As foreign secretary Ernest Bevin helped shape the post-war world, keeping communism at bay and creating a western alliance against it. Yet, as ANDREW ADONIS shows – in extracts from his new biography – his career also had its failures, while his anti-Semitism poisoned his politics
Ernest Bevin stood up to Stalin sooner and more effectively than any other post-war western leader. Better even than Winston Churchill and far better than Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. He was decisive, maybe indispensable, in keeping Joseph Stalin out of western Europe, and in the process he led the creation of the Federal Republic of Germany, NATO and the transatlantic alliance that continues to this day.
The policy of ‘containment’ – seeking to contain Soviet Russia, rather than appease it – was Bevin’s unwavering policy from his first day as foreign secretary, July 27, 1945, until his last, March 9, 1951 – the six years which made modern Europe.
He was successful because of his adroit exertion of Britain’s continuing world power and the decision of the United States to adopt the same policy from 1947 rather than continuing to seek an accommodation with Stalin. This US policy change was nurtured and then exploited to the full by Bevin.
Containment is usually credited to George Kennan, American deputy ambassador to Moscow, in his ‘long telegram’ of February 22, 1946. But containment was Bevin’s strategy from July 1945, and it was another crucial year after the February 1946 long telegram before containment was fully embraced by the Truman administration.
Until then, particularly on the future of Germany, the United States triangulated between Britain and Soviet Russia. But for Bevin, Stalin might have been long past containment by the time the United States became converted to it.
And but for him, the consequence might have been a Soviet-dominated Germany, that is West Germany as well as East, destroying political freedom and the whole balance of power across western Europe.
Bevin had the measure of communism and Stalinism long before he became foreign secretary. From his earliest days as leader of the Transport and General Workers’ Union in the 1920s, he grasped communism as an existential threat to the labour movement and democratic politics.
He sought to root communism out of the British labour movement at every turn. After Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, he saw communism and fascism as equal threats. He never made the mistake of thinking that Hitlerite fascism was worse than Stalinist communism. As totalitarian ideologies with criminal, murderous thugs as leaders, they were the same.
This was in sharp contrast to Roosevelt, Truman and James Byrnes, Truman’s disastrous secretary of state for Bevin’s first two years at the Foreign Office.
Roosevelt regarded Stalin in 1945 not just as an ally but as a comrade. Even Churchill was not immune to the Soviet monster’s charms and Bevin was privately critical of him on this score at the end of the war. ‘Stalin I’m sure means well to the world and Poland,’ Churchill told the war cabinet after the Yalta conference in February 1945.
Five months later, foreign secretary Anthony Eden thought Churchill’s opening performance at the Potsdam conference was appalling: ‘He is again under Stalin’s spell. He kept repeating ‘I like that man’ and I am full of admiration of Stalin’s handling of him.’
It was the same with Truman. ‘I can deal with Stalin. He is honest – but smart as hell,’ Truman noted in his diary after meeting him for the first time at Potsdam. Bevin never made the mistake of thinking that deals could be done in Moscow.
The 1945 general election result was not declared until July 26, when Clement Attlee replaced Churchill and Bevin became foreign secretary. By the time the new Labour ministers arrived at Potsdam on the 28th, it was too late to affect the big decisions. But this didn’t stop Bevin putting down markers. ‘I’m not going to have Britain barged about,’ he said to General ‘Pug’ Ismay on landing in Berlin. When the next plenary started at 10.30pm, Bevin repeatedly and aggressively questioned Stalin’s remarks. Attlee nodded throughout but left the talking to his foreign secretary, demonstrating his adage: ‘If you had a good dog like Ernest Bevin, there was no point barking yourself.’ The following morning, July 29, Stalin developed a ‘cold’ that resulted in a two-day suspension of plenary sessions.
It was an anti-Bevin chill to avoid having to deal with the truculent foreign secretary while trying to work out compromises with the more accommodating Americans.
Germany was the main battleground on which Bevin fought Stalin for the whole six years of his foreign secretaryship. The Federal Republic of Germany was essentially Bevin’s creation. From this distance it all seems inevitable, yet it was anything but. It resulted from an intense six-year struggle for power which Bevin won and Stalin lost, and at every stage it was incredibly close-run.
From the outset Bevin’s strategy was to keep Stalin completely out of West Germany and West Berlin, despite the Potsdam Declaration which stated the opposite. He also sought to contain Stalin across the rest of Europe and the Middle East.
