Memorandum by the Secretary to the British Empire Delegation of a Conversation at the Home of the Secretary of State, December 14, 1921,6:30 p.m.82


  • Present
    • united states of America
      • Mr. Hughes, accompanied by—
        Mr. J. R. Clark and Colonel Roosevelt
    • british empire
      • Mr. Balfour, accompanied by Sir Maurice Hankey
    • japan
      • Baron Kato, accombined by—
        M. Ichihashi (Interpreter)

capital ships.

Mr. Balfour said that he had spent the last hour discussing the question with his experts. They had been satisfied that as one of the possible alternatives to be put up to the Admiralty, was the scheme whereby Great Britain would be permitted to build two super-Hoods and would have to scrap the four King George V’s and one of the battle cruisers, but the British experts wished to be able to decide whether they would scrap the “Tiger” or the “Repulse”. There were certain technical considerations upon which the choice of the ship to be scrapped depended and these required further examination. He was inclined to think it did not make much difference as the “Tiger” was only 2,000 tons larger than the “Repulse”. Subject to this, the experts were prepared to accept alternative 1 as one of the plans to be submitted to the Admiralty.

In regard to Alternative 2, what troubled them most was that the 35,000 ton limit involved therein was calculated according to the American system and not according to legend tonnage. They would be quite prepared to accept the figure 35,000 tons if it was expressed in legend tonnage, which he understood was the accepted term employed by constructors in Japan, France and other countries. They did not claim that the British method of calculating was any better than the American. For his part he was inclined to think that the British system was more artificial than the other, though this was immaterial. What was not immaterial was the size of the ship, which would be larger under the British method of calculation. If the legend ton were taken instead of the ton taken in the American programme, it would be possible, while meeting the British Admiralty’s requirements, to keep the same figures as Mr. Hughes had proposed. The only difference would be that the new ships built [Page 116] would have an increased size of about 4 per cent. Why did the British naval experts prefer the legend basis for tonnage? The reason was one which concerned all the three Great Naval Powers and concerned Great Britain more than any other. The reason had nothing to do with a comparison of Navies or of the value of ship against ship, but unless the British were allowed to increase the size of the ship from 35,000 tons, as proposed in the American scheme, to 38,000 tons, which would be the equivalent legend tonnage, it would be impossible to provide in the British ships for adequate protection against attack by submarine mines, aircraft and submarines. All Navies were exposed to these dangers, but the British more than any other, since the British fleet had to work mainly in narrow and shallow seas which would be infested by submarine mines, submarines and aircraft. The British Navy, therefore, was more concerned in this question than the United States of America and Japan, although the latter were also concerned to a considerable extent. The British naval experts clearly held that unless they could obtain this increase in tonnage, they could not design a ship with adequate protection against the forms of attack he had mentioned. They pointed out that nothing was being done by the Conference to stop the development of submarine mines, aircraft or submarines. All these were left open to improvement whereas nothing was being done to combat them by any means which would involve an increase in the size of capital ships, and he understood that increased size was essential to improve protection. For this reason the British experts most earnestly pressed that if the second alternative were adopted, it might be interpreted on the basis of legend tonnage.

Mr. Hughes asked what the increase under legend tonnage amounted to.

Mr. Balfour replied about 4 per cent.

Mr. Hughes said that this was a very small allowance which could perhaps be adjusted. Both the United States of America and Japan were building ships which were subject to the risks which Mr. Balfour had mentioned.

Mr. Balfour said they applied to all the existing British ships.

Mr. Hughes asked Colonel Roosevelt for his view on the British proposal to build ships up to 38,000 tons.

Colonel Roosevelt said that there was a difference of opinion between the British and American naval experts.

Mr. Balfour said he believed they were in agreement on this point.

