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Geneva Conference 1932-1934

The campaign for disarmament that took place between the two World Wars was one of the most substantial international non-governmental campaigns ever to have been undertaken. It mobilised organisations that claimed a combined membership as high as half of the population of the world at the time. The Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) grew out of the Congress of Women, a 1915 gathering of 1,300 women to protest World War I. The women, who had come from all parts of Europe to work for peace, crafted twenty resolutions in an attempt to bring warring nations to the peace table and end the war. They worked avidly for disarmament, with the active, public support of Eleanor Roosevelt, who often spoke at WILPF conferences and at other organizations in support of peace. In 1932, working with its Nobel Peace Prize- winning president, Jane Addams, WILPF members collected six million signatures for the World Disarmament Petition and delivered them to the World Disarmament Conference in Geneva.

Peace groups insisted that the US Congress observe the limits on naval armaments established by agreements negotiated at various international conferences. Such demands began before World War I, and naval treaties were concluded at Washington, DC and London, England, in 1922, and 1930 respectively, and the Geneva Conference of 1932.

The World Disarmament Conference [formally known as the Conference for the Reduction and Limitation of Armaments] convened in Geneva on 01 February 1932. Something like 55 states were involved, great and small. Present were not only those who set themselves by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles to pursue this act, but states which are not members of the League of Nations at all. On the one hand, there was Russia, with Mr. Litvin off from time to time making speeches which are not without point and pungency. And the United States of America.

Disarmament had been a lively topic in diplomacy since the World War, and while statesmen tended to view it cynically, the Depression had made armaments more of a burden for all nations (ironically, the race to rearm in the late thirties would be credited by some observers with breaking the Depression). There was hope, if not conviction, that an acceptable disarmament formula might be found. Hoover was a strong supporter of disarmament, principally for economic reasons. He hoped that even the nervous French could be coaxed into an agreement that would allow reduction of armaments by one-third.

On March 16, 1933 the British delegation submitted a draft convention embodying the decisions taken in the framework of the 1930 draft, and on March 27 this text was made the basis of discussion. A first reading extending to June 8 resulted in a formal decision to accept the text as it then stood as the basis of the future convention.

Complete Elimination of All Offensive Weapons

At the beginning of the conference in February 1932, US Ambassador Hugh Gibson said practically all the nations of the world had pledged themselves not to wage aggressive war. Therefore, he said, the conference should devote itself to the abolition of weapons devoted primarily to aggressive war. Among the points advocated by Ambassador Gibson were: Special restrictions for tanks and heavy mobile guns, which were considered to be arms peculiarly for offensive operations; abolition of lethal gases and bacteriological warfare; effective measures to protect civilian populations against aerial bombing; and abolition of submarines.

In June 1932, when the conference was apparently deadlocked President Hoover submitted his proposals for an all-around one-third reduction in armaments, for the abolition of all tanks, all chemical warfare, all large mobile guns, and all bombing airplanes, with total prohibition of all bombardment from the air. The President's proposals failed to touch the political questions which were the real obstacles to progress—Germany's demand for equality, France's insistence upon guarantees of her security.

President Roosevelt made an effort to inject new life into the Conference in a message of 16 May 1933 to the heads of 54 governments. FDR stated that if all nations would agree to eliminate entirely from possession and use the weapons which make possible a successful attack, defenses automatically would become impregnable and the frontiers and independence of every nation would become secure. Therefore, he said, the ultimate objective of the Conference must be "complete elimination of all offensive weapons".

One of the often suggested substitutes for arms limitation (the word disarmament was a misnomer; hardly anyone, even among the most ardent pacifists, saw much of a chance for total disarmament) was an agreement to abolish "aggressive" or "offensive" weapons, which included submarines and bombers. Submarines and bombers were not only burdens on the taxpayers of the great powers that maintained them, but there were unsettled moral questions regarding their use. Submarines had been used against ocean liners carrying noncombatants. Likely targets for bombers were cities and industrial areas. Suggestions to abolish these weapons had considerable appeal.

The Geneva Conference attempted to classify weapons into offensive and defensive types and focused on the disarmament of offensive weapons. The object was to finally outlaw or veto the use of predominantly offensive weapons. To put it in a rather different form, a form which appealled to many people, it is to weaken attack at the expense of defence or to increase the power of defence by weakening attack. To put the same thing in yet another form it is to make it more difficult for the invader to succeed and to limit the prospects of success of a knockout blow.

Abolish Heavy Tanks

In 1930, during the London Conference, the question was raised of limiting the combat mass of tanks to 25 tons. In 1932 the French proposed at Geneva an international agreement for the destruction of all tanks heavier than 92 tons. Logically, such an agreement would only be needed if such tanks existed to be banned. Germany had been told at Versailles not build battleships above a certain power and size, and since then her engineers and scientists produced a "pocket" battleship.