Obviously all this put him in conflict with Molotov. More problematically, it also put him on a collision course with Byrnes, Truman’s Secretary of State.
‘I know how to deal with the Russians, it’s just like the US Senate,’ Byrnes breezily told his delegation on board the Queen Elizabeth travelling to the London summit of allied foreign ministers in September 1945. ‘You build a post office in their state, and they’ll build a post office in our state.’
Bevin was as ‘prima-donnish’ as Byrnes, but he had no illusions about happily building post offices with Stalin across Europe.
There was no agreement in London, so in November 1945 Byrnes instigated a pre-Christmas summit in Moscow, after liaising with Molotov but without even consulting Bevin.
He thought he would be able to rapidly broker comprehensive peace treaties, and that he could do this through personal chemistry with Stalin.
This explicit triangulation, in Moscow itself, astonished and alarmed Bevin, particularly when Byrnes told Stalin, in a conversation relayed to British diplomats, that he had intentionally blindsided Britain.
Bevin told Byrnes bluntly that Stalin’s aim was to dominate Europe from the Baltic to the Adriatic. He said the same to Stalin himself. When the dictator remarked that Britain and the US had ‘spheres of influence but the USSR had nothing’, Bevin countered that ‘the Soviet sphere extended from Lübeck [on the German Baltic coast] to Port Arthur [on China’s east coast]’.
Bevin blocked any accommodation on Germany in Moscow. ‘Until recent months,’ he told the cabinet in May 1946, we have thought of the German problem solely in terms of Germany itself, our purpose having been to devise the best means of preventing the revival of a strong aggressive Germany. But it can no longer be regarded as our sole purpose, or indeed perhaps as our primary one. For the danger of Russia has become certainly as great as, or possibly even greater than, that of a revived Germany.’
The breakthrough in Bevin’s resistance to Stalin came when Byrnes was replaced by General George Marshall as secretary of state in January 1947. ‘The Soviet government were just fooling,’ Marshall told Bevin in April, after meeting Stalin. He was going to tell the president that he did not believe the Russians wanted agreement.
This was music to Bevin. The two men proceeded to merge the British and American zones in Germany to create what became West Germany in 1949, and between them they forged Marshall Aid which rescued the economies of western Europe from the communist threat.
The crucial struggle was over Berlin. On June 24, 1948, on the pretext that the introduction of the Deutschmark was undermining the unity of Berlin, Stalin blockaded the western zones of the city, which were deep inside the Soviet zone of East Germany and entirely surrounded by it. He also cut off the supply of electricity from East Berlin.
This was a bold play to expel both Britain and America from the city, and maybe stop the creation of a West German state.
Stalin’s gamble was that Britain and the US would sooner abandon Berlin than undertake the almighty struggle and expense required to maintain their zones, risking another European war.
But Bevin and Marshall never flinched from the moment Russia closed West Berlin’s surrounding land borders. They were adamant that the city had to be kept – and kept open to the west.
In a renewed D-Day spirit, British and American forces worked as one, sustaining a dramatic 11-month airlift of food, fuel and people.
It was heroism, risk and mission to match the greatest moments in history. Up to 7,000 tons of goods were flown into West Berlin every day for 323 days to supply the two million inhabitants.
Bevin and Attlee’s key decision, to allow the US to station in Britain B-29 bombers that were capable of carrying atomic weapons, convinced Stalin of the British–American determination to stay in Berlin.
After weeks when the world held its breath, Stalin did not interfere with the airlift and did not escalate to war.
The siege of Berlin was lifted on May 12, 1949, the highpoint and vindication of Bevin’s resistance to Stalin.
The blockade accelerated progress towards a permanent transatlantic military alliance. The North Atlantic Treaty setting up NATO, signed by Bevin in Washington on April 4, 1949, was a phenomenal negotiating achievement.
Bevin’s goal throughout was to stop Stalin dominating Europe and undermining western democracy; for Germany itself he had no love. ‘I tries ‘ard, Brian,’ he told General Brian Robertson, governor of the British zone, ‘but I ‘ates them.’
Throughout these six turbulent years, which focused so much on the future of Germany at the heart of post-war Europe, Bevin only went there once, apart from the Potsdam conference, and that was to Berlin to show solidarity with British troops in the struggle against Stalin during the blockade.
