500.A15A5/566a: Telegram

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

373. Following is the text of the opening speech of the American Delegation to the Naval Conference:20 [Page 282]

Mr. Chairman:

In searching for appropriate words in which to express most clearly the attitude and aspirations of the American Government and people in respect to naval disarmament, I find that I cannot improve upon the letter of guidance which the President addressed to me fourteen months ago when I sailed for London to participate in preliminary conversations between the Governments of the United Kingdom, Japan and the United States. That letter, written on October 5th, 1934, was as follows:

“In asking you to return to London to continue and expand the conversations begun last June preparatory to the Naval Conference in 1935, I am fully aware of the gravity of the problems before you and your British and Japanese colleagues. The object of next year’s Conference is ‘to frame a new Treaty to replace and carry out the purposes of the present Treaty.’ The purposes themselves are ‘to prevent the dangers and to reduce the burdens inherent in competitive armament’ and ‘to carry forward the work begun by the Washington Naval Conference and to facilitate progressive realization of general limitation and reduction of armament’

“The Washington Naval Conference of 1922 brought to the world the first important voluntary agreement for limitation and reduction of armament. It stands put as a milestone in civilization.

“It was supplemented by the London Naval Treaty of 1930, which recognized the underlying thought that the good work begun should be progressive—in other words, that further limitation and reduction should be sought.

“Today the United States adheres to that goal. That must be our first consideration.

“The Washington and London Treaties were not mere mathematical formulae. The limitations fixed on the relative Naval Forces were based on the comparative defensive needs of the Powers concerned; they did not involve the sacrifice of any vital interests on the part of their participants; they left the relative security of the great Naval Powers unimpaired.

“The abandonment of these Treaties would throw the principle of relative security wholly out of balance; it would result in competitive Naval building, the consequence of which no one can foretell.

“I ask you, therefore, at the first opportunity to propose to the British and Japanese a substantial proportional reduction in the present Naval levels. I suggest a total tonnage reduction of twenty percent below existing Treaty tonnage. If it is not possible to agree on this percentage, please seek from the British and Japanese a lesser reduction—fifteen percent or ten percent or five percent. The United States must adhere to the high purpose of progressive reduction. It will be a heartening thing to the people of the world if you and your colleagues can attain this end.

“Only if all else fails should you seek to secure agreement providing for the maintenance and extension of existing Treaties over as long a period as possible.

“I am compelled to make one other point clear. I cannot approve, nor would I be willing to submit to the Senate of the United States any new Treaty calling for larger Navies. Governments impelled by common sense and the good of humanity ought to seek Treaties reducing armaments; they have no right to seek Treaties increasing armaments.

“Excessive armaments are in themselves conducive to those fears and suspicions which breed war. Competition in armament is a still greater menace. The world would rightly reproach Great Britain, Japan and the United States if we moved against the current of progressive thought. We three Nations, the principal Naval Powers, have nothing to fear from one another. We cannot escape our responsibilities, joint and several, for world peace and recovery.

“I am convinced that if the basic principle of continued naval limitation with progressive reduction can be adhered to this year and next, the technicalities of ship tonnage, of ship classes, of gun calibers and of other weapons, can be solved by friendly conference. I earnestly hope that France and Italy, which are full parties to the Washington Treaty, will see their way to participate fully in our efforts to achieve further naval limitation and reduction.

“The important matter to keep constantly before your eyes is the principle of reduction—the maintenance of one of the greatest achievements of friendly relations between nations.

“Sincerely yours,

(Signed) Franklin D. Roosevelt.”

[Page 283]

The views set forth in this letter are still expressive of what the United States would like to see accomplished. Therein, there has been no change. But it would be unrealistic not to recognize that the situation existing at the time the letter was written has undergone considerable modification. The conversations last year were based on the London Naval Treaty, due to expire by automatic limitation at the end of 1936. Since then the Washington Treaty has been denounced and will expire at the close of next year; certain fundamental principles on which both treaties rest have been questioned; in the wake of the political instability in various parts of the world, there is a tendency to increase rather than to reduce naval armaments; and the divergences which have developed are such as to increase the difficulties which confront us in seeking to reach agreement for a comprehensive naval limitation.

The first step towards overcoming these difficulties is to face them frankly. The next step is to concentrate on those fundamental elements of mutual interest and accord which brought us together here and which unite us, despite the real differences that have developed.

Our nations are apparently at one in desiring the continuance of naval limitation and reduction by international treaty—a principle adopted for the first time in history in 1922 and successful for a dozen years beyond any means of measurement. At the time of the Washington Conference we were still in the shadow of the World War. War weary peoples who had experienced the consequences of strife and discord were longing for peace and recovery and praying for an era of stability and good will. The Washington Treaties and the later London Treaty were in harmony with this profound wish. Through them, mankind was freed from the threatening nightmare of a race in naval armaments. Why should we now abandon the invaluable mutual benefits conferred on the participating peoples by the Naval Treaties, when the world is just beginning to emerge from the economic depression which has held it in its grip for the past six years and when it is all the more necessary not further to disturb international relationships and retard or disrupt economic recovery through a naval race? No nation desires to enter such a race—no Government can afford the responsibility for inaugurating it. Our task during the coming weeks is to make it unnecessary.

One means of accomplishing this would be to agree upon a renewal of existing treaties with such modifications as circumstances may require. Failing this we should at any rate make every endeavor, through a frank and friendly exchange of views, to discover other paths to mutual understanding, which would at least prevent a naval race and avoid a disturbance of the equilibrium, and thus pave the way for a later more permanent and comprehensive treaty. Whatever our approach, our objective must be to insure that in the difficult and trying years ahead of us the essential balance between our fleets, which during the past years has proved such a guarantee of peace and stability, should be maintained by means of mutual agreement rather than by expensive and dangerous competition which can profit no one but must harm all.

On behalf of my Government I declare emphatically that the United States will not take the initiative in naval competition. We want no naval increase. We want limitation and reduction. Our present building program, which is essentially one of replacement, is consistent [Page 284]with this desire. For ten years we ceased naval construction. Under our present plans the strengths allotted to us by the London Treaty as of the end of 1936 will not be attained until 1942. We have no wish to exceed those Treaty limits. I may say also that the United States, which is now definitely on the way to recovery from the severe depression through which it has been going, and from which no nation has escaped, is most anxious to devote its energies and material resources to the upbuilding of the country.

However great the difficulties that confront us in this Conference, we are here to help remove them. With good will and patience on the part of all we can find a mutually beneficial solution. I pledge the American Delegation’s full cooperation toward this end.

  1. Speech delivered by Mr. Norman H. Davis, chairman of the American delegation, at the first plenary session, December 9, 1935.