231 Note by Attlee for Meeting of Prime Ministers

PMM(46)22 LONDON, 4 May 1946



I circulate herewith a message, dated the 2nd May, which I have received from the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in Paris.

I shall be glad if this can be regarded as of special secrecy.

As I stated at the last meeting [1], the United Kingdom Government have decided that they could not agree to the immediate cession of Tarawa.

C. R. A.

(Most Immediate.) Top Secret


(No. 53.) 2nd May, 1946. D. 1.00 a.m. 3rd May, 1946.

Repeated to Washington. R. 1.45 a.m. 3rd May, 1946.

For Prime Minister from the Secretary of State:

My telegram No. 32 of the 1st May.

I saw Mr. Byrnes this afternoon about the Pacific Bases, when I began by taking the same general line as that recorded in my telegram No. 10 of the 27th April, explaining that the three members of the British Commonwealth concerned were very anxious to get together with the United States about this, which concerned our own property and should therefore not impinge upon the United Nations position. Mr. Byrnes would already have seen the formula drawn up in London [2] with this aim in view (i.e., that referred to in paragraph 3 of my telegram No. 32) what our three Governments were really anxious about was to get into a conference with the United States and to look at the problem as a whole. We all three recognised that the South Pacific could not be safe unless the Americans were in it and had no wish to stand on points of pride or prestige in this matter.

2. Mr. Byrnes had earlier in the day informed me that he was much worried about the reports reaching Washington from the English papers showing the world publicity [3] that there was an intention of trying to tie up the United States in some form of regional defence arrangements in this area. He now returned to this and said that it would be quite impossible for the United States to do anything of the kind. It would be unwise (for instance, in that it would provoke Russia) and there would be no excuse for it. He gathered that the Australian Government were concerned to know what the United States Government's defence plans were. Mr. Byrnes said that his Government had no one against whom they need prepare to defend themselves, nor, when he wrote his letter of the 19th April [4] (see Washington telegram No. 254, to the Foreign Office) was it because his Government desired to enter into any plans against a possible enemy.

The reason for his letter was the situation regarding the debate in Congress on the loan to the United Kingdom. Two Senators had put down amendments raising the question of the future of bases, and what Mr. Byrnes had wanted was to have some general statement which he could use (e.g., through the Democratic leader in the Senate) to the effect that he had an understanding with the United Kingdom in general on this matter. If this was not obtainable, he must resign himself to a difficult debate with a balance of a vote or two one way or the other.

3. Mr. Byrnes said that it was quite wrong to suggest that the United States Government were keenly concerned, eg., about Manus Island. They were not, nor were they interested in the whole of the area in question in the sense of wishing to keep forces there.

The United States Navy only wanted to be able to call in at Manus for minor repairs. It was not their intention to keep the place up as a base. The same kind of arguments applied, eg., to Canton.

4. Mr. Byrnes recognised that the matter was causing a good deal of difficulty to settle, and if it was too much trouble to the British Commonwealth Governments to arrange matters in the sense he had suggested, then the matter would have to be dropped (or, as he put it, 'we must kiss it good-bye').

5. The question of sovereignty in the disputed islands then came up. Mr. Byrnes repeated the argument he has used previously, that all he wanted was to get this matter out of the way now, in order to have something to show Congress: it was a good moment to settle a longstanding dispute.

6. Some discussion then took place about the various places which Mr. Byrnes had included in his list. In the course of this, the question of landing rights and other facilities for aircraft was mentioned and Mr. Byrnes said that if any of the disputed islands were to be ceded to the United States (including the three in which he had asked for exclusive bases) the United States Government would be prepared to give the United Kingdom and the other Commonwealth Governments full landing rights and other similar facilities at any time.

7. I then discussed with Mr. Byrnes what arrangements might be made as regards the three islands, Christmas, Canton and Funafuti.

We considered a possible scheme whereby we might agree to cede the first two to the United States, who would maintain what bases and other installations were required and give us the full right to use their facilities for military and civil aviation purposes. In the case of Funafuti, the arrangement might be that we should keep the sovereignty, but should rent a base to the United States in which she should enjoy the same aviation facilities as above.

8. It might be desirable to throw any other of the disputed islands at present administered by the United Kingdom, which were worthless from the point of colonisation or otherwise, into the bag. The question of islands where the United States were only asking for joint bases was only lightly touched upon, but the question of aviation facilities in such bases did not seem either to Mr. Byrnes or to myself to present very special difficulties.

9. I undertook to recommend to the favourable consideration of my colleagues and of the Dominion Ministers' Conference the possibility of a solution along these lines.

10. The question of Tarawa then came up. Mr. Byrnes said that the reason for his suggesting the possibility of our ceding the island in his letter of the 19th April was the sentimental value which United States public opinion attached to it as the scene of one of the most glorious actions of the United States Marines. I said that I was well aware of this and that Lord Halifax had made the same suggestion before and I was personally in strong sympathy with it. Mr. Byrnes said that it would be of very great value to the administration in dealing with the loan debate if the island could be ceded and some form of announcement made singling it out as having been ceded on account of British recognition of the interest which it had taken on for the United States public as the result of the action of the United States Marines.

11. I said that I agreed with Mr. Byrnes's view and that I would have an immediate message sent to London urging that agreement be given to an announcement in this general sense being made at the earliest possible moment, if possible to-morrow, the 3rd May, which Mr. Byrnes said was a critical day in the passage of the loan through Congress. The announcement would stress that Tarawa was being ceded as a memorial to the United States forces who had died in reconquering it. As I see it, the announcement should concentrate solely on this point, making the grand gesture, and there should, of course, be no mention of the loan debate. I had considered the possibility that the announcement might add something to the effect that urgent consideration was being given by the British Commonwealth Governments concerned to the question of certain United States proposals for the future administration and use of defence bases established by the United States during the war in territory in the south-west Pacific administered by British Commonwealth Governments. This would allow us to give some further consideration as to what was to be done as regards those bases. I think, however, that it would be better to keep this out of this particular announcement and that we should reserve any communication on this latter point until we have worked out policy (including the points made earlier in this telegram) rather more fully. I shall await your decision about Tarawa between eleven and twelve to-morrow morning and suggest that when I have conveyed decision to Byrnes and all is settled you may feel able to interrupt proceedings in the House (as it is Friday) to make the announcement. Could you send me text of what you propose to say? 12. Mr. Byrnes said expressly that, if we were prepared to cede Tarawa, the United States would maintain an air base there and would give us full landing and other aviation rights. This should, of course, not be mentioned in announcement.

13. I asked Mr. Byrnes whether further discussion of the other places which he had listed could take place on a four-party basis.

Mr. Byrnes replied that he would be very happy to talk with Dr.

Evatt and with Mr. Nash in Washington when they were on their way back to their own countries. But he was clearly not prepared to agree to a four-party talk. He stressed again that the United States were not interested in establishing any system of regional defence in the south-west Pacific and that their own defence interests lay further north.

1 See Document 229.

2 i.e. the appendix to Document 213.

3 Presumably meant to read 'publicly'.

4 Byrnes wrote to Halifax seeking an early agreement on bases, indicating that such an agreement would 'be of great assistance in pending legislation', presumably a reference to legislation approving U.S. credit to the United Kingdom. See Document i121, note 3.

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