Arms Control and Disarmament - Evaluating interwar experiences

At the beginning of the Cold War, some American leaders were wary of entrusting any element of national security to arms control and disarmament, even if the agreements were linked to functioning international organizations. Harking back to the U.S. lack of military preparedness on the eve of World War II, these individuals believed that interwar disarmament activities had compromised national security. Bernard M. Baruch, who presented the initial U.S. proposal for international control of atomic weaponry, recalled that in preparing the plan "the [interwar] record of meaningless disarmament agreements and renunciations of war" was "very much in my mind."

Other policymakers believed that Japan's decision to challenge the United States was the result of naval limitation treaties that had left the United States with an inferior navy. After World War II, James Byrnes, President Harry Truman's secretary of state, recalled that as a young congressman he had approved of the Washington Naval Treaty and that "what happened thereafter influences my thinking today." Byrnes felt that "while America scrapped battleships, Japan scrapped blueprints. America will not again make that mistake." Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who assisted in developing the Baruch Plan, reportedly saw in international efforts to control atomic energy "a parallel with the Washington Disarmament Conference of 1921–1922. The idea of heading off a naval race had been a good one, but the content of the treaties was wrong. Worse, the United States did not build all the ships allowed by the treaty limits and the Japanese fortified their island bases."

"Policymakers ordinarily use history badly," Ernest R. May points out in "Lessons" of the Past (1973), because there is more assumption than analysis in their retrospective views. Even a brief analysis would have shown that at the Washington conference it was the United States that scrapped the most blueprints and uncompleted hulls. Congressional and public opposition to the expenditure necessary to complete the building program had made the treaty a virtue out of necessity. Later, Coolidge and Hoover were more interested in balancing the budget than in building ships, and their actions went unchallenged by legislators with little enthusiasm for increasing naval expenditures. While the notion that Japan secretly violated its pledge not to fortify the league-mandated Pacific islands has long persisted, historical investigations have revealed very little evidence to support such a conclusion.

Even more significantly, these critics and others failed to consider the relationship between naval limitation and its political setting. President Harding and the Republican Party oversold the system as one that would, by itself, bring about a new era of peace and considerable savings. Few leaders were willing to face the fact that the naval treaties were only first steps toward a more stable, mutually beneficial international system for the western Pacific region, and that additional political arrangements to resolve new issues were required to maintain that stability. Consequently, when extremists—isolationists in the United States and military expansionists in Japan—thwarted political accommodation, it was impossible for the naval limitation treaties, by themselves, to prevent the oncoming conflict.

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