THE year 1935 will be a critical period in world affairs. For one thing, the importance of the naval conference which is to be held far outweighs that of ordinary naval discussions; the decisions then made will affect not only the participants, but will have world repercussions. The fact is that we have arrived at the forks of the road. One way leads uphill. It is new, tedious and long. It requires patience to negotiate. The old road is direct, broad and well-lighted, but it passes through dangerous country, as the grisly monuments by the wayside bear witness. A choice will have to be made. Bluntly speaking, will the props of the political world structure be forged out of the substance which is called confidence or out of cold steel?


In any consideration of the naval problems with which this country will have to deal in the near future we must turn back to the naval agreement signed at Washington in 1922 by the five chief naval Powers -- the British Empire, France, Italy, Japan and the United States. The Washington agreement remains in force until December 31, 1936, unless any party to it gives notice of intention to terminate it earlier; and, after notice is given, it takes two years before the agreement ends. Hence, unless notice is given by December 31, 1934, it will still be in effect up to the time when the London Treaty expires.[i] Under the terms of the London Treaty, the five great naval Powers signatory to both the agreements are bound to meet in 1935, unless the earlier agreement had meanwhile been superseded by a general agreement limiting naval armament to which they all were parties. At this meeting the Washington naval treaty will still furnish both directive and background.

So much attention has been given to the naval agreement reached in Washington that one is apt to forget that it constitutes only a part of the work of that Conference, and in some ways is not its best or broadest achievement. The Four Power Treaty relating to island possessions and the Nine Power Treaty relating to principles and policies concerning China rank with the naval treaty. Taken together they form a series of connected documents which endeavor to set forth in legal terms the purposes for which the Washington Conference was called and the measure of agreement accomplished. It is to be noted that the preamble of the London Treaty starts with the words, "Desiring to prevent the dangers and reduce the burdens inherent in competitive armaments, and desiring to carry forward the work begun by the Washington Naval Conference." This throws the London Treaty back on the Washington Conference for its broad general directive.

The purposes of the Washington Conference were several. It endeavored, first, to smooth the path of peace. It hoped to be able to help stabilize conditions in China and the Orient. It strove to limit the dangers inherent in competitive armaments and to reduce the expenditures resulting therefrom. And it put forth a definite plan for naval limitation.[ii]

Thus it would seem as though some of the atmosphere of the Washington Conference must permeate the 1935 meeting. If it does, this should prevent the meeting from becoming a place for the discussion of problems viewed entirely from the technical standpoint. And speaking not as a technician, but trying to look at the problem in the broader way, one must conclude that it is wise to bring as much of the Washington atmosphere into the discussion as possible; for as we follow the course of the various arms proposals made from time to time, we see how many of them have been wrecked on some rather unimportant technical shoal.

A trifle more than thirteen years have passed since the Washington Conference met first, and in that time we should have been able to judge whether the results have on the whole been good or bad. Can anyone say that the results of the Conference did not for a while drive away the storm clouds in Asia? They appeared again in the shape of internal strife in China and in the Manchurian incident. But would not these same storm clouds have been more forbidding had the Washington Conference never taken place? Though some may not agree, the writer does believe that the general effect has been good and that in a measure the Washington Conference has been the logical successor of the two Peace Conferences which met at The Hague in 1899 and in 1907. And aside from the concrete accomplishments of the naval treaty, the generous spirit developed at the Conference provided the world with something which should not be lost to it now.


Of all the many conferences that have met in the last twelve years, which produced any concrete results except those of Washington and London? None. The disarmament meetings at Geneva have been not much more than the motions of a debating society. The efforts there in 1927 resulted, let us say, in a technical victory for those who wished no limitations. It was the defeat of statecraft. Much depends upon the way one sees his problem. The purely military type of mind cannot view even reasonable limitations with anything save fear that his country's safety has been jeopardized. The statesman frequently feels that his case has been won if he comes to any agreement. There must be a happy mean between the two points of view. In 1932 President Hoover proposed to the disarmament meeting at Geneva a plan whereby a one-third reduction was to be made in naval and military forces. It was set aside politely. The plan took into account the inter-relationship between sea forces, land forces and air. This should have been done before. Twice now sea power has agreed to limit itself in the interests of world peace; or let us say impose regulations which each Power participating in the conference agrees to respect. But have there been any agreements on the part of the land forces to respect limits? No. For various reasons the answer is always the same. Security, national defense and other considerations demand that no reduction be made in land armaments by agreement, but the land Powers see no objection to further reductions being made in sea forces. Admitting the statement that voluntary reductions have been made in the land forces, we must nevertheless note a concrete difference in principle and in essentials between voluntary reductions and limitation by agreement. One is under national control; the other under control through international agreement.

