Hoare-Laval Plan

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As Italian military operations continued, sentiment grew, especially in Britain, for more effective action. Between January and June 1935, a so-called Peace Ballot, a national referendum supported by the British League of Nations Union and allied groups, had yielded 6,784,368 votes endorsing the principle that, if one nation insisted on attacking another, the other nations should combine to employ not only economic but also military sanctions (10,027,608 favored economic sanctions alone). Although this total encompassed a substantial percentage of the electorate, the result had been discounted by most politicians on the ground that the ballot had probably not been understood fully by its signers. Now, however, they began to consider that it had been more significant. Campaigning in a general election, spokesmen for the government felt obliged to use increasingly vigorous words in speaking of what Britain and the League would do. Returned on November 14 with an overwhelming majority of seats in the House of Commons (431 to 184), the Conservative cabinet was under pressure to live up to its promises.

Those ministers who were dubious about the whole policy of sanctions found this pressure especially onerous. They urged a further effort to induce Mussolini to abandon the war and thus, they hoped, to rescue Britain from the predicament in which she was likely soon to find herself. Precisely what was said and agreed on within the cabinet remains unknown. The result was, however, that Hoare set off in early December for a skating holiday in Switzerland, and that he paused for two days (December 7-8) in Paris for intensive conversations with Laval. The result of these conversations was an agreement on proposals to be made secretly to Mussolini. He was to be asked to halt the war with the understanding that Italy would receive from Ethiopia the northeastern section of the Tigre, part of the desert of Danakil, all of the Ogaden region, and “exclusive economic rights” in the country south of 8° north latitude and east of 35° east longitude. All that Italy would yield in return would be a corridor giving Ethiopia a camel track to the sea across almost impassable desert. This plan offered Italy almost everything that she could hope to obtain by continuing her campaign.

Convinced that the application of further sanctions would lead to a general war harmful to French interests, Laval had devised these terms. He had also developed the strategy to be followed. The plan was to be put before Mussolini first. After he accepted, it was to be shown to Haile Selassie. When the Ethiopian ruler rejected it, the French and British would be able to say that he had refused peace, and could not only oppose the imposition of further sanctions but also call for the lifting of those that had already been voted. Whatever the outcome for Ethiopia, the crisis between the League powers and Italy would have been bridged, and some facsimile of the Stresa front might be put together again. Even before they could be put into diplomatic cables, however, the terms of the plan leaked to the press. From partisans of Ethiopia and the League there arose an instant and loud outcry. The British and French governments were accused of preparing to betray the interests of a small nation, to sacrifice the principle of collective security, and reward an aggressor. So strong was feeling in Britain that Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin felt compelled on December 18 to request Hoare’s resignation and soon afterward to appoint as his successor Eden, the champion of the League. In France, Laval’s government barely survived a vote of confidence in the Chamber of Deputies on December 29. From the United States, where sentiment for effective embargoes had been rapidly growing, came a torrent of criticism of British and French shortsightedness.

Mussolini had meanwhile given indication that he would not in any case accept less than the total conquest of Ethiopia. In January 1936, there was discussion within the League of adding an oil embargo to the sanctions. Despite the events that had followed the release of the Hoare-Laval terms, however, official French and British opinion was still opposed to such action. The decision was . for delay, pending the outcome of Roosevelt’s efforts to amend the American neutrality laws. Since nothing encouraging was done by Congress, nothing at all was done by the League. As it turned out, the limit of its capacities had been reached in the vote of sanctions of October.. As winter turned into spring, the Italian offensive in Ethiopia gained momentum. On May 5, 1936, Fascist troops marched into the capital, Addis Ababa. Four days later, Mussolini proclaimed the war ended and Ethiopia part of Italian East Africa. By summer most of the League powers had concluded that they could only accept as a fact the extinction of Ethiopian sovereignty, and the Assembly agreed that sanctions against Italy should be suspended as of July 15. The League’s machinery for maintaining collective security had proved ineffectual.

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