Washington Naval Conference
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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:
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