In February 1932, the rules of the game changed: British Prime Minister James Ramsay MacDonald proposed to limit the caliber of field artillery to 105 millimeters, and , instead of accepting abolition of all tanks (as proposed by the United States and many other countries) contemplated the retention of tanks without limit of number up to the unit tonnage considered most serviceable by the British War Office (apparently 16 or 20 tons), and permission to Gerinany in principle to have a limited number of such tanks. The 16 tonfigure was not accidental - it was exactly the weight of the British three-turret Medium Tank Mk.III that weighed so much. The British draft convention provided that “the maximum limit for the weight of tanks shall be 16 tons.” Tanks in excess of that weight are to be destroyed, one-third within one year, and two-thirds within three years.

The British had previously insisted upon a 20-ton maximum limit for tanks and the French wished to keep tanks up to 35 tons. The United States offered the scrap all its tanks if other countries will do likewise. It is reported that adoption of the 16-ton limit would mean the destruction of about 150 British tanks of greater weight. If tanks not exceeding 16 tons are to be considered “defensive,” Germany presumably would be entitled to have a certain number of such tanks under the principle of equality.

If the participants of the Conference accepted the British proposal, the French Char B program could be safely closed, and Char D2 would be in its place. However, the debate ended in nothing, and on October 23, 1933, Germany completely withdrew from the commission. This meant one thing - there would be no limit on the combat mass of tanks.

Negotiations on conventional force reductions began again in early 1989. The Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty made great progress on setting definitions and limits on tanks, artillery pieces, armored combat vehicles, aircraft, and helicopters.

Abolish Offensive Aviation

At the World Disarmament Conference of 1932-1933, a number of important issues began to achieve something akin to consensus in the world community. There was recognition, for instance, that military aviation could not be limited unless civilian aviation (that could quickly convert to military uses) also was controlled. At the World Disarmament Conference in Geneva, the British - sensitive to their new vulnerabilities - tried unsuccessfully to prohibit strategic aerial bombardment (distinguishing "tactical" from "strategic" emerged as a contentious issue). The French proposed that all "strategic" aircraft, civilian and military, should be placed under control of the League of Nations, with nations allowed to retain only short-range "tactical" aircraft in their national air forces. One subcommittee of the World Disarmament Conference addressed elaborate proposals for limiting construction programs, payloads, and operational ranges of aircraft.

Some argued that aviation, with all that aviation means to the world, was something quite new that ought not to be allowed to be developed for the purposes of war by individual nations. The whole business of aviation should be internationalised. It seemed easier to carry that proposition through than any other proposal. A very great deal of the difficulty connected with air routes and oiling stations would be got over if the nations would agree to bringing all aviation under international control.

US Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur pointed out in 1933, the United States ranked seventeenth among the nations in active Army strength; but foreign observers rated its newly equipped Army Air Corps second or third in actual power. On 4 April 1932, MacArthur had [privately] told Norman Davis, the chief American delegate to the Geneva Conference, and Jay Pierrepont Moffat, chief of the Division of Western Europe Affairs in the State Department, that he could support a proposal to abolish military aviation. MacArthur said he believed in that to provide the Army and Navy with weapons that could subdue an entire nation was beyond the economic scope of any power and was more than any other factor driving the world to bankruptcy. It cost no more than it would decades ago to keep the same number of men under arms.

It was the exorbitant cost of new auxiliary machines of war, such as heavy artillery, tanks, aviation, et cetera, that was making defense cost so many times its prewar level. Money spent on aviation was money thrown away, in MacArthur's view, as when the equipment was used up, there was no salvage value left. If all nations of the world could agree to give up military and naval aviation, the effect upon budgets would be greater than it is possible to calculate. MacArthur's ultimate aim was to obtain an agreement on the part of all nations that they would give no government support in any form to aviation. In other words, to give up military and naval aviation in their entirety and not to subsidize directly or indirectly civilian aviation. MacArthur admitted that this was too radical a solution but felt it should be the ultimate goal.

Thus one suggestion in the disarmament conference was the elimination of airplane carriers. Though aircraft carriers had defensive value, they were essentially an offensive weapon, the kind the disarmament conference hopefully would eliminate. In Japan, the government did not anticipate enemy air attacks with land-based aircraft, but it was well aware of the potential and dangers of the aircraft carrier. As a result, the Japanese government pleaded, during the 1932 World Disarmament Conference in Geneva, for the abolishment of aircraft carriers.

Limitations for Land Forces

The 1932 British plan embodied a table of “average daily effectives which are not to be exceeded in the land armed forces.” The table gave suggested figures for only 15 countries of continental Europe. “It would, of course, require to be completed,” said an accompanying note, “by the addition of figures in respect of all the other parties.” The proposed maximum figures of the British plan are compared in the following table with the existing strength of European armies as shown by the Armaments Year-Book, 1932.

Maximum forces
proposed in
British draft convention
Existing forces
reported in A
rmaments Year-Book, 1932
500,000-Soviet Russia562,000

For each other continental European state a total land force of 50,000 was proposed. None of these states present has an army as large as 50,000

The British plan appeared to propose substantial increases in the armed forces of Germany, Bulgaria, and Hungary, while suggesting reductions in those of other countries. The Disarmament Information Committee at Geneva points out, however, that the present German army includes in theory only the Reichswehr, whereas if the British plan were adopted as proposed, Germany's allotment would have not only to include the regular army, but a large part of the police, and of the young men of 18 years or over in semi-official organizations. “It would probably amount to a reduction rather than an increase in the German effective forces.”

