Elsey, George

Kane, Jim


Lunghi, Hugh

Roberts, Frank



Continuation of Interview with Sir Frank Roberts

Q: On Bevin's achievements could you say a little bit about his strengths as Foreign Secretary and his achievements in how he brought America back into Europe.

Sir FRANK ROBERTS: Yes. Well, I was his Private Secretary, but I think nearly all the diplomats who worked under Bevin we became a sort of Bevin Trade Union in a way. We regarded him as the greatest Foreign Secretary of them all, and even somebody who wasn't a diplomat, Sir Michael Howard who was a great military historian, even changed the Foreign Secretaries. This was in 1982 which was the second centenary of the Office of Foreign Secretary. Up to 1982 we'd never had a Foreign Secretary. We had a secretary for the North and a Secretary for the South and so on. And going through all the Foreign Secretaries up to that point, not including living ones, obviously, that Bevin was either the greatest, or the equal greatest with Palmerston. And I think we would feel that too, certainly the greatest Foreign Secretary since the war. But - and he was a man of the same stature as Churchill, I mean they came from entirely different social backgrounds but they were very similar, immensely strong, bulldog types. They had a great admiration for each other. But anyway there was Bevin and the reason he'd become Foreign Secretary was quite interesting because Attlee had wanted Bevin to be the Chancellor of the Exchequer which is what Bevin himself had wanted to be because he was very interested in finance and economics as a former Trade Union leader. And I think it was the King who when Attlee showed his – this to him said don't you think we'll need a very strong Foreign Secretary because although we are very weak in many ways after the war we still carry enormously heavy responsibilities and wouldn't it be better to have Bevin as Foreign Secretary rather than Hugh Dalton who had been the suggestion. And it was changed, Bevin became Foreign Secretary, to fulfil that role. But I suppose Bevin's great achievements were first of all, of course, he thought in terms of foreign affairs, of economic affairs very much, and he realised that the essential thing in Europe was to get the European economy going again, and that could only be done with American aid, and so he encouraged Marshall to embark upon what became the Marshall plan and when Marshall make his big speech in Harvard Bevin seized upon it and bringing the French in at the same time, welcomed it, and out of that they built up what became the European recovery program, and – recovery of Western Europe, and the buildup of the organisation, European economic corporation. And then of course out of that developed the change of policy in Germany because if you left out Germany which was even then the greatest economic power in Western Europe, I'm just taking the British zone as it were, if you left that out this economic recovery in the West would be more difficult. So somehow Germany had to be brought in to this, preferably with Russian agreement but if not without. And it was for that reason that we built up two zones in Germany and started setting up an administration in Germany to lead to the recovery on the German economic potential and that would be added to that Western Europe. And it's from that that of course developed the break with Russia which led to the Berlin blockade and the Berlin airlift and everything else. So that was Bevin's major achievement, economic recovery of Western Europe. Then of course, he realised that with such a very large Russian Army, not necessarily going to invade but still there, you know already half way in to Europe dominating all the smaller countries it would be impossible to give the newly – well, improving economies of Western Europe, the peoples of those countries sufficient confidence if they didn't have some military security. And the Americans had withdrawn to the other side, we were very heavily engaged worldwide so were even the French, you see, they had their problems in China and Algeria and everywhere else, and that something had to be done on the security side in order to ensure the economic recovery and the country's being behind the economic recovery. And it was at the end of a conference in London in 1947 which was the last conference for that period of the Foreign Secretary with the Russians and we're more or less finished agreeing on anything by that time, that a dinner with Marshall, General Marshall who was the – he'd been the great man of the Marshall plan, and with the Australian, the American Secretary of State, and I remember Bevin saying to him, he said you know Mr Marshall we need to get this military security right too, and for that we will need you back in Europe, and Marshall and I remember saying, yes, I see what you mean but it's going to be very difficult to persuade the Americans in peace time to take on any commitments in Europe, still less military troops going. So you must do what you can on your side, and when you've reached a point when you can't do any more then come back to me and then perhaps I can persuade the American Senate, the Senate is what really matters to see what we can do. And that was the beginning of NATO, which was again a Bevin initiative. So we