The enormity of death and destruction wrought by World War I focused the attention of the American public and its government on ways of preventing future war. America's role in these interwar undertakings included the introduction of disarmament in the League of Nations Covenant, sponsorship of the Washington naval limitation system, 1922–1935, endorsement of the Kellogg-Briand Pact aimed at "outlawing" war, and belated, ambivalent support of the League of Nation's disarmament efforts.
League Covenant and Disarmament In January 1918, President Woodrow Wilson emphasized disarmament in Point Four of his Fourteen Points (a statement of the Allies' war aims) and in his endorsement of it as Article Eight of the League of Nations Covenant. Point Four called for "adequate guarantees given and taken that national armaments will be reduced to the lowest point consistent with domestic safety." Wilson did not consider arms reduction a high priority, but he clearly saw it as in the U.S. interest. A commitment to general disarmament, no matter how ambiguous, would justify the imposition of arms restrictions on Germany and its allies.
At the Paris Peace Conference Wilson reduced his emphasis on arms reductions because of considerations of national sovereignty, the threat of Bolshevism, and demands of economic nationalism. He even threatened a new naval race by urging Congress to fund the construction of 156 warships, including ten super-dreadnoughts and six high-speed battle cruisers, called for in the Naval Appropriation Act of 1916, in order to obtain political concessions. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George was unwilling to accept U.S. naval parity, nor did he agree with Wilson's desire to append the Monroe Doctrine to the League Covenant. Unwilling to undertake a costly naval race, Lloyd George relented on the latter point and agreed to future negotiations on the former.
Wilson tried the same strategy during the Senate's ratification hearings (May 1919–March 1920), insisting there were only two alternatives: the League of Nations and disarmament, or increased naval construction and higher taxes. The Senate rejected league membership on the grounds it impinged upon the nation's sovereignty and left the naval problems for the Harding administration.
The Washington Naval System In the spring of 1921, President Warren G. Harding and Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes confronted a burgeoning naval race—before the year was out, more than 200 warships were under construction. Hughes invited the other major naval powers—Great Britain, Japan, France, and Italy—to meet at Washington, D.C., on 12 November 1921. Over-ruling his admirals, Hughes developed a detailed plan grounded on two themes: an immediate halt of all capital ship construction and the defining of national strategies in terms of "relative security." By presenting his proposal for capital ship reductions and limitations in his opening speech, Hughes seized the diplomatic initiative and gained widespread public support.
The Washington Conference produced seven treaties and twelve resolutions, two of which contained arms control provisions. The most significant was the Five Power Naval Treaty of 6 February 1922, which established a reduction in battleships, quantitative limits (or ratios—United States 5:Britain 5:Japan 3) on capital ships and aircraft carriers, qualitative restrictions on future naval construction, and restrictions on fortifications and naval bases in the central Pacific. The ratios established battleship parity between the United States and Britain and acknowledged Japan's de facto preeminence in the western Pacific. Naval limitation was realized because the United States, Britain, and Japan had temporarily resolved their political differences, especially regarding China, and desired to reduce naval expenditures.
Attempts to abolish or restrict submarines failed, and the agreement to prohibit the "use in war of asphyxiations, poisonous or other gases" was not ratified, but the two concepts did reappear—the former in the London Naval Treaty of 1930, and the latter in the Geneva Protocol of 1925.
Since a formula for limiting smaller warships was not found, a new naval race appeared as admirals rushed to build cruisers that would fall just below the 10,000-ton limit that defined capital ships. Facing an expensive naval building program, Congress urged President Calvin Coolidge to negotiate limits on cruisers, destroyers, and submarines. At the Geneva Naval Conference (1927), the administration wanted to extend the Washington Treaty's Big Three capital ship ratios (5:5:3) to auxiliary categories. However, the U.S. delegation abandoned Hughes's earlier approach of considering naval armaments as one thread in existing political relationships, and instead focused on technical issues.
With Japanese negotiators on the sidelines, American and British naval experts agreed on the idea of parity, but could not define it because the British and U.S. fleets were structured quite differently. Whereas the British sought strategic equality that acknowledged commercial and imperial obligations, the Americans demanded mathematical parity. The U.S. insistence on fewer large cruisers with eight-inch guns and Britain's determination to have more, smaller cruisers with six-inch guns deadlocked negotiations.
The failed Geneva effort paved the way for the London Naval Conference of 1930. Herbert Hoover's election in 1928 coincided with that of British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, who, like Hoover, believed that the reduction of armaments could contribute to world peace. Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson indicated that he and the president, employing naval experts as advisers, would seek a "yardstick" to bridge the difficulties that had plagued the 1927 Geneva Conference—but no yardstick was forthcoming. The yardstick episode emphasized a recurring dilemma that plagued U.S. arms control efforts well into the Cold War era: arms control requires a perspective beyond technical considerations, for by concentrating on mathematical or other engineering factors, U.S. policymakers often tended to obscure or avoid basic political problems.
The 1930 London Naval Treaty refined the Washington naval system by applying a 10:10:7 ratio to capital ships and aircraft carriers. All five powers agreed not to build their authorized capital ship replacements between 1931 and 1936, and to scrap a total of nine capital ships. By 1936 the United States would have eighteen battleships (462,400 tons), Britain eighteen battleships (474,750 tons), and Japan nine battleships (266,070 tons). Aircraft carrier tonnage remained unchanged, despite attempts to lower it.
While the United States and Britain ultimately reached an agreement on naval "equality," many senior Japanese naval officers believed that applying the "battleship ratio" to all classes of warships would be disastrous for their nation's security. Reluctantly, however, the Japanese government accepted negotiated ratios for cruisers, destroyers, and submarines.