Colonel Roosevelt thought that this was not the case. At any rate, there was a possibility of a considerable difference of opinion. The American naval experts admitted that the larger a ship was [Page 117] the better it could be protected. They claimed, however, that a ship could be built to take a 16″ gun and which was provided with adequate protection against the forms of attack Mr. Balfour had mentioned in a ship of 32,000 tons. The figure 38,000 tons mentioned by Mr. Balfour was one which did not appeal to the American experts who work between a range of 32,600 tons and 42,300 tons. Their view would be that 38,000 tons was half way between the two.

Mr. Balfour said it was very extraordinary how experts differed, but he was doubtful whether the British advisers would put 16” guns even in a ship of 38,000 tons. His naval advisers asked how they were to justify the adoption of a size limit for ships which in their opinion did not at the present time give adequate protection even against existing weapons, more especially when they took into consideration that British ships had to operate in the narrow waters of the North Sea, the Channel, down the Bay of Biscay and through the Mediterranean. How, he asked, could they justify this?

Mr. Hughes asked, therefore, whether, in the view of the British naval experts, the suggestion of a size limit of 35,000 tons was inadmissible.

Mr. Balfour said that if the term legend tons was used the proposal was admissible.

Mr. Hughes said he understood this point as regards the first proposal. He said that this was equivalent to 38,000 tons. He asked whether, therefore, the second alternative which had contemplated two ships of 35,000 tons was withdrawn.

Mr. Balfour said that it was regarded as an alternative if the 35,000 tons could be treated as legend tons; that is to say, the equivalent of 38,000 tons under the American method of calculation.

Mr. Hughes asked whether it was contemplated that this should be the maximum for future ships.

Mr. Balfour replied in the affirmative.

Mr. Hughes said that the maximum of 38,000 tons was not a convenient one for the American Navy.

Colonel Roosevelt said that he would have to go into this question very carefully. The proposal took his experts into a new realm altogether.

Mr. Hughes asked if Mr. Balfour would object if the maximum size of a ship was raised to 43,200 tons.

Mr. Balfour said he thought his experts would not object. He himself had no reason for objection apart from the general reasons against raising the size of the ship, which Mr. Hughes had mentioned at the previous meeting.

Mr. Hughes said that the American understanding was that if the 35,000 ton limit were departed from, it would might be necessary to raise the limit to 43,200 tons.

[Page 118]

Colonel Roosevelt said that it would be 43,200 tons.

Baron Kato said that it was a question of deciding the maximum size of a vessel. Every nation measured tonnage on a different method and if each nation was allowed to adopt its own, great confusion would result. It was necessary, therefore, to decide on some method of calculation at the outset. In regard to Mr. Balfour’s proposal for raising the maximum to 38,000 tons, he was not quite able to see the point. The calibre and the character of a ship depended upon the constructor. The nature of the defensive protection provided depended upon the size, but so did the weapon which it carried. It was possible to design any ship so as to make it capable of defence and this did not really depend upon the tonnage. Once the tonnage was fixed the constructor could be given instructions accordingly to devote a certain amount of the tonnage available for the provision of defence. Supposing 35,000 tons were taken as the limit, it was possible that instead of increasing the offensive capacity of the ship, to increase its defensive. If all nations adopted the principles they desired, it would be the same for all. The same problem would result whether the maximum size of a vessel were taken as 38,000 tons or 35,000 tons. It would arise indeed, irrespective of size. The best plan he could suggest was to adopt some method of fixing the tonnage and then to decide on the methods of defence.

Mr. Balfour said the wish of the British Delegation was that whatever the maximum size might be, the ships of the various nations should be equal in fighting capacity. That was a limitation imposed by each of the three naval Powers on the others. All had a common interest in not allowing their ships to be destroyed from the air or from the water. If the limit was taken as 35,000 tons, his experts maintained that a British ship could not be built which was equal in fighting efficiency to the ships of the United States of America or Japan, unless they sacrificed the provision of proper defence against aircraft and submarine attack. They would probably say that the Americans and Japanese had made a mistake in putting in such powerful guns and had neglected the defence against submarine and aircraft attack. They might be right or they might be wrong in their view, but the British Navy was in a different situation owing to the fact that its ships had to serve in the narrow waters of the North Sea and the Mediterranean. They maintained that equality could be achieved by raising the maximum to 38,000 tons and leaving the distribution between defensive and offensive capacity as desired by the naval experts.

