Memorandum by the Secretary to the British Empire Delegation of a Conversation at the Department of State, December 15, 1921, 11:45 a.m.84


  • Present:—
    • the united states of america
      • Mr. Hughes, accompanied by Mr. J. R. Clark
    • the british empire
      • Mr. A. J. Balfour, accompanied by Sir Maurice Hankey
    • japan
      • Baron Kato M. Ichihashi (Interpreter)

capital ships.

(1) Mr. Balfour said he was afraid it would be necessary for him to make rather a long speech. He understood, and very highly appreciated, the proposal which Mr. Hughes had sent him by telephone the same morning to increase the tonnage from 35,000 American tons to 37,000 American tons. He wished to place that on record. He must now state the British experts’ view, or what he conceived to be their view. He would take what appeared to him to be the less important point first. The British experts would very much like, on practical grounds, to adopt the British and not the American method of calculating tonnage, that is to say, the method of legend tons. They had no criticism of the American [Page 123] method for internal purposes within the State, but they urged that it was a very difficult method to test for international purposes. He understood that under the American method it was assumed that two-thirds of the ammunition and supplies, food, stores and fuel, was on board, together with the crew. That involved dealing with fractions which it would be very difficult to check. Supposing the British Government built a ship, and when it was completed invited the Naval Attaches to check the tonnage; it would be very difficult for them to test whether two-thirds of the stores, etc., were actually on board. The British method, on the other hand, provided for a full complement of stores and ammunition, as well as for the crew, together with 1,000 tons of fuel. To verify these facts was a comparatively simple matter. Hence the British naval experts advocated that if there was to be an international method of calculation, as clearly there must be for this agreement, the British and Japanese system would be preferable to the American. They would prefer, if the American experts would agree, to keep the 35,000 tons limit for future ships, but to measure the tons on the British, not the American, system. Their object, of course, was not to hide away a substantial difference under a verbal similarity, but simply to obtain a more practical method of calculation.

The next argument was one which appealed especially to Mr. Balfour himself. The experts would prefer to have 35,000 legend tons, which, he must remark in parenthesis, they did not regard aa the exact equivalent of 37,000 American tons. The reason for this—and they were very earnest about it—was not because they wanted a ship which would be more effective against other surface ships or more powerful than ships of the American or Japanese navies, but in order that they might provide adequate protection against what could now be done, or what would soon be done, by aircraft and under-water attack. The three great naval Powers were all concerned in this problem, and, so far as their battle fleets were concerned, had a common interest. At the moment, no doubt, they were absorbed in discussing surface ships and in trying to reach a certain ratio of strength as between each other. The British Admiralty accepted this ratio in spirit and in truth, but they had another preoccupation. They did not want their surface ships to be shattered by means of new inventions working from the air or under water. They asserted that they could not build a deck strong enough to resist bombs that might be dropped upon it, or a hull able to resist the large torpedo-heads which would in all probability soon be in existence, without a certain tonnage displacement. Imagine, for example, that an attempt were made to construct a capital ship of 10,000 tons with such a deck and such under-water protection as he had postulated. It would certainly not be able to mount any guns, and would probably hardly float. It was essential to have a certain size to [Page 124] start with, if all the necessary protection was to be provided. They did not want to increase the armaments of these ships against surface vessels, but to obtain protection against quite other dangers. If capital ships were to remain at all, his advisers were convinced that the United States of America and Japan would follow the British example in regard to the provision of such protection. He therefore begged that the British Navy, to whom this menace was immediate and close, should not be asked to build ships insufficiently protected against the form of attack which was most to be feared. That, in his view, was the strong part of the experts’ case.

Mr. Hughes asked what was the concrete proposition?

Mr. Balfour said his concrete proposal was that 35,000 legend tons, which he was informed was roughly equivalent to 38,000 American tons, should be adopted.

Mr. Hughes said there were two points to be considered. First, as to the standard for determining the maximum tonnage for replacement, and, second, the standard to be adopted for the two British ships. In regard to the first point he had not the slightest objection to the adoption of 35,000 legend tons, as adopted by the British and Japanese, instead of the American tonnage basis. A point to have in mind, however, was that in any statement that might be made, nothing should be said which would cause any misunderstanding on the subject. The difference between the two methods was rather difficult for public explanation. He understood that the British experts arrived at a different calculation in converting legend tons into American tons. He himself was quite content to take the calculations of the American experts. They said that 4 or 5 per cent was the maximum measure of difference, and they maintained that 35,000 legend tons were the equivalent of 37,000 American tons. This was not a difference which affected the principle. In any announcement, however, he would couple with the statement that 35,000 legend tons was to be adopted as the standard, a statement that there was a difference of 2,000 tons according to the American calculations between legend and American tonnage. If the British calculations were different, it did not affect the question. Thus, in adopting legend tons there was no difference between them in principle. In considering the application of the legend tonnage to the two new ships, the legend tonnage could be translated again into American tonnage in the same terms. Once again there was no difference in principle. Even if it was a fact that the American experts had not so accurate a method of calculation as the British, it did not really make much odds. As a matter of fact, the American experts considered that the 35,000 legend tons would work out at under 37,000 tons, and that the difference would only be 1,750 tons.

