THE spectacular achievement of the Washington Conference of 1921-1922 in reaching an agreement -- almost over night -- on methods of naval limitation, has tended to create the impression, in this country at least, that the entire problem of armaments could likewise be promptly disposed of if a conference were called to deal with the subject. Unfortunately, the solution is not so simple. Many of the factors which made possible the success of the Washington Conference are no longer present and the mathematical standards used to measure naval tonnage are of little value when applied to human beings and their capabilities as combatant forces or to the intricate and diverse elements which make up the sum total of a nation's military establishment.

At the very outset one finds a difference of opinion between the Powers as to the method of dealing with the problems of a general limitation of arms. The European continental Powers for the most part insist that all types of armament, land, sea and air, should be dealt with simultaneously. Other Powers, including the United States, have maintained that further naval limitation might well be given immediate consideration, even though the time may not yet have arrived for the holding of a successful conference of a more general character.

Without attempting to analyze the arguments pro and con on this point, we will, as a matter of orderly presentation, consider separately naval limitation and the limitation of other military elements.


The Washington Conference was a success because of the impelling influence exerted by the United States at a time when it was about to assume a controlling naval position. The results were purchased at a price which has often been criticized by our naval men, but which the country at large has approved. We gave up the opportunity to secure naval superiority in exchange for an agreement on the basis of equality with Great Britain and a 5-3 ratio with Japan in battleships and air craft carriers, with a limitation in the size of cruisers to 10,000 tons. When the Conference failed to agree on a basis for restricting the total tonnage of cruisers and submarines, each Power reserved its freedom of action with respect to the future building of such vessels. In this country this freedom of action has been construed as an invitation not to build, but as far as the Washington Treaty is concerned we have no just grounds for complaint if other Powers elect to construct cruisers and other types of vessels which the treaty does not restrict. We must frankly recognize, however, that as a result we cannot now exercise the same effective influence for naval limitation as we did in 1921. No Power has any reason to fear that we are now seeking naval supremacy and no Power consequently would be particularly impelled to make concessions which they might be disposed to make in different circumstances.

Fortunately, it does not necessarily follow that further naval limitation is indefinitely postponed. The recent discussions in Congress have clearly brought out that, if it were not for the President's desire to postpone construction until further efforts had been made to bring about naval limitation, we would now be undertaking a considerable program of naval building. Both Great Britain and Japan are several laps ahead of us in cruiser construction but they would presumably be the first to recognize our ability eventually to overtake and pass them if competitive building should be carried on in earnest. And even if these countries were disposed to doubt that the United States would continue to spend large sums in naval construction for a period of years, even after the impetus of Congressional and popular enthusiasm were past, certainly neither Great Britain nor Japan desires to provoke even the beginning of such a contest. The present attitude of Congress may thus have had the useful result of giving notice to these Powers that unless there is limitation there will probably be a start towards aggravated competition in naval construction. The recent initiative of the President, on the other hand, should serve the purpose of giving every opportunity for a thorough consideration of further naval limitation before this country is called upon to decide its future naval building program.

Even the complete success of the President's program would not have the result of eliminating further cruiser construction on the part of the United States. It is very unlikely that Great Britain or Japan will be disposed to scrap any of their recently constructed cruiser tonnage in order to approximate more closely to the level of construction which we have reached in this type of vessel. The mere threat of future building on our part would hardly be a sufficient inducement to bring about any such concession. Any limitations, therefore, which may eventually be fixed will probably be far in excess of our present or prospective cruiser strength. But it would be preferable to take as the basis for the application of a ratio the cruiser tonnage of Great Britain, present or authorized, than to have no limitation at all. In the case of submarines or destroyers, any maximum limitations would probably be in the neighborhood of our present effective strength in these classes, as here we have not fallen behind as we have in the case of cruisers. In fact, in number of destroyers the United States leads, though the age of these vessels makes our leadership less real than the figures imply.

