No. 35 NAI DFA 11/3A

Letter from Seán Lester to Joseph P. Walshe (Dublin)
(S. 9/4/Conf. 19)

Geneva, 20 April 1932

Disarmament Conference

On Sunday night the 17th instant, a meeting of the principal delegates of the Commonwealth was held, with the object of discussing procedure. I did not attend. I was told subsequently that Mr. te Water (South Africa) expressed his indignation and impatience at the slowness of progress in the Conference and urged strongly that action of some kind be initiated. Yesterday, Cadogan1 and Sir John Simon came to me in one of the lobbies and handed me a confidential Draft Resolution in the following terms:

'Resolution under Head III of Agenda'
(Article 1).

'Without prejudice to other proposals which fall to be discussed under later heads of the Agenda, the Conference declares its approval of the principle of qualitative disarmament, i.e. the selection of certain classes or descriptions of weapons with a view to prohibiting by international convention their possession or use by any State.'

The British explained that partly as a result of the meeting on Sunday night, they had agreed to try to draft a resolution which would mark progress and at the same time avoid the fate of the American proposal (regarding heavy tanks and guns) made to the Conference on the 11th instant. The above was the result. They were fairly certain of American and Italian support. I discussed the matter with them as I would with any other delegation. I asked if they would sound the French as I thought it would be undesirable to face another 'show-down in view of its possible effects on the Conference and on the public. Simon then said that his idea about this proposal was that it should be circulated in the name of the British, Canadian, Irish, South African, Australian and New Zealand delegates. Naturally, I did not want to be a party to an exclusively Commonwealth proposal. The discussion was broken off and resumed in the afternoon, prior to another Committee meeting. I asked then if the Italian and American who had since definitely promised support could be associated with the circulation of the resolution. Cadogan was uneasy about this and went to ask the views of the Secretary-General who appears to have expressed the opinion that if the Italian name appeared on the Draft, it would provoke greater French hostility. Simon told me he had seen Mr. Paul Boncour who had not expressed definite opposition to the phrasing of the Draft, but who had of course not committed his delegation. The use of the words in the Draft 'without prejudice', and the fact that it refers only to the principle of qualitative disarmament, may make it possible for the French to accept, but I could see of course that there would be certain disadvantages on the French side if this resolution were passed before we reached the discussion of the French plan.

With the situation cleared up, I was then faced with the decision as to whether I would be one of the proposers of the resolution. So far as I am able to study the problems in my present disadvantageous circumstances, I am inclined to support qualitative disarmament on the lines of the Italian proposal. I said so, but said frankly that I did not like the proposed initiative to be exclusively commonwealth for political reasons. Simon, comparatively new to League work, might not have realised the general policy we have followed in this respect. I also said that we had a new government at home and that there was the possibility that any such action might be used to embarrass the Government in the critical debates which were about to open in our Parliament. Simon said he very readily appreciated my attitude and that indeed, if he were in my position, he would take the same line. He said a meeting of the Commonwealth delegates was to be held that night, to discuss the proposal. I remarked that I would go to that meeting but would not like to give the impression to him or to the other Commonwealth delegates that I was refusing cooperation with regard to a question with the substance of which I was actually in agreement. I said I would inform the meeting that I desired to consult my Government which, having only lately taken office, was not yet completely familiar with all the problems being raised at Geneva. Simon then suggested that he would not ask me directly at the meeting to say yes or no to this proposal. This, I took it, was by no means entirely out of consideration for me but rather to avoid any very frank exposition of my general views.

The meeting was held. Sir George Perley (Canada), the Aga Khan (India), Sir Thomas Wilford (New Zealand) and the Australian Delegate very cordially agreed to the suggestion that they should be parties to the proposal. Perley said: 'Let us make this a Commonwealth proposal'. Te Water hesitated and almost stuttered. He was in a very difficult position in view of his attitude at the Sunday night meeting; and Simon's proposal was indeed the direct outcome of te Waters' incautious demands. He did not want an exclusively Commonwealth proposal, but has not yet had enough experience, although he is a very able man as you know, to find the way out. Faced with inquiries (not from Simon) as to why, he began talking about South African history and said that if all those present had been at League meetings as he had for the past two years, they would appreciate his difficulties. I may say that before reaching South Africa, Sir John Simon had said that as the Irish Government had only recently taken office, and that I felt it necessary to consult them. Te Water was in a very unhappy position and I decided that I could no longer accept the shelter afforded to me by Simon's remarks, that as with previous new British Foreign Secretaries and new Canadian delegations, I would be faced then or later with a public declaration on the principle. So I intervened. I said that I had not intended to take part in the discussion but that it would perhaps be the best thing if I very frankly stated my views. It was not merely, I said, the recent change in the Government which prevented me from accepting the suggestion. We had always been opposed to the group system in the League. We had publicly objected to it in regard to matters like elections to the Council. I did not like exclusive group proposals, whether made by the Little Entente, the South-Americans or the British Commonwealth States. In our case, it was liable to more serious interpretation than the others because we had a peculiar political relationship and action of the kind might be held to have a single inspiration. I was not suggesting that there should not be cooperation in matters on which we agreed, but in those cases cooperation would be even more effective if we did not make any public and exclusive demonstrations such as the suggestion would in fact be, etc.

This got te Water out of his difficulty and led to the collapse of the proposal. Sir George Perley then withdrew Canada's assent by saying that if Ireland and South Africa stayed out, it would be better not to have the resolution put in in the name of the others, but to make it a United Kingdom proposal and the Dominions' delegates could support it in Committee. I was tempted to deal with the 'logic' of this attitude but did not do so.

An amusing incident followed: Mr. Dupré (Canadian Solicitor General) who was with Perley, with regard to the proposal that all the Dominions should support Britain, said he was inclined to go a bit further and asked what the effect would be if the Dominions' Delegates all got up one after the other in the public meeting. That also, he said, would look 'like a family affair'. Simon rather caustically remarked that the Dominions need not fear they would be alone, that he would get none but the Dominions' support.

The meeting broke up.

Mr. te Water subsequently expressed his gratitude, as well he might, for my successful 'rescue work'.

[signed] Seán Lester

1 Sir Alexander Cadogan (1884-1968), British delegation to the League of Nations, head of League of Nations Section, Foreign Office (1923-33), Permanent Secretary, Foreign Office (1938-46).

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