Memorandum of Conversation Between the American and the Japanese Delegations

  • Present: Admiral Nagano
  • Mr. Nagai
  • Admiral Iwashita
  • Mr. Terasaki
  • Mr. Mizota
  • Mr. Davis
  • Mr. Phillips
  • Admiral Standley
  • Mr. Dooman
  • Captain Ingersoll
  • Commander Schuirmann
  • Mr. Field

In response to a request from Admiral Nagano in regard to the American proposal referred to by Mr. Davis at the opening session of the Conference, Mr. Davis stated that the American proposal might be summarized as a twenty percent all-around reduction in the various categories, such reduction to be applicable also to Italy and France insofar as the limitations imposed by the Washington Treaty upon those countries are concerned, with the proviso, however, that adjustments between categories shall be agreed upon after discussion.

At Mr. Davis’ request, Admiral Standley went into the American proposal at great length. In regard to the question of the replacement of capital ships, Admiral Standley referred to the absence of any construction in this type during the past fifteen years and to the necessity of approaching with extreme caution any suggestions looking toward any change in the size of capital ships. He said that the first few vessels to be built under the replacement program would be of a maximum tonnage of 35,000, and that after the experience thus gained by this new construction the United States would be disposed to examine proposals in regard to reducing the size. Mr. Davis added that we were, however, prepared at this time to enter into a discussion in regard to fixing the maximum caliber of guns.

Admiral Standley referred to the statement made yesterday during the meeting of the heads of delegations by Mr. Davis, to the effect that prior to the Washington Conference there had existed a common upper limit, with the sky as the limit. Prior to that [Page 286]Conference, Japan did not have parity but had built a navy conforming to its needs. Failing any agreement, Japan would have the right to build up to parity with the United States if it could, but Admiral Standley did not doubt but that if Japan were to strive to reach parity with the United States, the United States would also build with a view to maintaining its lead. Such a state of affairs, he pointed out, was obviously not desired by either country, and he wondered whether it would not be possible to form an agreement which, while recognizing Japan’s sovereign rights to build as large a navy as it desired, would stabilize strengths at the present comparative levels until such time as a more favorable opportunity might be expected for the discussion of a new naval arrangement.

Mr. Davis remarked that we should not overlook the fact that naval limitation is not a question which lies entirely between the United States and Japan. The naval position of the United States is in a considerable measure dependent upon the naval positions of England and of other European powers, as the United States could not ignore the historical fact that it had unwillingly been drawn into two major European wars.

With respect to the question of security or non-menace and nonaggression, to which Admiral Nagano had made various references, Mr. Davis said that not only had the non-fortification provisions of the Washington Treaty removed the threat of aggression, but the Nine Power Treaty had also been concluded to remove the causes for aggression.22 This had established the foundation on which naval limitation rests. We consider that the Japanese were thus secured against attack from either the United States or Great Britain, and could not understand what there is that has happened to make Japan feel that she is menaced.

Admiral Standley here quoted excerpts of statements made by Kato and Shidehara at the Washington Conference (pages 106 and 380 [378?] of records of Washington Conference23). Admiral Standley continued that at the London Conference we had made further concessions in the ratio to meet Japanese desires for additional security. As regards the present proposal for a twenty percent cut, it might be pointed out that a reduction in aircraft carrier and destroyer tonnage is contingent on reduction in submarines.

Admiral Nagano reiterated that opinion in his country no longer supported the Washington Treaty. He reminded us that our ideas of disarmament also had undergone modification; for instance, Mr. Hughes had at the Washington Conference opposed the abolition of [Page 287]submarines, whereas we had favored abolition at London. Admiral Nagano assured us that the common upper limit did not envisage giving Japan any opportunity for aggression; on the contrary Japan wanted to make aggression by any power impossible. With respect to the London Treaty, Admiral Nagano declared that former Secretary of Navy Adams had said in the Senate that the American Delegation had succeeded in persuading Japan to accept a proposition almost impossible to accept.24 Both Mr. Davis and Admiral Standley said that if any such statement had been made inferring that Japan was not equally secured it was certainly in error.

Admiral Standley said it had been understood at Washington that every nation was given security in the area in which it had to operate. Japanese waters were made as secure as California waters. However, the United States possessed territories close to Japan with an area as large as Japan’s. There are no fortifications there and no submarines. We also had a large territory in Alaska. If we gave Japan parity, she would have absolute superiority in Philippine and Alaskan waters. That would not be giving the United States equality of security. Some people in the United States have said Japan wants to take the Philippines. Japan has never shown any intention to do this any more than we have threatened her. The Government at Washington has done what it could to allay such a misapprehension at home, and we must not allow anything to happen which would bring about a recrudescence of this feeling. The Japanese claims give people who think she wants to take the Philippines or Alaska exactly the ammunition they are looking for.