As far as this country is concerned, it seems fundamental that we would not accept a treaty which limited the United States in any class of vessel to a tonnage inferior to that of Great Britain or which changed the 5-3 ratio with Japan. The argument which was used at the Washington Conference that limitation should be based on existing naval tonnage may be raised against us in view of our present limited cruiser strength. The slogan "stop now" is simple and very appealing to those who have built well during the past few years. It will probably not be entirely over-looked by either Great Britain or Japan. But it is not likely that this argument will be seriously pressed by either Power in an effort to alter the ratios of the Washington treaties in so far as the three Powers are concerned. They would hardly desire to add fuel to the Congressional fire by suggesting that our failure during the past few years to construct cruisers is a valid reason for consigning the United States to a position of permanent inferiority. Whether we should ever build up to the present cruiser strength of Great Britain -- were this taken as the maximum limit -- is problematical. Certainly this would remain a purely theoretical goal for many years.

If an agreement could be reached with Great Britain on the basis of equality in all types of naval vessels, and with Japan on the 5-3 ratio, our interests would be adequately safeguarded. Great Britain, however, has her own particular problems to face. As a Mediterranean as well as an Atlantic and a Pacific naval Power, the size and character of her navy obviously depend not only upon the naval establishments of the United States and Japan, but also upon those of France and Italy. We are not ourselves immediately affected by the cruiser and submarine tonnage constructed by France and Italy and need not assume primary responsibility for attempting the adjustment of this difficult problem between those countries and England. Presumably any settlement satisfactory to the three would be satisfactory to the United States. But as long as there can be no limitation until Great Britain limits, and if her action is predicated in part at least upon that of France and Italy, we cannot casually dismiss the question of British-Franco-Italian naval adjustment as of no concern to us if we are sincerely desirous of making progress.

It is at this point in developing a program for naval limitation that serious difficulties are encountered: first, that of finding ratios[i] for auxiliary craft acceptable to France and Italy; and, second, a difficulty resulting from a difference of opinion between important naval Powers as to the basic principles of future limitation. The French and Italian naval experts at the recent Geneva Disarmament Meeting vigorously opposed the principles upon which the Washington treaties are predicated, namely, the limitation of naval vessels, class by class, with a fixing of definite and separate maximum tonnages for capital ships, cruisers and submarines. They favored limitation by limiting total tonnage alone, leaving each Power free within the limits of this tonnage to construct the type and number of vessels, whether battleships, cruisers or submarines, which it considered best adapted to its needs. They contended that as their countries are limited both by considerations of expense and by the ratio of the Washington treaty, they could not plan any considerable construction of capital ships. But they do not desire to be hampered by restrictive ratios in other classes. Thus Geneva as well as Washington has shown that France and Italy plan to safeguard their right to construct a proportionately larger number of cruisers and submarines than might be possible if each class of vessel was restricted to a fixed maximum tonnage.

As between the United States, Great Britain and Japan, the attempt to arrive at naval limitation by allocating only a maximum tonnage without limiting each class would be so highly unsatisfactory that it is unlikely that they ever would seriously consider it. Of course, as long as the Washington agreements are effective, (namely, through 1936 and thereafter unless denounced by two years' prior notice) the French and Italian thesis could not be applied to all types of naval vessels. But even apart from this consideration there are other inherent difficulties in the plan. Let us assume, for example, that the United States, Great Britain and Japan attempted to apply the French and Italian thesis and agreed that the 5-5-3 ratio would be applied on the basis of 1,000,000 and 600,000 tons of naval craft respectively. If the three Powers were free to follow any plan of distributing this tonnage between battleships, cruisers and submarines, and if one of the three specialized in battleships, another in cruisers and the third in submarines, there would be no accurate method of gauging the relative strengths of the three fleets. The success of the Washington treaty has been due in no small measure to the fact that it permits a reasonably accurate basis of comparison of the naval strength of various countries. The adoption of the theory of limitation by total tonnage would, in the case of the three leading naval Powers, defeat that end.

In each phase of the problem of arms limitation we find progress retarded because of the difficulty of finding a basis for agreement acceptable to any large number of Powers. But if concrete action is postponed until all of the important military and naval Powers of the world are in agreement, the delay may be indefinite. In the case of naval limitation it very possibly will be necessary to proceed by gradual stages, by agreements between a limited number of Powers under safeguards which would release the participants from restrictions inter sese in the event that other Powers resorted to threatening building programs.

