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Anglo-American Naval Relations, 1919-1939


Edited by Michael Simpson


Farnham: Ashgate, for the Navy Records Society, 2010

Hardcover. xxiii +320pp. ISBN 9781409400936. £70.00


Reviewed by Alan Sharp

University of Ulster


Many years ago I purchased a large print entitled ‘The Triumph of the British Navy’ depicting the surrender of the German High Seas Fleet at Scapa Flow on 21 November 1919. Subsequently I acquired a letter from a young naval officer aboard HMS Erin who witnessed the event. He wrote:


I am quite certain Nelson and Drake and many others were watching us from somewhere yesterday—crying with joy and pride that the Navy is for ever the same in spirit and has once again saved England... Queen Elizabeth and Alfred the Great must be having a drink somewhere on the strength of it.

Even though Jutland had been a disappointment to a country taught to expect crushing naval victories, with the High Seas Fleet interned, and the even more deadly German submarines rusting in Harwich harbour, it seemed that Britannia once again ruled the waves.

However amongst the many vessels lining the passage of the twenty-one major German ships steaming into Scapa Flow was the Sixth Battle Squadron, five American battleships under the command of Admiral Hugh Rodman, a reminder that the defeat of Germany did not eliminate all Britain’s maritime concerns. President Woodrow Wilson was determined that the United States would never again be subject to naval blockade whether by the British policy of stopping and searching vessels on the high seas or German unlimited submarine warfare. His pledge to create a navy ‘incomparably the greatest in the world’ and his demand, in his Fourteen Points speech, for respect for the ‘freedom of the seas’ threatened to launch a new naval arms race, which the British knew they could not win, given America’s superior resources.

This was averted by Britain joining the League of Nations, abandoning the Anglo-Japanese alliance and accepting US Secretary of State Charles Hughes’s ‘magnificent and stunning’ Washington Conference proposals for naval disarmament, effectively ending America’s ambitious construction programme [Doc. 21]. In the era of attempts to limit naval armaments four of the book’s six sections appropriately relate to the Washington Conference, 1919-1923, the Geneva Conference, 1922-1927, the First London Naval Conference, 1927-1930 and the Second London Naval Conference, 1930-1936. These reveal America’s determination to achieve nothing less than naval parity with Britain and illustrate some of the tricky technical questions involved, which could be exacerbated by occasional outbreaks of political tub-thumping or petulance [Docs. 10 & 17]. It proved relatively easy to agree a capital ship ratio of 5:5:3:1.75:1.75 for Britain, America, Japan, France and Italy respectively, but it took much longer to resolve Anglo-American differences over cruisers and, although both agreed, in principle, that the abolition of submarines was desirable, both recognised that this was unlikely to happen. The Admiralty placed little faith in Elihu Root’s resolutions aimed at banning the use of submarines as commerce destroyers, pointing out that ‘resolutions made in the harmonious atmosphere of the Conference Room vanish at the stern test of war’ [Docs. 35 & 36].

After a failure to reach agreement over cruisers at Geneva in 1927, new British and American negotiators reached a series of compromises at the First London Naval Conference which allowed them to calculate an acceptable equivalence between the heavy (10,000 ton) cruisers favoured by the Americans and the greater number of light (7,000 ton) cruisers deemed essential by the British for the protection of their trade routes. Both powers negotiated with one eye on the implications of any deal they might reach for future Japanese construction.

The 1930 London Treaty did see progress towards disarmament and arms limitation, the product partly of goodwill amongst the Anglo-American negotiators, partly a more optimistic international climate and partly the pressing need for national economy as the effects of the 1929 Wall Street Crash began to be felt. Its relatively brief validity—it would expire at the end of 1936—reconciled some critics but the Japanese premier, Hamaguchi Osachi, was the victim of an assassination attempt in November 1930, partly motivated by his acceptance of the treaty. He survived, dying the following year, but Japan’s course was increasingly unsteady and unpredictable over the ensuing decade. The French and Italians, focused on their rivalry in the Mediterranean, refused to sign the new treaty.

With both the Washington and London treaties due to expire in December 1936 there was a need for a new naval conference and the British and Americans duly began preparations for a second London meeting to open in December 1935. By then, however, the international scene had darkened considerably. In Japan militarism and nationalism prospered, opponents risked assassination—the fate of two prime ministers—and it was not always clear which faction actually represented the country’s intentions. Increasing numbers of naval officers opposed the Washington treaty restrictions. In Manchuria a rogue element of the Japanese army created a puppet state after the 1931 Mukden Incident. The weak response of the League of Nations undermined confidence in its competence, although it was Mussolini’s unchecked aggression against Abyssinia in 1935 that effectively destroyed it. The inaction of the United States helped to prompt Stanley Baldwin’s bitter remark in 1932 that ‘You will get nothing out of Washington but words… Big words, but only words’.

This was a problem for Britain. Faced with emerging strategic threats from Japan in Asia, Fascist Italy in the Mediterranean and Nazi Germany in Europe after Hitler’s accession to power in January 1933, the British needed to bring their commitments and resources more into line. One possibility was to accommodate Japan but the Americans opposed this, presenting Britain with a Hobson’s choice between Tokyo and Washington. Despite continuing and growing Anglo-American cordiality, and their mutual concerns about Japanese intentions in the Pacific, no firm entente or alliance ensued.