Admiral Nagano stated that while under the ratio Japan could not possibly menace the United States, the American Navy concentrated in Oriental waters could threaten Japanese security. With respect to the Philippines, it might also be said that the United States had no possessions near Europe, while Europe had possessions near America, and if such geographical aspects were to be taken into account, the situation would become very complex. Japan nevertheless had numerous independent islands off her coast for which she has to find means of defense. She could, therefore, not accept a plan which would permit one power to approach the other, while the reverse was not true. From Japan’s point of view the Philippines lay in line of very important waters and hence represented a constant threat. Japan did not want the Philippines but they constituted one reason why she found it difficult to recognize American naval superiority.

Mr. Davis said he did not think the Japanese proposals very fair. At the Washington Conference we had made the greatest sacrifice, [Page 288]since we had abandoned an actual program of construction which would have given us in two or three years a navy more powerful than Great Britain’s and much more powerful in relation to Japan than under the Treaty. It was not the British who accepted parity, but the United States which granted parity. We did this in the interests of promoting peace, understanding and security. Parity with Japan would not give us equal security since it would deprive us of the power to defend Alaska and the Philippines.

Admiral Nagano did not deny that the Washington Treaty checked a naval race and promoted peace, and he hoped that the friendly situation created thereby by the United States and Japan would continue, but Japan did not want to be placed in the position where the continuance of peace and good will was dependent on another country. Japan was worried, not about the safety of distant possessions, but about the safety of Japan herself.

Admiral Standley said that it seemed apparent that we could not see eye to eye on the question of security and non-menace. The only solution, therefore, would be to continue the Washington agreements temporarily until sometime when we could sit down and go over the various problems without suspicion.

Mr. Davis added that we must find a modus vivendi which would avoid both the common upper limit and the ratio. There had been an improvement in Japanese-American relations in the past three years. Japan had nothing material which the United States wanted. The two countries were good mutual customers, and there was more reason for our two countries to cooperate than in the case of any other two nations. The present, Mr. Davis added, was no time to change the naval structure: Italy was making war in Abyssinia; Japanese armies were marching in China, and the American people did not know what this would lead to. Japan was in process of evolution and did not herself know what the outcome would be. The American people were watching to see what would take place. They had shown clearly they did not want trouble with Japan or anyone else. In any case, there was more justification for an increase in the American ratio than in that of Japan, for the United States had certainly done nothing to warrant suspicion. On the other hand, what Japan was doing was a little disturbing to the American people. Mr. Davis then paid tribute to the Japanese people and their great qualities and to their urge for progress which the United States admired but which it desired to see exercised in a peaceful manner.

Mr. Phillips said we did not want to do anything to harm the rapidly growing friendship between our peoples. Parity would certainly set us back and breed suspicion. It would arouse fear and there is nothing more detrimental to friendship.

Admiral Nagano said that Japan no less than the United States [Page 289]wished to continue to improve friendly relations, but the fact was that Japan felt the pressure of the American Navy which was capable of menacing Japan’s very existence. That situation must be altered if Japan is to feel contented in the Pacific.

Admiral Standley, after explaining that he was speaking purely personally and without having discussed it with his Delegation, suggested that the only way to come to a temporary agreement was to take the present structure, with certain modifications as to qualitative limitation, and perhaps to include in a preamble a statement that an adequate navy was the sovereign right of everybody. Such a treaty would include building programs over a period of years in place of the ratio system.

Mr. Nagai at first expressed the fear that any such compromise would again mean the ratio system in disguise. After further explanations by Admiral Standley, he expressed interest in the suggestion on the understanding that it would mean a provisional arrangement for a few years only. The Japanese Delegation indicated that they would think over Admiral Standley’s suggestion and give us their views another time.

  1. Treaty signed at Washington, February 6, 1922, Foreign Relations 1922, vol. i, p. 276.
  2. Conference on the Limitation of Armament, Washington, November 12, 1921–February 6, 1922 (Washington, Government Printing Office, 1922).
  3. See Department of State Conference Series No. 6, Proceedings of the London Naval Conference of 1980 and Supplementary Documents (Washington, Government Printing Office, 1931), p. 82.