500.A15A4 Naval Armaments/156: Telegram

The Secretary of State to the American Delegate (Wilson)

231. For Davis. I have given considerable thought to fitting your recent naval discussions with the British into the general picture of our naval and diplomatic problems. We are at present bound by the Washington and London Treaties, the first a completed instrument, the second only partially so, with France and Italy still unbound by its essential provisions. We are faced with a further naval conference in 3 years, which Japan will enter with a strong motive for upsetting the delicate adjustments already made and for increasing [Page 547]her relative naval strength. We must bear this constantly in mind and not do anything that would unsettle the provisions already agreed to or produce a situation still less stable than at present by which Japan could profit at our expense.

The reopening of the naval problem this year found its genesis in Baldwin’s conversations with you and Gibson in London last spring,30 which were highly disturbing to us. They involved so serious a dislocation of naval strength (and hence of naval strategy) that we felt forced to present an equivalent counter-proposal which would effect the savings which Baldwin sought but would avoid the dislocation. This was incorporated in the naval sections of the President’s plan.

Your conversations with the British are essentially an attempt to reconcile the British and American ideas, and as such are a constructive measure. But there are already indications that the Japanese are hoping to profit by them to secure their own objective, primarily a ratio change, and if we are not exceedingly careful, we shall be faced in 1935 with an unsettled treaty situation which will complicate those negotiations still further.

The completion of the London Treaty should be our immediate objective, for this would bring all five naval Powers to the 1935 Conference with an alignment stabilized by international convention. The completed Treaty would also be a logical starting point from which to negotiate further proportionate reductions, which might well take the form of immediate scrapping along the line of the Hoover Plan combined with ultimate replacement modifications as advocated by the British. The more I have studied the problem, the more convinced I have become that the completion of the London Treaty is an essential preliminary to your work, and I should be glad if you would regard the completion of this treaty as an immediate and concrete objective.

The main criticism of the memorandum contained in your 301, October 19, 6 p.m., is that it leaves untouched the cruiser and destroyer categories, and hence forces us back on a piece-meal discussion, category by category. I am apprehensive of this method of approach to the problem, which always risks leaving the impression of at least moral commitments as to future action, long after the contingencies on which they were based have been forgotten.

With these general directives, I can now answer seriatim the questions you outlined in your 309, October 26, Noon:

I approve your informing the British confidentially that we would be glad to continue discussions on the present basis, as soon [Page 548]as a way is found, by settling the Franco-Italian difficulties, of reducing the total tonnage of cruisers and destroyers allowed to Great Britain and hence discussing a plan in which reductions or modifications in all categories are interdependent.
The Navy is strongly inclined to doubt the value to us of an international agreement to lay up certain ships without demilitarizing them. The problem resolves itself into a numerical question of personnel, in which we are already proportionately inferior, and which would handicap us in a general emergency recommissioning.
Already answered.
There seems but little as yet to tell the Japanese as to the progress of our naval discussions. Their general attitude can scarcely be described as cooperative, and I feel you should exercise particular care in dealing with them. For your information we gather that their plan, in addition to demanding an increase in ratio to 9:9:6, is based on a division of fleets into “aggressive” and “defensive” components, with capital ships, aircraft carriers and 8–inch gun cruisers rated as aggressive, all other categories as defensive.

I hope you will continue to keep me fully informed, and if at any time you disagree with me, that you will frankly tell me so. Your telegrams have been most helpful and I feel that the progress you have made to date should be of real value to you in the next chapter of trying to complete the London Treaty. I am leaving Washington tonight but will be back on Tuesday next.31

  1. See telegram No. 169, May 13, 4 p.m., from the Ambassador in Great Britain, p. 121.
  2. November 8.