The more he thought the matter over the more concerned he was with the British proposal to build 49,000 ton ships. The fact was that [Page 125] if this were done the idea would get abroad that Great Britain was starting to build something very much larger than had been known before; it would make people think that the agreement being reached did not make for peace, and would create a strong desire among all the Governments to increase the tonnage of their ships. Thus it might eventually lead to a serious disturbance of the programme. If the British Government would abandon that, it would be a great relief to his mind. He was not prepared to say “No” to it, but it would make a very great difference if the British Government could abandon it. There was also the question of the money cost, which must be very serious to Great Britain, but his main point was the bad appearance it would make. The public would ask why Great Britain required a larger ship than anyone else. That was how the question appealed to him.

Mr. Balfour withdrew at this point to consult Admiral Chatfield. On his return,

Mr. Hughes told Mr. Balfour that Baron Kato said the Japanese did not use the legend basis of tonnage.

Mr. Balfour then said that, although he did not quite like acting without referring to his Government, the new situation seemed to throw upon him the duty of coming to an immediate decision. He was immensely impressed with the importance of avoiding further delay. Harm had been done by the delays which had already occurred, and by the continual and inexplicable leakage in the Press, and he felt it was of the utmost importance to get on with the discussion of the French and Italian ratios. He therefore proposed to take the responsibility, on behalf of his Government, of accepting the scheme under which Great Britain would have the right to build two capital ships of 35,000 legend tons, and in exchange would scrap the four King George Vths when the new ships were completed.

Baron Kato said that this arrangement would be quite satisfactory to him.

Mr. Hughes thanked Mr. Balfour for his statement, which he said was very satisfactory to him.

Mr. Balfour repeated that this decision must be subject to the conclusion of a reasonable arrangement as regards the French and Italian navies.

Mr. Hughes agreed.

Baron Kato asked that the understanding in regard to a status quo in fortifications should not be overlooked.

Mr. Hughes then sent for a Stenographer, and dictated, in the presence of his colleagues, the statement reproduced in the Appendix.85

[Page 126]

During the above dictation Mr. Balfour asked that in the first sentence it might not be stated as a definite agreement but that some such term as “Heads of Agreement” might be employed.

Mr. Hughes amended the draft to include the words “Points of Agreement”. He said he thought it would be necessary to have a Treaty in regard to this arrangement, and, subject to ratification, it must state the agreement in regard to the naval ratio, the status quo in fortifications, and the arrangement of ships between the Powers concerned. The number of ships had now been fixed on the assumption of agreement between France and Italy.

Baron Kato agreed in this.

Mr. Balfour agreed.

Baron Kato asked whether, in the draft, it had been explained that it applied only to capital ships?

Mr. Hughes consulted the Stenographer, and ascertained that this was the case.

procedure in regard to france and italy.

(2) Mr. Hughes then described the course of procedure he proposed as regards France and Italy. He would ask M. Sarraut and M. Jusserand to meet him at 2–30, and he would call a meeting of the new Sub-Committee on the Limitation of Armament at 4 p.m. at the Pan-American Building. He would also see the Italian Delegates before this meeting. He proposed to thresh out the question, as far as possible, with the French and Italian Delegates beforehand. He would begin by telling them what had been agreed upon and what it was proposed to make public. His line of argument with the French Delegation would be that a calculation had been made in regard to their relative strength. The French had about 220,000 tons of capital ships, of which 170,000 tons were Dreadnoughts. If these were reduced on the same scale of scrapping as had been adopted for America and the British Empire it would involve a reduction of 40 per cent: that is to say, the French strength would come down to 132,000 tons in capital ships, and Italy would have rather less. It was necessary, however, to recognise the special difficulties of France, who had not been able to build during the War, and not to ask her to scrap ships. Consequently his advisers calculated that a fair proportion would be 175,000 tons. This would give France about 43,000 tons more than she was entitled to, and this would be a fair compensation for the fact that she had not been able to build. Strictly speaking, the Italian ratio came out at 148,000 tons, but he was prepared to allow to her the same as to France. He would not insist on Italy scrapping any ships. He would leave to France what she had in capital ships, but when it came to replacement he [Page 127] would insist that she must reduce to 175,000 tons. If they demurred to this proposal he would tell them that the principle had not been reached on an academic calculation of national needs but on the basis of the present situation. He would also be prepared to tell them that in the present economic situation of France, which he regretted, he did not see how she could build capital ships. He would invite them to make these proposals at the Sub-Committee themselves but if this request embarrassed them he would undertake to make them himself. He would press them, however, not to make any statement at the Sub-Committee which would in any way commit them.

Mr. Balfour said that this was, in his view, an admirable method of dealing with the situation.

Baron Kato agreed.

Mr. Hughes said that he would first see the French and then the Italian Delegation. He would be perfectly frank with them, but he had some reason to believe that in the end they would yield to pressure. As soon as capital ships had been dealt with he proposed that the Sub-Committee should take up the question of auxiliaries, after which they should proceed to a discussion on submarines, in regard to which he understood the British Empire Delegation would have something to say.

Mr. Balfour said that he was bound to ask for the abolition of submarines. He was somewhat disturbed about the application of the ratio to cruisers. He quite agreed, as regards the auxiliaries of the fleet, that the same ratio must be applied as was applied to the fleets themselves, but it was necessary to consider the special position of the British Empire, owing to its distant Possessions and the difficulty of keeping open communications.

Mr. Hughes said that if the question of capital ships could be got out of the way these other special points could be taken up and discussed in the Committee.

After a short further discussion in regard to the manner in which the question of cruisers and the auxiliaries should be handled, the meeting was adjourned.

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.

  2. The appendix referred to is not attached to the file copy of this memorandum. The statement as issued to the press is printed infra.