500.A15/157: Telegram

The Ambassador in Great Britain ( Houghton ) to the Secretary of State

[Paraphrase]

39. I saw Chamberlain yesterday. Although his inclination is undoubtedly to base disarmament on visible armaments and peace strength and likewise to regard the limitation of naval forces as not having a direct relation to land forces, the situation is so complex that he is unable to stand definitely on either of those propositions. For instance he thinks that industrial strength may be considered as a factor in land disarmament. He pointed out that the French forces in Northern Africa, in Syria, even in Indochina are integral parts of French land strength and are dependent upon ability of the French to keep the Mediterranean open for transports and in that way involve naval strength.

Chamberlain made it plain that an out-and-out declaration of position such as you outlined is quite impossible for him; subject matter is too complex to admit of declaration so simple and straightforward. His attitude may be roughly summed up as follows: He is trying to carry on a common policy with Briand; to do this in matters which are really serious he must be ready to compromise on, if necessary even to sacrifice, matters of less immediate importance. He has many factors and conditions with which to deal in Europe, not to mention points of contact elsewhere which do not concern us except remotely. He cannot approach the Preliminary Conference, therefore, with a single mind in regard to disarmament. The Preliminary Conference must take its proper place and assume its proper importance in an extensive and correlated political policy.

He said to me frankly that he was unable to answer the questions I put to him, except in this general way. He urged me not to think that he was seeking to avoid giving an answer, and that I should not regard as final what he did say; he suggested that I see Lord Robert Cecil61 who, he thought, was in a position to speak more definitely. He then arranged an interview with Cecil for me.

At the outset of my conversation with Cecil he stated that the committee of experts which had been studying the agenda and entire subject for many months was only just beginning to formulate its [Page 58] report; that until this report had been submitted to Cabinet, and accepted, no final decision on any point could be reached.

Cecil’s personal view on peace strength and visible armament was that they furnished too narrow a basis. He preferred, as clearer and more satisfactory, mobilizable strength or striking force. He thought, too, that other items, such as industrial strength, must also be taken into consideration. He did not see any logical connection between land strength and naval strength and he hoped that consideration of these two separately would be possible, but he recognized that in the end this might prove impracticable.

I pointed out to him that as the United States was not a member of the League of Nations, our delegates could hardly be expected to discuss such matters as sanctions or the aid to be given by the League to a nation suffering attack. Cecil agreed. I then asked his personal view on whether he thought it possible to [disassociate] the League from the agenda. He said, frankly, that he did not think it possible. He could perceive no reason why question such as disarmament could not be discussed formally without direct reference to the League of Nations, but nevertheless, looked at from European standpoint it must in fact be related to League activities. Greatest difficulty Cecil saw was way of working out a sound ratio for ascertaining armed strength of each nation, but he believed attempt must be made to do this.

I asked him if he thought that the French had control of the Conference. He replied that he did not. He had not studied the rules governing conduct of the Conference but he felt that when a general agreement was not reached no recommendations by Conference could be made.

My conversations with both Chamberlain and Cecil were carried on in a most friendly spirit. Both gentlemen evidently desire to work with us in most open and cordial manner and mean to keep the American delegation fully advised of their attitude on every point as it develops.

The conclusion I draw is that we are about to take part in a Conference whose decisions will be determined, necessarily, in part at least by considerations of general policy which have no direct interest to the United States, and that unless we follow the British in concessions they feel it wise to make, the American delegates are likely to find themselves standing alone and thus responsible for making an agreement impossible. We shall not be able to count upon an inflexible British position or policy; they will do their best, I think, to keep disarmament within the limit of easily ascertainable facts and also to keep naval disarmament and land disarmament as distinct as possible.

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They may easily be forced to compromise. I need hardly point out that any such compromise on our part might easily lead logically and directly to relations with the League of Nations. My conclusion in this respect is perhaps a prejudiced one, and it is quite possible that we may find spirit of fairness and conciliation ruling the Conference when it actually convenes, but I am doubtful. As matters stand I believe that the real importance of Conference lies no longer entirely in working out of a standard by which a measure of disarmament may at last be obtained, but in maneuvering us into a position when our relations with the League of Nations will be substantially modified. Only if the nations represented desire disarmament is it possible. There is no one here who believes for a moment that either France or Italy, to say nothing of the others, is ready to decrease its military strength. All are willing to talk about disarmament and to express their hopes that it may be obtained; but until financial need actually forces them to reduce their armies and navies I fear that there is little reason to hope for any substantial reduction of either.

Houghton
  1. Telegram in three sections.
  2. Viscount Cecil of Chelwood, British delegate on the Preparatory Commission.