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Britain: Distinguished Diplomat Dies

  • Stuart Parrott

London, 9 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Sir Frank Roberts, an outstanding British diplomat who advised Churchill at Yalta, negotiated with Stalin over the Berlin blockade, and was ambassador in Moscow during the Cuban missile crisis died in London on January 7. He was 90.

It was Roberts who handed Neville Chamberlain the notorious telegram saying that Hitler had agreed to meet in Munich to discuss Czechoslovakia -- an event forever associated with appeasement.

Later, Roberts recalled that Chamberlain, although tough and obstinate, had never understood Hitler's ruthlessness, although British diplomats had repeatedly urged him to read Mein Kampf.

Roberts served also as ambassador to Yugoslavia, West Germany and NATO, during a lifetime in which he won the confidence of prime ministers from Churchill to Wilson. He dealt with Khrushchev, Molotov, Tito, de Gaulle and Brandt.

Born in Argentina, and educated at Cambridge, Roberts' job at the Foreign Office in the Second World War was to support exiled Poles against what Stalin considered to Soviet interests.

In 1942, he organized an Allied conference in London, held at the initiative of General Wladyslaw Sikorski, head of the Polish government-in-exile, that resulted in changes to international law that led to the Nuremberg war crimes trials.

In 1945, Roberts attended the Yalta conference as an adviser on Polish and German questions to Churchill and Eden, and then to Attlee and Bevin.

Later he rejected the view that the West "gave away" Eastern Europe to Stalin. "This just was not the case," he said. "By 1944, the Russian Red Army had occupied the whole of Eastern Europe, including Poland. Short of going to war, what could we do?"

Roberts noted in an exclusive interview with RFE/RL in October 1996 that when Stalin, Franklin Roosevelt and Churchill sat down together in the Crimea, the main issue still facing them was the defeat of the German army, which had just broken through the Ardennes on the Western front. In addition, Roosevelt was very preoccupied by the war with Japan.

"We could have refused to sign," Roberts told RFE/RL, "but given the primary aims of defeating Germany and Japan, that would have been foolish."

Roberts recalled that already in December of 1941, at the start of the war for the Russians, Stalin asked British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden to support Moscow's claims to territories it had acquired under the Molotov/Ribbentropp Pact of 1939. Eden, Roberts said, had been stunned and put the issue aside, but Roberts noted that Stalin's insistence showed he had already been preoccupied with dominating the eastern half of Europe, even as the German armies occupied fields just 19 kilometers from the Kremlin.

After Yalta, he spent two years as second-ranking British official in Moscow when his advice, and that of the U.S. ambassador, played a key role in determining western policy toward the Soviet Union. At their first meeting, Stalin accused him of being a British spy.

Roberts was Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin's main adviser in discussions with the Americans and Russians over the Berlin airlift. He described Stalin as a very clever negotiator who used smiles and apparent good humor to good effect. Roberts wrote: "He appeared the very antithesis of the ruthless dictator that he was." Roberts recalled how Stalin always used to get Molotov to countersign the countless death sentences that he issued so as to make them look legal. "He even forced Molotov to sign an order exiling his, Molotov's, own wife to Siberia," he said.

Roberts led the British delegation at the Four Powers Conference in Berlin in 1954 which, although a failure, helped facilitate the emergence of West Germany as an independent democratic state.

In 1954, Roberts was appointed ambassador to Belgrade at a time when Tito was breaking with Moscow He then served as Britain's permanent representative on the North Atlantic Council.

In 1961, Roberts returned to Moscow as ambassador where he had to cope with a series of crises, including the war in Laos, the Cuban missile crisis and the building of the Berlin Wall.

He got to know Nikita Khrushchev well. An obituary in the London Daily Telegraph tells of a reception where he asked Khrushchev, in a discussion on shooting, if there were still bears in Russia. "Bears?" Khrushchev replied. "Of course, I am a bear." And he picked up the diminutive Roberts and gave him a bear hug.

Roberts later served as ambassador to Bonn. He published his memoirs, "Dealing with Dictators", in 1991. A tribute to him today says he played a leading role in the reconstruction of western Europe, and the re-emergence of Germany as a friend and ally.

Sir Frank Roberts was a great friend of Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty, serving for many years on its Western European Advisory Committee.