Disarmament: A First Farewell to Arms


When battleships were the ultimate weapon

‟THERE IS ONLY one adequate way out and that is to end it now.” Those words were spoken by the U.S. secretary of state in Washington. He was talking of the armament race, and his statement was received with surprise, relief, and enthusiasm by the delegates of other nations and by our national press. The secretary was Charles Evans Hughes, the occasion was the opening of the first conference of world powers ever held in America, and the date was November 12, 1921.

It was a time when the world balance of power was supposed to be held by the nations’ high-sea fleets, and within these by the battleship or capital ship. Here was the most destructive war machine yet built, and the number of a country’s battleships pretty well indicated its position in international affairs. Thus everyone was building more of them—everyone who could afford it, that is. Those were inflationary days, and an up-todate capital ship of some 30,000 tons, with its fourteen-inch armor plate and batteries of sixteen-inch guns, cost the taxpayer $30 million. (Of course, nowadays it costs as much as $300 million just to take a laid-up battleship out of its mothballs.)

Germany had been disarmed at Versailles; the Soviet Union was not in the running. The Washington conference in 1921 was an affair between the United States, the British Empire, Japan, France, and Italy. France quickly refused army restrictions without guarantees of the inviolability of its borders, and these the others would not give. A subcommittee just as quickly came to the conclusion that aircraft limitations were “impracticable.” That left the naval armament race, the most crucial, the most expensive, and the easiest to check on. In those three senses, battleships, “innocent” as dealers of death as they may appear to us in 1983, occupied in the minds of strategists and politicians much the same place now taken by nuclear arms. It was to the fleets, then, that the gentlemen in Washington confined themselves. And here, inspired by Secretary Hughes’s opening address—delivered the day after President Harding dedicated the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, in Arlington—they achieved success. Or so it was claimed.

They did not abolish battleships, let alone warships, but they limited their number. They agreed not to build any new capital ships with a displacement of more than 35,000 tons or with guns of more than sixteen-inch caliber, no cruisers with a displacement of more than 10,000 tons or with guns of more than eight inches, and no aircraft carriers displacing more than 27,000 tons. They set total tonnages for these three categories, with parity between England and the U.S. (525,000 tons each), Japan at three fifths of that amount, and France and Italy at one third. They talked in Washington through the winter of 19211922 to reach this point. On February 6, 1922, they signed the “Five-Power Limitation of Naval Armament Treaty,” which went into effect in August of 1923. They also agreed to meet every five years. In words of the time, a momentous agreement had been reached; never before had major nations voluntarily bowed out of the race to be first in military power. The treaty was “unique in human history.”

BUT THAT WAS political or journalistic hyperbole. Then as now, the word “unique” came easily. True, the total number of battleships had been curtailed, but a closer look showed that the new ships to be built, such as the American Colorado and the British Nelson, were worth several of the older pre-war ships that were to be scrapped or scuttled. What had been reduced was the programs to expand the fleets. This “less of more” could hardly be called disarmament, but, then as now, it was presented as just that to “the people of a hungry world, bent under the burden of military spending,” to quote Aristide Briand, the French foreign minister.

And, not too surprisingly, after the Washington conference, the maximum became the standard. If no battleship could be larger than 35,000 tons, no nation was going to build one smaller. Secretary Hughes’s words had not been heard, after all, and nothing had been ended. Military experts and statesmen, then as now, said that disarmament had to come gradually. In a joint report written several years later by British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald and U.S. Secretary of State Henry Stimson, it was put like this: “Agreed limitation stops competition. Thus disarmament will come stage by stage.... It is for future conferences to bring those armament figures lower and lower until they reach negligible proportions.”

