Debating bombing and foreign intervention — I

On 21 June 1938, Philip Noel-Baker MP moved a reduction of £100 in an amount being voted for Foreign Office salaries. This is a time-honoured way of starting an argument in the House of Commons (well, technically they are called debates): it allows the mover to get into the agenda an issue they consider to be of importance, to make their case for it, and for other speakers (including those representing the government) to give supporting or opposing points of view. The motion nearly always fails, but then that's not the point.

Noel-Baker -- a former professor of international relations and a keen internationalist -- had two related topics to discuss on this day. The first was the increasingly 'systematic and merciless bombardment of the civil population from the air' in Abyssinia, China and Spain:

The Mayor of Canton the other day sent a telegram to the mayors of all the great towns of Europe and America giving a description of the bombardments which day by day have been launched against his town. Some British journalists have translated his general picture into more vivid pictures still. I read only one: "Everywhere there are poignant scenes. Here a little girl tearing desperately with tiny hands at masonry under which her mother was killed; there boys giving a drink to their mothers also trapped; children searching in vain for parents; parents searching for their children; mangled bodies everywhere." It is stories like that which have frightened and sickened the conscience of the world. What is more frightening still is that these methods are being adopted as a deliberate military policy to win the war. That has been done in Spain. When Barcelona was bombarded on 16th, 17th and 18th March the Insurgent aircraft dropped bombs saying that they would bomb the population every three hours until they surrendered -- "Give in, or you will be destroyed." The "Times" of 8th June reported an official Japanese spokesman as saying that they were going on with the air bombardment in order to show the Chinese the futility of resistance and to end hostilities as speedily as possible.

His main point here was to claim that under international law such aerial bombardment was illegal, and thus should be treated as a breach of the Covenant of the League of Nations and of the Kellogg-Briand Pact:

there is no doubt in the world that bombardment of the civil population is a violation of international law. In 1923 there was a conference of government theorists at The Hague. The British representative was Sir Cecil Hurst, now the President of the Permanent Court of International Justice. They drew up a code of rules for air warfare, in which they did not make new law, in which they applied law which they all recognised to exist. They said: "Aerial bombardment of the civil population is prohibited." They went on to say [...] "The bombardment of cities, towns, villages, dwellings or buildings not in the immediate neighbourhood of the operations of land forces is prohibited." That is to say, where there was not a land battle. They added: "In cases where the objectives specified are so situated that they cannot be bombarded without the indiscriminate bombardment of the civil population, the aircraft must abstain from bombardment." These rules have not been ratified by governments, it is true, but there is no international lawyer in the world who has not said that they constitute the valid, binding law of air warfare at the present time.

Noel-Baker's own prescription for stopping the war in the Far East along this line of argument was a trade embargo against Japan combined with a loan to the Chinese government for arms. That seems a bit insipid, but when you consider how the oil embargo in 1941 forced Japan into war against the United States, Britain, et al., it's clear that it had the potential to influence Japanese actions. In which direction may not have been clear, which would have been the problem.

The second main topic of Noel-Baker's speech was the bombing of British merchant vessels in Spanish waters. He summarised the incidents to date:

Of 140 vessels engaged in the Spanish trade in the last 12 months, 10 have been sunk, together with two smaller units; 10 have been captured and detained; 28 have been damaged more or less seriously, some of them being almost total losses; and a larger number have been slightly damaged. The number actually hit cannot be less than 50, and, in addition, a large number have been attacked without success. Nearly 60 people have been killed and wounded. Everyone of these attacks has been carried out by Franco's forces, and there is overwhelming proof that a great number of them were deliberately made.

(Countries have declared war for less -- or not much more, anyway.) Returning to his first theme for a moment, Noel-Baker worried about the precedent set by allowing such attacks to go unpunished:

What does all this mean? It means that if the Government now accept the air bombardment of Barcelona, Valencia, and Alicante, without effective action to prevent it, they will be allowing three new practices, all contrary to international law and all very dangerous to Great Britain if another war should come. The three new practices are these: the direct bombardment of the civil population, the indiscriminate bombardment of commercial ports which are not blockaded and which are distant from the battle front, and, thirdly, and perhaps most important, the direct attack on neutral ships engaged in non-contraband trade.

What did Noel-Baker want the government to do? Well, for starters it could use more than harsh language, which is about all it had done so far. But he had more constructive suggestions too, such as these diplomatic and economic ones:

They can withdraw Sir Robert Hodgson, and they can give the Duke of Alba his passports; and I believe that General Franco sets so high a price on our quasi-recognition that that step alone would very likely be enough to stop the attacks. They can also put an embargo on trade with Franco's Spain, and they can try to get other genuinely non-intervening Powers to do the same.

Another diplomatic ploy was to threaten Mussolini, since the majority of Franco's pilots (and presumably his aeroplanes) were known to be Italian:

Let the Prime Minister say to Signor Mussolini, who is so impatient to bring his Treaty into force, "This Treaty will never be brought into force unless these attacks are stopped, and stopped to-day," and I guarantee that the attacks will stop and that his Treaty will have brought about the only appeasement which it is ever likely to produce.

Then there were financial measures:

General Franco has funds in this country, which the Government could impound to pay our owners a little compensation for the ships which have been lost.

Maritime measures:

General Franco has a commercial fleet of about 100 vessels, or rather more. They fly his flag. I am not sure that they were on the Spanish register before the civil war, and I am not sure that they have all got Spanish crews, but they supply General Franco with many things he needs. Well, we could detain those vessels at Gibraltar, exactly as General Franco detained our 10 vessels in his ports a year ago.

Naval measures:

Some of my naval and military friends suggest more active measures. They say that destroyers could be posted off the ports and that when attacks were made on British ships they could open fire on the aeroplanes that made them [...] I have also had it suggested to me by naval officers -- the Government could examine it on technical grounds -- that we could post an aircraft carrier beyond the three-mile limit and that when a raid was on it could keep a patrol in the air. The Prime Minister may have seen a letter in the "Sunday Times" of last Sunday, by Admiral Usborne, who, I believe, has generally been in favour of General Franco, in which he said that it would be quite easy to stop these attacks. All that we should have to do would be to tell "the Burgos Government that for every British ship deliberately attacked from the air a Spanish nationalist warship would be taken or sunk, and attacks would cease immediately," because General Franco would never risk them.

And finally, intervention (or not):

You can take anti-aircraft guns off the nonintervention list, and if you call that intervention, you can take them off the list for both sides. Let the Spaniards get the guns, and if you do not want to protect the Union Jack, they will do it for you.

Summing up, Noel-Baker urged that the government give up appeasement: if a stand is made here, now, it will teach the nations currently shaking the world order that aggression will not pay:

The vital interests of Great Britain, as a neutral and as a belligerent, are at stake. If we continue only to retreat before the aggressor the world will say, as it is saying now, that there is no surrender to blackmail which you will not make. Stand firm and the horizon may clear more quickly than you think. If we look back over the years during which retreats before aggression have brought us ever nearer to war, three events stand out like beacon lights against the black clouds of gathering storm. They are Morocco in December, 1936; Nyon in August, 1937; and Czechoslovakia in May, 1938. If we now save the British ships, as we so easily can, perhaps the historians will say that it was to-day that we took the turning which led us at last to the road which brought us peace founded on the rule of law.

Did the government take heed? The prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, was the first MP to speak after Noel-Baker; we'll see what he had to say in another post.

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