Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The "Other" Telegram - from Frank Roberts

Both Kennan's and Novikov's telegrams are widely known and much discussed.  Frank Roberts is much less so. Before getting into the details of Roberts telegram, let's take a moment and think about Britain's position at the end of the World War Two.

The above photo from the February 4, 1945 Yalta Conference is one of the more famous images of the 20th Century.  Looking at it 64 years later, what immediately jumps out at one is a simple question: what is Churchill doing there?

The simple facts of World War Two were that, for the most part, the US paid the heaviest price economically and Stalin paid by far the heaviest price in casualties.  Winston Churchill had pulled off one of the greatest political coups of all time.  Churchill had kept Britain in the game and at the table of power, as it were, long after Britain had ceased to be a major player.

The US had surpassed Britain economically in the 1880s.  The Boer War had been the turning point for Britain, accelerating the decline of the British Empire and World War One had effectively bankrupted the country. Post World War Two concessions would remove most of what remained of the British Empire and Britain would be displaced fully and permanently by the USA, which stood as the lone superpower in the post-war years. 

It was in this extremely dynamic atmosphere of post-war realignment that Roberts found himself writing the Foreign Office about how to handle the Soviets and his telegram has to be viewed in that context.

The Frank Roberts Telegram
Roberts was the British charges d'affaires in Moscow in 1946 and his telegram went out shortly after Kennan's.  Although there were many commonalities between the two documents, Roberts focused more on the constructive aspects that Kennan had only vaguely alluded to in the last few paragraphs of his document.  Roberts also called for British support of democracy and civil rights:
"At the same time we can offer civil and political liberties which are unknown in the Soviet Union and which would be the envy of its inhabitants... There is no chance of us seizing the initiative unless we are prepared to back some political doctrine as an alternative to communism.  The obvious choice is social democracy, but if we were to do this we might not commend ourselves to the Americans."
Reading this 63 years later, one is struck by how dead-on of an analysis this really is.  Britain was the odd man out at Yalta and was in the process of divesting its empire and retooling its society into the social democracy mold. Although Roberts' superiors back in London were arguably as fiercely anti-communist as Kennan's in Washington, the simple fact was proposing any kind of military counter-measures was simply out of the question for Britain in 1946.  Roberts makes many of the same points as Kennan (and indeed, Novikov), but he does so while simultaneously hedging his argument with statements like the following:

"Soviet Russia has reached a similar stage in development as revolutionary France when the First Empire had become solidly established.  Although Soviet Russia intends to spread her revolution by all possible means, world revolution is no longer part of the programme."

The difference between Kennan's and Roberts' telegrams is subtle, but I would contend, significant.  Both Kennan and Roberts believed Stalin to be a paranoid with malevolent intentions towards the West but Roberts suggested that it might just be bluster that could be better manipulated economically and politically than militarily.

For an in-depth discussion of these events, see A.W. Brian Simpson's "Human Rights and the End of Empire" from Oxford University Press.

The full text of the Roberts telegram is here:


Roberts was present at Yalta and some of his quite interesting recollections can be found here:

An excellent site of original Cold War documents can be found here:

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