In the length of time it takes to build one battleship an army can be recruited, organized, mobilized, equipped, and a war fought. Nevertheless, the only force which thus far has made any concessions by agreement is the one which normally is under the greater handicap. Is it any wonder, then, that people regard land force as the more aggressive instrument of the two?

Let us grant the honesty of every motive and admit that we are not the only people that wish peace. It is nevertheless true that sea power is more liberal than military power, is willing to concede more in order to come to terms. But the time has arrived, as will be evident in 1935, when sea power will make no more concessions unless these are met by equal concessions on the part of land power. All countries which rely on sea power as their strong military arm must feel that without some concessions on the part of land power the entire question of limitation is rather hopeless.

Despite all logic, despite pleas for security, demands for national defense, or any other arguments, the movement to stabilize peace through limitation -- the "minimum" process -- will never get under way successfully until military and air power enter the discussion on the same basis as sea power and walk the same path. If they do not, it will mean ultimately a return to the old process -- the "maximum" process -- of balance of power. For when it comes to the crucial test of war, which no one, however peace-loving he may be, can afford to regard as outlawed in fact even if outlawed by treaty, then the ultimate decision will rest on the way the pendulum swings, whether it be toward sea power or toward military power. It has been so always. It was true in the Napoleonic Wars. It was true in the last war. It will be true in the next. And this understanding binds all sea Powers together, regardless of any disagreements they may have among themselves individually.

The MacDonald scheme, which is the basis for the British disarmament proposal brought forward a year ago, relegates naval limitation to the next naval conference, but insists that some sort of adjustment, regulation and restriction of military and air forces be made now. We are in accord in principle with this proposal.

A nation may be strong on land, or strong on the sea, choosing which arm she deems best suited for her own safety. But beware that country which tries to be strong in all military arms, which demands equality or great power in each. The nation which demands these things may cry peace to the housetops, may insist that the needs of national defense will stand for no less; but watch her carefully, for such action is usually the forerunner of aggressive action or is induced by great fear.

In 1910, Germany had the most powerful army in Europe and was also building a great navy, the second in size in the world. In that year, when Herr von Bethmann-Hollweg was trying to secure an understanding with England, Sir Edward Grey had written to the British Ambassador in Berlin: "The mutual arrest or decrease of naval expenditure is the test of whether an understanding is worth anything." In 1913, when the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, proposed a twelve months' naval holiday to Germany, the latter refused. War broke in 1914.


Of the five great sea Powers which have met at the various naval conferences, only three, Great Britain, Japan and the United States, have thus far been sufficiently in accord to permit of their signing the full terms of both the Washington and London Treaties. It is interesting to note, in this connection, that these three are located so strategically that if they were all animated by the same ideals, administered by similar forms of government, held the same liberal and tolerant views, and were adherents of the rule of law, they could become remarkably useful instruments in maintaining world stability and peace. The keynote to the puzzle lies in the word "confidence." France and Italy have never been able to come to terms in all matters. The points where they fail to agree are more political than technical. The greatest divergence in technical views is found between Great Britain, Japan and the United States, yet we three are the only ones to reach complete accord thus far. This in itself goes to show that the real obstacles confronting limitation of armaments are political and not technical, a fact which present world tendencies seem to verify.

Great Britain and ourselves agree that the submarine should go. Japan wishes to keep the submarine on the ground that it is a defensive weapon. Great Britain's plea is that it will be used as it was in the last war and is therefore an inhuman weapon. We are willing to abolish it, if all others do, on the grounds that it is the least useful to us of all the various types of war craft and costs more per ton to build. There is no special logic in Japan's plea that the submarine is a weapon strictly of defense. It depends entirely upon how it is used; and used as it was by the Germans in the last war it becomes a most offensive weapon.

Here is a point worth noting. Much stress has been laid in recent disarmament discussions upon abolishing aggressive weapons. Aggressive acts can be outlawed, and perhaps on land it may be possible to define aggressive weapons; but on the sea there can be no line drawn between an offensive type of ship and a defensive type, in the classes in existence now. The Japanese have tried to prove that the battleship and aircraft carriers are offensive ships and that the submarine is defensive, but there is nothing to this argument technically. If it is desired to do away with or to limit a type as a matter of expediency, the proper method is to abolish it, or to establish quotas or ratios by simple agreement. There is nothing new in this idea, but to attempt to defend a point of view by unsound argument is not good practice even in negotiations.

