500.A15a3/113: Telegram

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

217. Your 228. Following are our comments on Prime Minister’s letter of August eighth:

In general we regard his letter as highly important and if we now correctly understand his position we think we see daylight and that it marks great progress toward agreement.

We recognize, as stated in his 1, that he must take into account his naval needs in relation to the rest of the world. We recognize, as stated in his 2, that he has to bear in mind the relationship to Japan although we do not entirely understand his 2 when he speaks of the larger and the smaller cruiser fleets because the fleets are to be at parity. If he means that Japan might insist she have the same ratio as to large cruiser units with the United States which she would have as to small cruiser units with Great Britain, we understand the Prime Minister’s meaning but we doubt if Japan would take such a position. However, we understand Japan’s wishes must be considered.

We have read Prime Minister’s 3 (a), 3 (b), and 3 (c). We think we understand them and we are not disposed to question his judgment as to the functions and as to the number of units necessary for him to carry out the functions. We understand that in general he will require 50 units for the functions described which are now carried out by cruisers.

There is one particular as to the foregoing where we are inclined to see the matter rather differently. We do not see why all these functions must be carried on by the character of cruiser you [they?] are now using. This we shall comment on later.

His 4. We are in agreement that the British figures of December 31, 1936, should be the standard of parity and we understand that (without replacements in the meanwhile) Britain will then have 49 cruisers comprised of (a) 15–8″, of which 10 are already constructed, (b) 4 Hawkins class with 7.5 guns and (c) 30 armed with 6″, which will mean that Britain will before December 31, 1936, have scrapped all cruisers completed prior to 1916.

We understand that if there are no replacements there would be practically little margin for reduction unless something should have happened in the meantime which will make the world feel differently toward peace and that the Prime Minister cannot think of figures beyond 1936. We also understand that whether or not it will be possible to fix the first resting place upon the 1936 position depends upon international agreement.

His 5. We are willing to agree to take the December 31st, 1936, position [Page 191] as a temporary goal to be worked for subject to such provisos as either of us now find necessary to state. We understand that instead of stopping replacements as we have urged, the Prime Minister feels that there must be a minimum program of building and he proposes, as we understand it, during the period from now until 1936 to scrap six cruisers completed in 1916 plus those completed prior to that date, making a total scrapped of fourteen. (The three cruisers now on the sale list Conquest, Birmingham, and Yarmouth are considered as having been already scrapped and are not subject to the present discussion.) The foregoing fourteen cruisers are to be replaced by seven. We assume that the cruisers he means to scrap are the oldest cruisers then on his list, that is, those completed in 1916. Is that correct?

He does not state the particular boats to be scrapped or the tonnage of the boats to be built for replacement. That is important and we should be glad if we could be particularly advised both as to type and tonnage of replacements whether they are the new type of 6,500 ton 6-inch gun ships or whether they are 4,000 ton type. We make a further suggestion on this point later on.

His 6. We realize that he has a number of cruisers going out between 1936 and 1940 so that those years may see extensive building if the world shall not have changed.

His 7. We will deal with his inquiry later in this message.

His 8 we understand. We also understand that the arrangements which are being suggested between us are contingent upon the success of the five-power conference, although we urge and shall continue to urge that it be consummated upon agreement by Japan, Britain and the United States. It is earnestly hoped, however, that France and Italy will join but if that cannot be effected Britain, Japan and ourselves may well come to agreement containing clause covering contingency of menacing building program on part of any non-signatory power.

His 9. In regard to the covering political agreement which was suggested in our previous messages, we are willing to abide by the Prime Minister’s decision to leave that question out of consideration for the moment and only resort to it if other plans fail.

His 10. We are sympathetic with what the Prime Minister says as to doubting the advisability of a transfer of destroyer tonnage to the cruiser denomination, and we agree it may be dangerous in the light of five power conference problems particularly relating to submarines, and we are willing for the present to leave that out of the attempt to reach agreement. For the purposes of this negotiation we agree, as he states, that the Prime Minister cannot take the necessary police craft off the seas and that he cannot make an agreement with the United States alone, which will leave him at the mercy of powers with which he has no agreement or a very imperfect one.

