Sea Change: The Naval Conferences of the 1920s

June 20 marks the anniversary of the Geneva Naval Conference of 1927, a major arms control effort of the Coolidge administration.

The United States and Great Britain, allies in World War I, were now basically rivals in the field of naval armament – and the naval balance of power was approximately equivalent in importance to the nuclear balance of power half a century later. Great Britain still possessed the world’s biggest and most potent navy, and, while much diminished by the strains of the Great War, it also was the chief economic and financial rival of the U.S.

Germany, the main loser of the war and never a major naval power to begin with, played no part in the tussle. Similarly, Russia, never a naval giant, was still struggling internally and an outcast on the international scene. France and Italy retained sizable navies. On the horizon loomed Japan, already the third largest naval power in the world, and eager to catch up. At the 1921-1922 Washington Naval Conference, the five powers had made some progress in delineating limits to a buildup in large vessels – it certainly helped that the major naval powers, Britain, the United States, and Japan recognized the crushing financial costs of a naval arms race.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.

President Harding had been elected on a platform which contained a popular naval disarmament plank. Isolationists of the day believed that prohibiting preparedness would promote peace.  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.

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. Of the three major treaties emerged out of the Washington Conference, the Five-Power Treaty 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, and Britain in particular still had far-flung colonial territories. The 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 the number of 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 although 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.

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.

The 1924 presidential campaign witnessed the resurfacing of the naval question as a political factor. “Navalists” in the press suggested that the Washington Treaty had been a defeat for the U.S., a cry taken up by the Democratic presidential candidate John W. Davis who castigated the Republican administration in his speeches. Coolidge and his Secretary of the Navy emphasized the role of arms limitation as a means of achieving and maintaining international security, and soon after his election Coolidge turned to the matter of extending the Washington Treaty ratios to lesser classes of craft, including cruisers.

Derailed for a while by League of Nations-inspired efforts for a general disarmament treaty, Coolidge reaffirmed his naval arms limitation goals in his address to Congress on Dec. 7, 1926; then, as much to show good will to the other naval powers as to reduce government expenditure, he shelved appropriations for three cruisers. Navalists in Congress responded with a bill that called for ten new cruisers.

The Three Power Geneva Naval Conference of 1927 was a gathering of the United States, Great Britain and Japan, to discuss making joint limitations to their naval capacities. The conference was a failure — the parties did not reach agreement and the naval arms race continued unabated after the conference.

Coolidge had invited the naval powers to meet again to discuss extending the agreement to include other classes of vessels not included in the original treaty, such as cruisers, destroyers, and submarines. France and Italy declined the invitation to participate in the conference. The two powers preferred to wait until an eventual comprehensive arms limitation conference (ultimately held in Geneva in 1932, to discuss air, land, and sea armaments all at once.

Thus, only the US, UK and Japan met in Geneva and began negotiations on the extension of naval limitations. Matters were complicated when the British revealed that, since under the Washington Treaty they had measured their ships in legend tons rather than standard tons, their capital ships actually totalled some 604,000 tons. This brought the tonnage ratios of the British, American, and Japanese battle fleets closer to a 6:5:3 ratio than the 5:5:3 ratio at which the Americans had aimed.

The United States proposed that the existing 5:5:3 ratios between the three powers be extended to include auxiliary vessels; that the maximum size of cruisers remain at less than 10,000 tons with 8-inch guns; and that the total tonnage of cruisers be limited to 400,000 for the United States and Great Britain (240,000 tons for Japan). The latter measure was designed to prevent the United States from having to embark on a massive building program to keep its fleet in line with the ratios established at the conference; as it was, to reach 400,000 tons it would have to build several new ships.

