Courtesy Reuters

FOR almost a year French diplomacy has been striving to work out a pact of mutual assistance based on the military force of all those countries which feel themselves threatened by Hitler's Pan-Germanism and which wish to save the peace of Europe.

The enterprise has involved rather tortuous negotiations in view of the concessions of form which the French Foreign Office has thought it advisable to make in order to forestall possible unfavorable reactions -- a reaction, for example, by French public opinion, which already is uneasy about the pledges given by France in Eastern Europe and which looks upon any understanding with bolshevism as a bitter pill; a reaction in England, where many people still are obsessed with the baseless notions which have prevailed in that country for fifteen years past; and a reaction in Italy, where the alarm is sounded every time there are any signs of an assertion of French influence in Central and Eastern Europe. The French scheme has therefore been laden over with verbal glosses and decorations designed to distract people from its actual purport. But the attentive observer cannot have the slightest doubt as to the objective of the French Foreign Office. Its idea is to organize a defensive league that will be able to deal with Germany, or better yet, a preponderant force that will overawe Germany and so compel her to observe the treaties she has made. Not only that. The agreements signed during the postwar period, the Covenant of the League included, have not contained provisions for execution that amounted to anything. The treaty towards which France is now working would lay downright obligations upon the signatory powers, something comparable to the pledges exchanged in the old alliances.

To grasp the sequence of events we must go back to October 14, 1933, when Germany bolted the Disarmament Conference and the League of Nations. That was a grievous blow to the policy which M. Paul-Boncour had been following in the footsteps of Aristide Briand -- a policy of European reconciliation. M. Paul-Boncour thought he had reached an understanding with England, the United States and even Italy (though she had noticeably hesitated) on a program for disarmament. His plan involved grave dangers for France in that it provided for a weakening of French defenses on the assumption that the rearming of Germany could thenceforward be supervised and kept within bounds. When Germany flatly refused to negotiate on that compromise basis, England and the United States, to say nothing of Italy, withdrew their pledges and urged still further French concessions. M. Paul-Boncour went back to Paris at his wits' end.

M. Herriot was just then back from Russia, having spent the first fortnight of September 1933 in that country, and he was making a great ado about the offers of an alliance which had been pressed upon him by Kalinin, Litvinov and so on. The aged Kalinin had gone so far as to say: "France and Russia ought to get together and impose peace." Why not accept this proposal? Why go doggedly forward on the assumption that there could be no coöperation with Moscow? Why close one's eyes to the fact that Hitler's madness and the plans for the German colonization of Russia laid before the London Economic Conference in Hugenberg's famous memorandum had torn the Rapallo policy of the Germans and Russians from top to bottom? How fail to recognize the striking significance of the treaties for determining an aggressor which Russia had signed early in July with eight of her neighbors, the Little Entente included? To be sure, those agreements had not contained clauses providing for execution; but they attested the resolve of the Soviet Union to uphold the peace treaties against all the disruptive forces at work against them. Russia had gone so far in her change of front as implicitly to recognize Rumanian sovereignty in Bessarabia. It was imperative to smother all mistrust, forget prejudices, and deal with Russia aboveboard and directly. In any event, France seemed to have no other choice left, in view of the collapse at Geneva, the aloofness of the United States, and the fact that England had made up her mind in favor of keeping her freedom of action.

Such was the talk heard from M. Herriot and in his circle -- not very far-sighted talk, since it accepted at face value everything that had been told him at Moscow about industrial production in Russia, the size of the Red Army, and so on.

M. Daladier was Premier at the time and in open rivalry with M. Herriot, his former teacher in the university at Lyons. He had come to feel himself quite the equal of M. Herriot, who for his part was shocked at such insubordination and could not help thinking that rank in politics somehow ought to follow rank in university faculties. M. Daladier chaffed the "tourist" home from Russia, and called attention to the fact that early in the year M. Herriot had been preaching a Franco-American alliance in much the same extravagant language. Meantime he allowed one of his intimates to slip away to Berlin and pick up and publish statements by Adolph Hitler in favor of a direct Franco-German entente. For his own part, vacillating as ever, he was careful not to take any decisive stand.

M. Paul-Boncour, on the other hand, developing more initiative, went so far as to have a talk in December with the Russian Ambassador (he now advertises the fact in order to claim credit for the subsequent Pact of Mutual Assistance). But in reality M. Paul-Boncour also was too much at sea, too torn by conflicting impulses, to come out with any lucid or constructive suggestions. All in all, down to the month of February 1934, the French Foreign Office did not venture beyond a policy of reserved cordiality toward Russia (and a fairly imprudent policy it was from the economic standpoint), the same cordiality that had found expression in the non-aggression and friendship pact of November 1932.

