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Foreign Secretary Arthur J. Balfour to Under Secretary Lord A. Robert Cecil

British Embassy,


14 May 1917

     Large United States programme for capital ships makes construction of any considerable number of additional destroyers impossible.1 We have suggested the abandonment for the present of capital ships, but the fear of Japan is so great, both in the Navy Department and elsewhere, that we have made no progress. In discussion with Colonel House2 yesterday latter suggested that programme might be modified in direction we desire if United States could receive a guarantee from us that if necessity arose they could call on us for assistance in capital ships to a not less extent than number which would have been completed under present programme. Danger to which United Kingdom might be exposed in such conditions from German fleet was pointed out to him. He then developed the idea, and suggested arrangement might take a wider form and be mutual; in short a defensive alliance on the sea between United States and ourselves. He was in favour of a secret agreement on these lines, but I doubt whether this is consistent with the United States constitution, and, in any case, it is a violent departure from United States practice.

     If, however, you agree to general principle, I would consult him as to the best method of carrying it out. Personally I consider that, apart from all-important need for more destroyers, there would be quite an advantage in obtaining anything in the nature of a defensive alliance with the United States. Of course Japan’s susceptibilities will have to be spared, but this should not be difficult to manage.3

Source Note: Anglo-American Naval Relations, 497-98. A version of this letter sent by Sir Cecil A. Spring Rice, the British Ambassador in Washington, lists the sender as Balfour and the intended recipient as Prime Minister David Lloyd George. Wilson Papers, 42: 296.

Footnote 2: Pres. Woodrow Wilson’s friend, advisor, and sometimes informal representative, Edward M. House. House did not consult Wilson before he offered this proposal. Sir William Wiseman Memorandum on a Conversation with President Woodrow Wilson, 13 July 1917, Wilson Papers, 43: 172-73.

Footnote 3: For more on this proposal and Wilson’s reaction to it, see: Walter Hines Page to Wilson, 6 July 1917; Sir William Wiseman Memorandum on a Conversation with President Woodrow Wilson, 13 July 1917,Wilson Papers, 43: 172-73.; and Diary of Edward M. House, 9 September 1917.