500.A15a3/130: Telegram

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

242. The following undated letter40 has just been received from Lossiemouth.

“My dear General: I have now had time to study the note you sent to me on the 16th instant. The delay has been caused by my having to [Page 197] consult some of my experts regarding the practical effect of certain proposals in it.

Once again I appreciate its frankness in dealing with our practical difficulties. I am a little disappointed by the indications in it that the yardstick is not to make very much difference in the calculations of displacement tonnage which was the rock upon which the Geneva Conference foundered. We seem to be like the fox and the stork who invited each other to dinner which each served up in turn in utensils from which only one could eat. From the yardstick with some reductions I hoped we could devise a vessel convenient for both.
As I should like that there should be no misunderstanding about what I wrote in my last about Japanese and American building I shall repeat it. My argument was that though Great Britain is not likely to build against America as all parties here are opposed to it, if America were to continue to build against us you might put so many cruisers upon the sea that Japan might be forced to say that whatever ratio it had to adopt that ratio had to be calculated in relation to the American fleet and not to ours. Only in this indirect way would American building affect British programs because we could not be indifferent to that.
I fully understand value of the word ‘parity’ in the minds of the American people and I have made it clear that it raises no hostility in ours. I have also made it clear that the British standard must be determined by obligations which I have described; that my task is to value these obligations in terms of a fleet just sufficient to fulfill them and that I regard that valuation as something which must fluctuate as peace conditions fluctuate. As the President knows, the President’s Government has already taken great strides forward in creating a machinery for making the peace pact effective. The Government’s view is that as security by pacific means advances, so security vainly sought by arms will disappear.
I have looked ahead as far as 1936 and have proposed to arrange programs of building so that, assuming an agreement with other powers, the British fleet of cruisers all told will be forty nine or fifty at the outside. These figures express the outlook of 1929. In the meantime eyes will be kept open and, though I can make no promises, the President may be assured that any justification which may arise for carrying out a more effective peace program will be used. Great Britain does not wish a useless or superfluous warship to sail the seas.
In the process of reduction we might agree to a lengthening of the life of cruisers so that the amount of rebuilding for displacement would be reduced. As regards some ships rushed through the yards during the war, this might be awkward for us as they are really not in good condition for much further sea service but the problem they present need not obstruct an agreement.
As regards the wider agreement with other countries which we both contemplate I have already agreed to an understanding with Japan and, us two failing, a satisfactory arrangement with France and Italy as well and in that event I have proposed and you have agreed to a proviso that if either of the parties to the tripartite agreement find that that agreement is laying it open to danger, the agreement shall be subject to an arrangement which will enable the threatened signatory to make adequate provision for its safety. I agree to this only after every effort has been made to make the others reasonable [Page 198] because the political effect of leaving them out might be uncomfortable and have naval reactions.
I threw out the suggestion that our visiting and police work might be done by a type of minor craft and that is being studied. Many points have to be considered, e. g., accommodation for crews, the arm needs of a police force, tropical conditions on board small craft, their yardstick value, et cetera, and an answer to this cannot be hurried. For the moment the idea had better be kept to provide a margin within which my actions may be better than my promises.
In all this, the Government must carry the Dominions with it.
Taking all these into account I am advised that the figures I gave in my last letter go right to the bone and must be taken as the minimum to which the Government at present can commit itself.
For Great Britain they are a considerable reduction on the Geneva figures and on the present fleet and they are a still greater reduction in the program of building announced two or three years ago. With this reduction we should be prepared to go to the Preparatory Commission on disarmament and show that they would lead to a substantial reduction in world naval armaments if other countries would respond.
The note upon which I am commenting deals with the above proposals. If the United States puts equivalents on the water I am told it means building though considerably short of its full program. I should like to meet the President in no niggardly or niggling way but I really cannot go below minimum requirements under present conditions and the proposals I have indicated depend upon an agreement with the other powers.
Parity when all is said and done must have some quantitative expression. The President may admit that the British fleet is constructed with no thought of the United States and that its minimum requirements are fixed for purposes which would be real even if no United States lay on the map of the world. He is nevertheless committed to parity and parity he must show. Parity with the British fleet is to him the same necessity as the work I have described is to me. There is no going beyond that. But I hoped that the yardstick might have helped us to strip from our problem whatever is really nonessential in it. Your note tells me that no yardstick would make a greater difference than thirty thousand tons. That is not to be sneezed at but still it is disappointing as an equivalent for the numbers of small cruisers which we have to maintain not as possibilities for war but absorbing necessities for peace. As possibilities for war a proportion of them would be scrapped tomorrow, as necessities for peace they are barely sufficient.
I do not forget that in the event of a war these cruisers would be turned from police to war purposes. But,
We are both working unwearyingly to remove this possibility and I have always insisted that we must take a reasonable risk that the other fellow means to honor his signature.
As fighting vessels the smaller cruiser is on a much lower plane than this would imply. If your board of admiralty were to go to sea with small cruisers to meet an enemy of large cruisers how many of the former would you want in proportion to the larger to give them a dog’s chance of victory? The experts in naval matters whom I have [Page 199] consulted and have shown the observations in your note, reply in writing ‘these arguments are clearly without foundation having regard to the experience of the war’.
To sum up the actual questions which we have brought ourselves to face are:
Can the United States accommodate itself either by building and/or by a yardstick to our minimum and what in an actual quantitative program does it mean especially in the category of cruisers?
Can we agree to a program of lengthening years and replacement which would put us in a position mutually satisfactory in 1936?
Upon (b) it appears that we can come to an agreement quite easily. The difficulty is in (a).
I have put the proposals and comments of your note into a table so that we may see how we stand. This is the result in terms of the 1936 standard:
  • Great Britain 8-inch cruisers, 15; Omaha, none; 6–inch cruisers, 35.
  • United States, 23; 10; none.
A superiority of eight 8-inch cruisers is an impossible proposition to take to our people labeled ‘parity’ especially as supported by ten ships of your Omaha caliber and alternative, our fifteen being supported by thirty-five 6-inch ships. We might go to the country and say that we have found it impossible to agree, and that the United States is to build such and such a program and we might advise that our own program should make no response. But to say that we accept this table as parity would make people turn and rend us. An agreed parity must commend itself to our [people?] as well as to those of the United States.
I have been working upon the prospects held out at Geneva. My papers record that on the 23rd ultimo April Mr. Gibson informed our delegate at Geneva that the plan then suggested would give the American navy superiority over the British of one or two 10,000, 8-inch cruisers and give the British navy superiority over America of some thirty 6,400 tons, 6-inch cruisers. That I have met generously, and the margin of strength shown in the suggestions I have made is less than in that estimate but even as a basis of discussion it had now been completely departed from in your last note and we are back to all intents and purposes upon dead as against effective tonnage with results shown in the above table. This is the Geneva deadlock.
Furthermore during our conversation on the 17th June you told me that as soon as the Government at Washington had made up its mind about the yardstick formula at which it was working it would be communicated to His Majesty’s Government in confidence. Now, without any indication of what the formula is, this note informs me that it provides for a margin of only 30,000 tons, e. g., eight extra 8-inch cruisers and ten Omaha calibers only add one-tenth to the effective strength of the United States cruisers in comparison with ours. Surely on the face of it there is something wrong in such a calculation. I should like to see the formula which gives that result. Surely, we ought to exchange views upon it before we declare its influence in determining for one of us a decision regarding parity [Page 200] standards. Could I not see the formula in order to study it and comment upon it?
I am getting disturbed about my visit to America. I see in this one of the most beneficial moves that could be made in the present state of the world. Every one with a vision must see that the demonstration of our two countries standing side by side for fellowship and peace will greatly move the world, whereas the abandonment of the visit or its postponement till next year will have a correspondingly depressing effect. But the House of Commons meets at the end of October and I cannot be absent beyond say the first week of the session. What is done must be done quickly. On Saturday week I go to Geneva and for the 28th of September I have a “call upon” steamer accommodation for New York.

