Disarmament Conferences: Ballets At The Brink


At The Hague, Mahan seemed clearly in sympathy with his British counterpart, Admiral Sir John Fisher, equally a believer in force, who perhaps was already drawing plans for what would become the Dreadnought , the first battleship completely equipped with heavy guns, which the British navy under his direction launched in 1906. If there had been any chance of American participation in a disarmament scheme drawn up at the First Hague Peace Conference, Mahan’s arguments would have killed it. At one point there was a possibility that a subcommittee on which he served might come out in favor of a prohibition of asphyxiating gases in warfare. Even this humanitarian idea evoked the captain’s skepticism. Mahan contended that gas might in fact be more humane than projectiles that maimed as well as killed. Besides, he noted, poisonous gases could possibly produce decisive results. Under the weight of arguments like these from many quarters, the czar’s disarmament proposal collapsed. Nothing resulted from the peace conference except the setting up of a tribunal at The Hague to hear and peacefully judge whatever disputes nations might wish to bring before it.

It was hoped that the conference of 1899 would be followed by others, and a second Hague meeting did assemble in 1907. However, it proved of even less importance than the first. The time, of course, was not right. With war clouds gathering, few statesmen genuinely desired disarmament. The reason was put best by the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey. When pacifists in Britain urged the advantage of one nation’s, presumably their own, taking the lead in disarming, Sir Edward explained to Parliament: “The difficulty in regard to one nation stepping out in advance of the others is this, that while there is a chance that their courageous action may lead to reform, there is also a chance that it may lead to martyrdom.”

Such views were common in all capitals. King Edward VII privately told his nephew Kaiser Wilhelm II that the disarmament talk was “humbug,” a characterization that Wilhelm agreed with and that he immediately conveyed to President Theodore Roosevelt. That Nobel Peace Prize winner was likewise in no mood for dismantling war machines. In 1907, the very year of the Second Hague Peace Conference, he sent the American fleet on the first leg of its trip around the world ("the most important service that I rendered to peace,” he wrote in his memoirs a few years later). His private correspondence for this period abounds with the words fatuous and crank , which he applied to even the most reputable disarmament enthusiasts.

In keeping with this attitude, Roosevelt instructed the American delegation not to show interest in disarmament unless some other nation raised the question. The conference, as expected, produced only additional machinery for voluntary arbitration. It was handsomely housed machinery, thanks to Andrew Carnegie. The millionaire steelmaker, whom Secretary of State John Hay had considered to be on the verge of craziness (though he and other Washington officials treated him with extreme care), founded the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 1910. Carnegie awarded its trustees ten million dollars in bonds of the United States Steel Corporation, and urged them, using his favorite simplified spelling, to “pleas” use the proceeds to abolish war, the foulest blot upon civilization, and thus to hasten the advance of man toward perfection upon “this erth.” He also provided funds for construction of a peace palace as the home of the International Court of Arbitration, or Hague Tribunal, founded in 1899. Member nations of the court contributed the palace’s furnishings. Tourists still admire the clocks, candelabra, vases, rugs, and other elegant items on view. The building itself was dedicated in 1913—one year before the greatest war the world had ever seen.


World War I itself produced a renewal of moral concern about disarmament, reflected in Point Four of Wilson’s Fourteen Points, which called for the reduction of armaments “to the lowest point consistent with domestic safety.” The victorious Allies in 1919, however, began their work simply by unilaterally disarming their beaten enemies. Germany had to confine her army to one hundred thousand men and her navy to a few vessels of not more than ten thousand tons displacement, and she was specifically forbidden to manufacture or use heavy artillery and airplanes. (The German general staff, wondrously, managed to test such prohibited weapons by an arrangement with the Soviet Union that lasted until the emergence of Hitler.) With German land power eliminated, the principal arms competition of the 1920'$ was in naval armaments. Here the United States was a leading power. And here the United States emerged as a major proponent of arms limitation.

The American government had several motives. It hoped to limit the size of the Japanese navy, now the world’s third largest, because Japan and America confronted each other directly in the Pacific. The United States also wished to reduce the size of the British navy, partly to stimulate American pride by making the American fleet “second to none” and partly to cut British expenses so that Britain could more readily pay her war debts to the Americans. The opening step in this campaign was the calling of a nine-power conference in Washington in November, 1921, to discuss both naval arms reduction and power balances in the Far East.