500.A15a5 Construction/163

The Acting Secretary of State to President Roosevelt

Dear Mr. President: Informal negotiations are now taking place in London to determine whether new limits, and if so what limits, shall be placed on the size and armament of capital ships, to take the place of the old limits provided in the London Treaty92 from which we departed last month through escalation. These negotiations have now reached a stage where further instructions are necessary.

I am informed that the Navy Department favors our standing on the position that there should be no new limits set for capital ships, and that even though we do not for the moment desire to build for ourselves ships greater than approximately 45,000 tons, with 16 inch guns, we should be free to build for ourselves ships of any size and armament to suit our needs as circumstances demand.

Moreover, we are considering the approval of a contract between the Soviet Government and private American shipbuilders for a capital ship of over 62,000 tons and guns of 18 inches. This could [Page 684] only be built in the United States under the terms of the existing Treaty if we decline henceforth either to set any limits whatsoever in the capital ship category, or if we set them at a figure not less than 62,000 tons and 18 inch guns.

I venture to submit certain reasons, chiefly of a political character, why I feel it would be against our true interests to adopt either of the alternatives mentioned above.

The present Treaty provides that after escalation “the High Contracting Parties shall thereupon consult together and endeavor to reach an agreement with a view to reducing to a minimum the extent of the departures which may be made.” A strict observance of the Treaty, certainly in spirit if not in letter, would call for the setting of new limits as near to the old limits as would suit our own needs.
It would be a mistake for us to approve the construction in the United States for a foreign power of a new type of ship which, if copied by others, might render all existing capital ships obsolete. This would be surrendering the advantage of our present numerical superiority in capital ships, and would not only start a new race in capital ships from scratch, but would give a greater incentive to build entirely new types of vessels. It is against the interests of the stronger naval powers to encourage the development of new types.
Should we permit the construction for the Soviets of a ship of the new type contemplated Japan would probably concentrate against us the resentment she has hitherto directed mainly against the British.
As the Soviet authorities inform us that the ship in question would be based on Vladivostok, its construction might even encourage Japan to attack and capture Vladivostok before the completion of the ship, so as to prevent it being based on a port sufficiently near to threaten Japan.
It would almost certainly encourage Germany, which is reported to be restive under the Naval Treaty with Great Britain,93 to invoke the escalator clause in order to counterbalance Soviet construction with new types specially suited to her needs.
It would precipitate a new naval race in Europe just at a moment when the British have the European naval situation pretty well in hand with their recent success in persuading Italy to adhere to the London Naval Treaty as part of the General Anglo-Italian agreement.94 A new naval race might well be followed with renewed political friction, for which we should be in part responsible.
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All these difficulties could be avoided by our agreeing to a limit of 45,000 tons and 16 inch guns,—figures which are higher than desired by the British and French, but which would meet our present construction needs and military plans. If circumstances alter and a new situation arises that gives us concern, we can always protect ourselves by a second escalation. By permitting American shipbuilders to construct several ships of this size for the Soviet Government, instead of one of 62,000 tons, we would reap many commercial and political advantages, without creating a new type which would be of no discernible advantage to us, and which would in all probability have unfortunate political repercussions both in Europe and in the Far East.

I enclose, as of possible interest, an Aide-Mémoire from the British Embassy which has recently been received.95 The only new point is found in the last sentence, where the suggestion is made that a naval officer be sent to London for the period of the escalation discussions. The suggestion would seem to have little merit as the decision must be made here in Washington.

I respectfully request an expression of your wishes in regard to the points raised.96

Faithfully yours,

Sumner Welles
  1. For text of the treaty, signed March 25, 1936, see Department of State Treaty Series No. 919, or 50 Stat. 1363.
  2. For text of the exchange of notes signed June 18, 1935, see British Treaty Series No. 22 (1935).
  3. Signed at Rome, April 16, 1938; for text, see League of Nations Treaty Series. vol. cxcv, p. 77.
  4. Not printed in this volume.
  5. A penciled, attached memorandum of April 29, 1938, reads: “This question was taken up at Cabinet to-day. The President, with the concurrence of the Secretary of the Navy, decided that we should agree to a 45,000 ton limitation. S[umner] W[elles].”