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Today in Military History: February 6, 1922:US, UK, Japan, France, & Italy Sign the Washington Naval Treaty

US, UK, Japan, France, & Italy Sign the Washington Naval Treaty

Scene at Philadelphia Navy Yard, December 1923
As various U.S. battleships under construction are being dismantled
[Photograph courtesy of U.S. Naval Historical Center]
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

 

For today’s journey into the military past, I present for your consideration a disarmament treaty that eventually prompted an increase in larger and better-armed naval vessels which led to the Second World War.

Background

Immediately after the end of «the Great War» (aka the First World War), the United Kingdom had the world’s largest and most powerful navy, followed by the United States and more distantly by Japan. The three nations had been allied for World War I, but a naval arms race seemed likely for the next few years. This arms race began in the United States. President Woodrow Wilson’s administration announced successive plans for the expansion of the U.S. Navy from 1916 to 1919 that would have resulted in a massive fleet of 50 modern battleships. At the time, it was engaged in building six battleships and six battlecruisers.

In response, the Japanese parliament finally authorized construction of warships to enable the Japanese Navy to reach its target of an «eight-eight fleet program,» , with eight modern battleships and eight battlecruisers. To this end, the Japanese started work on four battleships and four battlecruisers, all much larger and more powerful than those of the classes preceding.

In 1921, the British Royal Navy planned four battleships and four battlecruisers, with another four battleships to follow the subsequent year.

The U.S. public was largely unwelcoming of the new «arms race». The U.S. Congress disapproved of Wilson’s 1919 naval expansion plan, and during the 1920 presidential election campaign, U.S. politics returned to the isolationism of the prewar era, with little appetite for continued naval expansion. Britain could also ill afford any resumption of battleship construction, given the exorbitant price of naval construction.

In late 1921, the U.S. government became aware that Britain was planning a conference to discuss the strategic situation in the Pacific and Far East. To forestall the conference and to satisfy domestic pressure for a global disarmament conference, the Harding administration called the Washington Naval Conference during November 1921.

The Washington Naval Conference

Convening on November 12, 1921, under the auspices of the League of Nations, the delegates met at Memorial Continental Hall in Washington DC. Attended by nine countries with concerns in the Pacific, the principal players included the United States, Great Britain, Japan, France, and Italy. In addition, Belgium, China, the Netherlands and Portugal were invited to join in.

Leading the American delegation was Secretary of State Charles Evan Hughes who sought to limit Japanese expansionism in the Pacific. Also part of the American delegation were: Elihu Root, a former Secretary of State under Teddy Roosevelt and Secretary of War under McKinley; Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, who at the time was serving as the first Senate Majority Leader, as well as chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations (he was also one of the main opponents of the League of Nations); and Sen. Oscar Underwood of Alabama, the first Senate Minority Leader.

Charles Evans Hughes (1862-1948); Secretary of State (1921-1925) [Image from Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs Division]
Charles Evans Hughes (1862-1948)
Secretary of State (1921-1925)
[Image from Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs Division]

For the British, the conference offered an opportunity to avoid an arms race with the US as well as an opportunity to achieve stability in the Pacific which would provide protection to Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand. Arriving in Washington, the Japanese possessed a clear agenda that included a naval treaty and recognition of their interests in Manchuria and Mongolia. Both nations were concerned about the power of American shipyards to out-produce them if an arms race were to occur.

As the negotiations commenced, Hughes was aided by intelligence provided by Herbert Yardley’s «Black Chamber.» Operated cooperatively by the State Department and US Army, Yardley’s office was tasked with intercepting and decrypting communications between the delegations and their home governments. Particular progress was made breaking Japanese codes and reading their traffic. The intelligence received from this source permitted Hughes to negotiate the most favorable deal possible with the Japanese. After several weeks of meetings, the world’s first disarmament treaty was signed on February 6, 1922.

The Washington Naval Treaty

The Washington Naval Treaty set specific tonnage limits on the signees as well as restricted armament size and expansion of naval facilities. The core of the treaty established a tonnage ratio that permitted the following:

  • United States: Capital Ships – 525,000 tons, Aircraft Carriers – 135,000 tons
  • Great Britain: Capital Ships – 525,000 tons, Aircraft Carriers – 135,000 tons
  • Japan: Capital Ships – 315,000 tons, Aircraft Carriers – 81,000 tons
  • France: Capital Ships – 175,000 tons, Aircraft Carriers – 60,000 tons
  • Italy: Capital Ships – 175,000 tons, Aircraft Carriers – 60,000 tons

As part of these restrictions, no single ship was to exceed 35,000 tons or mount larger than 16-inch guns. Aircraft carrier size was capped at 27,000 tons, though two per nation could be as large as 33,000 tons. In regard to onshore facilities, it was agreed that the status quo at the time of the treaty’s signing would be maintained. This prohibited the further expansion or fortification of naval bases in small island territories and possessions. Expansion on the mainland or large islands (such as Hawaii) was permitted.

