500.A15A4 Plenary Sessions/104

Address Delivered by Mr. Hugh S. Gibson, Acting Chairman of the American Delegation, Before the General Commission of the Conference, Geneva, April 11, 1932

You will remember that on March 16th74 I explained that it was my hope that we could immediately, on the resumption of our work, [Page 77] come to grips with the basic question before us. I quite realize as I then stated that a considerable amount of time was necessarily consumed in setting up and getting into motion the machinery of the biggest conference the world has ever seen. I realize that the weeks spent in listening to statements of the various delegations were well spent, but I believe that this preliminary phase of the Conference has been given ample time, that we have completed our survey of the problem, that we know what measure of agreement exists, and what are the problems which must receive our serious attention. Since the American Delegation had the honor of introducing the resolution as to the method of work to be adopted, it may be felt that it should give some indication of the type of concrete problem that we feel will be considered. We have undoubtedly done what the rest of the delegations have done. We have attempted to analyze the various proposals submitted to the Conference and we are struck by the fact that one preoccupation seems to dominate in all these proposals, namely, finding a method by which reduction and limitation can be achieved without incurring risk to national safety. I believe that there has been a certain confusion of thought on this subject through the rather loose definition of all these proposals as plans for security. In large measure, this preoccupation has been instinctive on the part of the various delegations, but it is an instinct with which every nation must have the greatest sympathy, and this instinctive endeavor should be turned by some means into a conscious and definite program which will transmute into terms of disarmament this universal need for security. We have heard a great deal in the Conference and outside about the need for security but the whole subject has been enshrouded in such contradictory proposals and contradictory conceptions that it seems to me our first task should be to reduce this problem to its elements and to state it in an A, B, C form. I will confess that for a long time the American public had little sympathy with this idea perhaps for the rather human reason that we ourselves, thanks to our geographical position and our friendly neighbors feel little concern for our national safety. However, it is our earnest desire to find some method by which other nations may through an increase of confidence share the same blessing.

Fundamentally, the demand for security arises from doubts on the part of a government and its people as to their ability successfully to withstand an invasion. As a primary duty of government is to afford adequate defense to its citizens and its territory, apprehension on this score strikes at the very root of national confidence, and under stimulus of fear governments and peoples instinctively demand ever greater armaments and more men for national defense. It is idle to speculate [Page 78] as to whether such apprehension is well founded. Apprehension as to national safety is not to be dealt with by pure logic or peace established by argument alone. One reason it has been so hard for us to think clearly on this problem is that it is full of contradictions and thus devoid of logic. For instance it is clear that even some of the nations which maintain the highest level of armaments, adequate presumably to deal with any possible aggression, are among those most fearful for their national safety. This would seem to show conclusively that thought on the subject of security has not yet been made clear and definite. The solution is to remove the fear. Moreover, if we remove the fear, we also remove the incentive for the maintenance of the high level of armaments which today constitutes such a menace to our civilization, and such a burden on the economic structure of the world.

During the past few years, and especially at the opening session of this Conference, there have been submitted a variety of plans for achieving security. I do not propose to discuss these plans at this time. Fortunately, the plan I shall have the honor to submit to you, which stands by itself, is in no sense contradictory to or exclusive of any other reasonable plan for the achievement of security. Furthermore, the American Delegation has welcomed the introduction of all such plans even those that we could not accept.

Basically, the demand for security is founded on fear of invasion. It may well be asked why this feeling should be more acute today than in times past. I think the answer is rather simple. Before technical progress had reached its present proportions there was a certain inherent superiority in defense. A country that puts its faith in frontier fortifications was able to hold up armies of invasion at least until its defense forces could be mobilized and brought into action. Within the last generation, however, certain new weapons have been developed to a point where frontier defenses no longer constitute an adequate safeguard against invasion. At the beginning of the World War we saw the supposedly impregnable fortresses of Liège, Namur and Antwerp reduced in rapid succession by heavy artillery. I think we are justified in assuming that if the invading army had not had these guns these forts would have either acted as an effective deterrent of invasion or at least would have sufficed to delay the invasion until full defense forces of France, Belgium and Great Britain could have been mobilized and brought into action. Furthermore, since that time there has been a series of technical developments toward the mechanization of attack which will further reduce the value of frontier defenses. A new war would see frontier fortifications rapidly demolished by heavy mobile artillery. Trench [Page 79] defenses with their barbed wire entanglements necessary for linking up the intervals between fortifications would be effectively demolished by tanks and possibly after a gas attack the invading infantry would be able to advance with relative ease. It seems clear that it is this knowledge that frontier defenses are powerless to resist any attack of the sort I have indicated which gives rise to the feeling of insecurity not only on the part of governments, but what is far more serious, on the part of the civil population. It is the feeling of inadequacy of the defensive force which gives rise to the insistent demand on the part of the peoples for the accumulation of military stores, the increase of armies and of military budgets; we might as well face the facts that unless and until this genuine apprehension can be allayed there is little hope of achievement here. I repeat the feeling of insecurity rests on fear of invasion. Fear of invasion is based on the existence of peculiarly aggressive weapons in land warfare, tanks, heavy mobile artillery and the use of gas. The feeling of security will not be restored until we restore to defense the superiority over aggression which it enjoyed in former times. The only way to restore such superiority is to do away with the weapons which I have just mentioned.

