Disarmament Conferences: Ballets At The Brink


European thinkers began to consider disarmament, according to some sources, as early as 1577, when Jean Bodin, a French political economist, gave the matter some attention. But the first prominent discussions of the subject occurred in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when such individuals as the Duc de Sully, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant advanced plans for ending war and thus the need for armaments. On the American side, William Penn produced the Essay towards the Present and Future Peace of Europe . He put his notions into practice in the New World and, without a single soldier, founded a colony among “savage” tribes, where peace lasted upward of seventy years. Benjamin Franklin was convinced that standing armies diminished not only the population but the breed and size of the species. An army in every country, he wrote (perhaps with tongue in cheek), “is in fact the flower of the nation—all the most vigorous, stout, and well-made men in a kingdom are to be found in the army. These men in general never marry.” Among the accusations of the Declaration of Independence against the king of England was that he had forced standing armies upon his American subjects. Washington’s Farewell Address, always a reliable quarry for the opinions of the founding fathers, remarked that “overgrown military establishments … under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and … are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty.” The eighteenth century thus closed with disarmament well established on the agenda of political philosophy. And the nineteenth opened with the devastating international conflicts known as the Napoleonic Wars.

In their aftermath there were numerous unfulfilled propositions for universal peace and disarmament. But it remained for the United States to offer an example of almost unilateral laying aside of weapons after the completion of its own Civil War. Between 1865 and 1900 the people of the United States were too busy developing the trans-Mississippi West, and memories of the Blue and the Gray were too vivid for the nation to take up the sword and shield. Practically speaking, the nation disarmed after the Civil War, reducing the Army to approximately twenty-five thousand men by the 1880’s, enough to handle the Indians but far below the size of the major European forces. The Navy was also cut from its Civil War peak strength to such a level that when a war between Chile and Peru made news between 1879 and 1883, the American government suddenly realized that the Republic of Chile had a better fleet than the United States. Apropos of this petty Latin-American conflict it was rumored that “when Admiral Balch undertook to make some kindly suggestions . . . the Chileans simply told the American admiral, and the American government through him, that if he did not mind his own business, they would send him and his fleet to the bottom of the ocean.” The American Navy began a renaissance in the i88o’s, but until after the turn of the century it was below the strength of the navies of the great powers of Europe.

The end of the nineteenth century opened a brief period of well-publicized international disarmament discussions. The unlikely figure who raised the curtain was the czar of Russia. On August 24, 1898, he issued an invitation to the nations of the world to assemble in a disarmament conference. His motives were less than purely idealistic. The Russian government, like the other Continental powers, had found expenditures for military equipment rising enormously each year after 1890, when the departure of Prince Bismarck from the German government introduced uneasiness throughout Europe. New and costly weapons were being introduced, like the fieldartillery piece that would become known as the French 75 and would become indispensable to armies by 1914. Then, too, naval expenditures were rising alarmingly, because the race to develop thicker armor and more powerful projectiles was increasing the complexity of naval vessels. The particular problem of the czar’s government was that it did not possess enough funds for both the 75’s and the new ships, and therefore wished to obtain a moratorium on land ordnance and put the money saved into the navy. The czar did not explain himself this baldly in inviting the nations to what proved to be the First Hague Peace Conference, held in the de facto capital of the Netherlands in 1899. Nor did he say that one of the originators of his proposition was his finance minister, Count Sergei Witte. He lamented instead “the excessive armaments which weigh upon all nations,” and his aides said that the conference proposal was his own, made in perfect good faith.

The representatives whom the United States sent to The Hague showed how little faith the McKinley administration placed in these royal explanations. The American delegation was led by the former president of Cornell University, Andrew D. White, but he was outshone by Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, of the United States Navy, who, following the appearance of his book The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783 in 1890, had become a world-renowned figure. Mahan was possibly the last individual in the United States to have taken a serious interest in disarmament. He believed that great nations must maintain a balance of armed power—an international equivalent of the doctrine of laissez-faire for domestic economies—the free competition in the open market that was indispensable to the moral freedom of individuals. Somehow, Providence would teach the great nations to use their strength only for righteous ends.