500.A15A4/941: Telegram

The Acting Chairman of the American Delegation (Gibson) to the Secretary of State

93. For consideration during Davis58 visit. We have lately had a growing realization of the necessity for us to present some comprehensive and simple plan for the work of the Conference unless it is to peter out. Nobody seems to have any general conception for dealing with the problem of disarmament but rather a tendency to single out individual problems and deal with them separately. This is an ineffective method which cannot lead to comprehensive results. The President’s plan59 offers the key to the problem of effectives but if it is stated by itself we feel that while it would make a deep impression it is almost certain that after some friendly comment it will be relegated to subsequent consideration on the convenient ground that effectives cannot be dealt with unless and until some method has been devised for meeting the general demand for security. I think we all share a certain impatience with the assumption that America must supply the leadership and even the ideas which are to lead to agreement in Europe but however unjustifiable this assumption may be the fact remains that unless we, from our somewhat detached position, lay down some obviously fair and simple plan it is doubtful whether any other nation will have the moral courage and the prestige to do so and when the Conference reconvenes it will almost inevitably tend to flounder in discussion of the long series of questions of principle on the agenda which in themselves bring about no real solution.

We should like to submit for your consideration what seems to us a new conception of security which involves no commitment for America but which we are convinced brings more real security than the French plan or any other paper engagement. Moreover, it could [Page 60] not be considered as hostile to or exclusive of any other plan for local security. Our idea would be to deliver the draft speech60 on the formula which Davis is bringing with any necessary changes and then continue that while we have indicated the margin where forces are relative and thereby subject to reduction by agreement we realize that many countries will still feel haunted by the fear of invasion and will be unable to act on our suggestion unless and until their fears are removed; that therefore the best course is to face the question of security and that we should like to state our conception of it. Obviously the whole demand for security arises from fear of invasion. Whatever the justification for that fear we feel that happily it can be removed. The solution may sound paradoxical but it is to make armies non-aggressive, to render them incapable of taking the offensive with any assurance of success and with the foreknowledge of such staggering losses as to make them renounce their aggressive designs. How can armies be thus made purely defensive? The answer lies in the fact that existing apprehensions are largely due to the existence of certain weapons which now make invasion possible—the great mobile guns which can speedily reduce the strongest fortifications, tanks which clear the way for infantry through trenches and barbed wire defenses once the forts have been reduced; bombing planes and guns which not only do great military damage but inspire terror in the civil population. If all these weapons had been abolished in 1914 it seems safe to say that the fortresses of Liège and Namur would have been sufficiently difficult to take to render a sudden invasion of Belgium and France practically impossible and certainly to have given time for the complete mobilization and the preparation of defensive positions by these two armies. Briefly it was the existence of large howitzers in the German Army that enabled them to crush these frontier defenses in a few days. In offensive weapons therefore we have the key to the question of security.

Through their abolition by universal agreement we could restore superiority to the defensive and enable a country by adequate frontier fortifications which threaten nobody, to be itself secure against invasion, the fears of civil populations would be minimized through the realization that they could put their trust in fortifications and thus there would not be the insistent demand for large armies in addition; we in the United States are so favorably situated geographically that we enjoy nearly a complete impregnability and we offer this conception of security in order that other states of the world may feel equally impregnable within their own frontiers.

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If we could reach an agreement as to these offensive weapons the problem of limiting effectives would become as simple as it now seems difficult as there would be a popular demand for reduction of unnecessary expense. It is obvious that the picture as presented above applies more specifically to countries like France and Italy than it does to countries like Poland and Rumania. In the latter two countries with long contiguous frontiers with Russia mobile action is more possible. Nevertheless, the primary problem of the reduction of arms rests with France to retrench rather than with the other two countries mentioned. Furthermore, if such an agreement could be brought about there is no doubt that there would be a tremendous easing of the present tension between France, Germany and Italy.

In discussing this matter it must not be forgotten that there is a difficult corner to negotiate in the question of our own railway guns for coast defense. As a matter of fact ours are not heavy mobile guns in the European sense for they are designed to take the place of fortifications and are a cheap and effective way of affording coast defense. They are not designed for use against either of our land neighbors whereas in Europe the essential purpose of these guns is to clear the way for an invasion by land and then to follow the invading forces step by step to reduce such obstacles as may be encountered by invading armies. It should be possible to find some way of maintaining this reasonable distinction in a general agreement perhaps by securing the acquiescence publicly stated of our two land neighbors to our retention of American weapons. Furthermore, the caliber of our guns is determined by the caliber of naval guns which would be brought into action against them a point which, so far as we know, no European country has thus far provided against as regards mobile guns.

The foregoing is a skeleton of what we have in mind. If desired we can submit a draft of this portion of the proposed speech. There has been so little clear thinking thus far about land disarmament that if you approve this idea we feel it should be presented in the General Commission fully and simply in order that it may get popular consideration even in those countries where some of our ideas might be unpalatable to the Governments. At present the chief justification for failure to produce results in the Conference lies in the insistent propaganda which is being carried on in Europe as to the utter hopelessness of finding a beginning in this complex and baffling problem. If you approve the foregoing it would be our idea to present it in the General Commission at the earliest date after the reconvening of the Conference.

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You may feel that a clear-cut statement of the sort indicated would satisfy once and for all as far as this Conference is concerned the demand for American “leadership” and “initiative” and that the burden would thereafter be on other shoulders. We have not been able to see any valid objection to it from our point of view for even if our plan were accepted, effectives would not be reduced to a point which would affect our own, and as for offensive weapons, they are of a minimum of use to a country like ours which does not entertain a thought of embarking on aggressive wars. At that we have more to gain than to lose, perceivably, [by?] universal renunciation of these arms.

  1. Telegram in four sections.
  2. Norman H. Davis, of the American delegation, who had returned to the Department for consultation.
  3. Expressions of President Hoover’s formula for the reduction of land effectives, which he developed during the summer of 1931, are contained in the letter of instruction by the Secretary of State to the Acting Chairman of the American Delegation, January 19, 1932, p. 1, and in point 7 of Mr. Gibson’s speech at the General Disarmament Conference, February 9, p. 29.
  4. Not found in Department flies.