Memorandum of Conversation in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of State (Rogers)61

Mr. Davis stated that the Disarmament Conference was reaching a stage where all nations, pushed by economic necessity, the state of public opinion at home, the fear of social disorders and the like, were resolved to make a genuine effort to solve the problems now before the Geneva Disarmament Conference. With this in view, they would approach the problem not in terms of lip service and offering to give up only such arms as were useless to them, but in a constructive attempt to reach a fair compromise which would result in limitation and reduction of armaments.

Obviously there were certain underlying political problems between the European states, notably reparations, the Danubian Federation, et cetera, which individual nations were making strenuous efforts to settle by private conversations. The key to the situation was to be found in France and Mr. Davis explained that he believed that Tardieu had come to appreciate that the French policy of encircling Germany and dominating Europe by military force was no longer practicable and that in turn he wished to substitute a friendship with England and Italy which would permit him to reach a more satisfactory [Page 63] relationship with Germany, and incidentally to make very real economies by the reduction of arms. Various factors had contributed to this change of heart, but among the principal ones Mr. Davis mentioned the realization that a prostrate Germany was as dangerous to France as a militaristic Germany.

Coming down to disarmament problems, Mr. Davis began by explaining that England was emphatic in her desire to abolish submarines. Thus far the French have shown no inclination to give up this arm which they regard as a potential threat to England and are talking over the idea of building certain dreadnaughts which, however, they wish to reduce in size. Mr. Davis said that he had frequently pointed out to the British that they were making a mistake in advocating smaller battleships, as in the first place we could not consent to it and in the second, France would never actually build dreadnaughts while they remained in their present size, whereas she might readily do so if they were reduced in tonnage.

Joining France in her insistence on maintaining the submarine was Japan, and while the two stood shoulder to shoulder the problem was exceedingly difficult. Mr. Davis felt, however, that France might be induced to modify her stand as England would in all probability refuse to play ball with her on one or all of the following points: reparations, the Danubian Federation, financial deals, and a Franco-Italian rapprochement. If France should give way on submarines in order to obtain British support elsewhere, Mr. Davis felt that Japan would be isolated and that there was a reasonable chance of modifying her opposition.

Admiral Pratt said that he attached the greatest importance to the abolition of the submarine, that our Navy had studied the pros and the cons and was convinced that its relative position would be strengthened particularly in relation to Japan. The whole Japanese plan of campaign is believed to be based on the use of submarines based on their mandated islands of the Pacific, and which threaten our communications between Hawaii and the Far East. One of the islands offering a suitable base for submarines was within a thousand miles of Honolulu. As far as submarines themselves were concerned, the Admiral considered that their cost in relation to value was such as to make them the most expensive of all arms or, to put it in another way, gave the least fighting power for the outlay. If they could be abolished, it would mean that all powers could reduce somewhat their destroyer tonnage and the British would probably propose a further reduction in cruiser tonnage. The one category in which the United States could not consent to a reduction was that of the aircraft carriers. This led Admiral Pratt to explain that our superiority [Page 64] in the air was our greatest naval asset; that we were way below treaty strength in ships, but that this was to some degree compensated for, particularly with reference to Japan, by our superiority in the air, not only numerically but in the quality of our machines and above all in our superior flying personnel. The Japanese having slower reactions make poor aviators, far inferior to the American.

Mr. Davis pointed out, however, the genuine fear of Europe of aerial bombardment and said that strong efforts were going to be made to reduce this menace. He explained at some length the European idea of abolishing military and naval aviation as such, coupling this with an internationalization of civil aviation and the attribution to the League of Nations of an air fleet of pursuit planes which could take the air against any European power which should violate these provisions and attack another nation by air. He said that obviously the internationalization of civil aviation applied to Europe only and, not being a member of the League of Nations, we would not be asked to contribute our quota to the League.

Admiral Pratt promptly replied that as long as the League held such a force we could not forego an aerial establishment. This was the more true as planes were the instrument most in use in ferreting out submarines and in destroying them by means of an aerial bombardment. He, therefore, felt that the United States could only consider altering its present air establishment if concurrently submarines were abolished. This would result in our removing a dangerous threat and hence acquiring an asset in return for giving up our present aerial superiority. He further pointed out that our entire naval strategy was based upon the use of observation planes and pursuit planes; that their existence enabled the fleet to do without many other scouting ships and was a source of actual safety to the fleet.

Here Mr. Davis pointed out that there had been many proposals toward limiting the use of bombardment air force to military objectives alone. This was not felt to meet the problem inasmuch as the definition of a military objective would be constantly open to dispute. Another proposal was to agree not to drop bombs from aircraft over land except on one’s own territory against an invader. This, it was felt, would not suit the stress of circumstances, as in the case of a war, the invading army would in all probability not agree to withstand an aerial bombardment without retaliating in kind. The only remaining alternative was to agree not to drop any missiles from the air and concurrently to abolish the bombing plane.

All present agreed that this solution was only practicable if submarines were abolished and that the two must be considered as [Page 65] forming part of an interlocking problem. Admiral Pratt cautioned Mr. Davis also that the period during which submarines must be scrapped should be a short one, preferably less than a year but in no case more than eighteen months. General MacArthur remarked that as far as the Army alone was concerned he would be satisfied with the complete abolition of military aviation but recognized that the needs of our national defense, from a Navy point of view, require the stand taken by Admiral Pratt.