The Washington conference was followed by one in Geneva in July of 1927. It is pleasant at the lake there in summer, and the delegates must have made excursions on the pretty Swiss steamers and dined in the open-air restaurants along its shore in the quiet evenings of that almost earless period. But the conference broke up in early August without results. The disarmament numbers game, so familiar to us now, had come well into its own by then. A quote from a conference report typifies what went on that summer: “Early in July, the United States, with some misgiving, agreed to raise their cruiser figure to 400,000 tons of which 180,000 was to be applied to the larger cruisers and the remainder to the smaller. The American delegation did not quite know if they were justified in thus raising the figure 100,000 tons for the sake of meeting British proposals. . . . Japan interceded . . . and proposed, as an alternative, that the aggregate tonnage of cruisers and destroyers be limited for the United States and Great Britain to 450,000 and for herself to 310,000 tons. The United States rather eagerly accepted it . . . but Great Britain opposed it as being much too low. The latter . . . consented to America’s proposal of 400,000 tons provided that 110,000 tons would be allowed for the 10,000 ton cruisers and the rest for the smaller six-inch gun cruisers. . . . America [refused] for it provided for a classification of ships by size and armament which she would never admit. Great Britain then proposed that 550,000 tons be fixed as total tonnage of combined destroyers and cruiser tonnage for herself and America. [America refused] and could not accept restrictions of the armament of cruisers nor would she state the number of large cruisers she desired.”

In an analysis published in 1928 by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, John C. Shillock, Jr., wrote that the conference failed because of “the great number of technical naval officials who composed a large part of the body of representatives. These men thought in terms of war and not of peace. . . . Despite the declarations that peace and security lay just ahead, it became more and more evident as the session continued that each country was computing its armaments on the basis of an assumed possibility that they would go to war in the near future—that war might occur either between the United States and Great Britain or between Great Britain and a third State which would involve the rights of the United States as a neutral.”

One year later, in 1929, and again in Geneva, an American delegate sent out by the new Hoover Administration had a brainstorm. America and Britain had not been able “to discover a strict mathematical equality in cruiser strength which would give each of them different numbers and different kinds of ships”; a new formula, called “the yardstick method,” would enable them to equate ages of ships, unit characteristics, numbers, gun caliber, and all, and add it up to one grand total. Thanks to this yardstick arithmetic, the U.S. and the U.K. could now reach an agreement—or almost. “Within 30,000 tons.” A new conference could be called, for January of 1930, in London.

The admirals and statesmen from America, England, Japan, France, Italy, and the Dominions spent three months in London, and when they left, in April, they had not quite reduced the high-sea fleets but they had again reduced the expansions. They had specifically agreed not to build any new battleships until 1936. But that, as The Times of London pointed out, “will give time to the naval powers for a thorough consideration of the question of the future of the capital ship,” a future thrown in some doubt by the development of the air weapon. Clearly, the delegate had averted “the great danger,” as Britain’s Arthur Balfour had labeled it at the first Washington conference, “of looking at this question through the glass of idealism.”

The next naval conference was held, as scheduled, five years later, again in London, from December of 1935 until late March of 1936. If it was to the credit of the conferees that they did not opt for the more agreeable climate of Locarno or some other international conference resort of the period, the bracing air of another London winter did not save them from the bog of armament arithmetic.

Even before the Christmas recess, Japan had asked for a general upper tonnage limit; when that was rejected, it withdrew from the conference. But its absence did not improve the mood of the meetings. The nations agreed again that the sizes of warships should be limited, “practically at the prevailing tonnages for each category,” as the report put it. They agreed not to build submarines larger than 2,000 tons. The only substantive document to come of it was a call for “advance notification and exchange of information” regarding naval building. Until then, verification had not been seriously dealt with at any of the conferences.

After the London conference in 1936, the very idea of naval limitations quickly crumbled. Japan was off on its own, and in 1938, England, France, and the U.S. signed a protocol raising the maximum size for battleships to 45,000 tons. Hitler had signed a naval treaty with England in 1935, and declared in 1937 that he would adhere to the terms of the London Conference of 1936. He renounced both in 1939, two months after the launching of the German battleship Bismarck. The Soviet Union came forward to adhere to the London tonnages, but the Bolshies were not taken seriously in the West.

The naval disarmament conference of 1940 was not held. The world was once more at war. Many ships were scuttled in that year and the following years, though not voluntarily.

Assuredly, no measure of disarmament could have been possible with the Japan and the Germany of the thirties as partners. But it may be asked if in a world that had achieved real disarmament, the Japanese militarists and the German Nazis would have come to power.

Meanwhile, our arms-control experts still enjoy their numbers games, and they are reported as working earnestly on any number of nuclear “yardstick methods.”

—Hans Koning