Even if the five Powers which signed the Washington Treaty are not all prepared at this time to take further action along the same lines, the United States, Great Britain and Japan might arrive at a limitation agreement provided it were subject to revision in the event that any other Power carried through an extensive building program. Italy's position is clear. She has constantly indicated that she would be content with the treaty right to maintain a navy equal to that of France. It thus rests largely with France to determine whether she will facilitate or obstruct the reaching of an agreement. Even assuming that France may not now be disposed to bind herself by treaty for a period of years to a definite and limited cruiser and submarine tonnage, surely it is to her own interest to see other Powers limit their naval forces. France may well consider that it is the part of wisdom at least to refrain from carrying through a naval building program which would seriously complicate, if not entirely prevent, agreement between the United States, Great Britain and Japan. At the present moment the program of France is reported to include 47,000 tons of submarines already laid down or appropriated for, as contrasted with the present British program of about 12,000 tons and that of the United States of only 2,000 tons. It is this French program which is likely to prove the most serious obstacle to any submarine agreement between the United States, Great Britain and Japan.

As a beginning, it would be better to be content with relatively high maximum limitations in the various classes of vessels now unrestricted than to have no limitations whatever. If some limitations are set, further progress might be possible by curtailing replacement programs when the time comes to scrap obsolete tonnage, thus gradually reducing the maximum tonnage allowances without disturbing the ratios. With reasonable good will such reductions should be feasible since naval programs are influenced more by the fear of competitive programs on the part of others than by any inherent national need. Since we have the experience of the Washington Conference to draw upon, future naval limitation will not necessarily require the elaborate machinery of a formal conference; and in a matter where national passions are so easily aroused and national susceptibilities so naturally affected, the publicity which inevitably attends an international conference might only aggravate the difficulty of securing the mutual concessions essential to success.


The limitation of land and air armaments presents far more perplexing problems than are encountered in dealing with naval forces. In the case of navies, limitations can be applied to tangible objects -- naval vessels; personnel and equipment (guns excepted) can be disregarded, since a crew without a vessel is of little use and the size of the vessel and its character determine to a great extent the equipment which the vessel can effectively employ. When you have limited naval tonnage, you have limited the effective combatant value of a navy.

It is harder to determine the elements of land or air forces which can effectively be limited. An obvious starting point would be the agreement upon the number of men actually to be maintained under the colors in time of peace. But problems arise at the outset. To illustrate, let us assume that a limit of 100,000 is fixed as the maximum number of effectives to be maintained by States A, B and C at any given moment in time of peace. Let us further assume that State A recruits its force on a one year compulsory training basis; that State B recruits on the Swiss system of compulsory training for a short period each year for several years; and that State C recruits its forces on a voluntary long-term enlistment basis. At the end of five years, the number of trained men available in case of war would be very different in the case of each of these three States. State A would have a large number of partly trained men and State C a small number of highly trained men. The scale of limitation, theoretically the same for each of the three States, would have brought about very different results in each case as a result of the differences in the system of recruitment. The same yardstick would have produced quite different measurements.

Theoretically, all States might agree on a common method for enlisting their armies. But there is no prospect that this will be done. The European continental powers are no more likely to adopt our system of voluntary service than we are to adopt, in time of peace, the compulsory system.

In addition to the regular standing army, the United States and practically all other countries have auxiliary organizations for military training, such as the National Guard, officers' training camps and the like. To reckon the military value of these organizations in comparison with the regular army defies the skill of the most competent statistician. Yet it is hard to conceive of any fair or effective method of limitation which dealt only with what we call the regular army and left auxiliary organizations free to expand and thus to take the place of the regular army.

