500.A15a3/113: Telegram

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

228. Following is text of Prime Minister’s letter just received and modified as explained in my 225, August 7, 1 p.m.

“Lossiemouth, August 8th.

My Dear General: According to my promise I put down in writing the matters of importance dealt with in our conversation of the 6th instant at which Mr. Gibson and the First Lord were present.

I have been studying very closely whilst in Lossiemouth the recent despatches sent to me in reply to my letter to you last week with a view to discovering whether I am able to meet Mr. Hoover’s double desire to get parity as well as reduction. The crux of the problem is the cruiser category and upon that it is necessary for me to make one or two observations because I do not think that Mr. Hoover sees in detail what my position is and it is necessary that it should be understood.

Were the question of cruiser tonnage one between the United States and us alone there would be no difficulty. You could build as much as you like or as little as you like. I should not trouble, because the Government declines to make any provisions for the possibility of the United States being an enemy. Therefore I think that Washington is pressing me unduly when it asks me to reduce naval figures compiled solely on account of our needs in relation to the rest of the world.
American building however does affect me indirectly. Japan may say, were your cruisers much in excess of theirs, that whatever ratio it accepts must be in relation to the larger and not the smaller fleet. That owing to the United States building would compel me to retain a Japanese relationship which would impose a heavy program upon theirs [sic].
In order that an idea may be had of why our cruiser figures appear to be high, the following facts should in fairness be kept in mind.
The British fleet is not one unit. If it were, I could reduce considerably. It is scattered into different and remote divisions each with functions to perform relating to peace and not to war conditions. I know that if war broke out concentration would naturally take place but that cannot be helped. I really cannot neglect peace duties in order to avoid the suspicion that war is in our minds all the time. [Page 187] Let me state what the cruiser disposition today is so that what I now say may be plain:
  • First. With our two main fleets—the Atlantic and the Mediterranean—there are three 8-inch and twelve 6-inch cruisers (in September there will be four and eleven respectively).
  • Second. On foreign stations (China and Australia) there are seven and twelve respectively.
  • Third. Two are at home on instructional duties.
  • Fourth. Fourteen are in reserve or undergoing large repairs.
  • Fifth. Four are in care and maintenance.
You will at once see how this division of the whole fleet necessitates the maintenance of figures higher than if the fleet operated as one unit.
Put it another way. Australia, New Zealand and the numerous islands for which we are responsible in the southern Pacific, are policed by four cruisers in commission and two in reserve, and remember these are the only resources we have in the event of civil trouble or lawlessness breaking out. India, Burma, the Malay Straits, Somaliland, Kenya, the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean islands are policed by three cruisers and a few sloops which barely can make one visit a year to necessary ports. When one visualizes what the function and necessary work of the cruisers are and when my high figures are apportioned to duties, one begins to see the difficulty of a drastic reduction.
The cruiser category for me is therefore only partly a fighting category and is to a considerable extent a police category. (That gives us a possible chance of an agreement if we could decide upon police units which, however, must be habitable [for?] the troops as I must consider the comforts of the men.)
I have been working at a scheme which would make British figures in 1936 the standard of parity. Then without replacement in the meanwhile we should have fifteen 8-inch and thirty-four 6-inch ships, a total of forty-nine. I hope that you will see in the light of the above functions of cruisers that there is not much margin for reduction unless in the meantime by our united efforts we can make the world feel [differently toward?] peace. But I must deal with today and it is quite impossible for me to think of figures now which are remote from today—say beyond 1936. I shall, however, steadily reduce as national security is found by other means than arms and I shall continue to work for that other security. Whether it is possible to fix as a first resting place upon the 1936 position depends upon an international agreement.
If your President would agree to this 1936 position as being a temporary maximum goal to be worked for I can see my way to meet him, subject to the proviso I have made. That position is reached by the ordinary operations of scrapping, but as I really feel the practicability of an absolute naval committee [reduction?], as a business proposition I would propose to scrap each year one cruiser which I would not otherwise scrap and replace it by a scheme of building which would leave us with fifty cruisers and no more.
I ought to say that that will leave me in a bit of a fix between 1936 and 1940 as cruisers fall out in bunches during these years to a total of no less than twenty-three but again that would be a matter of [Page 188] arrangement in manipulation of building. That might at times appear to be an increase but of course the whole scheme would be published so that mischief makers might be disarmed.
I again press for the production of some yardstick to let us see where we are in actual effective strength. Every text book and naval report I have consulted in order to be prepared for these conversations show that the 8–inch cruisers are worth in the event of a fight almost an infinity of smaller craft and guns. You in your 8–inch ships have more guns than are in ours and so in your Omahas. It is not profitable to talk of these ships as though their tons were of the same value. Let us know where we are. The constant reference to absolute tonnage in your recent messages stands in the way of a clear vision of either quantitative or qualitative negotiation. Your declaration at Geneva was very specific upon this point.
I emphasize the obligations placed upon me by my geographical position which the United States does not have to bear. That makes the Five-Power Conference so important to me, and I could only go as far as I have proposed if that conference is a success.
It has been suggested that we might come to a covering political agreement by which after settling figures between ourselves we might provide that, in the event of other powers building so as to [cause] either party disquiet, our agreement might be varied in consequence. We may have to resort to this, but (a) it would leave uncertainty and a possibility of serious disagreement, and (b) would lay both of us open to press stunts and manufactured panics. It should be used only as a last expedient.
I have explained the need we have for cruisers to a minimum figure irrespective of programs which compete with any other nation; I have made another suggestion for solving the problem, what the standard of parity should be, and understand that Mr. Gibson has some suggestions to advance upon that in relation to the yardstick and a transfer of destroyer tonnage to cruiser denominations that however may be dangerous in the light of the Five-Power Conference problems. I am also examining the possibility of smaller police craft. I hope I have made it clear that I shall go to the utmost possible length to meet Mr. Hoover. But there are things I cannot do. I cannot take the necessary police off the seas and I cannot make an agreement with America alone which leaves me at the mercy of powers with which I have no agreement or a very imperfect one. I believe that our somewhat different requirements can be met but give and take and a yardstick are required.

Yours very sincerely, J. Ramsay MacDonald.”

  1. Telegram in three sections.