Naval arms control pleased most American politicians and their constituents, and President Herbert Hoover estimated that the United States saved $1 billion. However, the limits outraged professional naval officers in all three countries. The Japanese lamented that they must stop cruiser construction; the British complained that fifty cruisers did not provide protection for long sea-lanes; and the Americans felt that Japan's higher cruiser ratio reduced the chance of a U.S. victory in a western Pacific war.
The years following the signing of the London Naval Treaty saw increased political tensions in the Mediterranean and undeclared wars in Ethiopia and Asia. Japan demanded naval parity, but Britain and the United States refused. Subsequently, Japan withdrew from the Second London Naval Conference (1935) and abrogated the Washington naval system. On 31 December 1936, the quantitative and qualitative limitations on naval armaments ended.
Naval arms control had rested on the assumption that Japan was satisfied with its world position. However, Japanese expansionists, both military and civilian, who dominated policy by 1934 believed that the United States and Britain were hindering Japan's economic expansion, and thus keeping that nation's industries depressed. Consequently, Japan's admirals argued that, if freed from treaty restrictions, they could build a strong fleet, dominate China and Southeast Asia, and become the leading power in Asia.
Throughout the interwar negotiations over naval limitations, U.S. policies were clearly motivated by a desire to reduce military expenditures and, at the same time, gain whatever strategic advantages were possible. The desire for the former drove most civilian policymakers, while efforts to achieve the latter were foremost in the minds of senior naval officers. Only the most single-minded analyst would suggest that U.S. negotiating positions involved any significant measure of altruism.
Outlawing War The Kellogg-Briand Pact, also known as the Pact of Paris for the Renunciation of War (1928), renounced offensive war as "an instrument" of national policy. It called on nations to settle their differences by pacific means. The idea originated with a Chicago lawyer, Salmon O. Levinson, who argued that international law should declare war a criminal act. While this idea appeared to be utopian, many opponents to the League of Nation's concept of collective security saw an alternative in the movement to outlaw war.
The Kellogg-Briand Pact emerged as an attempt by the Coolidge administration to induce Paris authorities to alter their position that France's security needed to be enhanced by British or U.S. political-military commitments before they agreed to arms limitations. Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg's offer to French Foreign Minister Aristide Briand acknowledged the virtue of a world tribunal to enforce the outlawry of war, but he was realistic enough to know that the Senate and the American people (and those of most other nations) were not ready for such a commitment.
Most historians have criticized the pact for its failure to provide for enforcement. Only a few believe it influenced international law, even though after World War II major war criminals were found guilty of violating the treaty. Any reappraisal of the Kellogg-Briand Pact should take into consideration that it did not abolish "defensive" war and that the United States and other nations made various reservations upon signing.
The League of Nations and Disarmament After several early committees failed to come up with a disarmament proposal, the League of Nations created an "independent" preparatory commission in 1926 to prepare a draft treaty. President Calvin Coolidge accepted the league's invitation to send a representative. In a message to Congress on 26 January 1926, he declared that "the general policy of this Government in favor of disarmament and limitation of armaments cannot be emphasized too frequently or too strongly. In accordance with that policy, any measure having a reasonable tendency to bring about these results should receive our sympathy and support."
The American delegation, headed by Hugh Gibson, U.S. minister to Switzerland, maintained a fairly consistent policy between 1926 and 1930. He emphasized that the U.S. Army had been unilaterally reduced after World War I from some 4 million men to 118,000, which he acknowledged America's geographical situation made possible. Gibson also emphasized—pointing to the Washington naval system—that his government favored the limitation of naval forces by categories and approved qualitative restrictions only when accompanied by quantitative limitations. Still, the United States opposed budgetary limitations and any regulation that might restrict industrial potential.
The Conference for the Reduction and Limitation of Armaments—also known as the World Disarmament Conference—convened in Geneva on 2 February 1932 and began negotiations on the preparatory commission's draft convention. Secretary of State Stimson declared that President Hoover would not authorize discussions involving political arrangements to facilitate arms control measures. Nevertheless, on 9 February 1932, Gibson assured the gathered diplomats that the United States wished to cooperate with them to achieve arms limitations. As the disarmament conference bogged down, President Hoover and, later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted to stimulate negotiations. Citing the Kellogg-Briand Pact's outlawing of aggressive war, Hoover on 22 June 1932 proposed a one-third reduction in all armies and battle fleets. Additionally, he urged the abolition of tanks, large mobile guns, and chemical weapons and the prohibition of aerial bombardment.
When the French argued that his plan must be anchored to some kind of verification, Hoover reversed the earlier U.S. position. President Wilson initially rejected permanent supervision of German disarmament at Versailles because this precedent might run counter to America's future interests. "The United States," he declared, "will not tolerate the supervision of any outside body in [disarmament], nor be subjected to inspection or supervision by foreign agencies or individuals." Secretary of State Frank Kellogg restated this policy in January 1926. "The United States will not be a party to any sanctions of any kind for the enforcement of a treaty for the limitation of armaments," he asserted, "nor will it agree that such treaties to which it may be a party shall come under the supervision of any international body—whether the League of Nations or otherwise." Arms limitation measures, he insisted, "so far as we are concerned, must depend upon the good faith of nations." On 30 June 1932, Stimson announced that the United States was prepared "to accept the right of inspection" if there was any likelihood of concluding "a treaty of real reduction." This belated change of policy was insufficient because the French now also demanded a guarantee of military assistance in case of attack.
On 16 May 1933, President Roosevelt proposed abolition of modern offensive weapons. He also announced America's willingness to consult with other states in the event of threatened conflict, but since the Senate showed little interest in abandoning neutrality for international cooperation, this initiative failed. Confronted by French intransigence and German aggressiveness, the World Disarmament Conference slowly dissolved without any accomplishments.