But Konrad Adenauer, the founding chancellor of West Germany, respected Bevin. When, again in 1950, Bevin intimated that he wanted to speak to the Ruhr miners, the chancellor responded with an invitation to address the Bundestag, the first foreign visitor to be accorded this honour. Bevin was by now too ill to accept.
As for Stalin, he outlived Bevin by just two years. And he kept out of western Europe. Bevin won; Stalin lost.
POLITICS OF PREJUDICE
‘We will have to form a government at the centre of a great empire and Commonwealth of Nations,’ Bevin told the 1945 Labour Party conference. And he didn’t intend to give it up.
By the end of the war he was an unreconstructed imperialist, which led to his greatest failures as foreign secretary: Israel/Palestine and the failure to engage with the initiation of the European Union.
Imperialism was at the heart of Bevin’s policy on Palestine. As late as February 1947, when the partition of the region to create a Jewish state looked unavoidable, he was still warning the cabinet that this course would ‘contribute to the elimination of British influence from the whole of the vast Moslem area lying between Greece and India. This would not only have strategic consequences it would also jeopardise the security of our interests in the increasingly important oil production of the Middle East’.
Why did Bevin get Israel/Palestine so wrong? In the first place, because, during the three key years 1945–48, he did not seek to move in step with the United States, which favoured a Jewish state. His central objective, rather, was to sustain British power.
Only with the Berlin blockade, starting in June 1948 – a month after Britain left Jerusalem – did he come to regard British power as inseparable from American foreign policy.
Bevin’s view was that Britain could and should retain control in Palestine by forging an agreement on local self-government acceptable to its existing Jewish and Arab communities, while stopping further large-scale Jewish immigration, despite the legacy of the Holocaust and the position of Truman, who backed large-scale Jewish immigration into Palestine.
‘If I don’t get a settlement I’ll eat my hat,’ Bevin told Hugh Dalton in late 1945. But he didn’t get a settlement and Bevin would accept neither the April 1946 recommendations of the Anglo-American commission in favour of 100,000 Jewish immigrants being allowed into Palestine, nor the UN vote for the partition of Palestine in November 1947.
Yet he had no viable alternative to either policy. All the while there was an escalating catalogue of violence, grief and diplomatic humiliation, including the lynching of British soldiers from lamp posts and the bombing, on July 22, 1946, of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, headquarters of the British administration in Palestine, which killed 91 people.
The question must be asked whether, in acting thus, Bevin was motivated partly by anti-Semitism?
‘One of the great tragedies of the world has been the persecution of the Jews,’ Bevin told the 1937 TUC conference. He had Jewish friends, he lived in Golders Green for a decade before the war and he did not manifest a personal dislike of individual Jews beyond his ability to take strongly against critics of any race and party and play the man as well as the ball.
However, neither Bevin nor Attlee showed much sympathy for the Jewish plight after 1945. ‘The Jews are a religion, not a race or a nation,’ they both said repeatedly, and they sought to drastically curb post-war Jewish immigration to Palestine.
‘Illegal’ immigrants were interned in Cyprus. In the shocking SS Exodus incident of July 1947, they insisted on returning a Jewish refugee ship to France, where the passengers refused to disembark. They ended up in Hamburg, from where they were taken to a prisoner of war camp.
The images of the refugees behind barbed wire were reminiscent of the concentration camps and shocked international opinion.
Bevin was also into tropes about Jews and money. ‘It is a game of Shylock versus the people, with Shylock getting the pound of flesh every time,’ Bevin told the 1931 TUC conference about the financial crisis. He believed Jews did not do enough to integrate and had themselves partly to blame for anti-Semitism.
He wrote thus to the German-Jewish writer Emil Ludwig in 1938: ‘What does worry me, and a good many of my friends who have fought against the anti-Semitic feelings, is the difficulty that we have often been placed in due to what appears a lack of appreciation on the part of the Jew to appreciate the freedom in the country where he enjoys it. I am not referring to the ‘working Jew’ but chiefly to the ‘nouveau Riche’ or moneyed person, and even many of the cultural classes’.
In his June 1946 Labour Party conference speech he said of American enthusiasm for Jewish immigration into Palestine: ‘I hope it will not be misunderstood in America if I say that this was proposed with the purest of motives: they do not want too many Jews in New York.’