But on February 7 an event of far-reaching consequence occurred: the signing of the Balkan Entente, a treaty of territorial and diplomatic guarantees supported by pledges of mutual military aid. This instrument differs from all the other non-aggression and war-renunciation pacts, and even from the Locarno agreements, in that it requires its signatories, without any possible loophole for escape, to join arms with each other against an eventual aggressor. The fact that Greece enjoys less exacting terms (her pledge is merely to defend the neutrality of the port of Saloniki, but that is the greatest service she can render to the common cause) does not alter the general nature of the treaty, which is comparable to those that bound together each of the groups of countries before 1914. The Balkan Entente derives its most practical value from the fact that it heralded Turkey's falling into line in defense of the status quo; and Mustapha Kemal engaged himself on that point only under direct and sustained pressure from Moscow. It frees the Little Entente from some of its most serious worries in connection with Bulgaria and even with Italy. It permits the Little Entente to devote all its attention to matters along the Danube. The diplomats responsible for foreign policy in Prague, Belgrade and Bucharest outdid each other in proclaiming, in private conversations, that in thus forcing Turkey into line Soviet Russia had deserved well of everybody anxious to put the quietus on threats of war. The attitude of the Soviets was all the more striking in that some weeks earlier, during a trip to Rome, M. Litvinov had turned a deaf ear to the advances of Mussolini, who tried to entice Russia into a League of Nations revamped to permit the functioning of a Four-Power Pact and the revision of the treaties. It was not by chance, then, that Russia now took her place in the international scheme among the Powers supporting the established order.

M. Barthou took over the Foreign Minister's desk at the Quai d'Orsay on February 10 as a member of the National-Union cabinet of M. Gaston Doumergue. His first concern was to examine the British, English and Italian memoranda on disarmament presented in January. They were documents of a nature most disappointing to France. Hurriedly he and the Soviet Ambassador in Paris, M. Dovgalevsky, opened a series of talks which were to prove of decisive importance. We shall pass over M. Barthou's preliminary manœuvrings, designed to prevent alarm at London and Rome and among the French public. As early as April, a memorandum outlining the main ideas of a pact of mutual assistance (which has come to be called the "North-East Pact") had been drawn up at the Quai d'Orsay. During all the subsequent negotiations the French Government stuck to that document, which it communicated to Moscow, London, Berlin, Rome, Warsaw and Prague; and even now no draft of a treaty containing preamble, articles, sections and so on has been put into writing. The French Government so far has not gone out of the domain of general principles.

The April memorandum states that a non-aggression treaty should be concluded among the following countries: Soviet Russia, Poland, Germany, the Baltic States and Czechoslovakia. That is the first stone in the edifice. Why were other states like Jugoslavia, Rumania and Turkey left out? The answer is, as we have suggested, that the French Government was afraid of frightening Mussolini. But the distinctive and significant feature of the proposed pact is that the signers will exchange pledges of mutual support, and though France has not signed the pact itself she will participate in the pledges. What obligations are involved?

To this the French Foreign Office gave prayerful thought. It had made a point of not assuming burdensome responsibilities which might worry French opinion, and of not promising anything that might seem inconsistent with Article 2 of the Locarno Pact about the Rhine. That was why the long-cherished idea of working out an Eastern Locarno was abandoned; the duties devolving upon the guarantor states would have been too heavy. Instead, it was provided merely: first, that the obligation of mutual aid should apply only as between states which were direct geographical neighbors; second, that Russia would endorse the Locarno Pact, that is, would guarantee the Franco-German frontier of 1919, and would do so absolutely, involving automatic action without any such qualifications (appeal to the League of Nations, for instance) as those which weaken the endorsements given by Great Britain and Italy in October 1925; third, that in exchange for that Soviet promise France would guarantee the functioning of the proposed North-East Pact in connection with the maintenance of Russia's western frontier (her Asiatic frontiers are not included). Evidently, the French guarantee does not extend to the Baltic States, and on this point those countries are very indignant. As regards Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia, France holds to her earlier undertakings as covered by the Locarno Pact, the Franco-Polish Treaty of 1921, and the Franco-Polish and Franco-Czechoslovak declarations of October 16, 1925, which were supplementary to the Locarno treaties, and which under cloak of the phrases current at Geneva are tantamount to alliances.

One point should not be overlooked. French jurists arrived at the conclusion that in accordance with Article E of the Locarno Pact (specifying the conditions under which France can legally make war on Germany without calling into play the Anglo-Italian guarantee), France could not enter into any compact for mutual assistance with a third government unless that government belonged to the League of Nations. In fact, such cases of legal war arise from the application of Articles 15 and 16 of the Covenant. Russia therefore would have to be admitted to the League of Nations in order to enable France to strike a bargain with her without arousing protests from the English and Italian guarantors of Locarno. The question now arose as to the order in which affairs were to develop. Should the North-East Pact of Mutual Assistance be negotiated before Russia's entry at Geneva, or afterwards?

