No. 636 NAI DFA 27/18A

Letter from Seán Lester to Joseph P. Walshe (Dublin)

Geneva, 22 February 19321

On February the 17th at 6 p.m. I received your telegram2 in reply to mine of the 14th.3

I note that the views of the Minister regarding the Sino-Japanese dispute which were transmitted to me in your minutes of 20th4 and 29th November5 remain unchanged.

You will have observed from other communications from me that the discussion which I suggested (in my telegram of the 14th inst.) might be initiated has become unnecessary owing to the new Note from the Committee of Twelve to Japan. The action which I had in mind would not, of course, have led to the application of sanctions; but I, nevertheless, thought it right to seek your approval before taking the initiative.

During the three months which have elapsed since the receipt of your minutes of the 29th November I have been careful to carry out the instruction conveyed to me therein. Occasions have, however, arisen on which it fell to me to take a part in the general expression of opinion which discussion on particular issues inevitably called for. In, for example, the discussion at the secret meeting of the 16th inst. upon the form of the draft note to be sent to Japan I played what has been regarded as a leading part - a fact upon which the Marquis of Londonderry, the British representative, appreciatively remarked in conversation after that meeting.6 (He is, of course, new to Council work!). The initiative as regards the sending of that Note had not, of course, been taken by me, and I had had no doubt before taking part in the discussion as to its form that my so doing would not be contrary to or outside the scope of your instructions.

With the decision to refer the Sino-Japanese dispute to the Assembly under Article 15 of the Covenant, the efforts to seek a solution of the dispute enter upon a new phase. It is possible, therefore, at this stage to review the activities of the Council in the matter since it became seized of it in September of last year. Such a review would involve a comprehensive survey of the events of many months and many references to a vast number of reports from me and of documents which it would be necessary to schedule and to collate. That is beyond my resources here at present, but you will, I am sure, think it right for me to refer to one or two outstanding considerations in connection with the handling of the dispute by the Council which, although already well known to you as well from my own telegrams and reports as otherwise, it will be appropriate for me to emphasise the moment in which one chapter of the whole story has been brought to an end, and another begins.

There is little doubt that the prestige of the Council and the prestige of the League itself suffered heavily in the course of the Council's deliberations upon the question. At a very early stage in the dispute, and long before the Shanghai incidents removed any vestige of doubt as to the immediate ambitions of the Japanese Empire, a stage in the controversy had been reached in which speculation as to the right of Japan to continue operations in Manchuria in defence of her treaty rights there gave place to definite and serious misgivings as to the extent to which that country was prepared to honour the obligations which she shared with the other States of the world under the Covenant of the League and the Briand-Kellogg Pact. It is not my own personal view only but that of scores of others with whom I have spoken, more especially of those whose opinions on the whole position of the Covenant, the Pact and the League one values most highly, that at that moment a turn of events for the better might have and could have been effected by a strong insistence by the Council upon the essential provisions of the instruments to which I have referred. No doubt the representatives of the Great Powers on the Council found themselves hampered or influenced by special interests in the Far East. But the representatives of other States were not embarrassed by any circumstance of that kind. And this fact leads me to the second observation which I wish to make, namely, that had a strong line been taken by the representatives of those other States emphasising the nature and extent of the international obligations involved, while the result might have been to make it difficult for the representatives of the Great Powers to allow the situation to continue to drift, it certainly must have been to maintain the prestige of the Council, to safeguard the essential interests of the League of Nations, and to place at a critical and fateful moment in its history the proper emphasis upon the fundamentals of the public law which it has brought into being. I believe that had that been done the cloud in the Far-East would have thrown a less sombre shadow over Geneva at the commencement of the Disarmament Conference.

Apart from these general considerations there were, of course, the potentialities the situation seemed to offer for increase of prestige to a State far from the conflict and untied to any of the Great Powers. It was not, nor is, a situation to be lightly dealt with for national ends, but I have endeavoured within the limits of my instructions and with a sense of responsibility to maintain our reputation for independence and courage.

But for these and all other practical purposes the discussion has now passed from the Council to the Assembly.

It will not in my view be too late to stress these essential things during the session of the Assembly which opens on the 3rd of March. I would suggest, therefore, that our representative at that session of the Assembly be instructed to take outspoken courses in such statements as they are advised to make, while bearing in mind the very cautious policy followed in the Council. A policy of that kind would not come inappropriately from representatives of a State which is a member of the Council and who therefore will be accredited with a true understanding of the issues involved from a first-hand knowledge of the facts of the dispute. It can, moreover, be pursued upon a plane which will avert the criticism that it is influenced by bias or partiality against or in favour of either of the parties concerned.

In the very difficult political circumstances at home the Minister cannot, I know, contemplate attending the Assembly, but if it is impossible to have consultations with you here may I suggest that you recall me to Dublin, even for one day, to discuss the situation. In view of the early meeting of the Assembly, perhaps you will telegraph your decision.

[signed] Seán Lester

1 Dictated on 18 February 1932.

2 See No. 634.

3 Not printed.

4 See No. 600 and No. 601.

5 Not printed.

6 See No. 633.

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