It is obvious that the abolition of these weapons can in no sense prejudice any other plan for achieving security. On the contrary, the very relaxing of tension which would ensue from a general agreement to do away with these weapons would in itself favor further agreements. The tension existing today would inevitably be eased by such action, for every country would be bound to realize that if its neighbors are willing to forego the use of such weapons they can not be entertaining designs of aggression. We would moreover be paving the way for a removal of that other great fear complex which grows out of the danger not of mass invasions which break through national boundaries and result in the overrunning of territory, but of aerial bombardments and their threat to the civilian population. By establishing a feeling of security we would facilitate the acceptance of further and more drastic measures of reduction with the result that the problem of reduction will become as easy as it now seems insoluble.

The advantage of the abolition of these weapons is not only that it would relieve existing fears but that it is in every way desirable, even from a strictly military point of view, in that the abolition of such weapons would restore the superiority of defense. With no existing cannon capable of reducing modern fortifications, with no tanks capable of destroying trench defenses, with no gas to terrorize armies, invasion would demand such staggering sacrifices in human life as to make it far too costly to contemplate.

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Probably the first objection raised to this suggestion is that it is futile to hope that treaty engagements of this sort will be observed in time of war. I do not believe that this objection has sufficient force to impair the value of the suggestion, even if we admit the possibility that in a future war a nation would be guilty of the gross bad faith of repudiating the solemn engagement undertaken before the world for the abolition of these weapons. As a practical matter, it would require a period of months or years to produce these arms in sufficient quantities to have any decisive effect. And all advantage of surprise attack would thereby be lost. Furthermore, past violations of such undertakings have been of the most costly character to the wrongdoer. Could any of my colleagues who may be disposed to advance this objection point out a single instance where the violator has been the gainer in the end? Without being unduly optimistic, I believe that the passage of the years is building up an increasing sanction in world opinion to support any engagements taken here. We feel that we can put our faith in treaties of this character. We believe that such treaties will be observed and that any risk involved is less than the risk we now incur. The question is whether we are not prepared to accept an insignificant risk in the cause of peace, when it is certain that we may have all taken far greater chances in the cause of war; and if we are not ready to accept whatever risk may remain in order to bring about good understanding, we must realize that the alternative is to continue our constantly increasing armaments and ever increasing risks.

The past few years have demonstrated that no nation can maintain modern armed forces the equal of its neighbors without annually increasing expense for maintenance. Such increased expense is nearly all due to the increasing mechanization of forces. What we propose is to stop this mechanization in its most acute and expensive forms. With the abolition of tanks and heavy mobile artillery every one of us will be able to cut our budgets appreciably. These two items constitute the greatest single items of expense in connection with modern armies. It seems inconceivable to us that with the insistent demand for economy throughout the world we should fail to reach agreement to discard the most costly of our arms. In other words it seems incredible that the nations of the world could refuse to enter into an agreement that would at the same time increase defense and decrease expense and that is the purpose of my proposal.

To illustrate the drain which these weapons cause to the budgets of the world I need only state that the largest type of heavy mobile gun without its mounting costs approximately $450,000 and that its life is not long. With respect to tanks the large armed type costs [Page 81] in the neighborhood of $45,000 each and their life is even shorter than that of the heavy guns and their number naturally far greater.

