THE PRESENT SITUATION
AN ADDRESS BY
THE RIGHT HON. MALCOLM MacDONALD, HIGH COMMISSIONER TO CANADA FOR THE UNITED KINGDOM OF GREAT BRITAIN AND NORTHERN IRELAND
Chairman: The President, Mr. C. R. Conquergood
Thursday, January 11, 1945
MR. CONQUERGOOD: If I were presenting to you a speaker from the theatrical word, I might comment as follows
Our guest speaker comes to us today on a return engagement because of his previous good performances. He first came to address our Club in May, 1941, and honored us again in January, 1943, just two years ago this week. Both of these messages were very greatly appreciated.
In other capacities in connection with his duties in Canada, The Right Honourable Malcolm MacDonald by his own efforts has won for himself a prominent place in the hearts of Canadians. In this respect, he has repeated by his own worth the accomplishments he achieved before coming to Canada.
In the course of time, whether it be soon or late, he will probably return to Great Britain to follow in the footsteps of his distinguished father, The Right Honour able Ramsay MacDonald. We can assure him that we, as Canadians, will observe with pride whatever future distinction may come to him in his service to the Empire.
I can assure you, Sir, that this comment is not made with any suggestion of "speeding our parting guest", but simply to assure you of our high regard in the eventuality that you might return to Great Britain before you again visit our Club.
Mr. MacDonald came to Canada in 1941 as High Commissioner to Canada for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I have very much pleasure in presenting to the Club, The Right Honourable Malcolm MacDonald who is to address us on "The Present Situation."
THE RIGHT HONOURABLE MALCOLM MACDONALD Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen: Thank you, Sir, for your very kind words of welcome, and thank you. Ladies and Gentlemen, for your kindly reception.
It is always a great pleasure to come to this hospitable Club. I am only sorry when the pleasantness of the occasion gets spoiled when I have to go through the ordeal of making a speech and you have to go through the even worse ordeal of listening to it.
It has been suggested that I should speak about the present situation. Well, we have come to a crucial moment in our lives as citizens of the contemporary world and in the life of the human race as a whole. The terrible World War of the '40's is moving convulsively to its close. The problems and the opportunities of the peace which will follow lie ahead of us. This is a most fateful period of transition.
The question is, are we going to jump out of the frying pan into the fire or are we going to land safe and sound on the solid kitchen floor?
The democratic constitution of the countries, to which you and I belong, enable every one of us to play our small part in affairs. Indeed, collectively, we and the wider circle of our friends and those, who are likeminded with us outside, can exert a considerable influence on events. Let us consider and decide and then play our part with a full sense of the responsibility that rests upon us.
It isn't a mere orator's phrase, it is a stark fact that what we do and what we can influence our leaders to do in the next two or three years will decide much more than whether the remainder of our lives is going to be a pleasant or an extremely unpleasant experience. It is going to settle also very largely the fate of our children and of generations still unborn.
We are familiar with those grim wartime posters which caution us against unguarded speech about military secrets, lest, if we are indiscreet. soldiers or sailors or airmen on the battle fronts are needlessly killed by the enemy. We heed those warnings with the utmost care, but in these days we ought to see also in our mind's eyes other equally insistent posters, and written on them should be the warning that unless we are cool and sane and wise now in the policies that we pursue, then children who are now at school or playing in their nurseries or lying yet in their mothers' wombs will fifteen or twenty or twenty-five years hence be sent wholesale to slaughter in another war.
That warning should always lie in the very forefront of our consciences. The problems of our time are so great that they can only be solved by people with a capacity for remaining undeterred by even the most appalling difficulties. We have got to keep cool heads. We shouldn't keep blowing hot or cold with every change for the better or for the worse in our fortunes on the military or the diplomatic or the political front.
So far as the conduct of the war against Germany is concerned things have not been going too well lately. We were too optimistic about the date when the colossal military might of Germany might be crushed and we have been deeply disappointed by recent setbacks. But let us keep a sound sense of perspective.
