711.00111 Armament Control/Military Secrets/1154
The Secretary of State and the Acting Secretary of the Navy ( Edison ) to President Roosevelt
My Dear Mr. President: In September 1936, the Carp Export and Import Corporation, organized as purchasing agents for the Government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, began negotiations to purchase one or more battleships in this country. Its efforts to conclude those negotiations have been warmly seconded by the Soviet Embassy. Various phases of the questions which have arisen in connection with this proposed transaction have required the consideration of the Department of State and of the Navy Department. Both of these Departments have had considerable correspondence on the subject, and during the last year and a half officers of these Departments have had scores of conversations with the Soviet Ambassador, officers and representatives of the Carp Export and Import Corporation, and American shipbuilders, manufacturers of arms, and naval architects. Carp’s proposals were modified several times during the early stages of the negotiations but finally crystallized in an attempt to persuade Mr. William Francis Gibbs, the naval architect, to draw plans for a battleship, and to persuade the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation, Limited, to enter into a contract to construct the battleship according to those plans. It is understood that, if Carp is successful in obtaining one battleship in this country, he will proceed with negotiations to obtain at least one, and perhaps two, more.
The Departments of State and of the Navy have worked in close cooperation in dealing with this matter, and we have, as you will remember, consulted you from time to time in regard to some of the problems which have arisen. The statements which have been made [Page 695] to the Soviet Ambassador and to the Carp Export and Import Corporation have been such that they have had every reason to believe that the proposed transaction would not meet with the disapproval of this Government and that no agency of the Government would place any obstacles in the way of its completion. They have been repeatedly informed that there were no objections, on grounds of foreign policy, to the proposed transaction, and they have been given suggestions as to the course they should pursue in order to comply with the laws and regulations governing the exportation of arms. In particular, the suggestion was made that Mr. Gibbs should, in accordance with the established procedure for dealing with such matters, submit his plans to the Department of State in order that they might be transmitted to the Navy Department and the latter Department given an opportunity to study them with a view to ascertaining whether or not they involved military secrets of interest to the national defense. They were given to understand that if the plans were found not to involve military secrets, or if such secret features as might be involved were eliminated, they would be at liberty as far as this Government was concerned to proceed to close a contract with American shipbuilders for the construction of the battleship.
Mr. Gibbs submitted his plans informally to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy some months ago and we understand that they were exhibited to you at that time. They were not, however, formally transmitted for inspection until April 23. The Navy Department, after examination, has ascertained that these plans do not involve military secrets.
The Department of State is now faced with the necessity of addressing a reply to Mr. Gibbs and of informing the Soviet Ambassador of the tenor of that reply. You will recall that, in accordance with the decision which you made at the meeting of the Cabinet on April 29, this Government has agreed to accept limits of 45,000 tons and 16–inch guns for capital ships. When this agreement has been concluded, it will preclude the construction “within our jurisdiction” of battleships exceeding these limitations. As the negotiations are still proceeding, Mr. Gibbs will be informed that, as his plans call for a battleship of 62,000 tons, armed with 18–inch guns, it would be contrary to the policy of this Government to approve the construction in this country of a battleship of the tonnage and armament indicated. This reply will not, however, suffice to answer all of the questions asked by Mr. Gibbs in his letter transmitting the plans to the Department of State nor would it satisfy the Soviet Ambassador, who is urgently desirous of receiving such complete information as to the policy of this Government in respect to the construction of battleships in this country for his Government as may enable his Government to decide whether [Page 696] the negotiations should be broken off or renewed attempts made to secure plans which will not involve the specific features to which objection has been raised. In view of the length of time that these negotiations have been permitted to continue, and in view of the statements which have been made to the representatives of the Soviet Government, it would appear to be highly advisable to give them, with the least possible delay, a reply which would leave them in no doubt as to whether it would serve any useful purpose for them to pursue their efforts to obtain one or more battleships in this country.
We do not feel that we are in a position to give the representatives of the Soviet Government the information to which we feel they are entitled until a decision has been reached in regard to some of the important questions of policy involved. It is for that reason that we are referring this matter to you for your consideration and for an expression of your wishes.
The specific questions on which we request your decision are:
1. Shall we object to the sale of Mr. Gibbs’ plans to the Soviet Government?9
The Soviet Government apparently wishes to obtain those plans even though a 62,000–ton battleship armed with 18–inch guns could not be constructed in this country. As the plans reveal no military secrets, their sale would violate no law, and objection to it would have to be based purely on grounds of policy. The Soviet Government might be able to obtain from these plans ideas which its own naval architects have not conceived, but it seems highly unlikely that the Soviet Government could construct a battleship from those plans in its own shipyards even if it were to obtain the necessary materials in this country.
