Address Delivered by the Honorable Norman H. Davis, Chairman Of the United States Delegation, at the General Disarmament Conference, Geneva, May 22, 1933

The initiative taken by the President of the United States in communicating directly with the heads of states participating in the Economic and Disarmament Conferences was prompted by the pressing need for concerted and decisive action to solve the interrelated problems with which these two conferences must deal.

The Disarmament Conference has reached the moment for definite decisions. We must face the issue; we must now determine whether the nations of the world propose to go forward with progressive disarmament or revert to the pre-war system of unrestrained competition in armaments with all the continuance of the international suspicion and fear which this will involve.

At the end of the World War the peoples of all states and their leaders resolved that the suicidal armament policy of the preceding decades must be changed. They were convinced that this policy had been one of the contributing factors which brought about the war. Hence a new policy regarding armaments was incorporated as a fundamental part of the peace settlement. This policy, adopted to prevent a future race in armaments, was based on the principle that armaments are a matter of general concern and that the time had passed when each state should be the sole judge of its armaments.

To carry out this conception, provision was made for the disarmament of the defeated powers, and at the same time a decision was taken unprecedented in history whereby the victorious states voluntarily assumed an obligation to reduce their own armaments.

As a first step the peace treaties reduced the armaments of Germany and her allies with a view to rendering impossible any aggression on their part. In fact, the theory behind these treaties was that the military forces of the disarmed powers should be fixed on the basis of the maintenance of internal order and the necessary policing of frontiers, but no more. The whole purpose of these provisions was to guarantee that the armies of Germany and her former allies should thenceforth stay at home.

It would neither have been just nor wise, nor was it intended, that the Central Powers should be subject for all time to a special treatment in armaments. There is and has been a corresponding duty on the part of the other powers, parties to peace treaties, that by successive stages they too would bring their armaments down to level strictly determined by the needs of self-defense. While the United States is not bound by the provisions or the implications of hose treaties, I have no hesitancy in saying that it is the will of our people, interpreted by President Roosevelt, to join with the other powers in disarming down to that level, and we are prepared to exert our influence to bring this about, not by theoretical statements of rood intentions but by decisive and progressive reduction of armaments through international agreement.

The present situation admits of no further delay. The states of he world must either go forward in good faith to carry out in all its implications the disarmament policy which they adopted in 1919 or we must recognize frankly that this policy has been abandoned and reconcile ourselves to reverting to a race in competitive armament. If the latter course is taken, the consequences are inevitable. Sooner or later there will be the break-down of the peace machinery which has been so laboriously built up since 1918, and the world will be swept into another war.

The immediate result of a failure here would be a set-back to economic recovery, which depends upon such mutual confidence between nations as will permit a real collaboration in the task of restoring international trade and the freer movement of goods. This is impossible in a situation clouded by the fear of war. National budgets which should be devoted to productive and social ends are burdened with excessive and wasteful expenditures for armament. This leads in turn to an almost unbearable load of taxation on all our peoples.

If we thus candidly face the situation, there is really no alternative for a sane world to consider. It is inconceivable that the responsible leaders of any country in the world could hesitate over this issue. We cannot shirk the duty which this choice imposes upon us. We cannot safely delay taking effective steps to reduce armaments to a purely defensive basis.

As far as the position of the United States is concerned, we are frank to recognize that we have a simpler problem to meet than have many of the European powers. Fears and apprehensions based on historical and racial grounds have led to the maintenance of large armaments in Europe. These large armaments have caused resentment, particularly in the less-armed countries. The resulting; political tension has in turn reacted to keep up the general level of armaments. We are not unaware of the difficulties which lie in the way of reduction in armaments here. It is our very detachment from this situation which gives us hope that we may exert a helpful influence toward the realization of our common objective. But we are prepared to aid in other ways than through exerting our influence, and I shall take this opportunity to show what we are prepared to do.

As regards the level of armaments, we are prepared to go as far as the other states in the way of reduction. We feel that the ultimate objective should be to reduce armaments approximately to the level established by the peace treaties; that is, to bring armaments as soon as possible through successive stages down to the basis of a domestic police force

In particular, as emphasized by President Roosevelt, we are prepared to join other nations in abolishing weapons of an aggressive character, which not only are the more costly to construct and maintain but at present are those most likely to lead to a breach of the peace. To cut the power of offense and remove the threat of surprise attack would do more than anything else to lessen the danger of a war. Almost a year ago the American Government submitted a proposal along these lines. This proposal, which received the approval of a large number of states, was not acceptable to certain states and was therefore not adopted. A few weeks ago the British Prime Minister submitted a detailed proposal which embodies many of the features of the American plan of last year. As the British proposal represents a real measure of disarmament, we accept it whole-heartedly as a definite and excellent step toward the ultimate objective. We therefore are prepared to give our full support to the adoption of this plan.

In addition I wish to make it clear that we are ready not only to do our part toward the substantive reduction of armaments but, if this is effected by general international agreement, we are also prepared to contribute in other ways to the organization of peace. In particular, we are willing to consult the other states in case of a threat to peace, with a view to averting conflict. Further than that, in the event that the states, in conference, determine that a state has been guilty of a breach of the peace in violation of its international obligations and take measures against the violator, then, if we concur in the judgment rendered as to the responsible and guilty party, we will refrain from any action tending to defeat such collective effort which these states may thus make to restore peace.

