500.A15A5/879: Telegram

Mr. Norman H. Davis to the Secretary of State

Previous to receipt of your unnumbered telegram of April 13, 7 p.m., Hoare18 had asked me to meet with him and Admiral Chatfield to discuss naval matters which we did Wednesday afternoon.19 Vice Admiral Henderson was also present for the British and Captain Wilson accompanied me.

We first discussed the uncertain situation resulting from the Japanese attitude. The British fear that Japan, realizing that it has not the resources or facilities for keeping pace with Britain actively in quantitative naval armaments, may decide to attempt to overcome this disadvantage by building a new type of ship. On the other hand the British do not ignore the possibility that Japan may be bluffing, that it may be taking this position for purely political reasons and not [Page 626] with a view of gaining some advantage through freedom of action since there is some evidence recently that the Japanese Government is tending towards a more reasonable and conciliatory attitude.

The British have no information to support the rumors that Japan is planning to lay down battleships above the 35,000 ton limit mounting guns’ 16 inches or larger. In fact the British believe that if Japan should turn to a new type it would be more apt to construct a larger and more powerful type of cruiser than experiment with a larger type of battleship. Chatfield expressed more concern about a possible increase in the size of the proposed Japanese ships than with an increase in gun caliber and suggested that since Japan had refused to commit herself to limit the size of guns it might be wise to seek to obtain a commitment from her with regard to the size of ships. Hoare and I did not concur with this view. I suggested that since Japan had declined to bind herself to the 14-inch gun limitation but had continued to reiterate a desire to avoid a naval race, it might be possible to persuade them to agree that if they should decide to depart from the limitations in type fixed by the London Naval Treaty of 1936 they will give notice in advance of laying down a new type of ship. Hoare appeared to favor this suggestion and said that in his opinion the time had come when it should be pointed out clearly to the Japanese that their failure to enter into any form of naval limitation or to give definite information of their intentions or evidence of a desire to prevent a naval race would create an unfortunate and serious situation.

I explained that the failure of Japan to accept the 14-inch gun on capital ships obliged us to decide in the near future whether to mount 14 or 16-inch guns in our two new battleships and asked if they could give me some information regarding the plan for the five British battleships now building or authorized. Chatfield replied that the five new battleships under construction would carry ten 14-inch guns and have a speed of 30 knots or slightly less, that they were being built for Europe and particularly to match the five German battleships which will be completed in 1940–1; that particular consideration had been given to protection against damage by mines and aircraft and that their design had not been materially affected by what the Japanese might do. He said that in the next class of battleships’ laid down it would probably be necessary to take into consideration the ships which Japan might build. I asked if French had facilities for laying down two additional battleships next year to meet possible construction by Japan. Chatfield replied in the affirmative but Admiral Henderson added that it would be necessary to make a decision before next August in order that the forgings might be prepared for 16-inch guns.

[Page 627]

Intimated to Hoare that in view of the world situation and the unreasonable request [refusal?] of Japan to agree to anything it was my personal opinion that the United States ought to accelerate its replacement program and asked what he thought the effect on Japan would be if the United States should decide to lay down three additional battleships and one aircraft carrier. He thought the probable effect would be good and said it would be agreeable to the British. Chatfield agreed but with the reservation that should the United States mount 16-inch guns Japan might use that as an excuse to build one or two larger ships carrying 18-inch guns.

Recognizing that it is impossible to forecast what the Japanese reaction might be to this or any other program, it was agreed that if the Japanese should see themselves being out-distanced in numbers of ships it was possible they might seek to maintain their position by departing from the treaty categories. It was agreed moreover that information should be sought regarding Japanese plans for new construction but that it would be advisable to defer specific move in this respect until the naval negotiations between Great Britain and certain European powers had been completed.

The conversation then turned to the British bilateral naval negotiations with Germany and Russia and to the prospects for ratification by the British of the London Naval Treaty 1936. I told them that Maiski, the Russian Ambassador, had just told me that he expected to be authorized to sign the naval treaty by end of this month. Hoare said he hoped that was true because if the negotiations with the Russians could be successfully completed agreement with the Germans would quickly follow. He complained of the dilatory utterances of the Russians but said that should agreement be reached with them and the Germans and understanding be arrived at with the Italians at least not to depart from the provisions of the treaty, the Government would go to the House of Commons to obtain ratification of the treaty. Hoare emphasized however, that he would not feel justified in going to Parliament with the treaty until there is agreement with the principal naval powers of Europe. He said that the present was a difficult time in the relations of Great Britain and Italy and feared that in the present conditions it might be difficult for the British to arrive at an understanding on naval matters with the Italians. He thought that it might be desirable for us to approach the Italian Government on this subject.

It was agreed (1) that the bilateral naval negotiations between Great Britain and the major European naval powers should be concluded as soon as possible; (2) that I should take up with you the practicability of the United States approaching Italy later on with a view to obtaining at least an [assurance] that Italy would not depart [Page 628] from the provisions of the London Naval Treaty 1936; (3) that as soon as agreement was reached in Europe it would be desirable to attempt to obtain from Japan information as to her intentions with regard to adhering to or departing from the treaty categories.

In discussing the pros and cons as to 14 and 16-inch guns the British agreed that as a result of the Japanese action the 16-inch gun becomes the established maximum caliber and that the only practical way to establish and ensure adherence to the 14-inch gun now would be by mutual agreement. The British said that while they will under no circumstances depart from the 14-inch gun on the five ships under construction what they will do in the future will depend upon what Japan does. Chatfield said that the British were much more concerned about Japan adhering to the tonnage limitations under the treaty than whether or not they mount 14 or 16-inch guns. My impression is that the British hope that the United States will decide on 14 rather than on 16-inch guns. Chatfield was inclined to the view that if we would keep to the 14-inch gun Japan would be less apt to get frightened whereas if we adopted 16–inch guns now she would be more apt to go to an 18-inch gun. I said that I personally had hoped we would keep to the 14-inch gun at least for the two battleships under construction but that since the 16-inch gun now becomes the treaty maximum I was becoming more doubtful about it unless, before the decision has to be made, Japan shows a more reasonable attitude and unless for political or psychological reasons it might be deemed advisable to keep up to the 14 on these two battleships. It was understood that after I have reported our conversation to Washington and we have both given further thought to the matters discussed we might usefully have another talk before my departure. Memorandum of conversation follows by pouch.

  1. Sir Samuel Hoare, First Lord of the Admiralty.
  2. April 14.