Abolish Submarines

The United Kingdom delegation urged that there should be abolition of submarines. That is qualitative disarmament. It is not a question of how many a state wanted to have, or how many were needed, or how many a state ought to have the right to have in the next ten years. The UK substituted a different class of check, a check which would involve the outlawry of a particular weapon altogether. If that could not be done, one could, at any rate, limit the size, the tonnage or the range of action of such a weapon as the submarine.

There was a sort of agreement among large numbers of Powers that submarines were hideous things and ought to be abolished. A number of nations think that if submarines are to be abolished, great battleships should also be abolished. They maintain that if one nation thinks battleships are important for defence, the smaller nations who cannot afford battleships may think, and from their point of view rightly think, that submarines must be maintained. So that each nation thinks, in regard to qualitative armaments, of what will be best for its own security.

Prohibition of Chemical, Incendiary, and Bacterial Warfare

Part VI of the MacDonald draft provided (1) for the prohibition of chemical, incendiary, and bacterial warfare, (2) for the prohibition of preparation for such warfare, (3) for the supervision of the observance of these prohibitions, and (4) for establishment of the fact of the use of chemical, incendiary, or bacterial weapons.


Traditional accounts of the disastrous World Disarmament Conference of 1932-34 have placed the blame for its failure on France. Recent historians have revised this picture by describing the internal and external constraints on French policymakers and by delineating the equally obstructive policies adopted by the Anglo-Saxon countries.

Winston Churchill told the Commons on 29 June 1931 "We all respect the motives and the movements which have promoted these conferences, and we all admire the sentiments which have been expressed at them, but up to the present they have not done any good at all. On the contrary, they have been a positive cause of friction and ill-will, and have given an undue advertisement to naval and military affairs. They have concentrated the attention of Governments in all countries, many of them without the slightest reason for apprehension about or dispute with each other, upon all sorts of hypothetical wars which certainly will never take place. The reason why these Disarmament Conferences are so fertile in provoking and promoting misunderstandings is because everyone pushes his own national point of view; everyone adopts a rather hypocritical formula of words to cover the national point of view while taking advantage of any criticisms to which the others are open....

"I have often wondered since the Great War whether it could not have been prevented by more frank and open exposures of the real dangers which were largely apparent to many of those who knew what was passing. We were restrained in those days by the fact that merely to talk about such matters' created alarm and excitement. This is undoubtedly a disadvantage, but it must be faced. Before the War, silence was preserved under thick layers of civility and discretion, padded quilts of agreeably embroidered diplomacy, and these were used to muffle all sinister or discordant sounds until in quick succession there came crisis, clamour, mobilisation, censorship, cannonade, and our lives were wrecked. Surely it ought to be our unceasing thought and effort not by any means to allow such a surprise to fall upon the populations of great countries again."

In December 1932 negotiations between Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and the United States resulted in the signature by the delegates of the five powers on December 11 of a general declaration in which they said that one of the principles of the conference should be the grant to Germany of equality of rights. The promised equality could be established in only two ways: either by requiring all countries to abolish the weapons denied to Germany or by allowing Germany to possess similar weapons. The issue was more sharply drawn when the Hitler government came into power on January 30, 1933. Chancellor Hitler addressed the Reichstag on May 17 to declare Germany's willingness to acept a five-year transitional period for the attainment of equality.

During the early 1930's Japan acquired control of Manchuria, seized strategic points on the north China coast, and forbade access to the mandated islands. The Japanese Government acted with growing confidence, in the belief that the United States, the Soviet Union, and the European colonial powers were not likely to take concerted action against its expansion. On 27 March 1933 the Japanese Government exhibited this confidence by withdrawing from the League of Nations in the face of the Assembly's refusal to recognize the Japanese puppet regime in Manchuria.

On 30 January 1933 Hitler became chancellor of Germany. Hitler made a de facto revision to the Treaty of Versailles by ceasing to heed its restrictions on German rearmament. Soon after becoming chancellor, Hitler ordered that rearmament, secretly under way since the early 1920s, be stepped up. In an attempt to limit the power and range of the German Navy, the Treaty of Versailles had placed a 10,000-ton displacement limit on new ships. The intent of the limit was to keep the Germans from developing anything beyond small, coastal defense ships. However, innovations in welding techniques, new alloys, and lighter diesel engines allowed the German Navy to produce the lightweight Deutschland class ships that had formidable range and firepower. These "pocket battleships" proved to be a deadly sea force during World War II in spite of earlier treaty limitations.

Most of these arms control discussions became moot after October 1933, when Hitler withdrew Germany from the League of Nations and from the disarmament talks in Geneva. The conference dragged on into 1934 but produced no result.

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Page last modified: 28-04-2019 18:53:14 ZULU