No. 620 UCDA P35B/121

Handwritten letter from Edward Phelan to Patrick McGilligan (Dublin)

Geneva, 26 December 1931

My Dear McGilligan,

I had been intending to send you congratulations on the Statute of Westminster. I can now combine them with best wishes for the New Year. I cannot wish you the same measure of achievement in 1932 as in 1931 as the Statute is unique. You are left with no more worlds to conquer in the constitutional line. But an old friend inter se remains in the international field and so I'll wish you a final victory over him. But that needn't exhaust your programme. I have been following with a good deal of anxiety the Manchurian affair. I imagine the Council has done what it could but at the best it has only come out of the affair 'without discredit' as the 'Times' put it. League opinion is disillusioned and disappointed that the Council has not taken a stronger line. I do not mean that it was to be expected that the Council would envisage sanctions. I, at all events, have no expectation of that, but the Council does give the impression that it regards the Japanese and the Chinese as being equally right and wrong. Its efforts to settle the Japanese-Chinese quarrel look as if it was deliberately trying to divert public attention from the fact that the Japanese have deliberately violated the Covenant. No doubt the Japanese have many and real grievances against the Chinese. It is desirable that those grievances should be redressed and the Council have done useful work in preparing the possibility of a settlement of them. But it should not have the air of ignoring that it has been made a mock of. The Japanese have certain rights within their Railway Zone. They came outside it and the Council asked them, at its October meeting, to withdraw. They then proceeded to take Tsitsikar. Have you looked at the map? Tsitsikar is 600 kilometres away from the Railway Zone. No play on words about bandits and police measures and so on can justify operations on that scale. If it isn't war then words have no meaning. I know the Council does not technically ignore it. Its recent resolution reaffirms its resolution of October in which it asked for a withdrawal. But what is the use of reaffirming a resolution in terms of withdrawal which was followed by invasion? You may ask what can the Council do? I don't think it can do much except save its soul by affirming rather more clearly the principles of the Covenant and its express obligations and I am not very optimistic that it will do even that. What I am concerned about is over our position. We can't impose anything on the Council and we should be wrong to prevent any unanimity in any action however feeble of urging a solution which others would not accept. But we should at least make a declaration regretting that it is not possible to do more and affirming the duty of members of the League to respect the Covenant. The question will come before the Council again in January, of that there is no doubt. It is therefore not too late. I think we should take the line I suggest for several reasons. First it is a great power which is in fault. The feebleness of the Council (I'm not talking of sanctions) indicates that there is complicity between the great powers. If the great powers liked to talk stiffly to Japan she'd give way at once. But the great powers are at heart friendly to this unashamed imperialism and they are not going to condemn it. That is no reason, however, why we should have the air of agreeing in condoning it. We have a definite duty to the states who voted for us for a seat on the Council: we represent all the states which have no permanent seats: we asked for their suffrages on the ground that we were under nobody's thumb and that precisely in such a crisis as this we would be free to take an independent League stand. We shall have to render an account to the Assembly and in the Assembly there will be severe criticism of the Council. The Assembly will be unable to do anything - the Japanese will still be in Manchuria for many assemblies to come unless I am much mistaken. But we have a good name at stake in the matter and we must be able to point to evidence that if the Council was not more firm it was not in fault. I am not sure in fact that we should not propose that the Assembly be called, if there is no improvement in the situation in January. We should be beaten probably or forced to withdraw the proposal, but it should go on record that we have made it.

The issue in my view is a simple one: it is the small powers against the big. The small powers will be beaten, I know. The issue put otherwise is that Japan or China might leave the League. If China leaves she goes into the arms of Russia. If Japan leaves she has nowhere to go. She cannot form an alliance with the U.S. - imagine the debate in the Senate. She cannot form an alliance with Russia. She would either not leave, or come back. My view is that she would not leave. She might give notice and there might be a period of military dictatorship. But it would be better for the military to take their responsibilities and better for the Council to be able to deal with the real masters of Japanese policy. Japan complains that China is not an organised community. But a community in which Ministers are the mere tools of generals in the field has just as little claim to be considered an organised community in the modern sense. I don't know how far you have been able to follow all the detail. It was a disaster that the Council meeting should have coincided with the Statute of Westminster and all your other preoccupations. Do you know the details of the scandal of the Japanese purchase of the French Press, the 'deliberate' movements of troops from Korea into Manchuria before the alleged incidents took place, the cynical attitude of men like Ishii who has sat in the Council and settled other countries' disputes and all the rest of the sordid story of imperialism at its worst and most criminal! We surely stand for the very opposite, and our history will make people suppose that we will. That is why I feel that we should make our attitude clear, without as I say imperilling any action that the Council may be able to propose. A declaration by us would have of course to be carefully worded - I think the idea that it should be accompanied by a proposal to convene the Assembly is worth careful consideration.

However, enough of Japan and China.

All best wishes to Mrs McGilligan and yourself for the New Year, in which Fernande1 joins.

Yours ever
E.J. Phelan

P.S. Excuse the length of this and its rambling character.

1 Fernande Crosaz, whom Phelan later married.

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