Results of the Washington Naval Conference

The major nations that participated in the Washington Naval Conference (1921-22) entered the negotiations from differing positions of power and departed with differing levels of satisfaction:

  • Britain had been the world's largest naval power, but crushing debt incurred during the war rendered them receptive to limitations on their power.
  • The United States had the most powerful navy by the end of the war. Its position of leadership was solidified by a generally robust economy that was only temporarily slowed by a brief recession during the Harding administration. Nevertheless, ample criticism in the press arose about the United States' acceptance of the Washington treaties; in particular, surrendering its naval superiority and its opportunity to strengthen its Pacific bases.
  • Japan had maintained a smaller and less powerful navy, but was offended by being asked to accept a lesser ratio under the terms of the Five Power Pact. Acceptance was gained only at the price of a promise by Britain and the United States not to further fortify their bases in the Pacific. Several exceptions were made, however, including the right for the U.S. to effect military improvements in Hawaii.
  • France had entered World War I as a leading naval power, but its fleet was severely reduced by war's end. Most of their efforts in the 1920s would be devoted to the development of a strong army to resist any future German threat. Naval construction was a much lesser concern, but that fact did not prevent the French from resisting acceptance of a small ratio. In fact, French opposition was so strong that it threatened to wreck the conference on at least one occasion. One important victory was won by the French delegation, which successfully insisted that that the naval ratio be applied only to capital ships*, not to lesser vessels such as cruisers, destroyers and submarines.
The Washington Conference was clearly a compromise endeavor, not a victory for any one nation. The Four-Power Pacts were well-intentioned efforts to calm tensions in the Pacific, but the lack of any real enforcement mechanism doomed the accords' effectiveness. However, a major benefit was gained by Britain and the United States by the termination of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance.

The naval limitation provisions did provide an important degree of savings for participating nations, but as time went on, funds were simply diverted to the construction of smaller vessels not covered under the agreement. In addition, many naval experts believed that the future significance of the giant battleships had already been eroded, citing the Battle of Jutland as evidence for their position.

Later efforts were made to try to close loopholes in the Washington treaties. An effort at Geneva in 1927 failed. Some success was gained in London in 1930, when the powers extended the construction moratorium to 1936 and offered other concessions to Japan.

The postwar experiment at disarmament and limitation of arms came to an end in 1936, when Japan ended its participation.


*Capital ships were those vessels exceeding 10,000 tons or bearing guns in excess of an eight-inch caliber, effectively denoting battleships and aircraft carriers.

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