81

22nd December, 1927

PERSONAL AND CONFIDENTIAL

My dear P.M.,

BRITISH BLOCKADE RIGHTS AT SEA

You will, I feel sure, be as astounded as I have been at this subject becoming a matter for serious discussion. [1] It is just as if the chastity of some old and high respectable matron was suddenly to become the subject of active debate. And when one has got over the surprise and indignation of the subject being discussed at all, one is oppressed by the weight of evidence that can be marshalled against one's fixed ideas.

I will not repeat, or even attempt to summarise, the arguments that are put forward, as they are fairly concisely presented in the Cabinet papers that I forward this week under another cover.

However, I will allow myself a little criticism on broad lines before the subject becomes so overlain with rhetoric and invective that the wood is obscured by the trees.

First off, it seems to me that those who are for a drastic alteration in our policy are basing their case on rather slight and rather partisan evidence as to American motives and feelings on this and other naval matters. On the evidence I would say that Sir Esme Howard [2] bases his arguments to a great extent on Colonel House [3] who, as Page pointed out in his 'Letters' [4], is 100% American. Hankey [5] says that he sees the cloven hoof of House in the whole agitation. He says that, wherever House is, there discussion arises regarding our blockade policy, and he quotes instances of this obsession both during and since the war.

He even suspects that General Preston Brown [6] (see C.P.258) was put up to propagandizing at the British Military Attache at Washington in this regard by House.

A talk that I had with Vansittart [7] ran as follows. He is the very intelligent head of the American Department of the F.O., and in this matter sides with Tyrrell [8] for a thorough soul- searching with a view to approaching America with the idea of at least compromising on the subject of Blockade.

I said that I couldn't see that the American threat of a super- Navy need necessarily be linked up with our insistence on our traditional Blockade rights. If we were at war and America neutral, then presumably our Navy would be in part held by the enemy and, anyhow, would be more or less dispersed over the world, so that America would need a fleet of considerably less strength than ours in order successfully to combat our blockade claims regarding their (American) shipping. And even short of a parade- in-force of their naval strength, they hold the trump cards, as a determined and sincere threat to close their doors on us in war in the matter of war supplies would be quite sufficient to force us to leave the American mercantile marine alone, whatever the destination of their cargoes.

Vansittart said that this was so, in fact, but that it was their advice that the Big Navy party in America were basing their claim for support in the matter of a big increase in naval construction on the necessity of 'calling our bluff', and that if we were able successfully to negotiate with the U.S. Administration on the question of blockade, we would cut the ground from under the feet of the Big Navy people.

However, I can't see that this is a watertight argument.

Presumably the Big Navy people are not fools and their real reason for wanting a super-Navy is probably a combination of the stirrings of American Imperialism, together with a fortuitous or otherwise connection with the steel and armament firms. These real motives are not those on which to base a popular appeal, so it would seem reasonable to suppose they choose one that involves a little popular twisting of the lion's tail. If we, by the sacrifice of a weapon that went a long way towards winning the last war and will presumably be not altogether valueless in the next, cut this argument out of their mouths, it seems to me that it will not take them long to find another, and we will have made our sacrifice in vain.

I cannot believe that America's serious reason for the proposals to build a super-Navy is based on the combatting of our blockade policy in war.

The Big Navy people, the F.O. tell me, are composed of retired Admirals, '100%' Americans (who say, like any other parvenus:

'We've got the money, why shouldn't we have the biggest and best of everything'), and the steel and armament manufacturers. They have as a coterie no settled political convictions but go to both party conventions and let both parties compete for their support, which is considerable. They are probably rather more Republican than Democrat, but their views cut across the normal party lines.

The F.O. say that even the rawest-mouthed of the Big Navy people do not venture to think possible a war with Great Britain. If challenged by an Englishman they would probably shift their ground a little and point to the 'Japanese menace', and, if pushed a little further, they would come out flat and say-that there are twice as many white people in the U.S. than in the whole British Empire put together, and that they've got the world's wealth, so why shouldn't they, if they wish, aspire to police the world as we have hitherto done but can no longer afford to do satisfactorily.

And, they might add, 'We want to keep you British in order and show you that you can't bounce us any longer'.