M. Barthou chose the latter course. In a note dispatched to London on April 17 he definitely abandoned the English and Italian views on disarmament, rejecting as illusory the "graduated guarantees of execution" which had been offered him and recognizing but one effective recourse against an eventual violation of any treaty of disarmament which might be negotiated between London, Rome and Berlin -- an Anglo-French alliance. And this he did not consider it opportune to ask for in so many words. The disarmament conference thus was in danger of imminent collapse. That would force a debate before the Council of the League as to Germany's violations of the military clauses of the Treaty of Versailles. M. Barthou considered it the wiser part to have Russia on his side in such a ticklish discussion. On the other hand, though resolved to support France in everything touching disarmament, M. Litvinov thought that the Pact of Mutual Assistance should be concluded first, though it would not become valid until after Russia had taken her place on the Council and in the Assembly at Geneva. That difference of opinion was not to be settled (in favor of the French view) until July.

Thus already by the end of April, or early in May, the mutual-assistance project had taken shape, though (we again repeat) very roughly, since no actual articles had been drawn up. There was some difficulty in bringing the governments which received copies of the memorandum to understand just what was to be gained by it. Sir George Clarke, British Ambassador in Paris, paid two calls at the Quai d'Orsay to obtain additional explanations, and Mr. Campbell, British chargé d'affaires, was also drawn into the discussion. At last everybody seems to have mastered the ins and outs of the project. After that all that remained was to obtain favorable replies.

At Downing Street, on July 9 and 10, M. Barthou had a long conference with Mr. Baldwin, then British Premier ad interim, and with Sir John Simon. Before that time, Sir John and Mr. Anthony Eden, Lord Privy Seal, had been much wrought up by the French move. In May, at a meeting of the general council on disarmament, Mr. Eden had said to M. Barthou: "Are we to conclude that from now on you are not going to be as eager for an understanding with us as you have been in the past?" M. Barthou earnestly reiterated his devotion to the Anglo-French entente; but the unpleasant memories of October 1933 still needed some little time to fade away. In spite of everything, M. Barthou was well received in London, though he could not consider himself persona grata after the sharp interchanges which had taken place at Geneva. Mr. Baldwin found it quite understandable that in the face of the impending danger France should be inclined to gather as many friends as possible about her, and from him M. Barthou had every assistance. In literal strictness, England might have used the Locarno Pact as the basis of an objection to the mutual-assistance compact. Downing Street would then have put France in the dilemma of choosing between Locarno and the new pact. In truth the projected pact does risk involving the guarantors of the Rhine frontier in more complicated relations on the Continent. The English called attention to that aspect of the problem, but without pressing it -- at the bottom of their hearts they realize that the cause of France is bound to be the cause of England. They stopped with making sure that the project was based on principles of absolute mutuality and that Germany would be given every guarantee enjoyed by Russia. On these points they received full assurance.

The English press stated that M. Barthou had been brought around to some concessions, and that assertion was allowed to pass without correction. As a matter of fact, the original French version was in every detail the version which was made public after the London conversations. Capitalizing the satisfaction he liked to think he had obtained, Sir John Simon set in motion the British Ambassadors in Berlin, Rome and Warsaw. Assuming the demeanor of a "benevolent neutral," he none the less urged the adoption of the French proposal. Italy consented at once. The Italian press had for weeks been assailing the French policy. The cannonade fell silent as if by magic, and was followed by the expression of a more or less favorable opinion. Naturally the project was given interpretations which Paris would have deemed unsound. It was viewed, for instance, as a bid for the resumption of Anglo-Italian ideas on disarmament (to which Germany had given her approval on April 16), and a hint that sooner or later France would withdraw her note of April 17. M. Barthou took occasion to discount any such interpretation. Rome also was inclined to think that a refusal on the part of Germany would ruin the whole project for France; but M. Barthou had given London to understand that if as a result of German opposition the scheme could not be carried out on a mutuality basis, he would go ahead with it just the same, even if it had to be limited to some sort of pact for coöperation between France and Russia; and he explicitly reserved freedom of action for the French Government against such a contingency.

The German reply arrived in July. It was as hostile as anyone could have feared. There is no need to go in detail into the arguments of the Wilhelmstrasse. They were pretexts. At bottom, Germany will have nothing to do with a system that aims to consolidate the territorial and diplomatic structure set up in 1919.

The Polish answer was slowly and painfully extracted in the course of a long series of private conversations in Warsaw, Paris and Geneva. M. Barthou watched with eagle eye for any hint as to Poland's actual policy; for it was of capital importance to determine whether the Polish-German declaration of January 27, 1934, took, or did not take, precedence over the Franco-Polish alliance of 1921 -- whether Poland had merely obtained a respite from Germany, or had definitely allied herself with Berlin against Russia and the Little Entente in the hope that her territorial domain would be respected in exchange for her support of Pan-German enterprises in Eastern Europe.