What the negotiations for the second Treaty of London revealed was that much of the previous bickering and sensitivity surrounding the concept of Anglo-American naval parity, although not completely dissipated, was much reduced, partly because of a growing sense of cooperation between sympathetic principals but also because of mutual concerns about the direction of Japanese policies. They were successful in negotiating a new Treaty, signed in London on 25 March 1936, reincorporating France and later Italy, the USSR and the Scandinavians but the Japanese refused to participate.

The reality was that the era of naval arms limitation was over, however impressive the document might appear but Simpson credits Ramsay MacDonald, Davis and others for their efforts at a time when it was not obvious that they were living in an inter-war world and also suggests that the treaties may have restrained Japan just enough to avoid total disaster after 1941. Admiral of the Fleet and First Sea Lord Sir Ernle Chatfield’s June 1934 verdict was:


The one thing that causes all the trouble is the endeavours to make military agreements to limit arms. That is why I should like to see the attempt to make Naval agreements abandoned and substitute for them political understandings, leaving each Nation free to build what she wants [Doc. 129].

Drawing on a wide variety of British and American archives, both naval and political, Michael Simpson’s documentary selections and editorial comments explain and illustrate not only how an Anglo-American confrontation, recognised on both sides as a tragedy with the potential for infinite damage to the international system, was averted but how, through a series of contacts at all levels, the possibility of cooperation and partnership was nurtured. This was not achieved without occasional flights of fancy as when, in October 1919, the Admiralty acknowledging that war with the United States was a remote possibility, still offered some suggestions about how such a conflict might be conducted in the Atlantic, the Pacific and in Canadian waters [Doc. 6]. Not all American officers were as Anglophile as Admirals William Pratt or William Leahy—it was no surprise that Rear-Admiral Hilary Jones, who admitted that ‘Great Britain makes me pretty hot under the collar sometimes’ [Doc. 45] proved such a tough negotiator on the issue of cruiser limitation—or that the British might believe on occasions that ‘The present outcry [over belligerent rights] is bluff associated with the favourite [American] sport of twisting the lion’s tail’ [Doc. 66] but the underlying theme of the book is of a growing sense of interdependence. This enabled technical questions relating to many categories of vessels and armaments to be subsumed by the sort of joint affirmation made by Norman Davis, the Head of the American delegation at the Second London Naval Conference, and the British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, in an exchange of notes on 24 and 25 March 1936 that neither state would engage in competitive building with the other and that the principle of parity was totally accepted [Doc. 151].

Senior officers on both sides saw meetings between American and British vessels and visits to each other’s ports as beneficial. The British Director of Naval Intelligence, Rear Admiral Usborne, commented on 25 November 1930:


Among American Naval Officers there seem to be two currents of opinion: those who know and like the British Navy and British Naval Personnel, and those who do not know us and regard us with suspicion, and even hostility… The conclusion would appear to be that the more we see of the American Fleet the better relations will be [Doc. 166].

Captain Blagrove’s account of his visit to the USS Indianapolis does give a flavour, however, of the different attitudes and equipment of the two fleets:


Her sickbay, operating theatre, dispensary and dental room are as elaborate and efficient as anything that could be found in a modern city. The same may be said of her galleys, bakery, plate-washing and potato peeling machinery, or of the less essential items such as the barber’s shop and ice-cream bar [Doc. 230].

The Americans proved adept at turning a Nelsonian blind eye to inconvenient legislation and Prohibition was not allowed to dampen spirits at the September 1930 Fifth International Naval Ball in San Francisco, indeed ‘during the night it is probable that more liquor was consumed than is ever the case at a similar function in a less teetotal country’ [Doc. 165].

There can be no doubt that, no matter how cordial the relationships between senior naval personnel, the reality was that cooperation was firmly based on the principle of national self-interest—Leahy, the American Chief of Naval Operations, told Vice-Admiral Sir Sydney Meyrick, the British commander of the America and West Indies Station in April 1937 that:


There was a general feeling amongst all the Admirals that ours was a common cause with theirs in the Pacific—but not so in Europe, though even [so] some felt they might be with us before the end [Doc. 171].

In the later 1930s the emphasis on the Pacific was reinforced by a number of conversations and exchanges between British and American officers, officials and politicians seeking to establish the parameters of possible cooperation in the event of war. The Americans were, however, also concerned about the possibility of Britain losing control of its Caribbean bases to a foreign power which could then threaten the Panama Canal. These attempts to think ahead were pursued despite the handicap of the 1937 American Neutrality Act and laid the foundations for the ‘ABC’ conversations in 1941 that will be covered in a further volume.

This is the second volume in a projected set of five. The first was published in 1991, three more relating to the period of the Second World War will follow. Simpson has selected his material with a judicious eye, enabling the reader to trace the diplomatic, naval, technical, personal and political aspects of his subject. His linking text is clear and informative and he has taken great pains to provide brief career summaries for every major participant in the volume in a comprehensive set of footnotes. One drawback, however, because the document headings do not always identify either the name of the office holder, or the office held by the person named, is that someone (like me) with a suspect memory has to scurry back and forth to patch the information together. Nor might it be obvious that Winston Churchill’s ‘Equal Fleets Not Equality’ article sent to Washington by the Naval Attaché on 2 July 1929 [Doc. 71] represented the opinion of an ex-minister rather than one in government. These are minor quibbles. The author and the Society are to be commended on an excellent edition.




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