Disarmament Conferences: Ballets At The Brink


The arrangements reached at Washington proved dismaying to admirals of the naval powers. Building plans for new battleships were cancelled, some vessels were abandoned in midconstruction, and some existing tonnage was scrapped. In addition, the British and Americans virtually gave the Japanese control of the western Pacific by promising to erect no further fortifications in their territories west of Hawaii, east of Singapore, and north of Australia. This meant, in effect, that the Philippines and Hong Kong became hostages for Anglo-American good behavior. In turn, the Japanese government accepted for its battleship fleet what came to be called the 5:5:3 ratio. That is, for the approximately five hundred thousand tons of battleships possessed by the British and by the Americans the Japanese should have three hundred thousand tons. The naval powers also limited aircraft carriers, fearing that, otherwise, competing nations might turn excess battleship tonnage into carriers.

It proved impossible at the Washington Conference to limit the lesser categories of naval vessels—cruisers, destroyers, submarines—and this failure led to a rivalry among the Big-Three powers during the igao’s. This rivalry has long since been forgotten, but it throws an interesting light on the growing difficulty of making reasonable and effective rules designed to preserve ratios of strength between powers. The issue might be called the “cruiser crisis.”

The problem was to agree on the apparently simple definition of a cruiser. Prior to the conference of 1921-22 it had been a ship of indeterminate size, somewhere between the light vessels known as destroyers and the behemoths known as battleships. To avoid evasion of the battleship-limitation agreement, the conference placed a limit on cruiser size often thousand tons and 3-inch guns. Beyond this a cruiser automatically became a battleship.

The admirals of the American Navy, meeting privately after the conference, decided upon a new construction program of cruisers that would be of this maximum size. The British and Japanese admirals were “isturbed. Such “heavy” cruisers could outgun their smaller, more traditionally sized “light” cruisers—ships of between five thousand and eight thousand tons, armed with 6-inch guns. A running international argument began over how many light cruisers were equal to how many heavy cruisers, and how many of each were needed by the different powers. When a second naval disarmament meeting was held at Geneva during the summer of 1927, these arguments quickly broke it up. The leading American naval officer at Geneva, Rear Admiral Hilary P. Jones, who viewed the world through a porthole, announced that the American Navy needed twenty-five heavy cruisers, no more, no less; and that ended the conference.

For three more years arguments continued to swirl, muddied by technical assertions that could only be tested in combat—the one thing disarmament was supposed to avert. American admirals insisted that light cruisers were inadequate, because if they were approaching a heavy cruiser in a sea duel, the latter’s 8-inch guns could disable them before they came close enough for their own weapons to be effective. But those who wanted the Americans to be restricted to light cruisers pointed out that once within range, the lighter vessels could put more shells into the air because their 6-inch guns took a 100-pound shell, which could be hand loaded more rapidly than the heavier shells of the 8-inchers.


A temporary solution was reached in 1930, when a new naval conference at London set American, British, and Japanese strength in cruisers, destroyers, and submarines at the same ratio as that for battleships—and arbitrarily agreed on a discount system whereby a 10,000ton cruiser equalled 15,166 tons of light cruisers. The slide rule, instead of the statement of good will, had become the instrument of arms reduction.