then – we'd already got a Treaty with the French Treaty of Dunkirk and we then sign - expanded that in to a Treaty with the BENELUX countries which was the Brussels Treaty which was the beginning of what's now Western Europe Union, and then we could do no more because Germany – no question of Germany becoming military power, no question of the Italians being military power, and the other countries whose armies were neutral so that was as far as we could go, and so Bevin then went to Marshall and said we've done what we can, we've set up the structure, Field Marshall Montgomery went to Fontainebleau to be the leader of this new structure of the Brussels Treaty Pact and from then on, we negotiated what became the Atlantic Alliance and NATO, so Bevin would already have been responsible more than any one man, I mean leaving aside Marshall himself obviously, for the economic recovery of Western Europe, became the man who'd started military security of Western Europe in NATO in the Atlantic alliance. Then, of course, out of that there developed the further question of the future of Germany, not only economically but in every way. And came the blockade in Berlin which was Stalin's reply in a sense to try and prevent us building up an independent West German government, that's what he was really worried about, although the issue was the currency in Berlin. And then we had the blockade at Berlin and the question was what we did about it. We couldn't accept it, we couldn't accept to be thrown out of Berlin. And then the Americans at first wanted to send land patrols though just to say we can go through, we're not going to be stopped. Then the issue was you could send a patrol through but you couldn't take food and petrol and everything else through small patrol. Equally all the Russians had to do then was put a trunk across the road and they couldn't get back because the sort of strange unwritten understanding had grown up in dealing with Germany which was neither side wanted to be the first to shoot, because we didn't want to shoot at all, we didn't want to get involved in another war. Now plainly if you were there trying to get out of Berlin or in to Berlin and your road was blocked, if you wanted to get through and you were a military thing, the only way to do it would be to shoot, but then in that case we'd have to shoot first, you see, so that was no good. So Ernie then had the idea the only way to cope was by the – what became the airlift, and at first the Americans weren't keen on it, and very understandably so because they felt that they needed an awful lot of their Air Force out in the Far East and they wouldn't be able to produce enough aeroplanes for an air lift to Berlin, which in any case was going to be a very uncertain thing to arrange. And I remember the day when the head of the American Air Force I think he was called Wedemeyer I'm not absolutely sure, I think his name was Wedemeyer, came to Ernie Bevin to persuade him that it really wasn't on and couldn't be done. And tried to explain to Ernie Bevin. And when he'd finished Ernie Bevin looked at him and said well General I never thought I'd live to see the day when the Head of the American Air Force exclaimed to me that his Air Force can't do what the Royal Air Force is going to do, just like that. And I took Wedemeyer out and he sort of shook himself rather like a dog coming out of a pond, said I suppose we're meant to do it, I said well that was the message. Well, of course a lot had to be done, but again it was Ernie Bevin who decided that it should be an airlift and that was the way to do it, and that of course led on to the complete change in our relations with Germany, from relations of occupation to relations of protection and alliance and friendship. So there are three pretty big things.

Q: Was there a risk at Berlin, a risk at all?

Sir FRANK ROBERTS: Well, that was the whole point, of course there was a risk, I mean plainly, Stalin had wanted to stop us I mean he had the power on the ground. But Ernie Bevin felt, and so did I for that matter, having been in Russia, that the Russians were never going to go to war if they could possible help it, because they knew that meant not only a war in Berlin, which of course they would win, but it meant worldwide breaking with the Americans, above all with the Americans. And they weren't strong enough and didn't want to do it and so on. So Ernie was able to say to the Cabinet, of course there is a risk, and I can't conceal it from you, but I'm as confident as I can be that the Russians will not react in a military way, and they didn't.

Q: Do you think you could just summarise for us the kind of main things again that came out of not just getting food in to Berlin, but what the overall success was of the Berlin airlift in terms of…

Sir FRANK ROBERTS: Well, the overall success of the Berlin airlift was first of all it persuaded a lot of very frightened people throughout Europe that in spite of Russia having the biggest armies, because don't forget the Americans had not yet come back, I mean they had no troops in Europe at that time, that only came later. It was in fact the Berlin air lift and the Soviet take over of Czechoslovakia by the Communists which convinced a lot of countries that they had to come in to the Atlantic alliance.