With all my best wishes, I am, my dear General, always zealous, J. Ramsay MacDonald.”

As arranged (see my 240, August 19, 4 p.m.41) I met the Prime Minister at Elgin on Friday, August 23. Prior to the receipt by me of the letter transmitted above I received a letter from him dated Lossiemouth, August 22nd which reads as follows:

“My dear General: I have now finished my study of the last note you transmitted to me from Washington and have refreshed my memory by papers sent up to me here. The result is that I am more depressed than I have been since we began our conversations. You will remember that we started on the yardstick which was the proposal which brought back hope after Geneva. You were to give me a formula and we both agreed that it should be examined by subordinate experts. That has all gone. In your speech at the Pilgrims, you said so truly that the statesmen should handle this matter and that as there was the desire for an agreement, and as a naval conflict between the countries was unthinkable, the technicians should not thwart the statesmen. That has gone, and we are back into exactly the same atmosphere and facing exactly the same presentation of the problem as we were at Geneva. We are drifting away from the only road which offers a solution of a problem which does not consist of reality at all, but of words and appearances. Experts and lawyers make nearly all the reefs in the seas of life upon which men and states founder. I am now working at my formal reply, which I am sorry cannot be ready today, as I led you to expect. It will be ready tomorrow however. I thought I should tell you this so as to keep my promise to you.

With all my best wishes for a good time in the Highlands.

Yours very sincerely, J. Ramsay MacDonald.”

[Paraphrase.] The Prime Minister was required to take part in several ceremonies Friday morning at Elgin, and our talk was necessarily limited. He said that the pessimism revealed in his letter of August 22nd was due to apprehension that British public opinion would react unfavorably to the knowledge that the United States [Page 201] would have preponderance in heavy cruisers. It has been assumed in these discussions that parity must be obtained through heavy cruisers. The compass of necessary technical differences was being-reduced by the exchanges, I remarked, to language comprehensible to the average man; a clearer public perception of the relative insignificance of the quantities involved in comparison with the total naval strength of the two countries would result and a general public demand in both nations that for the sake of world peace the smaller technical differences be reasonably adjusted in a spirit of fair compromise would probably be encouraged. Therefore, my remarks concerning naval problems at the Elgin ceremonies in his honor42 were made after consulting with him, as he considered they would be of value.

The situation at The Hague43 is causing MacDonald much concern and this afternoon he will arrive by aeroplane in London. When I left him yesterday afternoon his last words to me were that he had just received news from The Hague where the situation seemed most serious, that they were trying to persuade him to go there in person but that, unless later events would justify the hope that some settlement which would be acceptable in the present state of British public opinion might be effected, he would not go. [End paraphrase.]

  1. Telegram in nine sections.
  2. Letter should have been dated August 23.
  3. Not printed.
  4. Printed in Charles G. Dawes, Journal as Ambassador to Or eat Britain (New York, 1939), pp. 58–60.
  5. See vol. ii, pp. 1025 ff.