The subject of offensive weapons was next raised. Mr. Davis recalled that we had indicated in our opening speech a willingness to reduce offensive weapons and that we had now been called upon to explain in further detail what we meant. Admiral Pratt interjected that the words “offensive weapons” were a misnomer inasmuch as the weapon itself was neither offensive nor defensive but the use to which it was put. Mr. Davis, however, explained that what he had in mind was to explain our purpose in terms of doing away with weapons that would primarily assist the aggressor, which in terms of land armaments he felt should include the tank and heavy mobile artillery. General MacArthur explained that the Army was entirely ready to give up tanks. As regards heavy artillery, he felt that we must insist on fixed mounted guns of large caliber for coast defense, but quite agreed to concur in the abolition of heavy mobile cannon. He explained that these large caliber guns were not only the most destructive to private property (their use thereby marking a retrograde step in the development of war which otherwise has shown a tendency to respect private property) but were at the same time the most expensive of implements of land warfare and did not in the last analysis decide the fate of battles. The question of our coast defense guns mounted on railway carriages was discussed. General MacArthur said that these were relatively few in number, that they had not proved very satisfactory in experience and that he did not consider their maintenance a vital point. What we should do if there were a prohibition of heavy mobile artillery would be to mount the guns on fixed emplacements thereby taking them out of the mobile classification. Mr. Rogers asked if this would complicate the problem of the defense of Panama. General MacArthur replied, no, that our fixed defenses there were sufficient, assuming that the United States Navy was in being, and if the Navy should be destroyed the value of the Canal to us would be unimportant. General MacArthur accordingly felt that the abolition of heavy mobile artillery of more than 6 inches in caliber would be one of the most effective steps that could be taken toward disarmament and was one which, in so far as he could see, would work no disproportionate hardship to any nation.

[Page 66]

The next question to arise was the question of budgetary limitation. Mr. Davis explained the pressure that was being brought to introduce a certain percentage cut but appreciated that it could not well be applied to the Navy without destroying the present treaty ratios (which are all important to us) and without freezing us in our present situation of inferiority. He queried, however, whether it would not be possible to adopt some such scheme with relation to the Army. General MacArthur explained that to his way of thinking the principle of budgetary limitation was fallacious: (a) that it involved the question of our standard of living not immediately but ultimately as economies would eventually be sought in reducing the labor cost of all articles; (b) that the labor leaders were convincedly opposed and that it could not get political support; (c) that it was not an accurate yardstick of disarmament; and (d) that inasmuch as our armed establishments are virtually at a minimum, a proportionate budget cut, particularly if repeated, would destroy the very fabric of our defense, where it would not do so in the case of nations with larger establishments,—hence it would carry a permanent loss to us. If thought of in terms of reduction to our federal budget or to our national wealth, our military expenditures were way below those of virtually every European power. He challenged the good faith of those who sought to impose budgetary limitation as a method which would produce proportionate results to all nations and urged that it be not considered. Mr. Davis then asked whether it would not be possible to estimate the savings to be obtained by abolishing tanks, heavy mobile artillery, submarines and bombing planes and agree to reduce our budget by that amount provided the abolitions went into effect. This was agreed to and Admiral Pratt undertook to prepare an estimate of the amount of savings which the Navy Department would make by abolishing submarines and General MacArthur by the abolitions affecting the War Department.

With regard to gas, neither General MacArthur nor Admiral Pratt attached much importance to the various gradations of gas which were non-lethal and said that they were prepared to advocate the total abolition of gas in all its forms.

Before leaving, Admiral Pratt inquired as to the accuracy of rumors that Japan intended to resign from the League and inquired in that case what would become of the mandated islands. Mr. Davis replied that when some months ago Sato had threatened to Sir Eric Drummond to withdraw from the League, the latter had said that deplorable as that would be, he felt that it would be less deplorable than having the League fail to live up to its covenant. The lawyers [Page 67] in Geneva had done some studying as to the status of the Japanese mandated islands which being C mandates give the mandated power the nearest approach to sovereignty possible. It was felt that the League could withdraw the mandate but would have no means of enforcing the withdrawal and that probably only moral persuasion over a period of years would succeed in forcing Japanese evacuation.

Admiral Pratt also inquired as to what progress had been made in settling the Franco-Italian naval controversy.62a Mr. Davis replied that he was distinctly optimistic as to an eventual agreement but that the French did not wish to settle this problem until the political questions had been settled. In particular an effort was being made to find a colony for Italy and thus to relieve her expansion pressure; this would probably be found in one of the present Portuguese colonies, the other to be attributed to Germany. Portugal would be paid in cold cash for these acquisitions.

It was agreed that a telegram would be drafted from Mr. Davis to Mr. Gibson setting forth the results of this conversation and that a copy would be submitted to General MacArthur and Admiral Pratt for their concurrence before being despatched.

  1. Present: General Douglas MacArthur, the Chief of Staff; Admiral William Veazie Pratt, the Chief of Naval Operations; Mr. William R. Castle, Under Secretary of State; Mr. James Grafton Rogers, Assistant Secretary of State; Mr. Norman H. Davis, a member of the American Delegation to the General Disarmament Conference; Mr. Pierre de Lagarde Boal, Chief of the Division of Western European Affairs; Mr. Jay Pierrepont Moffat, of the Division of Western European Affairs.
  2. Transmitted by the Acting Secretary of State to the Acting Chairman of the American Delegation under covering letter of April 7.
  3. For previous correspondence concerning the Franco-Italian naval controversy, see Foreign Relations, 1931, vol. i, pp. 358 ff.