Great Britain and ourselves want battleships and Japan is not so keen about them now. They cost much money to build and a poor country cannot afford to indulge in them as well as a rich one can. From our point of view, considering offensive and defensive qualities, first cost of building, and maintenance, they are the cheapest investment we can put our money in and still obtain the best values. It might be interesting to note a few figures. The building costs per ton of warships in the United States are, approximately: battleships $1,050, aircraft carriers $1,280, cruisers $1,500, destroyers $2,500, submarines $3,000. Except in the case of battleships, our building charges are considerably higher than those of other nations. In the same class of ship, a vessel of small tonnage costs more per ton to build than a larger craft. The relative final efficiency merits of the various types can be figured to be about as follows: placing the battleship at 100, aircraft carriers and cruisers run between 50 and 60, destroyers between 30 and 40, submarines between 20 and 30. In the matter of tonnage and calibre of guns, in the battleship class, Great Britain wants smaller ships, with 12-inch guns but more of them. We want the larger ships with heavier guns, and the number we require is possibly less than the number Great Britain desires. The Japanese like the 14-inch gun, but whatever we have they want also. Probably in principle they would not object to a smaller battleship than is allowed under the terms of the Washington Treaty.

In the matter of aircraft carriers, Great Britain and Japan would probably be willing to reduce total tonnage allowances. We feel that the allowance established, viz., 135,000 tons, when the art of flying was more in the experimental stage than it is today, is quite small enough. It is already less than the total tonnage allowed for destroyers, which is 150,000 tons.

But the attitude of the different countries toward carrier tonnage depends upon their attitude toward aircraft. This attitude may be defined as regional, the regions being the continent of Europe, America, the Orient. We are naturally one of the most liberal-minded nations about the air. We have nothing to fear. We do not care to place too many restrictions upon the air, but for the sake of agreement are willing to make concessions, knowing that other countries have more at stake than we. We are willing to abolish bombing from the air, though it is more logical to restrict bombing to legitimate targets. The method of restriction is applied to other types of war craft; for example, the submarine may not do certain things, and other craft may not use their guns against unfortified towns. However, all countries are willing in general to do away with air bombing, though they do not all agree in the military uses of the air. Great Britain desires a very drastic cut in the numbers of military and naval aircraft allowed. Under the MacDonald proposal the maximum number allowed was 500. Our total at that time was around 3,000; Japan, France, and Italy were fairly close to that figure; while Great Britain was slightly less than 2,000. In the Orient, Japan is now the strong air Power. She does not object to the legitimate use of air force against others; she does not care to have it used against herself in an unrestricted manner, a sentiment endorsed by the military men of most nations. If Russia gets to be a strong air Power in the Orient, Japan's final attitude ought to be the same as Great Britain's.

There are practically no technical disagreements in the destroyer class. However, since the destroyer is one of the best replies to the submarine, so long as any one country indulges in extensive building of submarines that fact will regulate the total destroyer tonnage considered reasonable. Especially is this the case now that so much pressure is being brought to abolish air bombing. Aircraft have been growing to be one of the most potent enemies of the submarine, and if aircraft are limited more reliance will have to be placed on destroyers. France and Japan continue to regard the submarine with high favor.

In the matter of cruisers, we prefer the larger 10,000 ton ship, and in this class we favor those carrying 8-inch guns. Our allowance in this type of ship is greater than that of any other country, but Great Britain makes up for this by having a superior total tonnage allowance. She prefers the smaller ship carrying 6-inch guns, largely for the reason that she can get more of these on a total tonnage allowance than is the case if she has to build to her quota to equal Japan or ourselves in the 10,000 ton class. Our needs drop from the 10,000 ton ship straight to the 2,000 ton ship in the unrestricted class, of which all countries can build as many as they choose for peace-time purposes. We have no dependencies to defend and our need for cruisers is governed to a large extent by fleet needs. We therefore are inclined to favor a total tonnage allowance which is less than Great Britain thinks necessary. Japan's attitude here is much the same as our own.

