711.00111 Armament Control/Military Secrets/1127

Memorandum by the Chief of the Office of Arms and Munitions Control (Green)

Mr. Edison, Acting Secretary of the Navy, and Captain Fisher, of the Navy Department, called on the Secretary yesterday afternoon. [Page 690] After a brief conversation in regard to the proposal of the Soviet Government to have one or more battleships constructed in this country for the U. S. S. R., the Secretary suggested that they discuss with the officers of the Department who have been dealing with the matter the various questions which have arisen as the result of the consideration of the plans for a 62,000–ton battleship submitted for examination by Mr. William Francis Gibbs, the naval architect.

Mr. Edison and Captain Fisher called at Mr. Moffat’s office and discussed in detail with Mr. Moffat and Mr. Green of CA the situation which has arisen.

Mr. Edison delivered the letter of May 20 (copy attached hereto)2 which he had addressed to the Secretary in reply to the Secretary’s letter of April 27, 1938.2 He also returned the plans to be held in the Department until agreement is reached as to the text of a letter to be addressed to Mr. Gibbs in reply to his letter of April 22.2

Mr. Edison’s letter was read and discussed in detail. He admitted that it was an unsatisfactory letter, and he characterized his visit to the Department as “a buck-passing mission”. In the discussion of the letter, particular attention was devoted to the following statements contained therein:

The statement that the release of Mr. Gibbs’s plans to a foreign government, with the consequent possibility that the vessel might be constructed in the U. S. S. R., raises a fundamental question of foreign policy. It was pointed out by Mr. Green that whether or not this Government should express disapproval of the delivery of the plans to the agents of the U. S. S. R. was, as intimated in the Navy Department’s letter, purely a question of policy, and that, in view of the fact that the letter itself states that the plans themselves do not reveal any secrets of interest to the National Defense, no violation of law or treaty would be involved in the sale of these plans to the agents of a foreign government. Mr. Edison and Captain Fisher agreed in this statement of the case. Mr. Edison and Mr. Green, who have had some dealings with Mr. Gibbs, concurred in the opinion that any expression of disapproval of the sale of the plans would be sufficient to deter Mr. Gibbs from selling them. It was agreed by all participating in the conversation that whether or not such disapproval should be expressed was a question of foreign policy which would have to be further considered.
The statement that the furnishing to Mr. Gibbs by the Navy Department of any information “now considered confidential” would violate the Espionage Act.3 Mr. Green pointed out that this statement should be read in the light of the fact that the Secretary of the Navy could at any time declare any particular item of information to be no [Page 691] longer confidential or secret; that such action was taken by him and by the Secretary of War every week in accordance with established procedure; and that once such action was taken in respect to any particular item of information, its delivery to agents of a foreign power no longer constituted a violation of law. Mr. Edison and Captain Fisher concurred in that point of view, but Mr. Edison added that, if it were finally agreed that the construction of a battleship not to exceed some specified tonnage could be undertaken in this country, the Navy Department might be called upon to make so many decisions in regard to the release of military secrets that the work of his Department would be seriously interfered with.
The statement that “in the absence of an order from the President or special legislation, the Navy Department is unwilling to state that it will make available to the designers any information in its possession”. The representatives of the Navy Department emphasized the importance of this statement. In reply to questions by Mr. Moffat, Mr. Edison said that several of the bureau chiefs in the Navy Department felt that they might lay themselves open to the penalties of the Espionage Act unless the authority to give out information in connection with the proposed transaction were conferred upon the Navy Department either by special legislation or by an order from the President. Mr. Edison said that he would rather prefer legislation but that he thought that a definite statement of the President’s wishes would suffice.

