500.A15A5/450: Telegram

The Chargé in the United Kingdom (Atherton) to the Secretary of State

359. In early April the Embassy informed the Department of State that British bilateral discussions on naval subjects with the Germans, French, Italians and Soviets would be undertaken in London, in that order, and at as early a date as possible to arrange.49 The Prime Minister’s official announcement of these proposed conversations was reported in my telegram No. 288, June 26, 2 p.m. It was likewise stated therein that “The present concept of the British Government is to hold a naval conference this year, with emphasis placed on qualitative limitation and programs rather than ratios”. This telegram likewise pointed out that subsequent to the Anglo-German naval conversations the French Government had “turned sulky”, and as the Department has been informed, in spite of a British invitation, the French have not yet definitely accepted the British invitation for bilateral conversations in London.

To surmount these difficulties, accordingly, and to hasten the preparations for the naval conference which the British desire to hold this year, the British Government prepared a memorandum outlining certain of the specific considerations they wish to raise in the proposed bilateral conversations with both the French and Italians; and since the French refused to come to London, a copy of this memorandum [Page 88] was handed to the French and Italian representatives here on Saturday last. Captain Danckwerts, of the British Admiralty, was despatched to Paris on Monday of this week, not only to answer any questions the French Admiralty might raise in connection with this memorandum, but again to urge the desirability of the French sending representatives for bilateral naval discussions in London at an early date. Captain Danckwerts returned to London on Wednesday evening and stated today he “expects the French will come to London about the middle of September”. Anglo-Italian conversations are expected to follow the Anglo-French conversations, and Craigie informed me today that the British Government contemplate the calling of a conference of the five Washington powers in London in October to “deal with qualitative limitation and advance negotiations on quantitative limitation” insofar as possible. (This stipulation he explained is made because of the Japanese.)

When upon my inquiry for information at the Foreign Office today a copy of the memorandum (following) handed to the French and Italian representatives last Saturday was given me. I was informed that Craigie was the only officer qualified to discuss the details thereof, and that Craigie who has resumed his leave of absence would not be back to the Foreign Office until some time in September. I accordingly called him by long distance telephone and shall see him sometime next week. Craigie did, however, inform me that Messrs. Davis and Standley had been informed last autumn of the possibility of the British summoning a conference this year to deal with qualitative limitation and for negotiation on quantitative limitation, and that I might be assured there was no change in British policy, or in the general assurances that were given to the American delegation last autumn, but merely a change in tactics in overcoming the difficulties attendant upon ratios expressed as such.

Craigie particularly referred me to a conversation he had with an Embassy secretary at a casual country luncheon this week, in that the British “were not worried so much at what kind of vessels the United States built and were quite ready to concede their need for large vessels as far as the United States alone was concerned, but that naturally Japan would feel that they should not be outclassed, but what they built in turn affected Great Britain’s needs.[”]

I venture to point out as already reported that on July 29th the Secretary for Foreign Affairs stated the British plan envisaged a further conference which would include the German and Soviet Governments.

Following is text of memorandum referred to above:

“Memorandum: His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom have been considering carefully the results of the bilateral conversations, [Page 89] regarding the limitation of naval armaments, that have taken place during 1934 and 1935. These conversations were intended to prepare the way for a preliminary conference in accordance with treaty requirements during the year 1935, as a result of which it is hoped to hold a general conference of all naval powers with a view to reaching agreement on general naval limitations for the future.

The exploratory conversations have been delayed by external events and the process of exploration is taking longer than was originally anticipated. It is now clear, however, that the system of limitation by total tonnages in categories that was pursued in the Washington and London naval treaties will not again meet with general acceptance. The alternative proposal for achieving some form of quantitative naval limitation, viz., the issue by the various naval powers of unilateral declarations in regard to their building programme intentions over a number of years, has not yet been subjected to full and detailed discussion between all the principal naval powers, and considerable time must elapse before it becomes clear whether this system will prove satisfactory.
It is clear that all the principal naval powers will require to undertake the construction of capital ships and cruisers in the year 1937 and later years. The Washington and London naval treaties both come to an end on 31st December 1936. Unless, therefore, agreement can be reached before that date on fresh qualitative limits to replace those which lapse with the treaties, there will be no limitation at all on the sizes and gun calibres of the ships to be built in 1937 and later years. This is a situation which cannot be regarded with equanimity by any of the principal naval powers, and agreement on new qualitative limits is therefore urgently required. Moreover agreement on qualitative limits is of more immediate importance than agreement on quantitative limits, since the former will have immediate effect on the limitation of armaments and financial commitments by its application to all the ships to be laid down after 31st December 1936, whereas the latter, by its nature, becomes effective only over a period of years and may have little effect on the construction programmes to be laid down in the year 1937.
As a result of the conversations held during the past 18 months, His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom believe that the lowest qualitative limits likely to be acceptable to the European countries so far consulted (United Kingdom, France, Italy and Germany) are as follows: capital ships, 25,000 tons, 12-inch guns; aircraft carriers, 22,000 tons, 6.1-inch guns; category A cruisers, 10,000 tons, 8-inch guns; category B cruisers and light surface vessels, 7,600 tons, 6.1-inch guns; submarines, 2,000 tons, 5.1-inch guns. Note: it is hoped that agreement could be reached that no more category A cruisers should be laid down in the future.
His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom however cannot accept qualitative limits which, though they might be agreeable to all European powers, are not acceptable also to the United States of America and Japan, and it would be their endeavour to obtain the agreement of the United States of America and Japan to figures as near as possible to those mentioned in the previous paragraph.
Without abandoning in any way their search for some form of quantitative limitation likely to secure general assent, His Majesty’s Government feel that it is of far more urgent importance to lay the basis of agreement on qualitative limitation. They desire to know, therefore, whether the French/Italian Government agree with this view and whether the list of qualitative limits acceptable to the European powers correctly represents the view of the French/Italian Government.
If a sufficient measure of European agreement on qualitative limitation exists, His Majesty’s Government will put forward this European view to the United States of America and Japan with a view to a conference of the Washington Powers in October, 1935, so as to reach an agreement at least on this branch of the subject and so regulate the size of warships to be built after the 31st December 1936. Although this should, in the view of His Majesty’s Government, be the principal purpose of the proposed conference, the occasion should also be taken to make further progress with the negotiation of an arrangement for the quantitative limitation of naval armaments on the lines suggested in paragraph (2) above.
In addition, it would be desirable to reach agreement as to the reciprocal notification of information relating to the laying down and characteristics of new ships (Washington Treaty, chapter 2, part 3, section 1 B, and London Naval Treaty, article 10); the definitions of categories and standard tonnage (Washington Treaty, chapter 2, part 4, and London Naval Treaty, articles 3 and 6); the preparation of merchant ships in time of peace for conversion to warlike purposes (Washington Treaty, article 14); the prohibition of the use for war of warships building for other powers (Washington Treaty, article 17); and the prohibition of the transfer of vessels of war from one power to another (Washington Treaty, article 18). Foreign Office, 2nd August 1935.[”]

  1. No report of this kind in April has been found in Department files.