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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 forthe 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. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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