The British Embassy to the Department of State
The United States Destroyers Worden, Putnam, Osborne and Dale have been recently converted into banana carriers. It is understood that these vessels were removed from the United States Navy List on October 28th, 1930 and on the 10th January 1931 sold by the Navy Department to the Boston Iron and Metal Company, Baltimore. The Worden and Putnam were reduced by this company to hulks and, after inspection by officials of the Navy Department, were towed to New Orleans, reconditioned, and finally sold to the Standard Fruit and Steamship Company of New Orleans, an American Company registered in Honduras [Nicaragua?] whose ships fly the Honduranean [Nicaraguan?] flag. They were fitted with Diesel engines and this experiment in reconditioning has apparently been successful since it is understood that the Osborne and Dale are now similarly in process of conversion.
If the facts are accurately set out above, two questions arise, one of fact and the other concerning the interpretation of existing treaties.
As regards the first question the rules for the disposal of vessels of war applicable to these destroyers would be those contained in the London Naval Treaty, Annex II35 which lays down that war vessels to be disposed of must be dealt with in one of the following ways:—scrapped, converted to a hulk, converted for target use exclusively or retained exclusively for training or experimental purposes. It is presumed that in the United States view the Worden, Putnam, Osborne and Dale should be regarded as having been “disposed of” in accordance with the treaty by having been “converted to hulks”. The rules for conversion to a hulk are contained in Section II of Annex II to the Treaty. These rules provide not only for the removal of all armaments, flying decks, ammunition lifts, etc., but also for the mutilation beyond repair of all propeller shafts, thrust blocks, turbine gearing or main propelling motors, and turbines, or cylinders of main engines, and for the removal of propeller brackets. Sir Ronald Lindsay is advised that if all these provisions had been thoroughly carried out in the case of the Worden, Putnam, Osborne and Dale and especially if this had been done in the spirit rather than the letter of the London Treaty, it is questionable whether [Page 39] the subsequent conversion of these boats to banana carriers could have been an economic proposition.
Assuming, however, that these United States destroyers have been converted into hulks in accordance with the provisions of the London Treaty referred to above, a further question regarding the interpretation of this treaty arises, namely, whether the subsequent reconversion of these vessels into merchant ships is compatible with the intention of the treaty. In the opinion of His Majesty’s Government it is not so compatible, for it is implied throughout that treaty that the rules for disposal mean final disposal and there is no provision permitting reconversion. This is confirmed by paragraph 1 of Section 2 of Annex II, where it is stated that “a vessel to be disposed of by conversion to a hulk shall be considered finally disposed of when…”
It is interesting to note in this connection that Admiral Pratt, while giving evidence before the House of Representatives Committee on Naval Affairs on 5th [12th] January, 1932, answered a question by the Chairman, as follows:
(page 608 of the Report)36
“The rules for scrapping are very strict. We have had from time to time calls by commercial companies to turn over some of our old ships to them for use, and we would be very glad to do it, but the terms for scrapping are so stringent that frequently they cannot use them. They can use them as hulks and that is about the only use to which they can put them.”
This is precisely the view of the Admiralty.
If, however, this view is not upheld and, it should now be accepted as both legally and economically possible to reconvert hulks (and it should not perhaps be overlooked that, in the case of countries whose mercantile shipping companies are subsidised by their governments, the term economically possible might prove very elastic), the value of the London Treaty might be seriously impaired, for in the event of its being possible for destroyers to be reconverted into merchant ships, there seems no valid reason why larger vessels could not also be reconverted.
Moreover, apart from the question of an infringement of the London Naval Treaty, it is arguable that if, as is understood, these destroyers fly the Honduranean [Niearaguan?] flag, Article 18 of the Washington Treaty37 has been violated. That article forbids the [Page 40] transfer of any vessel of war “in such a manner that such a vessel may become a vessel of war in the navy of any foreign Power”, and since vessels originally constructed as warships, if subsequently put to mercantile use, might be easily readapted for use as warships, the only effective method of ensuring that they do not “become a vessel of war in the navy of any foreign Power”, would seem to be to make it a condition of sale that they should not be placed under any foreign mercantile flag. This is the British Admiralty’s own practice, and if, as reported, the United States Government did not make this condition in the present case they have, in the Admiralty’s view, “disposed of” the vessels in a manner inconsistent with Article 18.
Sir John Simon is of the opinion that possibly the questions raised in this aide-mémoire may eventually have to be settled by friendly exchanges of opinion between all the treaty Powers but has moved Sir Ronald Lindsay to discuss them first confidentially and unofficially with the Secretary of State, for he foresees a danger that if departures from the intent of the treaty are to be condoned in small cases the gap might be steadily widened until at length irreparable damage might be found to have been done to the principle on which the treaty rests.
- Foreign Relations, 1930, vol. i, pp. 107, 116.↩
- Sundry Legislation Affecting the Naval Establishment 1931–32: Hearings before the Committee on Naval Affairs of the House of Representatives, 72nd Cong., 1st sess. (Washington, Government Printing Office, 1932).↩
- Foreign Relations, 1922, vol. i, p. 247.↩