500.A15A4 General Committee (Arms)/358

The American Delegate (Wilson) to the Secretary of State

No. 119

Sir: I have the honor to refer to my telegram No. 295, of June 28, 3 p.m., from London and the Department’s telegram to Geneva, No. 497, of June 29, 12 noon, on the subject of my recent conversation in London with Lord Stanhope concerning the question of a convention for the control of the manufacture of and trade in arms. On my return here I discussed with the other members of the Delegation at Geneva the British suggestions which Lord Stanhope brought to my notice at that time. I take this occasion to report the substance of these discussions.

To recapitulate briefly, Lord Stanhope’s suggestions were for the application of the principle of publicity on numbers and inspection on the spot pari passu with limitation of armament. That is to say as soon as limitation was agreed upon with regard to certain matériel such as, for example, airplanes, publicity on numbers and inspection on the spot should automatically apply thereto. As for the matériel not covered by limitation agreements, there could be no question of publicity on numbers and inspection on the spot—the old idea “no tickee, no washee!”

The Department will recall that Lord Stanhope appeared to have in mind that as soon as air matériel would be limited by agreement among the Locarno Powers, which he hoped would be shortly as the subject was then under discussion, it might be possible for the British Government to agree to give full publicity on numbers and admit [Page 58] inspection for naval and air matériel, adding a protocol to the treaty to the effect that if and when land matériel should be limited quantitatively and/or qualitatively, full publicity on numbers and inspection on the spot would be automatically applied to such matériel as well.

This was the basis for our discussion here at Geneva on my return from London. There appeared two aspects for us to consider: namely, the question of the progress of the work for the regulation of the manufacture of and trade in arms, and the future policy or method for its accomplishment, as viewed from this end. In the present state of affairs in Europe, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between these two aspects, as the one will have a real if not determining effect upon the other. For the purposes of our present analysis, however, I think it wise to consider the two angles of the question as distinctly as may be.

Regarding the question of progress, the Department will note that Lord Stanhope hoped that air matériel would be limited shortly among the Locarno Powers, and the British Press as well as the Government have all underlined the desirability of the rapid conclusion of an air Locarno which would involve limitation of that arm, at least among the five Locarno Powers. This would not only be another step in the direction of limitation such as the recent Anglo-German naval accord, but would be calculated to exert considerable pressure on the French to proceed at once with the third and remaining aspect of the disarmament problem: namely, land armament. To begin with, an agreement such as Lord Stanhope discussed, which would give full publicity on numbers and admit inspection on the spot for certain aspects of the problem, including a protocol dealing with the third feature, would only be practicable if and when questions regarding air matériel were settled. It would therefore seem impossible to take any practical steps toward a realization of the British suggestions until an air agreement has been reached. Since my conversation with Lord Stanhope, the state of European politics has become even more confused and, for the moment at least, disheartening, with the continued French resentment and uncertainty with regard to British independent action and, of more importance, the difficulty of the settlement of the Abyssinian question.89 According to press reports which appear authentic, there does seem to be some discussion going on at the moment for the conclusion of an air Locarno. I do not, however, feel that this will be seriously undertaken until the Abyssinian situation is more definitely solved. At the present time I can only say regretfully that barring an unexpectedly early clearing of the European skies, it scarcely seems likely that we can look for much progress [Page 59] toward a serious discussion of Lord Stanhope’s suggestions until some time has passed.

Regarding the policy to be pursued in their regard, I feel also that we are not in a position to come to any definite conclusion at the moment. It may, however, be useful for me to set down briefly certain ideas in this regard. First of all, I feel that generally speaking there are a number of negative aspects from our own point of view which should be taken into account in considering Lord Stanhope’s suggestion, testing them, as it were, with the question: is it worth while for us to enter into such an agreement? At the beginning we are confronted with the situation that any agreement such as that Lord Stanhope outlined would of necessity engender discussion which would involve European political questions of the highest importance and delicacy with which we are not directly concerned. Any agreement of the nature indicated must involve consideration by the European Powers of past agreements, special interests, relationships and probabilities for the future, none of which interest us closely and of much of which we are probably not aware.

Furthermore, questions of regulating military aviation must have largely to do with civil aviation. This has always been brought out in discussions on this subject in the past. Of the many wide divergencies of conditions and differences of viewpoint as between Europe and America which geographical factors alone imply, this subject is perhaps the best example. To put it tersely, civil aviation to the European means potentiality for military action—the bombing from the air of civilian populations, etc. To the American, civil aviation is strictly what the phrase signifies—the transport of passengers and freight over the long continental distances existing in the United States and for the quick access of one part of the country to the other for commercial and personal advantage. Now the manner in which civil aviation is to be treated must be fundamentally dependent upon the interpretation of the phrase. The European is willing and, even in the case of the British, I have found increasingly desirous of adopting stringent measures of control with regard to civil aviation which the peculiar situation over here, psychological and otherwise, warrants. This is not the case with us, and so far as we can see, will not be in the measurable future. We therefore do not meet the Europeans on common ground on this important if not decisive aspect of the problem and we would only be a stumbling block to this important aspect of their agreement on limitation and regulation of aviation. What to the European would mean security and relief from fear in a strict control of civil aviation and so worth a big price, would to an American mean only a severe dislocation of a most important and growing part of our industrial development and its stultification in [Page 60] the future not to mention the “nuisance” feature and trade secrets aspect of the matter.

Also, in considering whether such an agreement as Lord Stanhope sketched is worth while, as far as we are concerned, I think we should bear in mind that while the American people would probably be willing to accept inspection on the spot for what they considered a far-reaching step for the maintenance of peace, I have some doubt in my mind as to whether they would be equally willing to accept a treaty which provided for only a declaration on the value of production of cannons and tanks, while it provided not only for declarations by numbers on aviation but also inspection on the spot of the production of both military and civilian aviation. In such a treaty as Lord Stanhope envisages the inspection on the spot would be certainly perfunctory, as far as naval units were concerned, and would bear predominantly and almost exclusively on the checking up of production of civilian aircraft.

On the other hand, there are positive advantages in the scheme which Lord Stanhope suggests. Any contract which the States of Europe could sign among themselves would be an augury of peace among them and, in so far, a distinct advantage to us. I believe that the signature of any general agreement of no matter how limited a scope would be considered a turning point from the political chaos now existing. Further, the scheme is ingenuous in that it would put the burden upon the French to make agreements, as to land armaments, with Germany. The French General Staff is profoundly desirous of the right of inspection in Germany, even though such inspection is reciprocal. Under such scheme, to obtain such right in respect to land armaments, the French would have to realize limitation accords with Germany in this field.

From this despatch you will appreciate that I am not yet ready myself to give general advice on our attitude respecting Stanhope’s scheme, and if I may venture so to suggest, I think it would be advisable that the Department as well withhold judgment until more light has been shed on future developments in Europe. If such procedure meets with your approval, I shall tell the British when I next see them, presumably here in September, that my Government prefers to withhold judgment until the scheme enters more directly into the realms of the possible; that it is now too hypothetical, contingent as it is upon an air agreement, for us to take position thereon. Nevertheless, I should appreciate any views which this despatch may suggest as it might be useful for us even in the hypothetical stage of the question, to exchange views in this regard.

Respectfully yours,

Hugh R. Wilson
  1. For correspondence concerning the Ethiopian-Italian conflict, see pp. 594 ff.