Washington Naval Arms Limitation Treaty

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Washington Naval Arms Limitation Treaty (1922).After World War I, fear that an unrestrained naval race would lead to another world war, the corollary hope that arms limitation would ensure peace, and the demand for domestic economy combined to generate the pressures and incentives that led to the Washington Conference of 1921–22, the most ambitious pre‐nuclear effort to limit arms in the history of the United States. The conference produced a series of agreements intended to end naval competition between the United States, Great Britain, and Japan, and to stabilize the political situation in East Asia. The Washington Naval Treaty established tonnage ratios for battleships and aircraft carriers of the United States, Great Britain, Japan, France, and Italy 5, 5, 3, 1.75, and 1.75, respectively. The United States, Great Britain, and Japan also agreed not to build more fortifications on certain islands in the western Pacific.

The treaty powers linked the naval settlement with political settlements reached at the conference. The Nine Power Treaty pledged to uphold the “open door” policy in China, but contained no enforcement mechanism. The Four Power Treaty replaced the Anglo‐Japanese Military Alliance of 1902, anathema to the United States, with a diffuse consultative pact between the United States, Great Britain, Japan, and France. Under the Mandates Treaty, the United States recognized Japan's trusteeship over former German colonies in the western Pacific in exchange for a Japanese pledge not to fortify those islands.

Subsequent efforts at naval arms control achieved only modest and fleeting success. The London Treaty of 1930 extended the ratio system to include cruisers, destroyers, and submarines, but was limited to the United States, Great Britain, and Japan. A Second London Naval Conference (1935–36) ended in failure when Japan refused to accept anything less than parity with Great Britain and the United States. In 1938, the Japanese declined to give assurances that their new super‐battleships were within treaty size limits, and efforts to limit naval arms collapsed entirely; henceforth, the United States and Great Britain slowly resumed their major building programs.

Despite the indisputably positive impact of the Washington Treaties on the overall tenor of Anglo‐American relations, events largely confounded lofty expectations. The treaties failed to achieve their goal of “positively ending the arms race,” or freezing the naval balance indefinitely. The Japanese kept building warships even when the United States and Great Britain reduced their building programs significantly. According to some scholars (see Kaufman, 1990), America's restraint in naval building during the interwar years enticed the Imperial Japanese Navy to engage in an unrestrained naval race that ultimately culminated in Japan's decision to undertake the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

The political assumptions underpinning the Washington Treaties also proved transitory. China did not develop peacefully as hoped, but descended into chaos that simultaneously frightened and emboldened Japanese militarists. Japanese constitutionalism did not become more robust, but collapsed under the combined weight of the Great Depression and a badly flawed constitution that put the forces of moderation at a severe disadvantage. The determination of Japanese militarists to dominate China made the failure of the treaties inevitable during the 1930s, just as the ascendance of Japanese moderates who preferred conciliation to conquest had made the treaties' success possible during the 1920s.

Some scholars, among them Emily Goldman (1994), view the Washington Treaties' accomplishments more positively, primarily because they consider that they were essential in averting Anglo‐American enmity. There is agreement, however, that the experiment with naval arms limitation made sense during the 1920s when detente prevailed among the United States, Great Britain, and Japan. But such arms limitation became unrealistic in the 1930s, when the United States and Great Britain persisted in such attempts despite the fact that the world situation had manifestly changed for the worse.
[See also Arms Control and Disarmament: Nonnuclear; World War II: Causes.]


Robert Gordon Kaufman , Arms Control During the Pre‐Nuclear Era: The United States and Naval Limitation Between the Two World Wars, 1990.
Emily O. Goldman , Sunken Treaties: Arms Control Between the Wars, 1994.

Robert Gordon Kaufman