Most American leaders, at one time or another, have defined the United States as a "peace-loving nation" that deplores the existence of large military forces and believes that their reduction will lead to a more peaceful world. Yet while American diplomats have frequently supported arms control objectives, they also have opposed them. For example, they rejected the idea of naval reductions at the 1899 Hague Conference and refused to consider political-military "guarantees" that might have brought about arms reductions during the League of Nations negotiations. Thus, early U.S. involvement in the efforts to limit weapons and warfare has been mixed.
Apart from early efforts to halt the trading in arms with various Indian tribes, the United States pursued three major undertakings during this period: demilitarizing the Great Lakes; formulating "rules of war" to govern the actions of its armed forces; and participating in the two Hague peace conferences.
Rush-Bagot Agreement The War of 1812 demonstrated that the Great Lakes were of strategic importance to the United States and Britain's eastern Canadian provinces. At war's end, the British flagship on the lakes was a three-decker more powerful than Admiral Horatio Nelson's Victory, and two even larger vessels were being built at Kingston, Ontario. The Americans responded by beginning construction of two vessels that would be the world's largest warships.
These undertakings conflicted with the U.S. Congress's economy drive, so, on 27 February 1815, President James Madison was authorized "to cause all armed vessels of the United States on the lakes to be sold or laid up, except such as he may deem necessary to enforce proper execution of revenue laws." Economies also led Great Britain to curtail construction and dismantling of warships.
Despite these unilateral actions, many in Washington were concerned that minor border incidents between Canadians and Americans might lead to a renewed naval race. In November 1815, President Madison endorsed efforts to negotiate with the British to limit the number of armed ships on the lakes. If the building of warships began again, he feared, a "vast expence will be incurred" that might lead to "the danger of [a] collision" between the two countries. In London, Lord Castlereagh agreed that such a naval race was "ridiculous and absurd."
The 29 April 1817 bilateral agreement limited the naval forces of each party "on Lake Ontario, to one vessel, not exceeding one hundred tons burden, and armed with one eighteen pound cannon. On the upper lakes, to two vessels, not exceeding like burden each, and armed with like force," and "on the waters of Lake Champlain, to one vessel not exceeding like burden, and armed with like force." However, the pact did not end competitive armaments in the Great Lakes region. Fortifications continued to be built, and there were violations of the naval terms, and during the Civil War, the U.S. Senate voted to terminate the agreement. Despite these obstacles, the Rush-Bagot Agreement remains one of the most successful U.S. arms control undertakings—and certainly its most enduring, for it enhanced the security of both parties and saved them a great deal of money. Also, it paved the way for the Treaty of Washington (1871), which resolved remaining political issues between the parties and led to the "unguarded frontier" between Canada and the United States.
Rules of War In 1863 a Columbia University professor, Francis Lieber, submitted his Code for the Government of Armies of the United States in the Field to the War Department. The Lieber Code, as it became known, was drawn from medieval jurists and was incorporated into the Union army's General Order No. 100. Among other things, it recognized the status of noncombatants, regulated treatment of prisoners of war, prohibited the use of poison, forbade the seizure of private property without compensation, and ordered that cultural treasures not be willfully destroyed. Lieber's contribution later influenced the Declaration of Brussels (1874) on the rules and customs of war.
Hague Conferences Peace advocates everywhere welcomed Czar Nicholas II's 1899 invitation for a meeting of the great powers at The Hague to deal with the threatening international arms race. The Americans were optimistic about the conference's prospects for peace even though their own government had recently concluded a war against Spain and was committed to a naval buildup and army modernization.
President William McKinley took the position that "it behooves us as a nation to lend countenance and aid to the beneficent project." Yet the active military force of the United States "in time of peace [is] so conspicuously less than that of the armed powers of Europe," he said, "that the question of limitations had little practical importance for the United States." Thus, while the U.S. peace movement collected petitions registering popular support for reducing armaments, at The Hague, Captain Alfred T. Mahan, the U.S. delegate, joined Admiral John A. Fisher, the British naval delegate, to prevent any limitation of naval forces. Other proposals sought to restrict military budgets, prohibit the use of new types of firearms and explosives, restrict the use of certain munitions, prohibit the dropping of projectiles or explosives, prohibit the use of submarines or similar engines of destruction, and revise and codify the laws and rules of war, especially those from the Conference of Brussels that were still unratified.
Secretary of State John Hay stated that the first four restrictions "seem lacking in practicability, and the discussion of these propositions would probably prove provocative…. But it is doubtful if wars are to be diminished by rendering them less destructive, for it is the plain lesson of history that the periods of peace have been longer as the cost and destructiveness of war have increased." Despite Washington's lack of interest, declarations prohibiting the use of asphyxiating gas and expanding (dum-dum) bullets and the throwing of projectiles from balloons were approved. With the U.S. delegation's support, rules of war aimed at preventing armies from committing excesses—such as those at the expense of noncombatants and prisoners of war—also were endorsed by the conferees.
At the Second Hague Conference of 1907, some thirteen new declarations clarifying and codifying the law of war were agreed upon. These were revised in 1929 and 1949. The conventions relating to prisoners of war and noncombatants were the basis of considerable diplomatic activity during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.
Prior to the Second Hague conference, President Theodore Roosevelt indicated that the United States might support naval limitations; however, none of the major European powers would consider reducing or limiting their military forces. In June 1910 both houses of Congress unanimously endorsed naval limitations, a decision sparked by the British launching of the dreadnoughts, a new class of battleship, which promised another round of expensive ship construction. The proposal failed to gain support abroad, but it pointed to new efforts a decade later.