The Washington Naval Treaty: Averting the Allied Arms Race


The First World War officially ended in 1918. The Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919 and ratified in 1920. The war was over. But the peace was not yet won. Conflict was in full swing in Russia and Turkey and the many upheavals caused by the fragmentation of Russia, Austria-Hungary and Germany were still fresh, violent and disruptive. The victorious stable allied powers of the First World War, the United Kingdom, Japan, the United States of America, France and Italy (Russia being marred by revolution) had won the war and the world was undoubtedly theirs … for now.

But noticeable, cracks had appeared in the façade of unity. The United Kingdom, France and Italy, exhausted by the gruelling trials of war, were eager to enjoy the spoils of war, to rest and rebuild. But the United States of America and Japan, not having suffered the massive losses in men, material and economy that their allies had, were eager to take the dominant role on the world stage.

That is not to say that the United States of America and Japan were in any way allies; far from it. American politicians, concerned with the potential economic and military threat of Japan targeted the “yellow peril” of Japanese and Chinese immigration (resulting in the Immigration Act of 1924).

Japan, gaining her spoils of war in China and the Pacific, saw the dangers of a potential conflict with the United States of America clearly and trusted on her personal military alliance with the United Kingdom to act as a counterweight in case of American meddling in her national interests (China and Korea).

And so the stage was set.

US Naval Expansion

The US Naval Construction Act of 1916 [1], signed into law on the 19th of August 1916  law by President Woodrow Wilson, was intended to build the greatest navy in the world “a navy second to none”, potentially eclipsing that of the United Kingdom, the previous holder of that title.

Under the bill, 10 new battleships, 6 battlecruisers, submarines, destroyers and support ships were to be built, a truly staggering amount of ships to be added to the already formidable United States Navy.

Aimed officially to strengthen the navy against the Imperial German Navy (and to guard its neutral commerce against the United Kingdom), by 1918 the Navy Department advised the construction of an additional 12 battleships and 16 battlecruisers.

The Naval Race

Japan and Great Britain rose to the challenge and responded with their own building plan.
Japan continued to aim for her historical 8-8 Plan (8 battleships and 8 battlecruisers), while Great Britain immediately started construction on 4 battleships and 4 battlecruisers, with an additional planning of 4 more battleships the next year.

The Race was on. Great naval construction would soon plunge the world into a new arms race.
The First one had resulted in the Great War…. Would the young peace be lost in the Next Great War?

The Call for Reason; the formal invitation

December 1920; senator William Borah, a staunch isolationist, an opponent of the League of Nations, a proponent of economic government and the maintenance of peace, introduced a joint resolution to invite Japan and Great Britain to a conference for reducing naval expenditure.
Against most official expectations, the resolution proved successful and the formal invitations were sent out on the 11th of August 2011.

The President is deeply gratified at the cordial response to his suggestion that there should be a Conference on the subject of Limitation of Armament, in combination with which Pacific and Far Eastern questions should also be discussed ….. The enormous disbursements in the rivalries of armaments manifestly constitute the greater part of the encumbrance upon enterprise and national prosperity …. It is, however, quite clear that there can be no final assurance of the peace of the world in absence of the desire for peace, and the prospect of reduced armaments is not a hopeful one unless this desire finds expression in a practical effort to remove causes of misunderstanding and to seek ground for agreement as principles and their application. .” [2]

This formal invitation can be best used to express the feelings of those days; the increasing expenditures would cause economic hardship and loss of prosperity and the expenditures would not solve the rivalries between the nations; they would only lead to conflict. The only way to peace was not armament but to solve the issues underlying the problems.

The Delegations and the Discussed issues

Participating were delegations from the United States of America, Belgium, The United Kingdom, China, France, Italy, Japan, The Netherlands and Portugal.

Familiar and famous names can be found in the list of delegates, advisory committee-staff, secretariat, technical staff, interpreters and specialists. Names like Charles Evans Hughes, Henry Cabot Lodge, David Lloyd George, Wellington Koo, Aristide Briand, Kato Tomosaburo, Herman van Karnebeek, Elihu Root, John Pershing, David Beatty, Sao-Ke Alfred Sze, James Balfour, Theodore Roosevelt, and many others. [3]

President Harding, having succeeded Woodrow Wilson as President of the United States of America in 1921, attended the opening session. As chairman of the conference presided Charles Evans Hughes, Secretary of State of the United States of America.