Turning to a consideration of air forces and reserves of war material, we find factors which are more tangible, but the problems presented are equally perplexing. Theoretically, it is possible to limit numbers of aeroplanes, numbers and caliber of artillery, and the amount of miscellaneous military supplies, including poison gas reserves. Some such limitation would be a necessary part of any thorough-going plan for restricting military establishments. Here, however, we encounter the difficulty of distinguishing between elements which are essential parts of the normal economic life of the nation and elements which are primarily adapted for use in war. One need only mention commercial aeroplanes, the private manufacture of arms, factories equally adapted to the manufacture of dyes and to the production of poison gases, to illustrate this point. This difficulty of distinguishing the implements of war from the necessities of our every-day peace-time life also makes it hard to conceive of any effective control over such a system of limitation. Even granting a conscientious effort on the part of the governments concerned, it appears inevitable that treaty provisions which attempted to deal with the intricacies of military establishments would only lead to international controversies that would defeat the very object sought.

It has been suggested that some method of international control could be devised to supervise the execution of whatever limitations had been agreed upon. But the American representative at Geneva and the representatives of several other Powers have clearly put on record their objection to "itinerant inquisitorial commissions of investigation." In this our representatives have reflected the feeling of this country against any attempt at international supervision of American action under any program for arms limitation.

This statement of some of the difficulties involved in the limitation of land and air armaments is not made in order to argue that any form of limitation is hopeless, but rather to suggest the desirability of revising our views as to how to approach the problem.

Possibly we have been too largely influenced by the procedure followed in the case of naval limitation and by the formulas -- more elaborate than effective -- imposed on the Central Powers in the Treaties of Versailles, St. Germain, Trianon and Neuilly. The assumption usually is that limitation is to be brought about by a general treaty, applicable to a large number of Powers, which would prescribe numerical standards and ratios regulating the size of armies, the supplies of ammunition, the number of aeroplanes and the various items of military equipment. Such a program seems doomed to failure. The situation of countries varies too greatly; their military systems and military problems are too divergent, too complex; many of the elements composing their military strength are too closely related to their normal economic life to be susceptible of regulation by treaty. Any treaty which was sufficiently detailed to effect a real limitation would be too complicated to permit of practical enforcement. Further, it is hardly probable that any considerable number of Powers would now be prepared to limit their freedom of action in military matters for any considerable period of time, and unless a treaty of limitation had a duration of several years it would be of little value.

But even though all Powers may not be able to disarm in the same way or according to the same formulas, it does not necessarily follow that all progress is impossible. Regional agreements of limited scope between countries whose military establishments bear a direct relation to each other might be feasible even though a general treaty is out of the question. If, for example, two or more of the continental European powers which maintain their forces on a conscript basis could agree together to limit their period of military service, an auspicious beginning would have been made even if no other points were covered. France has already voluntarily reduced its period of service from three years to eighteen months, and plans have been made for a further reduction to one year. This voluntary unilateral action on the part of the leading continental military power ought to make it easier to effect a general reduction of the term of military service in Europe. Unfortunately, Russia introduces a feeling of uneasiness in the border states, complicates their military problems, and naturally makes them hesitate to reduce their forces. Their military establishments in turn react upon their western neighbors, and this contributes to the maintenance of a scale of armament throughout the whole of Europe higher than would be the case if Russia could be counted upon to coöperate in any program to reduce armaments. But despite this complication some progress might nevertheless be made through regional agreements in Europe.

We find a very different problem in North and South America or in the Far East, and it therefore is impracticable to try to fit the same military strait-jacket to all the continents. Limitation agreements by countries which like the United States have never maintained large peace-time armies are not an essential part of any plan of European limitation. The inclusion of the United States in any general scheme for the reduction of land and air forces would result in fixing a maximum limit for our forces far above what in actual practice we would expect to maintain. This would only complicate the problem by increasing the number of Powers party to the negotiations. The United States and other Powers of this continent, and probably Japan, should have no difficulty in agreeing not to exceed whatever limit might be fixed as the maximum strength for the land forces of the strongest European power.

In the event that Russia proves an insurmountable obstacle to the conclusion of European regional agreements, some progress might be made by securing the undertaking of each of the important military Powers that they would formulate and exchange statements setting forth their military programs, the forces they intended to maintain under national control, how these forces would be recruited and equipped, and other related information. If the Powers could further agree not to increase their military organizations without a prior public notification of their intentions, this might have considerable influence in discouraging competitive arming. Governments would hesitate to notify each other of increases in armaments unless they felt that they could justify such increases.