It may be objected that the suggestions I have put forward do not deal adequately with the whole subject of aggressive warfare. I anticipate and disarm this objection by agreeing with it, but in my opinion one of our great difficulties in the past has been that we have sought to deal with too many problems at a time when the greatest hope of success lies in isolating problems and dealing with them effectively in succession. For that reason I have purposely sought to focus our proposals on the most acute phase of the security problem as we see it, that involved in land warfare. When definite results have been achieved in this field, I shall take occasion at an appropriate time, to present the views of my government as to the best practical means of dealing with aggressive weapons in other fields, such as, for instance, bombing planes.

However it seems to me that if we can deal effectively and expeditiously with the proposal I have the honor to submit today, it will facilitate our task in dealing with the more complicated measures which must be taken in regard to other methods of warfare.

This plan obviously does not apply to heavy guns on fixed emplacement for defensive purposes. Nobody can charge aggression against guns so placed. Weapons of this character for the defense of frontiers can give legitimate concern to nobody. They are no more to be considered aggressive than the locks and bolts upon our doors.

I quite recognize that the suggestion that we do away with all these weapons may be rather shocking to many of my colleagues but I confess to you that before we reached the decision to make this proposal we have faced and accepted the idea of sacrifice of our important and costly existing technical equipment. It was not easy for us to forego the use of our heavy railway guns. It was not easy for us to envisage the abolition of the tank equipment of our modern forces which we have already developed to a high standard. We would not have reached the decision to make this proposal if it were not for the deeply rooted conviction that the urgency of this problem demands sacrifices on the part of all of us and that if we were all unwilling to acquiesce in any reduction save on the part of our neighbors we might as well acknowledge that a conference of this sort is a farce. Furthermore, if we fail to agree upon drastic measures of reduction and even abolition we must realize that the world will inevitably embark upon a race in armaments the disastrous results of which no man can foresee. Justification for failure to agree is hard to find, for if everybody does away with these weapons we shall all gain together.

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I therefore have the honor to submit a resolution for consideration by the General Commission with the request that our Chairman appoint some suitable date, say within a week, for this body to discuss and vote upon it. The resolution is as follows:

Whereas all states of the world are animated with the same legitimate concern for the defense of their territory and peoples;

Whereas many states now feel that they exist under the menace of aggression from their neighbors;

Whereas that fear of aggression is primarily caused and intensified by the existence of weapons which can only break down national defenses such as fortifications, in other words, which give superiority to attack over defense;

Whereas the establishment of a constant superiority of defense over attack would promote in the peoples of all states a feeling of security;

And whereas the General Commission believes that the abolition of aggressive weapons would constitute a first and essential requisite not only for the reduction of armaments but for the establishment of security,

The General Commission resolves:

1. (A). That the following weapons are of a peculiarly aggressive value against land defenses: tanks, heavy mobile guns and gases; and as such should be abolished; and

(B). To request the Land Commission to draw up and submit to the General Commission a plan for scrapping tanks and mobile guns exceeding 155 millimeters in calibre and for the abolition of the use of gases in war.

2. (A). That an undertaking by the states not to avail themselves of the aforementioned weapons in the event of war is equally essential; and

(B). To request the Political Commission to draw up and submit to the General Commission texts for these purposes.[”]

Mr. Chairman, without in any sense wishing to prejudice the full discussion of this subject which I hope the commission will undertake, I venture to express the hope that the simplicity of our proposals will commend them to the Conference and that it will be possible to refer the entire question to the necessary commissions with instructions to report back definite texts for our adoption. This hope is based on the profound conviction that in the abolition of aggressive weapons we have ready to our hand the key to the great problem of disarmament. No matter how long we may stay here and discuss principles and methods, we shall have accomplished nothing until we take this first decisive step. Most of my colleagues have already expressed in one way or another some conception of this necessity and I am confident that they will realize the value of taking this step immediately. Furthermore, I do not feel it is enlightening [Page 83] for us to adopt these solutions in principle only. What we need is definite and final agreement at the earliest possible date. Mere agreement in principle will not facilitate in maximum degree the solution of other and more difficult problems, but if we can reassure the world and encourage ourselves by demonstrating the possibility of a general agreement on this phase of the problem, we will have provided a firm basis for progress on other more complex problems which will still lie before us. It is difficult for me to believe that we can fail to take this step which will perhaps justify the faith of the peoples in whose names we are here assembled.

  1. See telegram No. 80, March 16, 3 p.m., from the Acting Chairman of the American delegation, p. 53.