[Page 192]

There are several additional questions raised by his letter to which we desire to explain our position. In his 10 he states that he believes our somewhat different requirements can be met by “give and take” and by a yardstick; and in his 7 he refers to our constant reference to absolute tonnage as standing in the way of clear vision. In his 7 he again presses for us to produce a yardstick “to let us see where we are in actual effective strength”. The friendly frankness of the Prime Minister deserves to be met in a similarly sincere spirit and this we have been trying to do. Let us try again, even more specifically, to make our position absolutely clear. Parity from our viewpoint is not only an essential element in our negotiations but we believe it to be the underlying reform in the relations of our two countries from which we hope the greatest future benefits will be obtained. As the President pointed out in his Memorial Day address35 it transforms the relation of Britain and America from one of competition to one of cooperation in respect to armaments. It relieves the atmosphere from the psychology of potential war and transforms it into one of friendly agreement. So long as both countries understand they are not to outbuild each other, the incentive to build is removed. It is a practical method of inculcating among the people at large of both countries the spirit which the Prime Minister describes in his 1 as being his own attitude towards the United States.

The Prime Minister can see that from this standpoint parity must not only be substantially real but must be recognizable as such by the people of both countries. It must not be a matter of such difficult technique that each people will think the other is outwitting it. For this reason we can never get very far away from the quantitative aspect of parity which has hitherto been used in such negotiations.

In previous negotiations the only criterion of comparison which the United States has used has been the easily understood criterion of displacement tonnage. Realizing that this has not succeeded in meeting existing conditions for both countries, we advanced at Geneva the suggestion of a yardstick; and we have desired that when consultations or conferences are held there might result from them substantial agreement among the naval experts of all countries to make allowances for the factors of age and gun calibre which would discount absolute tonnages. We assumed that the use of the yardstick would apply particularly to the cruiser category and felt that within that category the discounts must inevitably be somewhat in favor of Britain, simply because its cruiser fleet will in 1936 be older and will contain a larger number of small cruiser units of less gun calibre. It had been hoped in the beginning that a yardstick might perhaps be devised which would measure and make possible a marginal exchange of tonnages between categories. The Prime Minister (See [Page 193] his letter of July 29 contained in your 211)36 came to the definite conclusion that it would not be wise to use the yardstick excepting within the cruiser category. In that decision, which obviously limited the use of the yardstick, we acquiesced. (See our 174, paragraph E, (c).)37 We have hitherto made clear the simple character of this suggested yardstick and its elements. If those elements are agreed upon the only technical question remaining, as we have already pointed out, will be the values to be assigned to these elementary factors. Of course, we may be quite wrong in thinking that it is possible to obtain agreement among all naval experts on this subject. The expression in the Prime Minister’s 7 gives us the impression that the naval experts with whom he has talked say very different things to him than our experts say to us, and we cannot be sure just where a yardstick, if finally agreed upon, will lead. But what we wish to make clear is that this new suggested instrument of agreement, the yardstick, in order to fulfill the purpose of its genesis cannot be allowed to be carried to such lengths as will be difficult for the ordinary citizens of either country to understand. The average citizen of both countries in comparing fleets will always be largely guided by a quantitative basis. Frankly, we do not believe the American public would ever accept such a ratio as that stated in the Prime Minister’s 7, namely “that the 8–inch cruisers are worth in the event of a fight almost an infinity of smaller craft and guns.” On the contrary, we are advised by our experts that inasmuch as the armor of an 8-inch cruiser is, and necessarily must be, penetrable by 6–inch guns, the ratio of the respective fighting capacity of these two classes of cruisers, particularly in fleet action, reduces substantially to the ratio of the destructive power of 8-inch guns with their greater range against that of the 6-inch guns with their much greater rapidity of fire; and this ratio is very far from infinity. We are advised that the chief governing reason which compels the United States to depend upon the larger cruisers instead of the smaller is their greater cruising Radius made necessary in our case by the absence of naval bases.

