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London Naval Conference

Relations between the United States and Great Britain were soured by the inability to reach agreement at the Geneva Conference in 1927. Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald visited Washington in the fall of 1929 with the intent to restore cooperation between the two allies. His suggestion to President Hoover that naval disarmament talks be revived fell on sympathetic ears. A naval building race was underway that was characterized by the construction of smaller ships not covered by the treaties of the 1921 Washington Conference. Both powers agreed that the competition was expensive. With Hoover’s concurrence, MacDonald issued an invitation to the other Big Five powers to attend a conference in London after the first of the year. The U.S. delegation was distinguished; it was headed by Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson and included the economist and historian Charles Francis Adams, Secretary of the Navy Dwight W. Morrow, Democratic Senator Joseph T. Robinson of Arkansas, and Republican Senator David A. Reed of Pennsylvania. Sessions of the conference stretched out over three months and were marked by much acrid debate. France and Italy had been at odds with the major naval powers since the time of the Washington Conference. The Five-Power Naval Limitation Treaty had established a ratio to govern the number of capital ships maintained in each fleet. The United States and Britain had been assigned relative fleet size values of 10 and Japan a value of 6. France and Italy, clearly lesser naval powers, were each given a value of 1.67. This ratio was commonly expressed as 10:10:6:1.67:1.67 — those figures governing proportionate fleet sizes, not the actual number of ships. In London, France and Italy refused to sign agreements that included new naval ratios, but did lend their support to international rules for submarine warfare. Major agreements were reached on the following issues:

  • Capital Ships. The holiday on capital ship construction was extended through December 31, 1936, the existing ratio of ships permitted to the major naval powers remained at 10:10:6, except for those previously authorized for lesser powers France and Italy, and maximum tonnages were reduced. The application of these provisions resulted in Great Britain scrapping five ships, the U.S. three ships and Japan one ship.
  • Cruisers. A differentiation was made between two classes of cruisers. Heavy cruisers, which carried guns exceeding 6.1 inches, were to be governed by the 10:10:6 ratio; however, the U.S. agreed to slow construction schedules for several previously authorized heavy cruisers, thus providing Japan with an effective 10:10:7 ratio during most of the treaty’s life. Light cruisers with 6.1-inch caliber guns or less were assigned at a 10:10:7 ratio.
  • Aircraft Carriers. Provisions covering aircraft carriers made at the Washington Conference were extended.
  • Destroyers. The parties agreed to apply a 10:10:7 ratio to destroyers.
  • Submarines. The Japanese were assigned full parity (10:10:10) in the number of submarines authorized for their fleet.
  • Submarine Rules. The delegates agreed that submarines would not attack belligerent ships without providing warning and must provide for the safety of the crew if attacking uncooperative merchant ships. France and Italy joined the other Big Five nations in signing the agreement containing these rules and no expiration date was attached to them. Similar rules had been negotiated at the Washington Conference, but never went into effect.
  • Escalator Clause. The signatory nations, Great Britain, the United States and Japan, were authorized to resume ship construction if the non-signatories, France or Italy, resumed building programs that threatened the signatories` “national security.”
These agreements were generally viewed favorably in the U.S., where they were regarded as small, but meaningful steps toward disarmament by patching holes in the Washington treaties. However, opposition was voiced from two quarters. Big Navy advocates in Congress and the military expressed concerns about Japan’s growing strength, arguing that a strong Japanese navy portended problems for the Far East. Senate isolationists also responded negatively by refusing to sanction any hint of an international agreement that might pull the U.S. into an overseas conflict. Hoover was somewhat disappointed by the agreements, but wanted to make certain that any step toward disarmament be taken, so he summoned a special session of the Senate. Isolationists feared that secret provisions might have placed unwanted obligations on the U.S. and pressed the president to turn over executive department documents for Senate perusal. Hoover refused, which repeated Harding’s action during the consideration of the Four Power Pact in 1922. The president managed to offer sufficient assurances to the senators to bring about easy ratification of the treaty, but the Senate took the precaution of passing a resolution proclaiming that the nation would not be bound by any secret agreements. The next step in the disarmament process would be attempted at Geneva in early 1932. In 1934, Japan signaled its intention to withdraw from the treaties, which prompted a second London Conference in 1935-36 on the eve of the expiration the first London agreement.