Comments like these shocked Bevin’s contemporaries, even those uttering casually anti-Semitic remarks that then abounded. In protest, New York’s dockers to refuse to handle his luggage when he arrived there later in the year.
‘I must make a note about Ernest’s anti-Semitism,’ wrote his junior Foreign Office minister Christopher Mayhew in his diary in May 1948. ‘There is no doubt in my mind that Ernest detests Jews… He says they taught Hitler the techniques of terror and were even now paralleling the Nazis in Palestine. They were preachers of violence and war. He says, ‘What could you expect when people are brought up from the cradle on the Old Testament.’
There is a Churchillian coda. Israel/Palestine was one of Bevin’s few foreign policy departures that Churchill attacked hard. When Bevin delayed recognising Israel in 1949, Churchill claimed in parliament that it was due to ‘a very strong and direct streak of bias and prejudice’. As protests started on the Labour side, he added: ‘I do not feel any great confidence that he has not got a prejudice against the Jews in Palestine,’ pointing out that in May 1948 Bevin had rejected a Jewish state and predicted that the Arab League ‘would win if fighting broke out’. But, Churchill went on, Bevin was wrong: ‘Wrong in his facts, wrong in the mood, wrong in the method and wrong in the result, and we are very sorry about it for his sake and still more sorry about it for our own.’
EMPIRE OVER EUROPE
Bevin did not believe that British living standards could be maintained without an imperial hinterland, and secondly, he could see no other means of maintaining British security, apart from the alliance with the United States, but which he thought would be vulnerable to American caprice unless Britain could call on the power of its empire.
However, there was another post-war answer to Bevin’s underlying question of how to sustain British prosperity and security: to seek to do so in partnership with the rest of western Europe, and to build up and unify its economies and democracies accordingly. This did not require clairvoyance: the immense industrial potential of West Germany, France, the Netherlands and Belgium were hardly secret, and Bevin’s own policy on the Ruhr and the Rhine restored German economic power with all deliberate speed.
But he would not entertain a European economic and political strategy even when, at the end of his foreign secretaryship, it was presented by the Schuman Declaration of May 9, 1950. Why not?
Bevin’s attitude to Europe was contradictory even as he forged West Germany and NATO. General Pug Ismay, Churchill’s chief military adviser and first secretary-general of NATO, said the alliance’s purpose was ‘to keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down’. Bevin went partly along with this, even after creating the Federal Republic. He distrusted and disliked ‘the Germans’.
He never bonded with Adenauer or its other leaders, and among his final actions was a half-opposition to German rearmament. Yet, since it was also his fundamental policy to build an economically and politically strong West Germany, which on past form would inevitably soon become a powerhouse, there had to be a comprehensive policy of engagement with the new state once he had created it. His policy after 1949 of treating West Germany as essentially still a colony was obviously unviable and self-defeating.
Bevin rejected the Schuman Declaration without giving it any serious consideration. Bevin, Attlee and the entire Labour high command of 1950–51 chose to see the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) which grew from the declaration, as a threat to coal and steel nationalisation in Britain. This is what Herbert Morrison meant in his celebrated response – ‘the Durham miners won’t wear it’ – when he was tracked down to the Ivy restaurant to give the government’s immediate response (Bevin was in hospital).
Bevin’s opposition was also geo-political. He knew that the Schuman plan came in 1950, and not before, because it was the French Plan B. Plan A had been a far weaker West Germany with the industrial Ruhr and Saar, adjoining France, either under French or separate international control. George Bidault, French PM from 1949 to 1950, and Robert Schuman, his foreign minister, had even been willing to trade Soviet influence in West Germany to achieve Plan A, until Bevin stopped this.
The fundamental point was that Bevin did not regard Schuman as serious, or if he was, he did not think that his plan would come to anything. He thought it was a ploy, not a plan. The fact that Schuman did not inform Bevin of it before it was launched, still less seek to discuss it, and that he told the Americans before the Englishman, reinforced in Bevin’s congenitally suspicious mind the idea that it was just a French diplomatic feint, and he was pretty contemptuous of French politicians anyway. Meanwhile the empire, and Commonwealth, was the here and now.
The irony is, it was Bevin who made today’s European Union possible, doing more to lay its foundations in West Germany, NATO and a free western Europe than either Schuman or Jean Monnet, that other architect of the declaration and the ECSC.
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