Mr. Hughes said he understood Mr. Balfour to mean that given two ships of a certain fighting power, Great Britain required additional protection owing to the fact that they had to work in the [Page 119] narrow seas. If they tried to obtain the necessary protection within the limits of the 35,000 tons, they would have to submit to an armament that was inferior to America and Japan.

Baron Kato said he did not quite like to enter into this argument because it fell in the category of expert discussion and perhaps he would only create greater difficulties by presenting his arguments.

Mr. Hughes thought that he and his colleagues would be enlightened if they heard Baron Kato’s view.

Baron Kato said that relative tonnage and geographical conditions created problems of a more complicated character than the mere size of a ship. He thought that from the expert point of view what Mr. Balfour had said was justified. He would call attention to the fact that each nation interested in naval power would feel a special interest in what other naval Powers were doing. If they found that what other nations were doing was of an exemplary character, they would follow suit. In regard to the protection of capital ships, England had more experience than any other nation. America also had some experience and so had Japan. If owing to her geographical situation, Great Britain found it necessary to provide special protection for her ships, other nations interested in naval matters were likely to follow suit. So in practice it amounted to this, that the geographical situation would in the end have nothing to do with the size of the ship. There was no special relation between the two because other nations would soon follow the example of Great Britain. He had not presented this view because he was neither for nor against Mr. Balfour’s proposal to increase the size to 38,000 tons. The conclusion he had come to was that the important thing was to adopt some maximum figure of tonnage as a basis of calculation; fix the size of the vessel and then leave the rest to the naval architect.

Mr. Hughes said that in any case, as regards the method of calculation, everything should be reduced to a single basis as had been done up to the present time. As the figures had been calculated on the American method, he thought it would cause great inconvenience suddenly to change to some other basis. It would be perfectly possible whatever they settled, to bring the calculations to the American basis. On that basis Mr. Balfour asked for an increase of about 3,000 tons in the maximum size of a ship. The question was whether this basis of 38,000 tons should be accepted or whether it should be raised to 43,200 tons, as proposed by Colonel Roosevelt. Taking Mr. Balfour’s first alternative proposition, he understood that it would stand in the original form except that Mr. Balfour suggested that the choice between the “Tiger” and the “Repulse” should be left to the British Admiralty. So far as the United States Admiralty was concerned, he had no objection to this.

[Page 120]

Baron Kato also agreed to this.

Mr. Hughes asked whether if the limit of 38,000 tons were conceded, Great Britain was willing to scrap four ships to compensate for the two she would be permitted to build?

Mr. Balfour replied that he was prepared to accept this.

Mr. Hughes pointed out that if the 38,000 tons were raised to 43,200 tons, as proposed by the American Delegation Col. Roosevelt, the British would presumably be allowed to build a ship of 43,200 tons and that would affect the total tonnage figures and the compensation proposed.

Colonel Roosevelt said that he would like to consult the Chief Constructor of the United States Navy in regard to the proposed 38,000 tons limit. He was the only man who could give an answer within two or three hours.

Baron Kato said that if there was any question of raising the 35,000 tons limit, he would have to consult his naval advisers.

Mr. Hughes said that now all were agreed in regard to the first proposal, if Great Britain were to build two ships of 49,000 tons it would leave the question of the future maximum in the air. He presumed that the maximum would now then have to be raised to 50,000 tons for future replacements.

Baron Kato agreed. He thought, however, that in view of the sacrifices that Great Britain had made, she should be allowed to build the two ships of 48,000 tons, but for the future, should be limited to 38,000 tons.

Mr. Balfour said that during this discussion he had been thinking the question over. He had fully explained the argument of the experts and on thinking the matter out he was not yet quite convinced that they were right. He did not pretend to be an expert himself, but looking at the matter as a layman, it seemed to him that each nation must choose whether a ship should be protected against underwater attack or whether the available tonnage should be put into gun power. He could not at the moment see why the problem should be different in a ship of 38,000 tons, than in a ship of 35,000 tons.