Since some commissioned warships exceeded the treaty terms, some exceptions were made for existing tonnage. Under the treaty, older warships could be replaced, however the new vessels were required to meet the restrictions and all signatories were to be informed of their construction. The 5:5:3:1:1 ratio imposed by the treaty led to friction during negotiations. France, with coasts on the Atlantic and Mediterranean, felt that it should be permitted a larger fleet than Italy. They were finally convinced to agree to the ratio by promises of British support in the Atlantic.

USS Lexington (CV-2), photographed in 1931; Originally slated to be a battlecruiser, it was converted into an aircraft carrier; Note the four turrets boasting 8
USS Lexington (CV-2), photographed in 1931
Originally slated to be a battlecruiser, it was converted into an aircraft carrier
Note the four turrets boasting 8″ guns, fore and aft of the ship’s island
[Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation]

Among the main naval powers, the 5:5:3 ratio was badly received by the Japanese who felt they were being slighted by the Western Powers. As the Imperial Japanese Navy was essentially a one-ocean navy, the ratio still gave them a superiority over the US and Royal Navy which had multi-ocean responsibilities. With the treaty’s implementation, the British were forced to cancel the G3 and N3 programs and the US Navy was required to scrap some of its existing tonnage to meet the tonnage restriction. Two battlecruisers then under construction were converted into the aircraft carriers USS Lexington [see above] and USS Saratoga.

The treaty effectively stopped battleship construction for several years as the signatories attempted to design ships that were powerful, but still met the agreement’s terms. Also, efforts were made to build large light cruisers that were effectively heavy cruisers or that could be converted with bigger guns in wartime.

Aftermath

The Washington Treaty marked the end of a long period of increases of battleship construction. Many ships currently being constructed were scrapped or converted into aircraft carriers. The Treaty limits were respected, and then extended by the London Naval Treaty of 1930. It was not until the mid-1930s that navies began to build battleships once again, and the power and size of new battleships began to increase once again. The Second London Naval Treaty of 1936 sought to extend the Washington Treaty limits until 1942, but in the absence of Japan or Italy, it was largely ineffective. This last treaty was not signed by Japanese as they had decided to withdraw from the agreement in 1934.

The effects on cruiser building were less. While the Treaty specified 10,000 tons and 8-inch guns as the maximum size of a cruiser, in effect this was also the minimum size cruiser that any navy was willing to build. The Treaty began a building competition of 8-inch, 10,000 ton «treaty cruisers,» which gave further cause for concern. Subsequent Naval Treaties sought to address this, by limiting cruiser, destroyer and submarine tonnage.

A major British demand during the negotiations was the complete abolition of the submarine. However, this proved impossible, particularly as a result of French opposition; the French demanded an allowance of 90,000 tons of submarines, and the conference ended without agreement on restricting submarines.

Unofficial terms of the treaty included the end of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. The cancellation of this treaty by Britain was not part of the Washington Treaty in any way, but the American delegates had made it clear they would not agree to the treaty unless Britain ended her alliance with the Japanese.

Footnote #1: In addition to his work on the Washington Naval Treaty, Charles Evans Hughes had been a prominent lawyer, govenor of New York (1907-1910), an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (1910-1916), Republican candidate for President (1916), and Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (1930-1941).

Footnote #2: The Memorial Continental Hall is owned and operated by the Daughters of the American Revolution. It is located next to DAR Constitution Hall, and serves as the national headquarters of the organization. In 1972 the building was designated a National Historic Landmark.

Memorial Continental Hall, 17th and D Streets NW, Washington DC; Site of the Washington Naval Conference of 1921-1922
Memorial Continental Hall, 17th and D Streets NW, Washington DC
Site of the Washington Naval Conference of 1921-1922

Footnote #3: There is a story told in several publications about the beginning years of the production of the TV series Star Trek (The Original Series). At some point either late in the show’s first season or early in the second, actor George Takei – perhaps facetiously – complained that series star William Shatner’s character of Captain Kirk was getting all the romantic scenes. To assauge his concerns, the show’s creator and executive producer Gene Roddenberry told Takei that he would institute a protocal to allow the Asian actor to get three love scenes for every five that Shatner received (note the ratio!!). This seemed to please Takei, and he never again felt slighted during the show’s run.

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