Cruisers were lightly armored, heavily armed, fast ships designed to screen formations and to scout out enemy fleets. Their survivability depended on speed, not armor. Great Britain proposed dividing the classes of cruisers into “heavy” and “light,” so that heavy cruisers did not exceed 10,000 tons, and light cruisers did not exceed 7,000. The British problem was that in order to patrol their extensive worldwide shipping routes, they needed more rather than larger ships, while a larger number of smaller ships was unsuited to American needs. As the British had a far greater need for light cruisers, it proposed limiting production of heavy cruisers, while including more freedom for building those in the lighter class. They proposed an overall cruiser limit of 70 ships and 600,000 tons. This plan would have required the United States to build as many as thirty new heavy cruisers just to maintain parity between the two nations, thus sparking an arms race instead of disarmament. Japan proved to be the most flexible party with regard to the cruiser limitations, but preferred that a 10:10:7 ratio be applied to auxiliary craft, rather than the Washington Conference ratio of 5:5:3.

The differences between the parties emerged in several areas. First, there was a dispute about whether “parity” should be measured based on tonnage or number of vessels. The United States preferred tonnage, while the British preferred to count the fleet. To keep overall tonnage below the established limits, the British preferred to build light cruisers, but because light cruisers were essentially useless in battle against heavy cruisers, they wanted the United States and Japan to build the lighter variety as well. The United States had virtually no use for light cruisers and felt that as long as they stayed below the tonnage limit, they should be able to build as many heavy cruisers as they liked. It was a fundamental impasse.

Second, Great Britain set forth what it called the “doctrine of requirements,” which asserted that the size of a nation’s naval fleet should be based on what it required to defend its territory; this idea was in opposition to the American preference that the size of the fleet required should be proportional to the size of the navies of other nations in the world. Accepting the “doctrine of requirements” would mean agreeing to the British demand for a large number of cruisers and then undertaking a massive American building program to achieve parity, so neither the United States nor Japan approved of it. Although the three countries made some progress in their discussions over other classes of auxiliary ships, the powers were agreed that there would only be a new treaty if the “cruiser controversy” was solved. The stalemate over the cruiser question ended the conference without a new treaty.

The failure of the conference can be attributed to the inability of the United States and Great Britain to come to terms on these issues; one side or both needed to make substantial compromises to solve the problem. Far from allowing the “friendship” of their shared heritage to bring cooperation, it seemed that few at the conference on either side had definitively ruled out the possibility of the two nations engaging on opposite sides of a future conflict, so each hoped to maintain as much of an edge as possible in naval capacity.

Coolidge was disgusted with the failure of the conference, and on Armistice Day, November 11, 1928, he made a fairly belligerent speech in which he lambasted the other Great Powers for their poor arms control record, and in which he called for American naval supremacy. He now advocated that the U.S.Navy be expanded until it became preeminent in the world, especially its cruiser force.

“Having few fuelling stations,” he noted, “we require ships of large tonnage, and, having scarcely any merchant vessels capable of mounting five- or six-inch guns, it is obvious that, based on positions, we are entitled to a larger number of warships than a nation having these advantages.” Backing his words with action, he swung his support behind the fifteen-cruiser (plus one aircraft carrier) bill making its way through the Senate, which was eventually passed.

This led Japan and Britain to consider their own building programs, thus perversely making the result of the conference a potential new arms race, rather than limitation. In the closing years of the Coolidge administration, U.S.-British relations reached a low point.

But the United States and Great Britain realized that without an agreement, the cruiser issue would block advancements at any future conferences, so they continued discussions in the years that followed. In 1929, the United States and Great Britain agreed on a limit of 50 cruisers and 339,000 tons, with a limit to the maximum number of heavy cruisers. Both sides compromised heavily to reach this deal, but the issue of how many heavy cruisers would be permitted was not yet settled. The countries would address the issue once again at the London Naval Conference in 1930. One researcher* attributes the relative (albeit temporary) success of the 1930 versus the 1927 conference to the greater flexibility of Herbert Hoover versus the perceived rigidity of Calvin Coolidge.


* see McKercher (2007): “A Certain Irritation”:The White House, the State Department, and the Desire for a Naval Settlement with Great Britain, 1927 – 1930, in: Diplomatic History, 31 (5)

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