The Minister in Switzerland (Wilson) to the Secretary of State

No. 209
L. N. No. 1023

Sir: I have the honor to refer to my previous despatches and telegrams relative to the fourth session of the Preparatory Commission for Disarmament, and to submit herewith certain reflections with which it seems desirable to occupy our thoughts in anticipation of the next session which will take place on March 15th. Certain new elements have entered into the situation,—that is to say the presence of the Russian delegation and the existence of the Security Committee. These elements and the point to which the discussion has progressed, have to a certain extent changed the problem and [Page 236]make it necessary again to take stock of where we stand and what line of policy we should follow in the future.

It is of course of secondary importance from the point of substance, but undoubtedly the Russian resolution3 will come up for “debate in the next meeting of the Preparatory Commission, and in anticipation of this it would be well that our delegation should receive careful instructions from the Government as to what attitude should be taken. You will desire to give a judgment, I think, upon the advisability from the American point of view of entering the arena definitely against this resolution. If you consider it advisable that we should play a minor role in this debate, I believe it would be quite possible for us to take the position that whatever might have been said as to the value of the idea, the form of the resolution is such in itself that we could not discuss it or even cast a vote on it. In this case we need have no fear that we will be left alone, since it is certain that many other nations will wage the battle against the Russians, which in its essence more nearly concerns them than us. If, on the other hand, you are of the opinion that the moment is ripe in the United States for certain definite pronouncements relative to this proposal, the debate would offer us the best sort of sounding board for the expression of any views which we might care to put out. If the Department does think it might be advisable to follow the latter course, the nature of the statement might well be reserved for future discussion, since there are various forms in which such a pronouncement could be made.

In regard to the real work of the Preparatory Commission, it appears problematical whether the Commission will begin a prolonged session as scheduled on March 15. As I have reported previously, the Security Committee will meet on February 20; even if they continue their debates through the March meeting of the Council they will have had barely three weeks in which to discuss a question of which no one can foresee the complexity and extent. It seems highly improbable, therefore, that on March 15 the Security Committee will be able to report any definite achievement to the Preparatory Commission, which situation will leave the delegates in the same state of mind in which they undertook the first reading of the convention in the third session; in other words, that feeling of security which the Security Committee has been summoned to create will hardly be present in the minds of the participating States as early as March 15. On the other hand, it seems unlikely that a further postponement of the gesture of the meeting of the Preparatory Commission will be made. Whatever [Page 237]the desires of the majority of the States, and whatever feeling of insecurity still remains, undoubtedly the German delegation, aided by or aiding the Russians, will press for an immediate second reading of the convention.4 The efforts of these delegations will be strengthened in the minds of the other delegates by the insistence in the Assembly on the part of all the small powers for further efforts to reach prompt and tangible results on the disarmament question. The resultant of these two forces may well take the form of a perfunctory meeting of the Preparatory Commission which will from time to time and on varied excuses resolve itself into meetings of the Security Committee; it must be constantly borne in mind that aside from the American delegation, all the members of the Preparatory Commission are also members of the Security Committee, with the exception of the Russians, who act as observers when the Security Committee is sitting.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I turn now to the more important question of what the attitude of the American delegation should be in the event that the debate becomes more than perfunctory. As I said in the preceding paragraph, the technical phase of the Preparatory Commission is ended, and the views of the various governments are pretty thoroughly known. If we have no concessions to make, no modification of the position previously taken by us, it would seem clear that we have no chance of contributing in a constructive manner to the labors of the Commission. In this connection I venture to recall to the Department the difficulties attendant upon our making our position as to control and organization in the proposed draft disarmament convention so clearly known at the third session, that we were able to escape from the concentrated convergent movement to hold us up to world public opinion as the chief obstructionist necessarily rendering the labors of the Commission abortive. I am referring specifically to the situation which culminated, so fortunately for us, in Mr. Gibson’s speech of April 13 last5 and the reception accorded it by the rest of the Commission—a reception which, as the Department will recall, was only brought about after very arduous preparation outside of the conference room. Although we weathered that storm, the various delegations still have it in mind that on a fundamental point we were the leaders in taking a position which rendered agreement on any draft convention vastly more difficult. If in the forthcoming stage of the Commission we must adopt a similar uncompromising attitude on various points both of substance and of procedure, we shall lay ourselves peculiarly open [Page 238]to a natural attempt of the other delegations to shift onto us the onus of their, as well as our, failure to reach agreement. It therefore now becomes necessary to examine in some detail the record of the third session, and see on what points the Government may find it possible to offer some concession.