What has been happening to the Western Front in Europe lately? I am not a military strategist, even of the amateur kind, who always know much more about the business than the professionals do. I can't pretend to any original understanding of military affairs, but, like you, I read the writings of men who by nature and experience and study are qualified to interpret these events and I merely repeat to you, briefly, the explanation by acknowledged authorities of events in Western Europe during the last seven months.
First, it was inevitable after the great and victorious landings on D-Day last June that the Germans would put forth all their strength to hold our armies cramped and crowded and frustrated within very narrow beachheads. Then when, by brilliant leadership and heroic fighting, four months later our men burst out of the beachhead, it was perhaps to be expected that the Germans would conduct a swift retreat, with comparatively little opposition, across vast spaces of France and Belgium, until they reached naturally strong and powerfully prepared defence lines in Holland and along the borders of Germany.
We might have turned those defence lines if the gallant exploits of our airborne division at Arnheim had been crowned with victory, but, after that had failed, whether our armies could reap the full advantage of their magnificent sweeps forward depended very largely on whether the provision of supply depots and lines of communication could keep pace with their rapid advance.
Well, the success of the Germans in denying to us for many weeks after that the use of the line of ports along the coast from Le Havre to Antwerp robbed us of the chance of a swift and complete success, but the steady seizures and captures of the ports, one by one, and especially the clearing of the Scheldt Estuary up to Antwerp by Canadian and British troops, removed that obstacle. It made possible the beginning of the climax of the Allied offensive on the Western Front, because the freezing of those ports enabled all our armies to develop their hitting power and to strike hard at Germany itself.
The really vital blows struck at Germany were those aimed by the Americans at regions of the Ruhr and the Saar, because Germany's capacity to resist, to continue fighting, is largely in the coal mines and the power houses and the munitions factories of those prolifically productive areas. They are the Vulcan workshops of the German Reich, and if the Saar and the Ruhr could be cut from Germany's side that wound would prove fatal. Afterward Germany must quickly collapse and lie at our mercy. Slowly but surely the Americans were edging and pushing and pounding their way into those vital parts of the German military body. In the early days of December they were meeting with increasing success and it was their success in those places which forced Von Rundstedt into his counter-offensive of December 18th. If he had waited any longer he might have been too late.
We must never underestimate the capacity of our enemies to keep up a stout fight. but in his action there was at least an element of the desperation of a man who is facing defeat. His blow was delivered with characteristic German power and skill. Evidently it caught a portion of our forces off their guard. For a while its terrific punch was extremely dangerous. The net result of it on the fortunes of the war is still uncertain.
All one can say at the moment is that both sides have something to congratulate themselves upon. On our side, our soldiers, the Americans and the British together, have succeeded in preventing the Germans' damaging thrust from becoming a disastrous break-through. The manoeuvre of the Von Rundstedt salient is now shrinking like a pricked balloon, but the Germans also can claim some success. For the time being, at any rate, they have succeeded in slowing down the momentum of our all-important penetrations against the regions of the Ruhr and the Saar.
Well, that reverse ought to sober us, but it ought never to unnerve us. If it did that, then the Germans would have succeeded in gaining one of their most cherished objectives. They are trying to rattle us. They are trying to throw the Allies into a state of depression and self-questioning in which they begin to criticize each other. The cold, calculating men who now rule Germany know that only two hopes are left. First is that they can protract the war until their scientists somehow, somewhere, sometime, do produce new secret weapons which really will destroy us. Their second hope is that the United Nations will start bickering among themselves, that they will become the disunited nations, and that they will throw away their painfully gathered fruits of victory.
In the latter, the Germans have had just a little encouragement lately. You remember how one of the devices which Hitler in the palmy days used to employ with devilish cunning against his intended victims was the war of nerves. He would start doing various agitating things to make them jittery before he hurled against them the full weight of his military armaments.
Well, to some extent we seem to be suffering from a war of nerves just now. The difference is that it is not being waged against us by the enemy, it is being waged against us by ourselves. The reverse on the Western Front and the disappointing progress on some other fronts unfortunately coincided with diplomatic troubles in one or two places, and with deep tragedy in Greece. In Britain and in the United States of America, as well as elsewhere, those developments caused an irritation of temper which manifested itself in certain amounts of mutual recrimination.
