Disarmament and Arms Control (1898–1945)

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During the forty-seven years between victories in the Spanish-American War (1898) and World War II (1945), the United States completed a remarkable transformation from regional to global military power, a transformation made painful at times by vigorous debate over whether to limit or expand America's armed forces. Social reformers, pacifists, and fiscal conservatives championed the cause of disarmament; others resisted calls for arms control from home and abroad, insisting that American military "preparedness" was vital. During the 1920s, in the backlash against American involvement in World War I, disarmament advocates enjoyed the diplomatic success of the Washington Naval Treaty system, but the naval arms control regime proved temporary. Ultimately the Great Depression, along with waning international cooperation and growing threats to global security, enervated the American arms control movement.

the hague conference, world war i

In 1899, U.S. armament policy was a source of political conflict. Future president Theodore Roosevelt and prominent naval strategist Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan advocated an expansion of American naval power to consolidate America's new empire in the Pacific and to compete with European colonialism. On the other hand, those who wished to restrict America's international role to the Western Hemisphere, along with anti-imperialists, condemned the expansion of American military power and instead supported diplomatic efforts to reduce armaments.

Although in 1899 the United States participated in the first of two international peace conferences at the Hague, the American delegate, Mahan, opposed limitation on naval armaments. Mahan's opposition was consistent with his revolutionary vision of the U.S. Navy's future as a force capable of global sea control. American naval planners had adopted Mahan's vision and already had begun transforming the U.S. Navy from a coastal defense force into an ocean-going navy. Many industrialists and members of Congress supported the construction of such a "blue-water" navy, believing that it would create jobs and increase profits for American companies. However, other Americans opposed expanding the U.S. Navy's mission and force structure. Isolationists in Congress and members of various domestic reform groups believed that increased armament was destructive because it would invite foreign entanglement, arms races, and increased instability, rather than increased security. The outbreak in 1914 of World War I in Europe seemed to confirm this belief. Social and political reformers, including women's rights activists, labor reformers, pacifists, and socialists, found common ground as arms control advocates. Jane Addams of the Women's Peace Party (and later of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom) and Eugene V. Debs of the Socialist Party of America were among the "progressive internationalists" (Knock, p. 50) who urged President Woodrow Wilson to pursue peace and disarmament.

Wilson listened to disarmament advocates with a sympathetic ear. Even though the United States fought in World War I, Wilson echoed the concerns of progressive internationalists, notably in his "Peace without Victory" address to the U.S. Senate on January 22, 1917. Deeply critical of militarism and imperialism, Wilson called for a "community of nations" founded on several ideals, including general disarmament. Putting ideals into practice proved difficult, however, and the United States's refusal to join rendered the League of Nations ineffective, despite Wilson's hopes that the League would facilitate international dispute arbitration and arms control.

While publicly advocating arms control, Wilson simultaneously sought to strengthen the U.S. Navy as the backbone for a new world order; the Naval Act of 1916 was intended to create a navy "second-to-none" by the mid-1920s. After the war ended, however, the American people protested high levels of military spending, and Congress was reluctant to appropriate funds for naval construction. Postwar advocacy of peace and arms control was so strong that very few politicians, Democrat or Republican, were willing to accept the political risk of being branded anti-arms control. The public outcry against military spending (along with a deepening rift with Japan in the Pacific) prompted President Warren G. Harding to invite the world's sea powers to a conference to discuss trade in East Asia and naval arms limitation.

washington naval treaty system (1922–1936)

Naval and military officers were nearly universally excluded from the national delegations to the Washington Conference in 1921, a sure sign of the anti-militarist mood in the United States and Europe. Still, the prospects for an arms control agreement appeared slim, and foreign delegates were visibly surprised when U.S. Secretary of State Charles Evan Hughes immediately proposed a naval arms limitation regime that would require the United States to scrap a shocking number of capital ships, many of which had just been built or were still under construction. Hughes's proposal, combined with the public's demands for reduced military spending, helped propel and sustain the negotiations. Most notable of the resulting seven treaties signed in 1922 was the Five Power Treaty, which required the United States, Great Britain, Japan, France, and Italy to limit their navies' capital ships in

terms of both size (tonnage) and armament (gun size), and to observe a ten-year "holiday" during which no new construction of capital ships would begin.

The Washington Treaty system satisfied the public's demands for arms limitation at the expense of "preparedness" advocates. Acceptance of international limitations on U.S. naval expansion devastated American navalists. Some took comfort in the treaty's recognition of American parity with Great Britain, the world's leading naval power, but this proved cold comfort indeed, as a strengthening peace movement and Republican legislators' meager naval appropriations combined to prevent the United States from building to its treaty limits. The U.S. Navy deteriorated during the 1920s as a result of continued anti-militarist sentiment and Republican budget-cutting, even though a subsequent naval arms control conference in Geneva in 1927 failed to impose more stringent limitations. Only at decade's end did Congress approve new naval construction (fifteen cruisers and an aircraft carrier) and even then, President Herbert Hoover's administration (along with the governments of Great Britain and Japan) accepted new limitations on cruisers at the London Conference of 1930.

Effective for over ten years, the Washington Naval Treaty system ultimately disintegrated during the 1930s. American citizens were increasingly preoccupied by the economic troubles of the Great Depression; the United States became increasingly isolationist, and social activism regarding foreign policy issues, including disarmament, plummeted. A second conference in London (1935 to 1936) ended abruptly when Japan withdrew its delegation, and the collapse of the conference signaled the end of the Washington system. The United States had participated in other interwar disarmament initiatives (including the World Disarmament Conference in Geneva in 1932, a dismal failure, and a conference in 1925 that produced the Geneva Protocol on Poisonous Gases, which the U.S. Senate failed to ratify, owing in part to the chemical industry's lobbying campaign), but none had the impact of the Washington naval arms control regime.

coming of war and rearmament

The American initiative for the Washington Naval Treaty system grew largely out of domestic politics. Public attitudes in the United States after World War I were generally anti-war and anti-militarist, and the government was reluctant to increase military spending. Combined with an active peace movement, these pressures led American leaders to postpone the Navy's plans for expansion for nearly two decades. Only in 1938 did the United States Congress approve a substantial expansion of American naval forces through the Vinson bills, a series of legislative actions transforming the "treaty navy" into the two-ocean navy that cemented the United States's global power status during and after World War II. Many scholars describe the Washington system as the interwar period's primary arms control success story, as it helped for over a decade to prevent arms races among Great Britain, Japan, and the United States. Critics argue that the regime hampered the development of American naval force structure and doctrine, and weakened the United States's ability to deter Japanese expansionism in the Pacific region during the 1930s.


Baer, George W. One Hundred Years of Sea Power: The U.S. Navy, 1890–1990. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994.

Braisted, William Reynolds. The United States Navy in the Pacific, 1909–1922. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971.

Buckley, Thomas H. The United States and the Washington Conference, 1921–1922. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1970.

Chambers, John Whiteclay, II, ed. The Eagle and the Dove: The American Peace Movement and United States Foreign Policy, 1900–1922, 2d edition. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1991.

Fanning, Richard W. Peace and Disarmament: Naval Rivalry and Arms Control, 1922–1933. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1995.

Knock, Thomas J. To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Mahan, Alfred Thayer. The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783 (1890). New York: Dover Publications, 1987.

Jonathan M. DiCicco

See also:Laws of War; Peace Movements, 1898–1945.