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date: 28 February 2021

Sargent, Sir (Harold) Orme Gartonfree

(1884–1962)
  • Ritchie Ovendale

Sargent, Sir (Harold) Orme Garton (1884–1962), diplomatist and civil servant, was born Giles Orme Sargent on 31 October 1884 at 2 Elvaston Place, Kensington, London, the only child of Harry Garton Sargent, a gentleman of independent means, and his wife, Henrietta Sarah Finnis Stud Mackinnon, whose sister married the fifteenth duke of Somerset. His parents changed his name subsequent to registering his birth. He had an unhappy childhood, both parents being elderly, strict, and possessive. ‘Moley’, as he was known from childhood, was educated at Radley College, and then spent some time in Switzerland preparing for the diplomatic service, which he entered in March 1906. He passed on examination in public law in May 1908, was promoted third secretary in October 1911, and served as secretary to the British delegates at the international sanitary conference in Paris, from November to December 1911.

During the early stages of the First World War, Sargent worked in the department of the Foreign Office dealing with the blockade, which gave him a good grounding in commercial and economic affairs. In October 1917 he was promoted second secretary and transferred to Bern; he was promoted first secretary in April 1919. In July that year he was seconded to the British delegation to the peace conference at Versailles. Following the signature of the treaty of Versailles and the disbandment of the British delegation in December 1919, he remained in Paris to work with the conference of ambassadors, which continued to meet to discuss the problems of European security and reconstruction. He finally returned to London in November 1925. Thereafter he refused to attend conferences or to go abroad for any purpose; it was thought that he suffered from claustrophobia in ships and aircraft. Contemporaries believed that this was perhaps for the best: he had few of the qualities necessary for a great ambassador. Intelligent, informed, and passionate about defending British interests, he was nevertheless reserved and somewhat aloof; he had little time for the social life which was so important a part of an ambassador's job; and he had none of the political skills of colleagues such as Sir Robert Vansittart. Indeed, the latter observed, with some truth, that 'Orme Sargent was a philosopher strayed into Whitehall. He knew all the answers; when politicians did not want them he went out to lunch' (Vansittart, 399).

In October 1926 Sargent was promoted counsellor and put in charge of the Foreign Office's central department, which covered Italy, Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and the Balkans. In August 1933 he was promoted assistant under-secretary, with additional responsibility for relations with Germany, France, and Poland. Apart from official minutes, he never wrote about his time in the Foreign Office. Nevertheless, from the diplomatic record it emerges that he was conscious of Britain's proximity to the European continent, and of the need to prevent any single power from dominating that continent, be it Nazi Germany or communist Russia.

There is evidence that as early as the beginning of 1930 Sargent was anxious lest Germany adopt a forward foreign policy, and welcomed internal wrangles in Germany that could limit this. On 13 November 1934 he wrote to Winston Churchill arguing against Churchill's view that Hitler was plotting a war of aggression in the immediate future. Sargent's analysis was that Hitler hoped to achieve his purpose by playing off one power against the other, and isolating each power in turn, rather than by force. Although Britain was probably the last power on Hitler's agenda, its turn would come. At this stage, however, Sargent's opposition to ‘appeasement’ was by no means clear-cut. In June 1935 he blamed the French for refusing to make a bargain with the Germans when it had been possible in April 1934; and in a memorandum of 21 November 1935 he and Ralph Wigram of the central department set out the case for coming to terms with Germany. They argued that Britain had a choice of three policies: it could do nothing; it could encircle Germany; or it could come to terms with Germany. Despite the immense obstacles involved, they concluded that an agreement was desirable and hinted that concessions over the Rhineland as well as in the colonial sphere could pave the way for an overall settlement. This was one of the classic statements of appeasement, and, in effect, outlined the policy later followed by Neville Chamberlain when he was prime minister. Nevertheless, Sargent found himself increasingly opposed to this policy, especially after Hitler's re-militarization of the Rhineland in 1936.

When at the end of 1937 Neville Chamberlain considered the issue of colonial compensation for Germany as a means of removing the differences between Britain and Germany, Sargent felt the need to raise the matter with the dominions. He now argued that in this matter Britain should keep the initiative, and saw advantages in a conference of the League of Nations mandatory powers. This device would have the incidental merit of forcing South Africa to justify its policy of reconciliation with Germany alongside its refusal to hand back former South-West Africa, and the veto it had placed on Britain handing back Tanganyika. In March 1938 his paper on the Anschluss reflected his changing view of Hitler's intentions: Hitler would advance his conquests, reduce the whole Danube basin to vassal status, and dismantle Czechoslovakia. If the western powers did nothing central Europe would be lost, Italy would be forced to side with Germany, and Hitler would arrange for Mussolini to secure a controlling hand in Spain. To counter this Britain needed to mobilize its diplomatic resources, hold staff conversations with France and Belgium and elaborate a common policy for central and south-eastern Europe, strengthen its ties with Greece and Turkey, cultivate Poland and Russia, and restore good relations with Japan. Above all, Sargent emphasized the need for Britain to cultivate, interest, and educate the United States. The Munich agreement, and the enthusiastic reception accorded Chamberlain on his return, he regarded as a disgrace; indeed, he is alleged to have remarked that it might have been thought that Britain had won a great victory rather than betrayed a small country. Perhaps because of his now well-known opposition to appeasement, it was only with difficulty that Sir Alexander Cadogan was able to secure Sargent's promotion to the post of deputy under-secretary of state in September 1939.