Mr. Moffat and Mr. Green pointed out that Mr. Edison’s letter was particularly unsatisfactory in that it gave no definite indication as to what the attitude of the Navy Department would be toward the construction for the U. S. S. R. of one or more battleships not to exceed some specified tonnage to be agreed upon at the conclusion of the negotiations now being carried on with Great Britain. It was pointed out that it might be inferred from some of the statements in the letter that the attitude of the Navy Department would be substantially the same in respect to the building of a battleship of say 45,000 tons as in respect to the building of a battleship of 62,000 tons, but that its position on that point was not clearly stated. Mr. Moffat referred to the conversation which he and Mr. Green had with the Soviet Ambassador on May 21 (copy of memorandum hereto attached)4 and said that, although the Ambassador evidently expected that Mr. Gibbs would be informed that the construction of a 62,000–ton battleship in this country would be contrary to the policy of the Government, he was particularly anxious that the letter addressed to Mr. Gibbs should make clear the possibility if not the desirability of constructing for the U. S. S. R. in this country battleships of less tonnage, and should set [Page 692] forth fully the policy of this Government in respect to the construction of such battleships and all other pertinent information which would enable Mr. Gibbs and the agents of the Soviet Government with whom he is dealing to know exactly where they stand. Mr. Moffat said that he would undoubtedly be pressed once more in the near future by the Soviet Ambassador for definite answers to these questions.

Mr. Edison narrated in some detail his connection with this proposed transaction. He said that he had become so interested in Mr. Gibbs’s plans when they were first shown to him that he had arranged to have Mr. Gibbs explain them to the President. The President invited them both to luncheon; the plans were examined and explained; and the President expressed the hope that a battleship in accordance with the plans could be constructed in this country, stating that he thought that its construction here would be desirable from several points of view, and that in his opinion the Navy Department already had full legal authority to cooperate with designers and shipbuilders, as much as would be necessary, in the release of military secrets. Mr. Edison said that after this luncheon he had informed the President that there was strong opposition to the proposed transaction on the part of several high ranking officers of the Navy Department and that he had requested the President to make his position in the matter known to those officers.5 Shortly thereafter, the President called the Secretary of the Navy, Admiral Leahy, and several bureau chiefs into conference and discussed the proposed transaction with them. Mr. Edison said that some of the officers who had attended the White House conference had not come away with a clear understanding of what the President wanted and, as their opposition to the whole transaction persisted, he had written a memorandum6 to the President setting forth the situation and informing the President that further action on his part would be necessary to bring about action by the Navy Department to facilitate the construction of a battleship. He read portions of this memorandum. He said that since he had sent it to the President he had heard no more from the White House in regard to the matter.

Mr. Green pointed out that the Soviet Government had been endeavoring to arrange for the construction of battleships in this country for about a year and a half; that its agents had been “strung along” throughout that period; that they had been repeatedly informed that there would be no objection on the part of this Government to the proposed transaction if all military secrets of interest to the National Defense could be eliminated from the plans; and that [Page 693] the Soviet Government would have sound grounds for taking offense if a letter were addressed to Mr. Gibbs based for the most part upon Mr. Edison’s letter of May 20. He suggested that, as the Navy Department felt that further authority was necessary before it could proceed with facilitating the proposed transaction and as several important questions of foreign policy and naval policy would have to be decided before a reasonably satisfactory reply could be addressed to Mr. Gibbs, it might be advisable for the Secretaries of State and of the Navy to address a joint letter to the President setting forth the questions at issue and requesting definite decisions.7

Mr. Edison concurred in this suggestion, and after further discussion it was agreed that the most effective procedure would be for Mr. Edison, accompanied by an officer of the Department of State, to take the joint letter to the White House in order to give such supplementary explanations as might be necessary and in order to urge the President to take definite action.

Joseph C. Green
  1. Not printed.
  2. Not printed.
  3. Not printed.
  4. Approved June 15, 1917; 40 Stat. 217.
  5. Supra.
  6. No record of this luncheon meeting has been found in Department files.
  7. Not found in Department files.
  8. For the joint letter of the Secretary of State and Acting Secretary of the Navy Edison to President Roosevelt, June 8, 1938, see p. 694.