500.A15A5/618: Telegram

The Chairman of the American Delegation (Davis) to the Secretary of State

49. At this afternoon’s meeting following the Japanese exposition, it is planned that all of the delegations will make final statements in reply.32

As the Japanese are planning to release their statement immediately after the meeting, we shall do the same with ours. Text follows and you will be notified of the hour of release probably through flash.33

“The United States has been most desirous of reaching a new agreement for a reduction and limitation of naval armaments to supersede the existing treaties that are to expire at the end of this year. We have, therefore, been willing to discuss any proposals and to explore every possibility of agreement. We have been willing to consider any evidence that might have been presented to the effect that the present relative strengths are not fair and equitable and do not provide for equal security.

We have accordingly listened with the most careful attention to all the explanations given by the Japanese delegation of their proposal for a common upper level with a view to determining whether any new facts or considerations might be developed which would justify the United States in modifying its belief that the principles [Page 295]of the common upper limit would not be a practicable basis for the limitation and reduction of naval armament. While we greatly appreciate the clear exposition of the Japanese point of view presented by Admiral Nagano, the discussion has if anything served to strengthen our conviction that the principle of a common upper limit would not serve as a basis for negotiation and agreement.

The Japanese have proposed that this Conference establish a level for naval armaments which no contracting power might exceed. They expressed the hope that the agreed limit should be set so low as to require substantial reductions by Japan. This would require contracting powers having navies larger than the limit to scrap or sink many ships to reach this common upper limit and would permit contracting powers having the smaller navies to build up to the common level.

The Japanese recognize that there are differences in vulnerability, responsibility, and needs as between the powers. They state these are of ‘great consequences to every power.’ To provide for these differences they propose to make a small quantitative adjustment within the common upper limit. While Japan has objected to a continuance of the so-called ratio system, their proposal for a common upper limit is in fact not an abandonment but a continuance of the ratio system on the basis of parity without taking into account the varying needs of the countries concerned.

The principle of the common upper limit rests in fact on the assumption which it has not been possible to substantiate that equality of security—which we are all unanimously agreed must be the foundation of limitation and reduction—could be achieved by equality of naval armament. We believe it has been sufficiently shown in the course of our discussions that equality of naval armament not only is not the same as equality of security but that the two are incompatible and contradictory. Equal armaments do not insure equal security.

Equality of security as was recognized and established at the Washington Conference can mean only superiority of defense in each country’s own waters. This defense depends only in part on actual naval strength. Other factors of equal if not greater importance in determining a nation’s capacity for defense are strength of land and air forces and of fortifications, distances from other powers, length of communications, configuration of coast lines, importance and relative distance of outlying possessions, extent and complexity of responsibilities. These necessarily dictate unequal navies if equality of security is to be assured.

The Japanese delegation has stated that one of the objects of their proposal is ‘to create a state of nonaggression and nonmenace’. We are convinced this state now exists among the signatories to the naval treaties.

Certain nations are so situated as to be endowed by nature with a superior power of defense. If, without regard to all the other factors I have cited, a nation so situated should possess naval armaments equal to those of powers not so favored, then that nation would have’ a very marked naval superiority far more than sufficient for its defensive needs. The sense of security which we feel was created by existing naval treaties would thereby disappear. It is possible to change some factors; it is not possible to change geography.

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The existing relative strengths have in effect provided an equilibrium of defense and an equality of security as nearly as is humanly possible. It would be extremely difficult even in more normal times and under conditions of greater mutual confidence, to agree upon such a radical readjustment of these relative strengths as would be involved in acceptance of the common upper limit. In the face of the present world instability such a readjustment, quite aside from the question of principle, is impossible. Bearing in mind the situation in the Far East, in Europe and in Africa, the United States is unwilling to consent to any change which would lessen its relative security particularly in the absence of greater assurance than we now have that to do so would not promote peace and establish a regime of nonmenace and nonaggression. It is, however, in favor of and has proposed at this Conference an all-around proportional reduction in fleet strengths.

With reference to the question of reducing so-called offensive naval arms which has been alluded to, I am persuaded that it is not possible to make out any case whatever as to a distinction to be drawn between offensive and defensive naval vessels. Whether any particular type of naval armament is offensive or defensive depends entirely upon the use that is made of it. If the time ever comes when the conditions of the world are such as to permit of virtual elimination of the necessity of maintaining large navies the first step would naturally be to cease to construct the more expensive types of naval vessels. Certainly the situation in the world today is not such as to justify this.

For all the foregoing reasons the United States is unable to accept the principle of the ‘common upper limit’ as the basis for an agreement. While we would deeply regret the inability to arrive at an agreement acceptable to all the powers here represented our decision and purpose would be to foster the continuance of our friendly relations with all the naval powers.”

  1. Telegram in three sections.
  2. Tenth meeting of the First Committee, January 15, 1936’, The London Naval Conference, 1935, p. 212.
  3. Notification was received by the Department at 1:10 p.m., to release the text of Mr. Davis’ statement.