Following the outbreak of the Second World War, Sargent was increasingly concerned at the prospect of the Soviet Union dominating a devastated post-war Europe. In November 1940 he advanced ideas about taking over the anti-Comintern pact and so attracting Italy, Japan, and Spain to the allied cause. Even after Hitler's attack on Russia, he was determined to limit the power of the Soviet Union: when considering post-war planning in 1942–3 he favoured an Anglo-French alliance in the west, and two large confederations in middle Europe which could maintain a balance of power and control a united Germany. As the Soviet Union established puppet governments in eastern Europe, Sargent became increasingly alarmed and was responsible for drafting Churchill's telegrams to President Truman urging the Americans to make a stand over this. He was particularly concerned when any chance of an American thrust on Prague, in May 1945, was lost through General Eisenhower's self-denying ordinance. On 26 July 1945 Cadogan recorded him as predicting a communist avalanche over Europe, and the reduction of Britain to a second-class power.

Sargent was acutely aware of the fundamental weakness of Britain as a great power, in comparison with the United States and the Soviet Union. Thus in October 1945 he observed that Britain's position in relation to the two latter powers was 'Lepidus in the triumvirate with Mark Antony and Augustus' (Ovendale, The English-Speaking Alliance, 18). In July 1945 he produced an influential memorandum, 'Stocktaking after VE-day', in which he argued that the only way 'to compel our two big partners to treat us as an equal' was for Britain to assume the leadership of western Europe as well as of the empire or Commonwealth (Rothwell, 145). Such ideas chimed well with those of Ernest Bevin, foreign secretary in the new Labour government, and there was little surprise when Sargent was appointed permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office in succession to Cadogan, in February 1946. He continued to urge a positive British approach to western European integration, defining Britain's 'primary objective' in December 1946 as being 'by close association with our neighbours to create a European Group which will enable us to deal on a footing of equality with our two gigantic colleagues, the USA and the USSR' (ibid., 435). As permanent under-secretary, Sargent was also increasingly involved with the Middle East. In April 1946 he expressed reservations about the defeatist attitude of the British delegation negotiating the withdrawal from Egypt. He was also concerned that American Zionist propaganda endangered Anglo-American relations at the time of the joining of the cold war, and in May 1947 was responsible for reports being sent to the Americans about the links between funds collected in the United States and the Irgun.

Sargent retired in February 1949 and moved to Bath, living in a restored Georgian home, Bathwick Hill House, and cultivating an interest in antique furniture. He was created GCMG in 1948, having been appointed CB in 1936, KCMG in 1937, and KCB in 1947. He was made a justice of the peace for Bath in 1949 and a church commissioner in 1952. He was a devout Christian. He died, unmarried, in the Lansdown Nursing Home, Bath, on 23 October 1962 after a long illness; the funeral service was held in Bath Abbey on 27 October and a memorial service at St Margaret's, Westminster, on 16 November.

Sources

  • H. M. G. Jebb [Lord Gladwyn], The memoirs of Lord Gladwyn (1972)
  • R. A. C. Parker, Chamberlain and appeasement: British policy and the coming of the Second World War (1993)
  • V. Rothwell, Britain and the cold war, 1941–1947 (1982)
  • R. Ovendale, ‘Appeasment’ and the English speaking world: Britain, the United States, and the policy of ‘appeasment’, 1937–1939 (1975)
  • R. Ovendale, The English-speaking alliance: Britain, the United States, the dominions and the cold war, 1945–1951 (1985)
  • R. Ovendale, Britain, the United States, and the end of the Palestine mandate, 1942–1948 (1989)
  • The Times (24 Oct 1962)
  • b. cert.
  • The diaries of Sir Alexander Cadogan, ed. D. Dilks (1971)
  • P. Dixon, Double diploma: the life of Sir Pierson Dixon, don and diplomat (1968)
  • N. Rose, Vansittart: study of a diplomat (1978)
  • A. Roberts, ‘The Holy Fox’: a biography of Lord Halifax (1991)
  • Lord Vansittart [R. G. Vansittart], The mist procession: the autobiography of Lord Vansittart (1958)
  • H. Nicolson, Diaries and letters, ed. N. Nicolson, 2 (1967)
  • A. Eden, earl of Avon, The Eden memoirs, 3: The reckoning (1965)
  • A. Bullock, The life and times of Ernest Bevin, 3 (1983)
  • The diplomatic diaries of Oliver Harvey, 1937–40, ed. J. Harvey (1970)
  • The war diaries of Oliver Harvey, ed. J. Harvey (1978)
  • T. T. Hammond, ed., Witnesses to the origins of the cold war (1982)
  • W. J. Mommsen and L. Kettenacker, eds., The fascist challenge and the policy of appeasement (1983)
  • J. L. Gormly, The collapse of the grand alliance, 1945–1948 (1987)

Archives

  • BL, corresp. with P. V. Emrys-Evans, Add. MS 58238
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Sir Horace Rumbold
  • CAC Cam., corresp. with Sir Eric Phipps

Likenesses

  • W. Stoneman, photograph, 1941, NPG
  • photograph, repro. in The Times
  • photograph, Foreign Office, permanent under-secretary's room

Wealth at Death

£71,466 16s.: probate, 19 Dec 1962, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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