Colonel Beck luffed and tacked elusively under the pressure of the very pertinent questions that were formulated in Paris. In the first stage he insisted that Rumania and Turkey should have a specified place in the North-East Pact. That move had no design except to mix everyone up and create difficulties. Ankara was working in close touch with Moscow and declined at once. M. Titulescu hesitated. Not that he was in the least inclined to support Polish policy, which had never lost an opportunity to pester him through the fascist Iron Guards; but he did want to have some Franco-Russian guarantee of Rumania's frontiers. However, he made haste to let Paris know that he would not push his desire to the point of compromising the French idea. At that juncture, to clear the air of the embarrassments caused by the Polish suggestion, the French negotiators brought up the matter of a Mediterranean Pact corresponding in the south to the new pact in view for north-east Europe -- a hazy conception, with no solid foundations, soon to be forgotten. The only acute Mediterranean problem arises between Italy and Jugoslavia, and is an altogether separate matter between Rome, Belgrade and Paris. At that moment also a project for a Polish-Russian-Rumanian pact of mutual assistance flitted across the stage and vanished into the wings.

In a second action, under constant pestering from M. Barthou, Warsaw finally became resigned to pronouncing on the basic issue. On September 27 the French Foreign Minister, still at Geneva, received a "Statement of views of the Polish Government as to the proposal for an assistance-pact in the North-East, as outlined in conversations with the representatives of France," notably in the conversations on September 7, the date of a fairly illuminating conversation between MM. Beck and Barthou. Poland qualified her acceptance by three reservations:

1. She could participate in the agreement only if Germany also consented to come in, and then only if the German-Polish declaration of January were to be inserted in the treaty with a special clause providing for its unconditional observance. All of which meant that the Pact of Mutual Assistance would have to be secondary to the German-Polish declaration.

2. She refused to assume any undertakings whatever as regards a government (Lithuania) with which her relations were not normal.

3. She could not forget her "traditional friendships" along the Danube. In her opinion, no arbitrary choice should be made of the Powers that would be called upon to sign the Pact. This meant that Poland would refuse to guarantee the frontiers of Czechoslovakia, so long at least as Hungary should not be included in the system.

The matter now was clear enough. The Polish document betrayed in full amplitude Poland's intimacy with Germany and her intimacy with Hungary. Poland, like Germany, is uninterested in any league for the preservation of peace. Her active hostility had made itself manifest as early as July in efforts designed to alienate the Baltic States from France and Russia.

That was the state of the negotiations at the close of the Assembly at Geneva, after Russia's admittance to the League of Nations (not an easy matter to arrange, since the "neutral" countries were afraid of displeasing Germany). Was M. Barthou to conclude that further talk with Berlin and Warsaw would be a waste of breath? Was he to decide that the best policy would be to discard the whole scheme of mutuality (which would be more or less orthodox from the Geneva standpoint, as following out the recommendations of the "Committee on Security" made in 1928), and stop at a specification of the various modes of coöperation between France, Russia and the Little Entente? M. Barthou was struck down at Marseilles before he had made up his mind.

His successor, M. Pierre Laval has decided, after some days of reflection, that it is better to make a new move to win Poland, for in the end it would prove very prejudicial to the system if she should remain outside. Every effort will be made to satisfy her demands. Czechoslovakia will agree to do without the Polish guarantee. Lithuania will try to settle the Vilna question. Paris itself will renew pressure in Berlin to override Germany's refusal to discuss the issue which was raised by implication by German diplomacy in July. This will use up a lot of time. But the good faith of Germany and Poland will be put to a decisive test.

In any event, the French Government will not abandon the goal toward which it has been working, namely, to obtain formal promises from everybody interested in preserving peace -- Soviet Russia, the Little Entente, Turkey and even, if possible, Poland. To drop the negotiations that have been begun with Moscow would be to throw Soviet Russia inevitably into the arms of Germany and restore to the Treaty of Rapallo and the Russo-German agreement of April 1926 all the vigor that Hitler's madness had stripped them of. It should not be thought that the French Government is harboring fantastic illusions about its entente with Russia. It does not believe, as does M. Herriot, that the old Franco-Russian alliance can be resuscitated in all respects. What it is looking for is the possibility of coöperation within prudently circumscribed bounds. Before the General Committee on Disarmament at Geneva, toward the end of May, M. Litvinov gave evidence of the help he might contribute to the French cause. In the same way, the stand which he took against treaty revision when he assumed his seat in the Assembly was greatly appreciated by the Little Entente. Aviation and economic accords are in the offing. But what must hold first place in any appraisal of the negotiation is the overtowering negative result that has been achieved: the Reichswehr has been definitely cut off from Russia's formidable reservoir of raw materials and man-power.