500.A15a3/70: Telegram

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


182. Our comments to be conveyed by you to MacDonald on his position are as follows:

With reference to his first point. There is agreement between the Prime Minister and ourselves on this point and we believe that it is [Page 150] unnecessary to explore this question any further at the present time. We shall urge, however, that there shall be a postponement until 1936 of capital ship replacements.

As regards his third point. On the assumption that parity in other classes is reached, we accept parity in destroyers. As the Prime Minister states, such parity should consist of equal gross tonnage and it is our suggestion that this be achieved by the scrapping of destroyer tonnage on the part of the United States until it is equal to the present tonnage of the British. This determination may encounter public opposition in this country, inasmuch as the United States now has a clear preponderance over Great Britain in the destroyer class such as it does not have in any other. However, when fleet parity is actually in sight, this is a real contribution toward armament reduction which this Government is able and prepared to make.

We also agree with MacDonald as to parity in submarines, to consist of equal gross tonnage and to be arrived at by the scrapping of present submarine tonnage on the part of the United States until it has become equal to existing submarine tonnage of Great Britain. As to the Prime Minister’s desire to abolish the use of submarines and the reasons he gives for this wish, we are in agreement. This position of the two countries as to submarines may be influenced by the attitude of other nations. The drastic steps, as to submarines and destroyers, suggested by this Government are predicated on drastic action with regard to cruisers by the British. It may be found easier to arrange to achieve equality as to destroyers, submarines, and cruisers by scrapping before 1936 rather than by scrapping immediately.

As to MacDonald’s second point concerning cruisers. The nub of our difficulties lies here and we realize the real difficulty of solving this problem. It was on account of wide differences of views that the Geneva Conference failed. Both countries are now attempting to make a new beginning on the basis of the principle of cruiser parity. While this involves a real change of purpose, the fundamental practical question to be settled is at what time and at what tonnage is parity to be determined. In settling that question, it is most important that our actual tonnage situation is mutually understood. In this connection we are in some doubt whether we are fully aware of Great Britain’s position and whether MacDonald has given consideration to our relative strengths and understands our own status.

The following is our general understanding of British cruiser strength:

Of larger cruisers, the British have in service fourteen, namely, London, Devonshire, Sussex, Berwick, Suffolk, Cumberland, Cornwall, Australia, Canberra, Kent, Effingham, Vindictive, Frobisher, Hawkins; they have in construction seven additional large cruisers, namely, Surrey, Exeter, York, Shropshire, Northumberland, Norfolk, [Page 151] Dorsetshire; finally they have three more not yet in construction but authorized. This brings the total of large cruisers to twenty-four of an aggregate tonnage of about 231,800. Is it to be our understanding that Great Britain is in a position to stop the building of eight of the ships included in the above figures and thereby to reduce to about 160,000 tons the total large cruiser tonnage?

From our tables we also gather that the British have, in addition to the above, smaller cruisers of differing ages, numbering thirty-eight and aggregating 171,000 tons. All of these are in service and none of them building. If our assumptions as described above are correct, the total cruiser tonnage of Great Britain thus amounts to approximately 402,800 tons, in service, in construction, and authorized. The age of all of this tonnage is well below twenty years. Great Britain, if we have correctly read MacDonald’s letter, might limit her total cruiser tonnage to about 331,000.

Our own cruiser force consists of ten large cruisers now building and thirteen more authorized, thus making a total tonnage of 230,000. We have, in addition, ten smaller units of an aggregate tonnage of 70,500 thus raising our total cruiser tonnage to 300,000 or thereabouts. It is our intention, as a part of our arms reduction program to scrap in the near future all of our remaining cruisers consisting of twenty-two vessels all of which are more than twenty years old and aggregate more than 150,000 tons. We are anxious in addition to effect a reduction of our authorized program to such a degree as would produce equality with Great Britain; how far this can go, however, is dependent on how far the British Government itself is willing to go in limiting its own cruiser class. It is impossible to develop a yardstick which would bridge the difference between 300,000 tons and a tonnage of 402,888. Still less would it be possible to bridge a greater difference which might result from a scaling down of our program as now authorized. As soon as we have an agreement with the British, however, fixing a limit within which they are ready to maintain their cruiser strength, and to establish equality, it will be possible effectively to use the yardstick for the purpose of evaluating the two cruiser fleets whereby the apparent difference in the tonnages will be lessened.

The next steps, as we see it, are first of all to make sure that MacDonald and we agree as to what is the actual status of the cruiser tonnages of the two fleets. In the second place we would like to have a clear statement from MacDonald as to the limit within which he intends that British cruiser strength should be checked and maintained. What further steps will be necessary in order to achieve parity will then become apparent to us. From our contacts with opinion in this country and our examination of the naval [Page 152] figures, we have become more and more convinced that the two Governments must decide at what point cruiser strength is to be checked before we enter any general conference; this point is in the first place a question of the needs of the British inasmuch as they have a preponderance in the cruiser class. We agree that a consultation for the purpose of formulating questions to the naval experts may be called when we have agreed with MacDonald on that fundamental issue.

We feel strongly, however, that the problem of the point at which parity is to be established should not be left in such shape that it may become a matter of naval views. It is believed that we understand MacDonald’s viewpoint on everything except this difficult problem of fixing the limit for the establishment of cruiser parity. When this has been approximately fixed, we are ready to leave it to the conference to thrash out the problem of how to determine the relative value, for comparative purposes, of individual ships of the various fleets and it is our opinion that in such conference it will be possible to develop a common measurement or yardstick, as applied to tonnage, of the factors of age and guns. For these reasons we wish to have an answer from the Prime Minister before going into a discussion of the specific items of the agenda outlined in your telegram No. 197 of July 18.

It is necessary that MacDonald be convinced that our sole purpose in suggesting that the speed both of us desire will best be gained by being sure of our ground is because of our desire for ultimate success. In particular, we do not wish MacDonald to feel that this insistence on our part is a freshly emphasized hindrance to swift progress and we want to be sure that he himself, with complete knowledge of the figures, arrives at a conclusion as to how far he is prepared to change the British proposals at the three power conference by a policy of cruiser equality at a feasible level which we can adopt as a basis for a conference with like certainty as to the figures.

We would like to have MacDonald’s opinion as to the suggestion contained in our telegram No. 174 with regard to the yardstick. This proposal to consider only the application of certain factors was made by us for the purpose of simplifying the yardstick. Should our suggestion prove to be acceptable, the setting up of a yardstick will have been resolved into two problems; first, to make proper allowance for age and second, to make proper allowance for lesser armament as applied to tonnage of cruisers. It will be necessary for us to seek agreement between our respective naval experts on these two questions.