London Naval Treaties

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LONDON NAVAL TREATIES. Two conferences in London sought to continue and extend naval armaments pacts initially agreed upon at the Washington Naval Conference of 1921–1922. At this conference, the United States, Great Britain, Japan, France, and Italy agreed on ratios for battleship and aircraft carrier tonnage in a successful effort to halt what might have been an expensive arms race; the resulting treaty also allowed the British to let the Anglo-Japanese Treaty of 1902 terminate. Britain thus avoided being caught in a possible future Japanese-American conflict as an ally of each power.

As the industrialized world slid into the Great Depression, the five nations met in London from late January to late April 1930. The United States, Great Britain, and Japan agreed to extend the Washington naval accord for battleships (and aircraft carriers) and established a new 10:10:7 ratio for small cruisers and destroyers while permitting Japan parity in submarines. France and Italy, both of which considered themselves to be ill-used, did not officially accept these new ratios but, given the depression, all five powers agreed to defer construction of new capital ships until 1937. These new agreements were to continue to 1936, with the signatories pledged to meet again in five years to re-open the discussions.

In December 1935, the naval powers met again in London to continue and extend naval disarmament from earlier Washington (1922) and London (1930) naval treaties. A threat loomed on the horizon—in 1934, Japan had announced its intention not to extend the treaties past 1936, their expiration date, and began planning on the super battleships of the "Yamato" class. The United States and Great Britain would not grant Japan parity in warship tonnage (and hence in the number of capital ships), and Japan withdrew from the conference. The United States, Great Britain, and France signed a naval treaty on 25 March 1936 to limit cruisers and destroyers to 8,000 tons and battleships to 35,000 tons (and 14-inch guns) but, without Japanese, German, and Italian concurrence, this London naval treaty was powerless.

By 1938, as word of super battleships under construction in Japan and Germany spread, the signatories revised treaty limits on the size of major warships, and in 1939 with the German invasion of Poland and the subsequent British and French declarations of war against Germany, the treaty was scrapped.

However well intentioned, the treaties failed in their larger goal of preventing war. While Japan signed the 1930 London Naval Treaty, eighteen months later it used the Mukden Incident to take over China's rich province of Manchuria and generally begin to expand on the Asian mainland. Meanwhile, the naval treaties had no impact on Germany's plan for a war of conquest and aggression on the European mainland.


Borg, Dorothy. The United States and the Far Eastern Crisis of 1933–1938. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964.

Crowley, James B. Japan's Quest for Autonomy: National Security and Foreign Policy, 1930–1938. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966.

Doenecke, Justus D., and Edward Wilz. From Isolation to War, 1931–1941 2d ed. Arlington Heights, Ill.: Harlan Davidson, 1991.

Pelz, Stephen.E. Race to Pearl Harbor: The Failure of the Second London Naval Conference and the Onset of World War II. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974.

Charles M.Dobbs