Skip to main content

Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Lord Robert Cecil to British Ambassador to the United States Sir Cecil A. Spring Rice

Cypher telegram to Sir C.Spring Rice (Washington).

Foreign Office.    June 4th.1917.            6.00 p.m.

No. 2055.   Secret.   (K).1

- - - - - - - -

My personal and secret telegram of May 19th for Mr. Balfour.2

Question of future naval co-operation with the United States has now been carefully considered by War Cabinet who are in general agreement with the views which I expressed in above telegram, but, much as they would like to be in a position to give forthwith a forma[l] guarantee of naval aid to the United States for the future and out of that to develop a definite naval alliance, they are of opinion that its announcement at Tokio, which could not justifiably be withheld, must inevitably raise in a highly dangerous form the whole extent of Anglo-Japanese relations and would certainly be interpreted by Japan as primarily aimed at blocking her ambitions in China, the Pacific and the Far East generally.

  The United States Government must, however, be aware that, quite independently of any diplomatic agreements that might be concluded, this country would be unable to refrain from going to America’s assistance in case of need, and they can hardly feel that they are incurring any serious risk in shaping their naval policy on that assumption and foregoing the formal guarantee which, as stated, the present international situation makes it difficult for His Majesty’s Government to give, short of a general recasting of existing agreements.

  His Majesty’s Government have indeed been primarily impressed by the prospect of the possible development of Anglo-American naval co-operation in the future, but they have also given their attention to the technical considerations which gave rise to this larger question, namely the reluctance of the United States Government to alter their naval programme in favour of the construction of additional destroyers.

  With some important exceptions, the American fleet is much superior to the Japanese numerically and otherwise. Of the larger capital ships, both constructed and under construction, with the exception of battle cruisers, the United States have already a considerable preponderance. On the other hand, their number of fast light cruisers is, in the opinion of our Naval authorities, quite inadequate for the operations of a fleet of the dimensions of that of the United States, while their superiority in destroyers over the Japanese is also insufficient.

  The most urgent requirements of the American navy as against Japan are in fact for light cruisers, destroyers and anti-submarine craft, and, with the exception of the battle cruisers, it would be a waste of resources for the United States Government to build more capital ships. The same requirements apply to the present war, and it seems essential that the United States Government should concentrate on building the classes of vessels required even at the cost of postponing the completion of the dreadnought battleships.

  Your Excellency should take an early opportunity of resuming the discussion begun by Mr.Balfour with Colonel house,3 or elsewhere, and developing the arguments in favour of the United States modifying their naval programme as desired by us, and, with regard to the ultimate question of a naval guarantee from us or an Alliance you should, while explaining our difficulties, make it clear that we are extremely disappointed at being unable at once to surmount them and that only the sensitiveness of the Far Eastern situation under present circumstances prevents us from tackling the problem immediately.

- - - - - - - -

Source Note: Cy, UK-KeNA, Adm. 137/1436. The author is not given, however, the cable of 19 May 1917 that he refers to here as “My personal and secret telegram” was written by Lord Robert Cecil. There is a notation at the top of the copy: “Circulated to The King and War Cabinet.”

Footnote 1: This indicates the code that was used.

Footnote 2: In his cable to British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, Cecil wrote much of what he repeats here. He argued that an understanding to support the United States might cause the Japanese to view the “whole treaty” with Britain as “valueless,” which “might lead to prolonged negotiations” and the need to “recast the [Anglo-Japanese] alliance altogether.” Cecil warned “a false step might throw Japan into the arms of our enemies” so any action on Britain’s part required “very careful consideration by the War Cabinet.” Nonetheless, it was “important” to induce the United States to build destroyers and Cecil asserts that the vast majority of British government officials believed “a defensive alliance with the United States is so attractive to us that any step which would lead in that direction we should desire to take.” They are “examining very carefully what is the best way of reconciling Japan to such proposed action” but, in the meantime, Balfour can assure the U. S. government “that with or without a guarantee[,] popular opinion here would undoubtedly force us to go to the assistance of America if she were attacked by Japan” so it would be “perfectly safe” for the U. S. to forego building additional battleships. Wilson Papers, 42: 354.

Footnote 3: President Woodrow Wilson’s informal but influential advisor Edward M. House. House was the person that had first broached the idea of a formal Anglo-American alliance and a British guarantee to support the U.S. in case of a conflict with Japan. Burk, Britain, America and the Sinews of War: 126-27.