Washington Naval Conference

More formally known as the International Conference on Naval Limitation, the Washington Naval Conference was a disarmament effort occasioned by the hugely expensive naval construction rivalry that existed among Britain, Japan and the United States. Senator William E. Borah, Republican of Idaho, took the lead on this matter and urged that the major Allied nations from the recent war gather in an effort to slow the arms race. The proposal was not met with initial enthusiasm by the Harding administration, but it became a political imperative when it was portrayed as a Republican alternative to League of Nations’ peace efforts.

In the summer of 1921, Harding extended invitations and expanded the agenda beyond arms control to include discussion of issues in the Pacific and Far East.

The formal opening of the Washington Naval Conference occurred on Armistice Day 1921. The major naval powers of Britain, France, Italy, Japan and the United States were in attendance as well as other nations with concerns about territories in the Pacific — Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal and China — who were not parties to the disarmament discussions. Soviet Russia was not invited, nor were the defeated Central Powers. The American delegation was led by Charles Evans Hughes, the secretary of state, and included Elihu Root, Henry Cabot Lodge and Oscar Underwood, the Democratic minority leader in the Senate.

In the initial session, Hughes shocked the delegates by going beyond platitudes and offering a detailed plan for arms reduction. Labeled by some as one of the most dramatic moments in American diplomatic history, Hughes called for the scrapping of nearly two million tons of warships and a lengthy “holiday” on the construction of new ships. He was widely hailed in the press as a savior, but leaders of the other Allied governments were quietly skeptical.

Over the following weeks, a series of agreements was concluded:

  • Four-Power Pact (December 13, 1921). The major Allied powers — Britain, France, Japan and the United States — agreed to submit disputes among themselves over Pacific issues to a conference for resolution.
  • Four-Power Pact (December 13, 1921). The same Allied powers pledged mutual respect for the possessions and mandates of other signatories in the Pacific.
  • Shantung Treaty (February 4, 1922). The territory of Kiaochow in Shantung (Shandong) province was returned by Japan to China. The area had been leased by Germany in 1898, but was seized by Japan at the outbreak of war in 1914.
  • Nine-Power Treaty (February 6, 1922). The signatories — the Big Four, plus Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal and China — endorsed the Open Door Policy and pledged mutual respect for Chinese territorial integrity and independence.
  • Nine-Power Treaty (February 6, 1922). The same Allied powers agreed to extend Chinese control over trade matters within Chinese borders.
  • Five-Power Naval Limitation Treaty (February 6, 1922). This agreement implemented the sweeping proposals of Hughes in somewhat modified terms. The leading naval powers — Britain, France, Italy, Japan and the United States — pledged adherence to limitations on the tonnage of capital ships and accepted a moratorium on new naval construction.
  • Five-Power supplemental treaty. The major Allied naval powers agreed on a series of rules for the use of submarines in future warfare and also outlawed the use of poisonous gases as a military weapon.
  • Six-Power Pact. The Big Five Nations plus China agreed to the allocation among themselves of former German cable routes in the Pacific.
  • Yap Island agreement. The United States and Japan agreed on provisions for U.S. use of the Pacific island as a distribution point for the transpacific cable.
In the following months, the U.S. Senate ratified all of the treaties from the Washington Conference. However, a reservation was attached to the Four-Power Pact stating that no agreement had been approved that required the “commitment of armed force” by the United States.

See also a discussion of the general results of the Washington Conference and other diplomatic issues during the Harding administration.

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