Nothing could be more deplorable from the point of view of the waging of the war. It gives our enemies immense encouragement at a moment when their morale is badly in need of some such uplift. And as for the conduct of affairs after the war, these disputes might seriously prejudice that co-operation between the United Nations which is absolutely essential if we are going to establish peace and security and progress for the human race.
One cause of the frictions which have arisen was the unhappy situation which suddenly flared up in Greece. Its opening was followed by an outburst of accusations against the part which the British Government and a British military force were playing in that classic little country. Opinion in Britain itself has been to some extent divided on the subject, but the bitterest accusations came from outside. No doubt there is plenty of room for honest differences of opinion on such a complex and tragic situation as has arisen in Greece, but there is no room for wild misrepresentations, especially when they undermine confidence between nations who are being good comrades in war and whose continued good comradeship is going to be of paramount importance when we return to peace.
So, let me say a few things about certain aspects of the matter. I can state nothing new. In any case, it isn't for a High Commissioner to state anything new. I can only repeat things which have been made clear already in speeches by Mr. Churchill and Mr. Eden, and other British spokesmen.
First, how did the British come into Greece at all? I will speak in a few moments about why they are there, but first, how did they come to be there? It is sometimes suggested that they have imposed themselves upon the Greeks. that they are poking their noses into something which isn't their own business. That is, completely untrue. The British are in Greece, first, because after consultation the American authorities and the Russian authorities both agreed that they should go there. Greece was a place where the British could most appropriately assume the heavy responsibilities which fall upon the United Nations in their attempt to restore peace and order to a war-shattered Europe.
Secondly, the British went there because they received a unanimous invitation and, indeed, a unanimous appeal from the Greek Government. Moreover, that invitation came at a time when there were not only members of the other parties but several members of the E.A.M. and the Communists, who controlled the ELAS forces, sitting as Ministers in the Government. Therefore, the British have unchallengeable credentials for being in Greece.
Then why are they in Greece? It is sometimes suggested that they wish to acquire territorial or economic advantages. They desire nothing of the kind. The spokes men of the Government in Downing Street have given the' lie to that charge. There is only one thing that the British people desire from the Greeks-it is their friendship. The Greeks and the British happen to have a common interest in seeing that peace shall reign in the central and eastern Mediterranean. That has made the two peoples firm friends for more than a century and both peoples, in every party in both countries, passionately desire that that relationship shall continue.
Well. then, why is a British military force in Greece? It went there for three reasons. First, to help to chase out the Germans. In that it succeeded quickly on the mainland, although let it be remembered the British are still bearing the brunt of the fighting against our common enemies on Greek territory elsewhere.
The second reason why the British went to Greece was to provide and make possible the distribution of food and other supplies to people who otherwise would have starved. The Greeks have been very gallant Allies to all of us in the war, but their present economic and transport situation is such that they can neither grow nor import food with which to keep themselves alive. Nor has the Greek Government adequate military forces under its command to maintain law and order while that essential work of feeding and rehabilitation is getting under way.
It is true there were vigorous guerilla bands in Greece, but the Greek Government of the time, with the full consent of the E.A.M. and Communist Ministers, had agreed that all but a few units of those bands should be disbanded forthwith; and that was why that same Government then unanimously invited the British to send a military force into Greece to support the authority of the Government until a new regular army could be formed.
Well, the British in the country went about their job energetically organizing the distribution of food and clothing to the people. Not only before the recent troubles, but right through those troubles, they have been sustaining vast numbers of people in Athens and elsewhere. Mr. Eden gave the figures for a typical week shortly before the trouble began. Let me quote them to you.
Between November 18th and November 24th, our authorities unloaded in Kalamata more than 4,000 tons of food. In Patras, more than 4,000 tons. In Chaleis, nearly 3,000 tons. In Mytilene, more than 7,000 tons. In the Piraeus, 20,000 tons, and so on.
During that same period they distributed in each of many centers, spread through the country, tens of thousands of parcels of footwear and clothing to Greeks who were desperately in need of those supplies. That work has been going on under the direction of our troops right through the troubles.
