November 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 7
Three years after the end of the Great War, Americans dealt with some unfinished business from that conflict. On November 8, after the Senate had ratified peace agreements with Germany, Austria, and Hungary to replace the rejected Versailles Treaty, President Warren Harding declared an official end to the war. On Armistice Day, November 11, the remains of an unknown American soldier, exhumed from a French grave, were interred in Washington, D.C. Military men from all nations paid tribute with medals, ribbons, and decorations, including an Indian who laid a coup stick and war bonnet on the bier.
The President delivered an oration that, while undeniably moving, presents no threat to the Gettysburg Address: “If American achievement is a cherished pride at home, if our unselfishness among nations is all we wish it to be, and ours is a helpful example in the world, then let us give of our influence and strength, yea, of our aspirations and convictions, to put mankind on a little higher plane, exulting and exalting, with war’s distressing and depressing tragedies barred from the stage of righteous civilization.”
The next day diplomats from nine nations met in Washington to discuss the resurgent naval arms race and security concerns in the Pacific. America and Japan had been the biggest winners in the war, the former by establishing itself as a world power and the latter by expanding its territory and influence in Asia. Now America wanted to solidify its newfound status, and Japan wanted to keep dominating the Far East, while Britain wanted to maintain its traditional place as Top Nation, especially on the seas. The result was a three-way game of naval can-you-top-this, with smaller nations struggling to catch up, that was already making a grim joke of the War to End Wars. To complicate matters, an Anglo-Japanese defense treaty from the ancient days of 1911 was still in effect; it would have required the British to take Japan’s side in a war with America.
Harding opened the conference with a brief and (for him) eloquent address. Charles Evans Hughes, the Secretary of State, was the next speaker. He began with the expected platitudes and then, without warning, made a proposal that caused jaws to drop throughout the hall, creating what The New York Times called “a thrill akin to an electric shock.” The United States, he said, was willing to scrap thirty ships totaling almost 850,000 tons. The offer was startling in itself, but then Hughes went much further, asking Britain to scrap almost 600,000 tons of its own ships, including four under construction, and Japan to scrap 450,000 tons.
As dazed diplomats struggled to regain their bearings, audience members burst into prolonged, frenzied applause. The conference immediately adjourned for two days, and by the time the delegates reassembled, public opinion around the war-weary globe was overwhelmingly in favor of the American proposals. By February the conferees had fixed limits on naval tonnage well below existing levels, agreed to respect one another’s rights in Asia and the Pacific, and established an open-door policy in China.
Except for die-hard isolationists, Americans hailed the agreements as a fulfillment of Woodrow Wilson’s crusade to eliminate warfare. Harding proclaimed “a new and better epoch in human progress” and said that “those of us who live another decade” would see “nations more concerned with living to the fulfillment of God’s high intent than with agencies of warfare and destruction.” Unfortunately events did not follow the President’s optimistic scenario. By dying in 1923, Harding missed seeing his prediction fall victim to the same forces that had nullified every European peace agreement before it.