In general, we might sum up the attitude of the three countries to be that Great Britain wants smaller ships and more of them; we want larger ships and fewer of them; Japan wants what we are allowed. The technical differences of opinion are many, but there is hardly one which ought not to lie within the range of amicable settlement. It is not in the technical sphere that the real obstacles lie.


The Washington Conference met in 1921-22 in an atmosphere of internationalism and democracy. After the lapse of a short space of fourteen years, its child, the treaty limiting naval armament, will be examined afresh in an atmosphere of intense nationalism and at a time when democracy and the parliamentary principle are fighting to maintain themselves in the face of dictatorship expressed in various forms. We see rule by man, a principle of dictatorship, replacing the rule of law, one of the fundamentals of true democracy. We have only to read the newspapers to know that a large part of the continent of Europe regards democracy's day as over, though, as one leader stated, it may linger on "for a time in some odd corners of the earth."

Looking toward the Orient what do we see? One country professing the democratic principle is torn with internal dissension. Another, intensely nationalistic and maintaining an autocratic form of government, is determined upon a course of action which will give it the place in the sun which it thinks its destiny requires. What is the meaning of the rapid changes of the last few years? Broadly speaking, the most expressive term is "dissatisfaction." It is not enmity; but out of the seeds of dissatisfaction may spring a plant just as dangerous as the growth from the seeds of enmity. In either case, when the plant reaches maturity it is war. This dissatisfaction will be part of the background of the 1935 Conference unless conditions change materially in the meantime. In the face of this, and after the unsuccessful efforts at Geneva, where the League of Nations has failed to accomplish much in the way of disarmament, what nation will have the desire or temerity to put forth a proposal for further limitation of naval armament? What sea Power -- and mind you, the two greatest sea Powers are today among the chief guardians of the democratic principle -- what sea Power then will wish to reduce its strength further in the face of a growing military spirit, especially when twice before the two sea Powers just mentioned made concessions and reductions in force, and on one pretext or another received no concessions in return? What may we expect then?

France and Italy have never come into full accord in the matter of limitation of naval armament. Italy insists upon the recognition of the principle of equality in naval strength, though she is willing to agree not to build up to the standard set by France. France has not been willing to grant equality for the sake of arriving at agreement. She claims that her greater defensive necessities, in part connected with the defense of her North African realm, give her the right to a measure of greater sea power, a right she does not care to relinquish. France, which we must admit to be a nation of logical thinkers whether or not we agree with them always, has maintained steadily one principle: she will not disarm unless she can be assured of security, and she bases her appraisal of what constitutes security upon past experience.

England has expressed dissatisfaction at being bound by terms which place her at a disadvantage with regard to others which will come to no terms. Although she is one of the foremost exponents of the limitation of armaments idea, she has stated that she no longer intends to carry on in the way of limitation by example; she says that it is a mistake.

What is our stake? Since we are not closely surrounded by real or imagined dangers, we look upon disarmament with a broad, generous outlook. We think it a good thing for the general cause of peace, and we think it ought to be pursued. Besides, it has the advantage at the moment of being economical. We have made one serious error, however; and that is, having made arms agreements in the past, we have not lived up to them. We thought it a fine gesture for peace, as well as inexpensive, not to build up to our quotas quietly and systematically. Then when we find we are wrong we are forced to repair the damage -- whether the times be propitious or not for such efforts.

Our stake is to prevent war, for looking at the matter even in the light of self-interest only, we see that we are bound eventually to pay a large part of the price of any great war, regardless of any immediate profits which might accrue to some classes of our citizens as a result of our being neutral. All nations through their spokesmen are proclaiming peace; they probably want it. At the same time they are all bent on being strong; they all intend to get their own way. Is the cause of world peace served better by our being weak or by our being firm and strong? This is one of the things we shall have to ask ourselves at the next Conference, and we may as well be honest and face it. The atmosphere is not what it was in 1922.

What does Japan want? Let us admit at once the two objectives -- equality and security -- stated by Viscount Ishii as the permanent bases of Japanese foreign policy.[iii] Although almost universally censured in the Manchurian episode, an old sore, Japan had some rights on her side. From the technical and military viewpoint, Japan had a weak link in her armor unless she had a foothold in Manchuria. Every time she had gained this foothold by war she had been made to give it up by outside pressure. Under these circumstances, other nations might have felt just as she did -- previous to signing the Nine Power Pact and the Paris Peace Pact. They might not have acted in the same way after having signed those agreements. They would have tried to find other ways to get their requirements satisfied.