Now in conducting our present negotiations, inasmuch as it has been clear from the beginning that the United States having during the past ten years allowed its cruiser program to fall behind must in any event build in order to reach any parity, we thought that we could ascertain the point at which the Prime Minister is willing to check Britain’s cruiser strength and then secure what would be parity with that point in displacement tonnage, realizing that whatever discounts the yardstick would thereafter create would simply mean that the United States would have to build just so much less in order to reach parity. This still seems to us the sound method of figuring and the one most [Page 194] likely to reach agreement, particularly because Britain states absolute needs and we are willing to put parity in cruisers in 1936 as low as Britain will agree. Following out this method, if we assume from the Prime Minister’s last letter that his replacements to be made before 1936 will not increase his aggregate displacement tonnage beyond the amount of 330,000 displacement tons of cruisers (this assumes replacement cruisers about 4,000 tons each), we believe that speaking generally parity could only be reached by building our total program of 23 large cruisers. This means that in addition to our ten 7,050 ton cruisers of the Omaha class (aggregating 70,500 tons) the United States would have 23 10,000 ton 8-inch cruisers (aggregating 230,000 tons) or a total displacement tonnage of both types of 300,500 tons. The yardstick, from such light as we now have upon it, would about cover the resulting difference of 30,000 tons. Parity would then be fixed at the point stated by the Prime Minister’s letter. He will understand that we are not questioning the complete sincerity of that letter when we say that such a result is to us disappointing, because we hoped to see parity placed at such a point where it would mean reduction on our part as well as on his, and would allow us to build less than our full program.

The Prime Minister may argue that the difference of 30,000 tons which we have indicated as the result of the application of the yardstick is disappointing to him because he thinks it too low. It is, however, the figure which is now reported to us. It is subject to change or reconsideration after conference if it can be shown that it is not soundly based on the true facts as to the respective fleets or if it be shown technically erroneous. When in considering the yardstick it is realized that since both fleets as of 1936 will show fifteen 8-inch units, it becomes clear that the function of the yardstick is really to measure the relative combatant strength of the remainder of the two fleets. The remainder of the United States fleet is only 150,000 tons on which a discount of 30,000 tons would amount to a discount of 20 per cent. Even if the Prime Minister should believe that the discount should be as high as 30 per cent instead of 20 per cent and our naval experts are convinced after conference that the Prime Minister’s view was correct, the yardstick would result in reducing our total program only from 23 to 21 cruisers.

It is for this reason we draw hope from the words of his 10 “I am also examining the possibility of a smaller police craft”. As we read his letter as a whole it is convincing as to his need of craft to perform the police functions. At this point we suggest a new idea in the creation of a new term of “police cruisers” which shall be built for that purpose alone—their character to be radically changed from the types of ships we both now use for these purposes in that they should not exceed say 4,000 tons, have limited armament, and slow speed. Such [Page 195] boats would have small combatant value. That the British should in this police work use the cruisers which they now have until 1936 we easily understand but if they could make replacements mentioned in this new type it would still further relax our building program,—the United States to have a right to build a like tonnage of that same type of craft. If we both had the right to build, there would be parity and if Britain would build these police cruisers not only would they serve police functions but they would greatly reduce the total offensive naval armament and thus let both of us fairly show the people of the world that we are reducing our fleets. More than that, such a course would, it seems, make the whole problem easier vis-à-vis Japan and the other nations because it would distinctly lessen the number of United States large cruisers without lessening the number of Britain’s large cruisers and thus would go far to meet our problems.

We have not in the least ceased our desire to come to agreement with the Prime Minister. We find the keenest satisfaction in that he has come to grips with his figures and is dealing with his crucial questions, and in spite of some disappointment we feel that Britain and the United States are today nearer real and complete agreement in the light of the true facts understood by both of us than we have ever been.

This seems to deal with all the questions in the Prime Minister’s letter save perhaps what he says about the spirit of “give and take.” If by the spirit of “give and take” he means that the United States should approach conference without pettiness, we can give him a satisfactory assurance, but we do think the problem essentially a quantitative one, that we must so defend it before our people if agreement is reached, and that the spirit of give and take may ease our differences but cannot change that nature of the problem.

  1. Ante, p. 113.
  2. Ante, p. 166.
  3. Ante, p. 141.