The conference meant to focus on 4 different issues; - Limitation of Armaments - Mandated Islands in the Pacific - Questions relating to China - Questions relating to Siberia. In this item, we will only touch upon the Limitation of Armaments issue.

Pushing the Agenda - Action Diplomacy

The first plenary session was on Wednesday the 12th of November. After a general opening, a word of welcome by President Harding, the election of Charles Evans Hughes as the chairman, the chairman took the floor and gave a general introduction regarding the current issues, previous endeavours on peace and arms limitation (The Hague Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1907) and their general lacklustre results.

After first informing the conference on proposing a naval holiday of 10 years, Mr. Hughes informed the conference that he had been given liberty to go far beyond these measures. He then brought forward the revolutionary proposal [4] by the United States of America:

1) That all capital ship building programs, either actual or projected, should be abandoned.
2) That further reductions should be made through the scrapping of certain of the older ships.
3) That, in general, regard should be had to the existing naval strength of the powers combined.
4) That the capital ship tonnage should be used as the measure of strength for navies and a proportionate allowance of auxiliary combatant craft prescribed.

Next followed an extensive detailed list of what this entailed; the scrapping of all capital ships under construction (with some exceptions), the scrapping of all older battleships.
The list showed for each of the three main naval countries what scrapping would entail:
- United States of America – 845,740 tons scrapped/cancelled
- Great Britain – 583,375 tons scrapped/cancelled
- Japan – 448,928 tons scrapped/cancelled

The Second part of the proposal regarded the replacement and the maximum limit of capital ship tonnage per country:
- United States of America – 500,000 tons
- Great Britain – 500,000 tons
- Japan – 300,000 tons

And thus, a revolutionary step was taken; a factual proposal for disarmament and the limitation of armaments was given. Now the only thing left was to make it a reality.

From Proposal to Reality

Much can be written about the many sessions (thirty-one in total), the negotiations, the issues, the demands by naval departments, the lobbying of politicians, interest groups, representatives, but it would make this blog exceptionally long and diverse. The negotiations stretched out till the last meeting on the 3rd of February 1922.

In the end, the general plan was adopted but exceptions, changes and additions were added. Some ships could be retained.
The great powers would limit their naval strength in Capital Ships to the following amount:
- United States of America – 525,850 tons
Great Britain – 558,950 tons
France – 221,170 tons
- Italy – 182,000 tons
- Japan - 301,320 tons

In the treaties were also included special rules, regulations and definitions for capital, non-capital ships (cruisers and aircraft carriers) submarines and the use of noxious gases.

The End of the Naval Race

With the conclusion of the Conference on the 6th of February 1922, the New Naval Arms Race had been halted before it could cause irreparable damage to the relations of the nations involved.

It was not slow negotiation to come to a watery compromise that carried the day; it was direct and bold action.

By making a bold and unprecedented proposal in disarmament, the United States of America had taken the lead in striving for world peace with good results.
Naval shipbuilding grinded into a halt (to the chagrin of naval officers), old ships made their way to the scrapyard, military expenditures plummeted and could be focussed on other issues. The world settled down for the next challenge.


The 1930 London Conference would confirm the Status Quo, until Japan terminated the Washington Naval Treaty in 1934. Different issues arose which caused problems, growing suspicion, hatred and war. But in 1922, Peace Prevailed… for the moment. As we now know, It would not last. But then again, what does?


[1] H.R. 15947. Introduced on May 19, 1916. Passed the house on June 2 , 1916. Passed the Senate 21 July 1916.

[2] Conference on the limitation of armament – Washington November 12 1921 – February 6, 1922. / Conference de la Limitation des Armements – Washington 12 Novembre 1921 – 6 Février 1922. P. 4-8

[3] Conference on the limitation of armament – Washington November 12 1921 – February 6, 1922. / Conference de la Limitation des Armements – Washington 12 Novembre 1921 – 6 Février 1922. P. 12-41

[4] Conference on the limitation of armament – Washington November 12 1921 – February 6, 1922. / Conference de la Limitation des Armements – Washington 12 Novembre 1921 – 6 Février 1922. P. 60-64

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