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1921-1922 Washington Naval Conference

Despite its lack of participation in the League of Nations, the United States was at the forefront of extensive efforts at disarmament during the 1920s and 1930s especially to restrict the growth of naval tonnage, considered to be a key measure of military strength. It helped that the major naval powers -- Britain, the United States, and Japan -- recognized the crushing financial costs of a naval arms race.

On 15 August 1919, the British Cabinet approved the 'Ten-Year Rule' which directed that the services base their preparations on the assumption that there would be no major war in the next decade. The 'rule' was automatically renewed each year and not abandoned until 1932. For fifteen years, from 1921 to 1936, American policy accepted the premise that future wars with other major powers, except possibly Japan, could be avoided. National decision makers pursued that goal by maintaining a minimum of defensive military strength, avoiding entangling commitments with Old World nations, and using American good offices to promote international peace and the limitation of armaments. Reacting to a widely held belief that an arms race had contributed to the outbreak of World War I, that the arms race might continue, and that such a contest would prove costly, in 1921 the United States called for an international conference to consider the limitation of major types of armaments, especially capital ships such as battleships and aircraft carriers.

In the wake of World War I, leaders in the international community sought to prevent the possibility of another war. Rising Japanese militarism and an international arms race heightened these concerns and policymakers worked to reduce the threat. After the war the prospect of an expensive naval arms race between the US and British navies dismayed both nations and provided the impetus for an arms control conference. Britain's global position was threatened by a multitude of military obligations that far exceeded her capacity to act upon them.

Senator William E. Borah (R-Idaho) led a Congressional effort to demand that the United States engage its two principle competitors in the naval arms race, Japan and Britain, in negotiations for disarmament. In 1921 President Harding was elected on a platform which contained a popular naval disarmament plank. Isolationists of the day believed that prohibiting preparedness would promote peace. Republican Senator Hiram Johnson of California, "War may be banished from the earth more nearly by disarmament than by any other agency or in any other manner." Just before the Washington Conference convened on Armistice Day, 1921, several thousand women marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC, carrying banners denouncing war. "Scrap the battleship," their placards read, "and the Pacific problems will settle themselves." For many Americans, the Washington Arms Limitation Conference was supposed to be a substitute for the League, for alliances, and for armaments.

Between 1921 and 1922, the world's largest naval powers gathered in Washington for a conference to discuss naval disarmament and ways to relieve growing tensions in East Asia. In 1921, US Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes invited nine nations to Washington to discuss naval reductions and the situation in the Far East. Great Britain, Japan, France and Italy were invited to take part in talks on reduction of naval capacity, and Belgium, China, the Netherlands and Portugal were invited to join in discussions on the situation in the Far East. Three major treaties emerged out of the Washington Conference: the Five-Power Treaty, the Four-Power Treaty, and the Nine-Power Treaty.

The Five-Power treaty, signed by the United States, Great Britain, Japan, France and Italy was the cornerstone of the naval disarmament program. It called for each of the countries involved to maintain a set ratio of warship tonnage which allowed the United States and Britain 500,000 tons, Japan 300,000 tons and France and Italy each 175,000 tons. Though Japan preferred that tonnage be allotted at a 10:10:7 ratio, and the US Navy preferred a 10:10:5 ratio, the conference ultimately adopted the 5:5:3 limits.

The key reason why the United States and Britain required higher tonnage allowances was because both nations maintained two-ocean navies: they were active in both the Atlantic and the Pacific, with colonial territories scattered around the world. Finally, this agreement called on signatories to stop building capital ships and reduce the size of their navies by scrapping older ships. Though widely regarded as a success, there was some controversy over Article XIX, which recognized the status quo of US, British and Japanese bases in the Pacific but outlawed their expansion. Many members of the US Navy in particular worried that limiting the expansion of Pacific fortifications would endanger American holdings in the Philippines, Guam and Hawaii.

While the conference focused on battleships, it placed quantitative and qualitative restrictions on carrier tonnage. Among other provisions, America, Britain, and Japan were each allowed to convert two battlecruisers into carriers. This would have differing effects on carrier forces, particularly by limiting experimentation with carrier forces, which directly affected carrier design.