Let me quote one or two typical examples. Between December 13th and 19th, flour was distributed to 800,000 Greek people in Athens and the Piraeus.
On December 30th, 12,000 people were provided with free meals in Athens and the Piraeus by our troops. On December 30th, emergency food supplies were distributed to 271,000 people in various areas of the country. Well, I don't have to repeat to you the sorry details of how the present strife suddenly blazed out in the middle of that constructive work. Those details belong solely to the vagaries of domestic Greek politics and are entirely the business of the Greeks themselves, but in that connection another charge has been made against the British authorities. It is said that they are supporting the parties of the Right in Greece, against the parties of the Left. Nothing could be more fantastic. In the first place, the British Government which is supposed to be guilty of that prejudice doesn't itself belong to the Right. It is a Coalition Government, composed equally of representatives of the Right parties and of the Left parties in British politics.
Secondly, at the very time when it was said that the British were trying to force a King on the Greeks with British bayonets, British statesmen were engaged doing the very opposite. The Greek King was in London and Mr. Churchill and Mr. Eden were strongly advising him that he should not return to Greece. They were urging him that he should wait until the Greek people had had a free opportunity in a plebiscite to declare whether they wanted a King back again or not.
And that brings me to the third reason why British forces are in Greece today. They went in order to help to create conditions in which absolutely free elections could be held and the Greek people could choose whatever government they wanted.
As Mr. Churchill and Mr. Eden have repeated over and over again, we are not concerned whether they choose a republic or a monarchy, a government of the Right or the Center or the Left. That is entirely their own affair. What we are anxious for is that they shall have a chance to settle it by democratic means at the earliest possible date.
So, to sum up, the plain facts are that the British went to Greece at the unanimous invitation of a Greek Government in which all parties were represented, with the assent of the American and the Russian authorities. They went for three purposes: First, to help to chase out the Germans; second, to provide and distribute food and other supplies to gallant allies who would otherwise have starved; and third, to help to create peaceful conditions in which the Greeks could choose whatever government and whatever constitution they liked.
Well, those things were gradually being achieved when domestic Greek policies threw a large spanner into the works. Frankly, the British authorities hadn't expected that. Indeed, they had received undertakings that it wouldn't happen. It put them immediately into a most embarrassing and dangerous position and they have been severely criticized for getting themselves into it.
I can only say that if that criticism has been sharp it is absolutely nothing compared to criticism that would have been hurled at the British if they had promptly backed up in Greece and left the people there to chaos and starvation.
We British have our faults. We are very capable, like other people, of making mistakes. We can be criticized legitimately on many grounds. But one charge cannot be levelled against us. We are not quitters. If we take on a responsibility, however difficult or risky or great it may be, we usually carry it through to the end. We are doing our best in Greece in the interests of the Greek people themselves and of all the United Nations, to complete the task which has been given to us there, in the impartial spirit in which we took it up.
The Greek tragedy is only one example of the sort of difficulties which we are going to face as we emerge from the war into peace. We can already see various other very teasing problems arising. No doubt as time goes on others will appear. We really must not become unnerved and lose our heads because of that. We ought to have expected that anyone who thought that after the war human problems were going to become simple and easy was living in a Fool's Paradise. The United Nations are like a company of travellers, journeying through a perilous storm. The fury of war is its hurricanes and rains, its thunder and lightning are extremely dangerous to anyone exposed to them, and only by travelling together, by encouraging and supporting each other, by co-operating with each other in our difficulties, have we been able to survive.
But we are coming through safely. After some more effort we shall emerge from the storm of war. Already ahead of us we can see the Promised Land of Peace. In its sky shines the bright Sun of Hope, casting down rays of light, but on its horizons we can also perceive other clouds. If they look dark and threatening, that is no reason for us to panic. This isn't the time for the United Nations to break their company and separate and start running in opposite directions. If we do that, then assuredly these storms of the transition period from war to peace will overwhelm us, one by one. We have got to strengthen our comradeship. We have got to stand by each other. We have got to make our companionship even closer, because only by continuing to travel together in humility, understanding, tolerance and good will are we all going to pass safely through these new storms into the happier country which lies beyond.