Without now going into detail on the various questions which were raised in the first reading of the third session, I submit for your consideration a possible procedure which might enable us to escape the reproach of obstructionism and at the same time retain for ourselves an active participation in those problems of primary importance to us. You may care to consider the advisability of allowing the delegation to state at some early stage in the proceedings that the American Government has given careful thought to the manner in which it could best be helpful in securing an accord which will be of real benefit; that we believe our army is so small and is reduced to such a point that any plan adopted would leave us a considerable margin beyond our present strength; that therefore unless our views are asked for or unless unforeseen circumstances arise, we propose, subject to the limitations expressed in Mr. Gibson’s speech of April 13th on the subject of control, to abstain from debate on questions affecting the army in the hope that those nations with large armies will be able to work out for themselves some satisfactory basis of limitation; that our Government will then give most sympathetic consideration to the question of whether we can fall in with this plan, and in view of the already reduced army of the United States we hope and believe that our participation will be practicable. We have thus left to the military powers the solution of the question which primarily concerns them, as we believe that it can be most readily and effectively handled by them. On the other hand, we believe that as regards naval problems the greatest hope lies in having them handled by nations possessing large navies, and we suggest that the same procedure of courteous abstention on the part of non-navy powers which we propose to follow relative to armies might also carry the restriction of navies to a successful conclusion.

If the Department thinks well of this general policy in principle, I should be glad to submit more detailed suggestions. However, there is one point of substance which is so immediately important that I believe it should be submitted now, in order that the Department may have the longest possible time in which to give it consideration. Our attitude as to the limitation of navies may bring us into a position where we stand alone against the entire Conference. Recollection of the Conference for the Limitation of Naval Armament this summer brings clearly to my mind the fact that the Japanese delegation was ready and anxious to fall in with practically any plan which would [Page 239]enable them to maintain roughly the 3–5 ratio and at the same time not spend another dollar on building; furthermore, the British building program appeared from behind every proposal the British made; they came back again and again with what they called proposals, and in each case when the non-essentials were stripped away the framework of the building program emerged unchanged. This would seem to show that the British are at present laying more emphasis on the necessity for the maintenance of this program that [than] they are on limitation by tonnage,—a state of mind in which they are not far removed from the final compromise proposal offered by Paul Boncour toward the end of the first reading (see pages 225 et seq.6). It would not be any great jump for the British to accept the Boncour proposal as a basis for discussion in the next session, and it requires even less a stretch of the imagination to believe that the Japanese would acquiesce therein. Such a situation would leave us absolutely alone if we maintain rigidly our present thesis.

I am convinced of the essential soundness of our stand in regard to methods of naval limitation; it is in fact the only one which I believe will constitute a reasonable limitation in which we can regard the building programs of other nations without misgiving. It is to be borne in mind, however, that if the British abandon the stand which they took by our side during the work of the earlier sessions of the Preparatory Commission, and the Japanese take similar steps from different motives, we may readily find ourselves in an entirely isolated and distinctly uncomfortable position, regardless of the merits of our program. I feel that this situation may very readily arise, and that it is desirable that the Department give its most serious consideration at this early date to the course which should be followed by our representative at the next meeting of the Preparatory Commission; that it should consider whether there is any method by which our position can be maintained without laying us open to the charge of obstruction and without standing inconclusively for a lost cause. I confess that this seems almost impossible of achievement, and that it may be necessary for the Department, in view of the broader issues involved, to consider whether there is any measure of concession which can be made in return for a reciprocal concession which will secure the results we seek without jeopardizing our essential principles or compromising the position which we will probably have to maintain in the conference which will be called in 1931.

I have [etc.]

Hugh R. Wilson
  1. Resolution submitted Nov. 30, 1927 “to proceed immediately to the working out in detail of a draft Convention for complete and general disarmament …” See League of Nations, Documents of the Preparatory Commission, Series V (C.667.M.225.1927.BC), p. 11.
  2. For draft texts drawn up to serve as a basis for discussion at the second reading, see League of Nations, Documents of the Preparatory Commission, Series IV (C.310.M.109.1927.IX), p. 383.
  3. See telegram No. 234, Apr. 13, 1927, 1 p.m., from Geneva, Foreign Relations, 1927, vol. i, p. 200.
  4. i. e., League of Nations, Documents of the Preparatory Commission, Series IV.