2. Shall we inform Mr. Gibbs and the Soviet Ambassador that, although the construction of a battleship of the type provided for in Mr. Gibbs’ plans would be contrary to the policy of this Government, this Government would have no objection to the construction in this country of battleships of a tonnage not to exceed some specified figure and armed with guns not exceeding 16 inches?10
The following considerations may be adduced in favor of an affirmative answer:
- No objection would appear to arise, on the grounds of foreign policy, to the construction of such battleships in this country for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics has no battleships11 in its navy and its acquisition of a [Page 697] reasonable number of such ships could not in any way menace the security of this country or endanger the peace of Europe. Our action in facilitating, in so far as existing law permits, the construction of such battleships for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics would make for friendly relations between the two countries and could not properly give offense to any other power. The agents of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics have frequently stated that it is the intention of their Government to base such battleships as it may acquire upon Vladivostok. If this intention were carried out, the presence of these battleships in the Pacific might be of positive advantage to this country.
- While the battleships were under construction, they could at any time be commandeered by this Government, and they would thus for several years constitute potential additions to our own fleet.
- The expenditure by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in this country of a sum which would probably exceed two hundred million dollars would increase employment and would be advantageous to American industry.
- In view of the extent to which this Government has already committed itself in the course of the negotiations, the Soviet Government might well take legitimate offense if the Government were now to reverse its position.
The following considerations may be adduced in favor of a negative answer:
- The building of one or more battleships for a foreign government in our shipyards at this time might interfere with the carrying out of our own naval program, unless the shipbuilding company taking the contract were willing to enlarge its facilities.
- The labor of ascertaining whether military secrets are involved in any plans which may be submitted would place a considerable burden upon the Navy Department.
3. If question two is answered in the affirmative, shall the maximum tonnage be fixed at 45,000 tons or at 35,000 tons or at some intermediate figure?12
In order that our own battleships may not be outclassed, it would seem wise not to approve the construction in this country for a foreign government of a battleship exceeding in tonnage the largest that we are to build for ourselves. If we are not to construct in the near future battleships exceeding 35,000 tons, it would seem wise to limit the tonnage of ships built in this country for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics to that figure. If we are to construct battleships of greater tonnage, the maximum tonnage decided upon might be logically fixed as the maximum tonnage which we would approve for battleships constructed in this country for a foreign government.
Mention should be made, however, of the continuing preoccupation of the British that the construction by the Union of Soviet Socialist [Page 698] Republics of any battleship carrying twelve 16–inch guns would result in the building of similar battleships by Germany, thus making the larger ship the standard for Europe.
4. If question two is answered in the affirmative, shall we go further than merely to state that there is no objection and give some affirmative indication to interested shipbuilders, manufacturers, and naval architects that this Government considers the proposed transaction of positive advantage to this country?13
To make such an affirmative statement would be contrary to established procedure in dealing with such matters. On the other hand, unless such an affirmative statement is made, persons and companies with whom the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics would have to enter into contracts might hesitate and even refuse to make such contracts. Throughout the negotiations, such hesitation has been apparent. It appears to be based in part upon the fear of possible public criticism should they assist in arming a communist government and in part upon persistent reports that high officials in the Government are, for one reason or another, utterly opposed to the proposed transaction. Such an affirmative statement has been frequently and earnestly requested by various interested persons.
5. If question two is answered in the affirmative, would it be advisable, in order to forestall possible criticism of the action of the Executive, to obtain in advance from Congress special legislation authorizing the Navy Department to examine such plans as may be submitted with a view to ascertaining whether they involve military secrets, and, without undertaking to furnish any matériel or armament, or to release any items considered secret or confidential, or to permit the use of any secret or confidential plans or specifications now in use by the United States Navy, to cooperate with naval architects and shipbuilders to such a degree as that Department may consider consistent with the interests of the national defense?14
6. If question two is answered in the affirmative and question five in the negative, do you authorize the Navy Department to examine such plans as may be submitted with a view to ascertaining whether they involve military secrets, and, without undertaking to furnish any matériel or armament, or to release any items considered secret or confidential, or to permit the use of any secret or confidential plans or specifications now in use by the United States Navy, to cooperate with naval architects and shipbuilders to such a degree as that Department may consider consistent with the interests of the national defense?15[Page 699]
It is the opinion of the Navy Department that if question 5 or question 6 is answered in the affirmative, American naval architects could design and American shipbuilders could construct a battleship which should be entirely satisfactory to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics without calling upon the Navy Department to exceed the limitations indicated in those questions.
- Cordell Hull
- Charles Edison
[At the meeting on June 5, 1938, between Ambassador Davies and Joseph Stalin, the latter directed conversation to the question of a battleship being constructed in the United States for the Soviet Union. The details of this conversation were reported by the Ambassador in his despatch No. 1348, June 9, 1938, page 567 (see especially pages 572–573).]
- Marginal notation by the President: “No.”↩
- Marginal notation by the President: “Yes”.↩
- The Soviet Navy was in fact known to have three old, partially modernized battleships.↩
- Marginal notation by the President: “45000? Yes.”↩
- Marginal notation by the President: “Yes. Give all help.”↩
- Marginal notation by the President: “Out.”↩
- Marginal notation by the President: “Handle by a specially detailed officer under the Ass[istan]t Sec[retar]y.”↩