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It is the dawn of history and of the dispersion of the Indo-European peoples. They are breaking their tents in central Asia along the Hindu Kush and the Pamirs, primitive Aryans with their dogs and their herds of domesticated animals. In their trek they will proceed to the farthest confines of Europe. From them the peoples of England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Scandinavia, Russia, Greece and other will take their origin. A part will penetrate into India and another portion into Persia. They will build empires and munitions factories, cathedrals and cabarets. Some less simple-minded, the Kurds, Lurs and Bakhtiaris will maintain in Persia their primitive character into the twentieth century. With them in their dispersion, the Aryans carry the sacred fire which they have worshiped since they became acquainted with its use. It was man’s first great step in the mastery of nature. The memory of its aid will be consecrated in one of the World’s great religions; its flame will never be extinguised on the great Iranian plateau, the museums of religions.
Within the last generation there has been a vast outpouring of scholarship on the characteristics of British imperial policy in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The older orthodoxy that the mid-Victorian years were dominated by a commitment to laissez faire and free trade has been demolished. In the new era scholars quarrel over how “imperial” was “informal empire.” This article is not intended to add to this controversy, but rather to provide insight into the character of British policy in one area, Persia, during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, with particular emphasis on American efforts to build railways and British responses to this attempted intrusion into an exclusive British-Russian sphere of influence. For both Russia and Britain Persia had great strategic significance. Like Afghanistan, “the walls of the Indian garden,” Persia was important primarily in relation to the defense of the Indian Empire. Russian expansion to the borders of Persia, a weak state, posed the threat that the country would fall under Russian influence and what had been a buffer would become a menace. British interest in Persia thus involved a strong strategic component which affected economic policy. Unlike Afghanistan it was seen as a promising market for British goods, particularly if transportation to the interior of Persia could be opened up on the Karun River and if British capital could be attracted to build a network of railways which could be a further basis for controlling the Persian economy and thus contributing to British influence at the Persian court. At the same time Britain was determined to thwart Russian plans for railways in the north which could be used to transport troops to the borders of Persia and eventually beyond. Each power assumed the malevolent intent of the other and each was determined to frustrate these foul plans.
The most striking feature of the British Cabinet's decision for war on 2 August 1914 is the absence of any attempt by the Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, to convince his colleagues of the necessity for intervention on the grounds of British interests. According to the fullest contemporary source, the diary kept by J. A. Pease, President of the Board of Education, Grey simply presented the Cabinet with the alternative of his resignation. In so doing, he made the decision a matter of politics rather than policy. At no stage did he place before his colleagues the considerations that had convinced him of the necessity for the step on which he insisted. Although Britain's treaty obligations were examined on 29 July, British interests, as such, were not spelled out. Even on the morning of 3 August, by which time the decision had effectively been taken, Grey was urged merely to 'allude' to unspecified British interests in his forthcoming meeting with the French ambassador.1 Grey's reticence, and the silence of the sources on this matter, cannot be accounted for on the grounds that British interests were 'understood' or 'agreed'. On the contrary, Asquith's Cabinet contained widely differing views on both British interests and the foreign policy appropriate to secure them, and a large and vociferous group entirely opposed to an entente with Russia, a group which as recently as January 1914 had renewed its objections of previous years.2 Only in his speech to the House of Commons on the afternoon of 3 August did Grey go into the British interests at stake in any detail. That of the main tenance of the entente with Russia was conspicuous by its absence. Recently it has been stated, quite categorically, that this consideration, and in particular the relations between Great Britain and Russia over Central Asia, 'had nothing to do with our decision to go to war in 1914'.3 What follows will question the soundness of that view.
In July 1905 Lord Kitchener, the Indian chief of General Staff, wrote at the krequest of the viceroy a memorandum entitled A note on the Military policy of India, which was in due course sent to England for consideration by the home government. Its plea was for a consistent policy with regard to the North-West Frontier. At the moment, Kitchener complained, this was ‘apt to change with every ministry and almost with every minister, while each incoming Viceroy probably develops a policy of his own’. The main danger facing India was uncompromisingly described as ‘the menacing advance of Russia towards our frontiers’.