21357 (PRO).

6 Eden to Ingram, 8/20/37 in ibid. On the twenty-third, Ciano noted: “Ingram made a friendly demarche about the torpedo attacks in the Mediterranean. I replied quite brazenly. He went away almost satisfied.” Ciano's Diary, 1937-1938, trans, by Andreas Major; intro. by Malcolm Muggeridge (London, 1952), p. 3. The compliant attitude showed by Ingram on this and other occasions could not have prepared the Italians for the firmness the Government eventually showed; see Kleine-Ahlbrandt, , Policy of Simmering, p. 94.

7 Avon, , Facing the Dictators, p. 518.

8 Ibid., p. 521.

9 Ibid., p. 518; Cabinet Paper 208(37) of 9/3/37, in CAB 24/271 (PRO).

10 See W 16606/23/41 of 9/2/37, in FO 371/21359. The Ministers present, in addition to Eden, were Simon, Halifax, Malcolm MacDonald, Duff Cooper, Ormsby-Gore, Hore-Belisha and Oliver Stanley.

11 W 16608/23/41 of 9/3/37. in FO 371/21359; W 16802/16618/41 of 9/6/37, in FO 371/21404.

12 W 16618/16618/41 of 9/4/37, in FO 371/21404.

13 Cabinet of 9/8/37, in CAB 23/89; W 17044/16618/41 and W 16957/16618/41 of 9/8/37, in FO 371/21405. That the inclusion of German) was a bargaining point is clear from the fact that Eden told German ambassador Hoesch on the third that there was no plan to invite Germany to Nyon; W 16812/16618/41 of 9/5/37, in FO 371/21405.

14 The text is in W 16638/16618/41 of 9/5/37, in FO 371/21404.

15 W 16631/23/41 of 9/4/37, in FO 371/21359.

16 The text is in Degras, Jane, ed., Soviet Documents on Foreign Policy 1919-1941, III (London, 1953) pp. 251–2. See also W 16781/23/41 of 9/6/37, in FO 371/21359. According to DGFP, C/III, No. 415, the Soviets put in their protest before the invitation was officially delivered in Rome.

17 Fischer, , Men and Politics, p. 445, states that Litvinov had planned the maneuver, adding that another Soviet diplomat told him that proof of Italian complicity was lacking. Cattell, , Soviet Diplomacy, p. 93, notes that the Soviets deeply feared a British desire to consummate the Four-Power Pact at this time. In Paris, however, the British chargé thought on the eighth that the Soviet note was “stupid”, a faux pas rather than a deliberate act with an ulterior purpose; W 16898/16618/41 of 9/8/37, in FO 371/21405. For further discussion of the notion that the British wanted to “isolate” Russia, see Popov, , Diplomaticheskie otnosheniia, pp. 303–5.

18 W 16757/16618/41 of 9/6/37, in FO 371/21404. Also see Avon, , Facing the Dictators, p. 521.

19 W 16844/16618/41 of 9/7/37, in FO 371/21405; W 17014/23/41 of 9/7/37, in FO 371/21359.

20 W 17198/16618/41 of 9/10/37, in FO 371/21405. Ingram may have thought he was doing, unbidden, what his superiors in London would want, but this time, at least, his anticipation of their wishes failed (although not completely; see infra, n. 30).

21 W 16825/16618/41 of 9/7/37, in ibid.

22 W 16757/16618/41 of 9/7/37, in FO 371/21404. Eden suggested that the best way to defeat the Soviet maneuver would be for Italy to attend the conference.

23 W 16875/16618/41 of 9/7/37, in FO 371/21405; W 17044/16618/41 of 9/8/37, in ibid.

24 W 16874/16618/41 of 9/7/37, in ibid. The French premier, Camille Chautemps, told William Bullitt that France had no prior notice of the Soviet action, which he considered “exceedingly ill-chosen” — but he went on to say that he thought the Soviets had a very good case against Italy; Foreign Relations of the United States 1937, I (Washington, 1954) pp. 389–90 (cited hereafter as FRUS).

25 W 16916/23/41 of 9/8/37, in FO 371/21359; and see FRUS 1937, I, p. 390.

26 W 16857/23/41 of 9/7/37, in FO 371/21359. From Berlin the American chargé d'affaires (Mr. P. Gilbert) reported on the ninth that the German Foreign Ministry did not think a break in Italo-Soviet relations would result; FRUS 1937, I, p. 393.

27 Cabinet Paper 213(37) of 9/8/37, in CAB 24/271.

28 Cabinet of 9/8/37, in CAB 23/89; also see W 16957/16618/41 and W 17044/16618/41 of 9/8/37, in FO 371/21405.

29 See FRUS 1937, I, pp. 392-3. Albania, now something of an Italian satellite, followed suit on the tenth; see W 17083/16618/41 of 9/10/37, in FO 371/21405.

30 FRUS 1937, I, pp. 393–4. Chamberlain did note on the tenth that there might be some advantages to referring ‘piracy’ to the Non-intervention Committee, but his suggestion didn't even reach the Foreign Office until after agreement was reached at Nyon; see W 17413/16618/41 of 9/13/37, in FO 371/21406; and Avon, , Facing the Dictators, p. 523.

31 W 17052/16618/41 of 9/9/37, in FO 371/21405. For Mounsey's feelings about France and Italy and a suggestion of his dislike of Russia, see W 16957/16618/41 of 9/8/37, in ibid.; and W 17413/16618/41 of 9/13/37, in FO 371/21406.

32 R. I. I. A., Survey 1937, II, p. 345; Avon, , Facing the Dictators, pp. 523–8; W 17261/16618/41 of 9/12/37, in FO 371/21406.

33 W 17396/16618/41 of 9/15/37, in FO 371/21406; also see Mounsey's minute on W 16906/23/41 of 9/6/37, in FO 371/21359.

34 W 17396/16618/41 of 9/15/37, in FO 371/21406; Avon, , Facing the Dictators, pp. 526–7, makes it clear that French willingness to furnish many additional destroyers proved extremely helpful in reaching the decision of the eleventh.

35 See W 17261/16618/41 of 9/12/37, in FO 371/21406 for the full text.

36 R. I. I. A., Survey 1937, II, pp. 348–9.

37 37W 17555/16618/41 of 9/17/37, in FO 371/21406.

38 FRUS 1937, I, pp. 401-3 and 407.

39 W 17355/16618/41 of 9/14/37, in FO 371/21406. Cattell, , Soviet Diplomacy, p. 95, states that the Soviet press laid heavy stress on the express denial of belligerent rights and called this Russia's “great victory”; in fact the British Ministers discussed this question on September 2, when Halifax spoke strongly against any such departure from strict Non-Intervention (W 16606/23/41 of 9/2/37, in FO 371/21359). There is no indication that the subject was seriously discussed at the Foreign Office or elsewhere within the Government in connection with Nyon.

40 W 17396/16618/41 of 9/15/37, in FO 371/21406.

41 W 16957/16618/41 of 9/8/37, in FO 371/21405.

42 Chamberlain's thoughts and actions reveal (see Feiling, Keith, The Life of Neville Chamberlain [London, 1946], p. 331) that he was not averse to using force to secure necessary national ends. He even found some severely qualified amusement in Mussolini's rather undignified climb down. But the overarching danger of touching off a war by a needlessly bellicose mis-step counted for most with him and helped to keep his gaze fixed on the mirage of cooperation with Italy.

* I wish to thank the Russian and East European Studies program at Michigan State University for supporting the research on which this paper is based.


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