And though the Five-Power Treaty controlled tonnage of each navy's warships, some classes of ships were left unrestricted. As a result, a new race to build cruisers emerged after 1922, leading the powers back to the negotiating table in 1927 and 1930 to close the remaining loopholes in the agreements.

In the Four-Power Treaty, the United States, France, Britain, and Japan agreed to consult with each other in the event of a future crisis in East Asia before taking action. This treaty replaced the Anglo-Japanese Treaty of 1902, which had been a source of some concern for the United States. In the years following World War I, US policymakers saw Japan as the greatest rising military threat. Heavily militarized and looking to expand its influence and territory, Japan had the potential to threaten US colonial possessions in Asia and the profitable China trade. Because of the 1902 agreement between Britain and Japan, however, if the United States and Japan entered into a conflict, Britain might be obligated to join Japan against the United States. By ending that treaty and creating a Four-Power agreement, the countries involved ensured that none would be obligated to engage in a conflict, but a mechanism would exist for discussions if one emerged.

In the early 1920s the United States was faced with the unpleasant prospect not only of the continuation of a prewar Anglo-Japanese alliance with unfavorable balance of power implications, but with the equally distressing prospect of a superior Japanese fleet in the Pacific, occupying the German islands which lay astride U.S. lines of communication to Australia and making defense of the Philippines virtually impossible. Aided by Canada and Australia at the Washington Conference in late 1921, the U.S. succeeded in replacing the Anglo-Japanese alliance with a four-power treaty with Britain, France, and Japan. This treaty limited U.S. and U.K. base building in the Pacific in return for reluctant Japanese acceptance of apparently unfavorable ratios in naval strength. Although not at first seen as an advantageous treaty for Japan, several factors conspired to make it so. Among these were an obsolescent British dreadnought fleet which effectively eliminated the British Asiatic Fleet as a force; a moratorium on battleship construction which saw the United States scrap twenty-eight vessels including eleven capital ships in various stages of completion;64 a U.S. commitment to a two-ocean navy which meant that not all new ships joined the Pacific Fleet; and the base-building restrictions of the four-power treaty. Collectively these measures left Japan in a position of local superiority and in a dominant position regarding the coast and approaches to China, the treaty notwithstanding.

The final multilateral agreement made at the Washington Naval Conference was the Nine-Power Treaty, which marked the internationalization of the US Open Door Policy in China. The treaty promised that each of the signatories-the United States, Britain, Japan, France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal and China-would respect the territorial integrity of China. The treaty recognized Japanese dominance in Manchuria but otherwise affirmed the importance of equal opportunity for all nations doing business in the country; for its part, China promised not to discriminate against any country seeking to do business there. Like the Four-Power Treaty, the treaty on China called for consultations in the event of a violation instead of tying the signatories to a particular response. As a result, it lacked a method of enforcement to ensure that all powers abided by its terms.

In addition to the multilateral agreements, several bilateral treaties were completed at the conference. Japan and China also signed a bilateral agreement, the Shangtung (Shandong) Treaty, which returned control of that province and its railroad to China. Japan had taken control of the area from the Germans during World War I, and then it maintained control over the years that followed. The combination of the Shangtung Treaty and the Nine-Power Treaty was meant to reassure China that its territory would not be further compromised by Japanese expansion. Additionally, Japan agreed to withdraw its troops from Siberia and the United States and Japan formed agreement over equal access to cable and radio facilities on the Japanese-controlled island of Yap.

Separate provisions froze the construction of new fortifications or naval facilities in the western Pacific. The treaties made a US defense of the Philippines against a Japanese attack nearly impossible, but the general agreement to maintain the status quo in the Pacific and in China offered fair assurance against a Japanese war of aggression as long as the Western powers did not themselves become embroiled in the European-Atlantic area.

Together, the treaties signed at the Washington Conference served to uphold the status quo in the Pacific: they recognized existing interests and did not make fundamental changes to them. At the same time, the United States secured agreements that reinforced its existing policy in the Pacific, including the Open Door in China and the protection of the Philippines, while limiting the scope of Japanese imperial expansion as much as possible.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 15:29:31 ZULU