As Vansittart continued, there was really but little comment at first in the U.S. on the failure of the Coolidge Disarmament Conference. [9] People said that it was a pity and that it was probably a case of too many technical experts, but that at any rate no harm was done. Then came Cecil's resignation [10] and his strong condemnation of H.M.G.'s policy and conduct of the Coolidge Conference. Then (vide Vansittart) the Americans opened their eyes and began to wonder where the nigger had been in the woodpile - they began to wonder what was really behind what they were told was our stiff and uncompromising attitude. The Big Navy people in the U.S. used this to the uttermost and have been busy capitalising on the consequent rumours and uncertainties ever since, until the man in the street in America is in the frame of mind that he says, 'Well, whatever the future, it's best to be on the safe side and have some more ships-its our right and duty to be at least equal to England in all respects'.

The F.O. are at one on the statement that Lord Cecil's resignation was the one incentive necessary, after the failure of the Coolidge Conference, to bring about a recrudescence of the Big Navy activities-a rather ironical anomaly.

Although it might be inferred from the tone of the article in the 'Nation' of 17th December that the Liberals would endorse a change in our policy, I am told from a reliable quarter that Lloyd George [11] is against any change. The Labour Party would, I am told, support a change in our blockade policy.

You will gather from this letter, for what very little it is worth, that I react, as I think you will at first blow, from any change in our blockade policy. But this is not to say that I am not profoundly impressed by the arguments of the other side. The whole question wants more data from America and most exhaustive discussion here.

You will have seen, in the Press reports and elsewhere, mention of the visit of Mr. Wickham Steed (sometime Editor of the 'Times') to the United States on a lecturing tour at the invitation of the Union of Churches of America. His main object was to try and get the idea accepted (or at least started) that the United States should place a ban on trading with or otherwise, aiding any nation declared an aggressor by the League, or if that is thought to be going too far in entanglement, at least that the U.S. Government should make a declaration to the effect that American nationals traded with an aggressor at their own risk. Wickham Steed claims to have had considerable success on these lines and it is apparently a fact that he has induced Senator Capper [12] to introduce a resolution or a bill (I am uncertain which) into Congress somewhat on these lines. Wickham Steed saw Mr. Coolidge and had an hour or two's conversation with him, and states that the President took the idea quite well. He subsequently told the Press that he had been interested to hear Mr. Wickham Steed's ideas but was not as yet convinced of their practicability.

I had heard of the above from several sources, but the above is as it was told to me yesterday by Sir Austen Chamberlain [13] who had an hour and a half with Wickham Steed the day before. He says he is a tremendously vain man, and that he has to discount his own account of his success. However, for all that, Sir Austen is definitely interested in the movement and thinks that it may have a hearing on the Blockade claims business, if Wickham Steed's suggestions are implemented, and he looks forward to Sir Esme Howard's despatches from now on to see what sort of ground the seed has fallen on.

Naturally my conversation with Sir Austen mainly centred round this Freedom of the Seas question. He did not put up any arguments that are not set out in his memorandum amongst the print on the subject that I send you. He gave me clearly to understand that his mind was far from made up on the subject and that he was not going to be rushed by his Department, some members of which thought that the matter was a more urgent one than he himself was convinced it was.

In any event, he said, it was a question of such importance that it cannot be rushed and it is inconceivable that we should be able to thrash it out before March and that, in his mind, was too near the Presidential election for it to be practical to approach the Americans.

I am, Yours sincerely, R. G. CASEY

1 See Letter 78.

2 Ambassador to the United States.

3 Adviser to former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.

4 Walter Hines Page, United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom 1913-18. Volumes of his correspondence were published posthumously.

5 Sir Maurice Hankey, Secretary to the Cabinet.

6 Maj Gen Preston Brown, Commanding Officer of the United States Army First Corps Area.

7 Robert Vansittart, Counsellor at the Foreign Office.

8 Sir William Tyrrell, Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office.

9 The reference is to the 1927 Geneva Naval Disarmament Conference, called by United States President Calvin Coolidge. See note 3 to Letter 78.

10 See note 19 to Letter 79.

11 David Lloyd George, Prime Minister 1916-22.

12 Senator Arthur Capper, Republican, from Kansas.

13 Foreign Secretary.