Mr. Hughes said that this was the argument which appealed to him. He then began to sum up the present state of the discussion. He understood that the first proposal was accepted by Mr. Balfour as one of the alternatives, with the exception that the British Admiralty should be permitted to choose between scrapping the “Repulse” or the “Tiger” and that the maximum limit for the future should be 50,000 tons.

Colonel Roosevelt suggested that the tonnage should be left at 35,000 tons, then if the situation, which it was difficult to foresee in advance, worked out in such a way that the 35,000 tons was inadequate, [Page 121] all those concerned would discover the matter and it could be thrashed out again later on.

Mr. Hughes said that he did not wish to be put in a position of being told by his experts that if he went beyond 35,000 tons he must increase at once to 43,000 tons.

Mr. Balfour said he was greatly vexed at finding himself the cause of obstructing the conclusion. He had hoped that Mr. Hughes might be able to see the French and the Italians on the following day.

Mr. Hughes said that he had contemplated calling the new Sub-Committee on Limitation of Naval Armament on the following morning. Even as it was, he might be able to see the French on the following day, but he thought he ought to see the Italians with them, as they considered that their interests ran together. What he had hoped for was to arrive at a point today when agreement would be reached, so that he might be able to approach the Italians. He also wished to be able to announce an agreement, but no-one could accomplish the impossible. What he wanted to avoid was any announcement which might perhaps be followed by a subsequent dispute.

Mr. Balfour asked if it was Mr. Hughes intention to approach the French and Italians with a concrete proposition?

Mr. Hughes said he would be glad to follow Mr. Balfour’s judgment. He wanted to avoid any statement in advance by France from which it would be impossible for her to recede. He thought the Italians would rather wish to reduce their Navy than to increase it, but no doubt, if the French claimed a certain tonnage, the Italians would be bound to follow suit. He himself would be prepared to say to the French that he felt, in view of the position in Europe, the difficulties in regard to Germany and the economic and financial situation in France itself, that the French ought not to build any new capital ships. It was bad enough for her to have to maintain a great army. If it were impossible to have a meeting on the following day, he thought he would have a private talk with the French representatives and make them a suggestion with a view to reaching an agreement. He would endeavour to forestall any absolute demand from the French Delegation and to reach an arrangement which would be good for all. He understood that France had about 220,000 tons of which only 160,000 to 170,000 tons consisted of ships which though old might be included in the category of first class. The difference in the French total from the others concerned was that in view of the depleted condition of their Navy, they could hardly be asked to scrap any ships. That put them on a different basis. It appeared to him that if France were given about 150,000 tons and were granted replacements to maintain it at 170,000 tons, this would be a fair calculation.

[Page 122]

Mr. Balfour said he was entirely in favour of Mr. Hughes seeing the French and Italians alone, but he understood that before doing so, he83 wished to be in a position to say that the Americans had agreed with the British and Japanese.

Baron Kato said that if France would accept 175,000 tons, Japan had no objection. He agreed that this was a fair figure.

Mr. Hughes again summed up the attitude he proposed to take towards France, but pointed out that if France would not accept this, it would egg on disturb the situation with the other Powers.

Mr. Balfour said that if France was unreasonable, it would compel Great Britain to claim a greater tonnage and then there would be difficulties for all.

The Conference then adjourned until 11.30 on the following day, at the State Department.

Mr. Hughes said that if agreement was reached he would summon the new Sub-Committee for the afternoon, leaving time for a previous interview with the French and Italian Delegations.

M. P. A. Hankey
  1. No agreed official minutes of this conversation were made. The American delegation used the memorandum prepared by Sir Maurice Hankey.

    The file copy of this memorandum bears corrections by Secretary Hughes. Words which he crossed out are indicated by canceled type; words which he inserted are printed in italics.

  2. Apparently refers to Mr. Hughes.