Barthou, Like a Smith Brother, Crosses Hissing Tchitcherin

Ernest Hemingway

Toronto Star Daily/April 24, 1922

Genoa.-There was a sensation at the opening of the Genoa Conference greater than Secretary Hughes’ naval scrapping speech at Washington—but it came when the scheduled speeches had been droned through and most of the newspapermen had left the hall to put their cut-and-dried reports of the opening on to the cables.

Suddenly into the fatigue-charged air of a crowded roomful of people who had heard speeches for four hours came an instantaneous electric thrill. Tchitcherin, head of the Soviet delegation, looking like a country grocery storekeeper with a ragged indefinite beard and a hissing purr of a voice that was almost un-understandable in the press gallery, had just taken his seat at the green-covered rectangle of tables.

“Is there anyone else that would like to speak?” asked Signor Facta, president of the conference, in Italian.

“The president asks if there is anyone else that wants to speak,” translated the English interpreter, a square-faced woman with a high, theatrical voice.

Barthou, heading the French delegation, rose to his feet and launched into a passionate torrent of words. Barthou looks like the left-hand one of the Smith Brothers and waddles when he walks but speaks with the impassioned vigor and earnestness of the French orator.

Suddenly the dull, sleepy atmosphere of the foul-aired conference hall was cut through as by a flash of summer lightning. The correspondents who had been sitting heavily in the press gallery began to take notes like mad. The delegates who had been leaning back in their chairs anticipating an adjournment of the conference stiffened forward to attention. Tchitcherin’s hand began to tremble on the table and Lloyd George began to draw meaningless designs on the pad of paper before him.

All the “wise” journalists had left the hall when Tchitcherin stopped speaking. Only a few remained who believed in seeing a game through until the last man is out in the ninth inning.

Barthou stopped speaking and the interpreter who has officiated at every conference since the first session of the League of Nations started his translation into English in a ringing voice. “If this question of disarmament is brought up, France will absolutelyl, categorically, and finally refuse to discuss it, either in plenary session or in any committee. In the name of France I make this definite protest—”

The interpreter went on with the speech. He finished.

Tchitcherin rose and, his hands shaking, spoke in French, in his queer, hissing accents, the result of an accident that knocked out half his teeth. The interpreter with the ringing voice translated. There was not a sound in the pauses except the clink of the mass of decorations on an Italian general’s chest as he shifted from one foot to another. It is an actual fact. You could hear the faint metallic clink of the hanging decorations.

“In regard to disarmament,” the interpreter said for Tchitcherin. “Russia took the attitude of France from M. Briand’s Washington speech. In this speech he said France must stay armed because of the danger of Russia’s great army. I, for Russia, want to remove this danger.

“In regard to a succession of conferences I am only quoting from Lloyd George’s speech to the British parliament. Monsieur Poincare has said that the aims of the Genoa Conference have not been clearly outlined. There are several questions up for discussion here that were not in the Cannes agenda. If it is the collective will of the conference that disarmament should not be discussed, I will bow to the will of the conference. But disarmament is a capital question with Russia.”

The interpreter sat down and Lloyd George got up. The conference was in a turmoil. It looked as though the French might walk out at any moment. Lloyd George, the greatest compromiser politics has ever seen, talked against time. He urged Tchitcherin in his suave manner not to overload the ship of Genoa with too many matters for discussion.

“Unless the Genoa Conference leads to disarmament it will be a failure,” he said. “But we must prepare first. We must first settle other questions. I ask Mr. Tchitcherin to be calm. Let us bring this ship into port first before we start any other voyages. I suggest we drop the question of a universal conference at present.” And so he continued talking against time and attempting to save the conference.

“The agenda of the Genoa Conference was sent out in the two finest languages in the world—English and French!” he said in the course of his rambling and conciliatory speech, masterly in its soothing and soporific effect on most of the delegates, for at this slip the Italians looked black and all the effect of Lloyd George’s careful compliments earlier in the day was destroyed.

In the end Signor Facta adjourned the meeting, cutting off both Barthou and Tchitcherin who attempted to speak. “It is over. You have spoken. We must adjourn!” And the conference was saved from blowing up on the first day.

(Source: William White, ed. Ernest Hemingway: Dateline: Toronto.Simon and Schuster, 2002.)

The works of Ernest Hemingway and other American journalists are now freely available at The Archive of American Journalism. Visit our bookstore for single-volume collections–-ideal for research, reference use or casual reading.