It has been stated openly in the press that Japan at the next naval conference will ask for an increase in the naval ratio assigned her. Is the request logical on the ground of security? It is not, and technical men know it. Listen to the words of Admiral Baron Kato spoken at the second plenary session of the Washington Conference in reply to the American proposal setting forth the 5-5-3 ratio for the first time. Speaking of Japan, Admiral Kato said in part: "She is satisfied that the proposed plan will materially relieve the nations of wasteful expenditures, and cannot fail to make for the peace of the world." And again: "Japan has never claimed nor had any intention of claiming to have a naval establishment equal in strength to that of either the United States or the British Empire. Her existing plan will show conclusively that she had never in view preparation for offensive war." In addition to the ratios established at Washington, the three sea Powers at the London Conference agreed to equality in submarine tonnage. This action more than made secure the Japanese islands themselves as well as the road from the islands to the mainland, even though the total tonnage allowance for each nation was cut to approximately 53,000 tons.

Let us ask ourselves certain questions.

In time of war, does Japan have the seas of the world to cover as a necessary part of her own security, as does the British Empire? She does not, and in addition she has a secure line to the mainland which England has not.

Does Japan have two great ocean fronts and one of the main water arteries of the world to defend in case of war, as does the United States? She does not.

As a neutral in a great war, would the obligations and responsibilities imposed upon Japan put as heavy a burden on her shoulders as they would upon either Great Britain or the United States? They would not.

Is there any nation in the world, which, after taking care of its essential obligations at home and elsewhere, could lay successful blockade to the coast of Japan? There is not.

In the last half century has there ever been any action taken against Japan on the part of the two leading sea Powers which legitimately could be called aggressive? The writer thinks not.

Is a Japanese claim for increase of ratios justified on the grounds of national income? Japan's national income is approximately 16½ times less than ours, yet in the eleven years following 1922 her expenditures for new naval construction exceeded our own during eight of those years, and the ratio of her naval budget to national income is 5½ times greater than our own.

No, the Japanese claim for an actual increase in her naval ratio will not further the purposes of peace, and must find other reasons than equality and security.

However, though Japan has no logical grounds to lay claim to an increase in her naval ratio she has a just claim to equality in treatment in other respects, and until that claim is recognized there will remain a feeling of tension. International relations must be based on a spirit of fair play, equality and justice, if peace is to be kept. Is there any reason why friendly relations should not be maintained between this country and Japan? No. So long as each country respects the other's rights, lives up to its treaty agreements, enters into no trade wars, develops no superiority complex, starts no war propaganda, attends strictly to its own business, is just in its dealings with the other, and truly desires peace -- so long there should be no apprehension. The Pacific has not been the breeder of war hurricanes that the Atlantic and Mediterranean have been. Thus far calms or only fresh breezes have prevailed.


No one can predict what the outcome of the forthcoming naval discussions will be. The best that can be hoped is that the nations will meet in such an atmosphere of friendliness that the good resulting from the previous conferences may not be lost and may be carried on and increased. If the disarmament efforts of the League of Nations come to naught the world will badly need some relic of the spirit of the Washington Conference.

Meanwhile, there are certain things which seem self-evident. If we and the other nations of the world are actually on the road out of a depression resulting largely from the last war, and if many tariff and financial questions are in process of fair adjustment, this fact will do much to soften the present rather harsh political atmosphere and bring to the next Conference a spirit of greater optimism. If the writer can surmise correctly, it will be a meeting where men and their attitude towards each other will count for more than any logical presentation of facts. No nation would care to be responsible for setting the clock back, for calling into existence again the old system of naval competition, with its attendant evils and balances of power.

But if the ship sinks, the readjustment period should find those with identic interests in the same lifeboat.

[i] With some exceptions such as Part IV relating to submarines, and certain provisions relating to aircraft-carriers.

[ii] At the Third Plenary Session, Secretary Hughes took up the question of land armament also, which resulted in that able speech by M. Briand setting forth France's position and why she could make no further reduction in her land forces.

[iii] See "The Permanent Bases of Japanese Foreign Policy," by Viscount Kikujiro Ishii, FOREIGN AFFAIRS, January 1933.

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  • ADMIRAL WILLIAM V. PRATT, President of the Naval War College, 1925-1927; Commander-in-Chief of the United States Fleet, 1929-1930; Naval Adviser to American delegation at London Conference, 1930; Chief of Naval Operations, 1930-1933
  • More By Admiral William V. Pratt