Finally, we believe that a system of adequate supervision should be formulated to insure the effective and faithful carrying out of any measure of disarmament. We are prepared to assist in this formulation and to participate in this supervision. We are heartily in sympathy with the idea that means of effective, automatic, and continuous supervision should be found whereby nations will be able to rest assured that as long as they respect their obligations with regard to armaments the corresponding obligations of their neighbors will be carried out in the same scrupulous manner.

The Disarmament Conference has already formulated measures for the establishing of a permanent disarmament commission. The powers now proposed for this commission may well be reinforced. The commission will have many important duties, but none more essential than that of effectively supervising the fulfillment of the treaty.

We recognize that the ultimate objective in disarmament must be attained by stages, but we believe that the time for the next and decisive step is long overdue and cannot be further postponed.

Virtually all the nations of the world have entered upon the solemn obligation of the Briand-Kellogg Pact to renounce war as an instrument of national policy and to settle their disputes only by pacific means. If we are to keep faith with these obligations, we must definitely make up our minds to settle our disputes around a conference table instead of preparing to settle them on the battlefield. It was with such a thought that the President proposed an undertaking by the nations that, subject to existing treaty rights, armed forces should not be sent across national frontiers. In the long run, we may come to the conclusion that the simplest and most accurate definition of an aggressor is one whose armed forces are found on alien soil in violation of treaties.
There have been two main obstacles to disarmament. One was the apprehension that Germany proposed to rearm; the other, the reluctance of the armed powers of Europe in the present state of the world to take a real step in disarmament.

If at this decisive point any nation should fail to give conclusive evidence of its pacific intentions and insist upon the right to rearm, even though the other powers take effective and substantial steps toward disarmament, then the burden of responsibility for the failure of the Disarmament Conference, with the incalculable cones quences of such a failure, would rest on the shoulders of that nation. The problem with which we are faced cannot be solved if one nation insists on rearming while the others disarm. The result inevitably would be another race in armaments.

As regards the action of the other powers, we are not unaware in the United States of the political difficulties which still lie in the way of the reduction of European armaments. We recognize the legitimate claim which any state has to safeguard its security. But we are firmly convinced that in the long run this security can best be achieved through a controlled disarmament by which the military strength of the most heavily armed nations is progressively reduced to a level such as that provided for in the peace treaties. To the extent that armaments create political tension, they in themselves constitute a menace to peace and may jeopardize the security of the very nations which maintain them.

If we take a long step in the direction of disarmament today and agree by stages to achieve our ultimate objective, we can meet any legitimate claim of the powers bound by the peace treaties and at the same time effectively help to insure peace.

A few days ago the Conference met a serious obstacle to further progress in its detailed examination of the British plan. Since then there has been an appreciable change. The recent speech by the German Chancelor before the Reichstag clarifying the German attitude and policy with regard to disarmament and endorsing the proposal of President Roosevelt has been most helpful. This, and also the subsequent announcement made here by our colleague, Herr Nadolny, of Germany's acceptance of the British plan as the basis of the future convention, have so altered the situation as to justify us in assuming that we can now resume our consideration of this plan with real hope of agreement. Our present agenda is a consideration of the chapters on war material. It was understood that other related subjects might be introduced, and my colleagues may feel that I have made wide use of the latitude thus given me. But in closing my remarks, and to bring our discussion back to the concrete question before us, I desire to state that the American delegation accepts the chapter on material and expresses the hope that the other delegations will join in this acceptance and that the way may thus be cleared for an immediate decision on the concrete proposals in this chapter.

This conference is not only a disarmament conference. It is an emergency conference of a world in a state of political uncertainty and economic depression. The next weeks will bring the decisive test. It will require courage and statesmanship to meet this test, but the failure to do so will go far to shatter any hope of world organization for peace. As far as the United States is concerned, our abilities and our incentive to collaborate whole-heartedly in the continuing task of helping to maintain world peace depend in large measure upon the results achieved here in disarmament. President Roosevelt's message is a clear indication of the fact that the United States will exert its full power and influence and accept its just share of responsibility to make the results in disarmament definite, prompt, and effective.

The results of success here and now would bring benefits beyond all calculation. It would give new confidence and hope-confidence that governments can still govern and leaders lead; hope that a definite step in disarmament having at last been taken, economic recovery will be hastened and the millions in all countries who are only asking for the opportunity to work will have restored to them tile possibility of diving in peace and of earning their daily bread. If by a great act of faith each and every nation will now summon the courage to take a decisive step in general disarmament, conditions throughout the world will so improve that we can henceforth face the future with a real feeling of security and confidence. With the alternative to success in mind, we cannot allow ourselves to fail.

Source: U.S., Department of State, Publication 1983, Peace and War: United States Foreign Policy, 1931-1941 (Washington, D.C.: U.S., Government Printing Office, 1943, pp. 185-191.

Return to Vinnie's Home Page

Return to Interwar Period Page