If a state is to play a decisive part in international negotiations it generally is necessary for it to make a definite contribution. The exception to this rule is when a Power is called in as a mediator without having interests of its own at stake. In the matter of arms limitation the United States neither is a mediator nor is it in a position to supply elements vitally necessary for success.

In naval matters we of course have a very immediate concern. But our contribution, in view of our present naval position, may well be restricted to declining to start a competitive building program until we have exhausted all other possibilities. If limitation should then prove impossible, it may develop that only by commencing in 1927 or 1928 to round out our naval program can we induce other Powers to come into line. That is for the future to decide; but our 1916 building program, and the decisive effect it played in bringing about the Washington Conference, is a precedent.

In regard to land and air armaments we have little except good will to offer the European states to induce them to limit their forces. We obviously are not prepared to supply that measure of security which the European Powers would feel they were foregoing by reducing their armies. Further, it seems unlikely that we would be willing to undertake to join in measures of economic or financial boycott against aggressor states.[ii]

It could be argued, and with logic, that arms limitation and the abolition of the competitive race for armaments would increase national security. It could further be urged that a mutual and corresponding reduction by states engaged in military competition would not affect their relative security. But these arguments do not entirely satisfy states that have had the experience of France, Belgium and Serbia. At the Washington Conference, M. Briand, in declining to appoint experts to consider the limitation of land forces and of war material, made a cogent statement of the French position:

France could not appoint an expert to take part in a committee of that nature. If a definite proposal of collaboration were advanced, if it were a question of establishing in common an international force with the duty of maintaining order, well and good -- disarmament might be considered. If the peoples of the earth were as eager as was claimed to see armaments limited, their representatives had only to say: "A danger exists; we recognize it; we will share it with you shoulder to shoulder; here is our signature." In this case France would fully agree to consider the problem of the limitation of armaments. But up to that time no such proposal had been heard and along these lines nothing but declarations had yet appeared. France had realities to deal with; she had suffered them five years ago and fifty years ago. A French administration which should enter upon the course into which certain members of the Conference would entice it would be false to its mandate. . . . France might agree to any reduction of armament, if her safety were guaranteed. If she were alone she could agree to nothing.

That France is now joining in the work of the Geneva Disarmament Commission is evidence that progress has been made since the Washington Conference, due in large measure to the Locarno treaties. But as the United States is not prepared to make an effective contribution to security in Europe we cannot expect Europe to look to America for guidance in the limitation of land armament. Furthermore, we cannot aid in a settlement merely by the attempt to substitute Washington for Geneva as the place for deliberation. But at least we can prevent our military program from obstructing progress, and we can give the benefit of our coöperation when it is sought, as we are now doing by participating in the Geneva meetings.

[i] It is often, though erroneously, assumed that it was proposed at the Washington Conference that the ratios for France and Italy for all types of vessels should be the same as the capital ship ratio, namely, that the French and Italian ratio throughout should be 1.67 to the British and American ratio of 5 and the Japanese 3. Such was not the case. That there is no mystic significance in the French and Italian ratio of 1.67 is shown by the Washington treaty provision for aircraft carriers, which are limited on the basis of 135,000 tons for the United States and Great Britain, 81,000 for Japan and 60,000 for France and Italy -- a ratio of 5:3:2.22. The last American proposal for a submarine ratio at the Washington Conference was: United States and Great Britain 60,000 tons, Japan and France approximately 31,000 tons, Italy 21,000 -- the tonnage of the last three being estimated on the basis of their 1921 submarine tonnage.

[ii] This is a point which deserves the most careful scrutiny. Before the discussion of arms limitation has progressed much further the question will most assuredly be raised as to whether the United States would be willing to coöperate in giving effect to measures taken by the European Powers to cut off intercourse with a state judged guilty of an act of unprovoked aggression. Clearly, we would not bind ourselves to accept the verdict of others as to whether an act of aggression had taken place; but assuming that some method could be devised for passing on this question in the United States, would it be legally feasible, and, if so, practical and desirable, to attempt to join in the boycotting of an aggressor? If it were possible, it would constitute a very definite contribution by the United States towards the maintenance of peace. It would, however, involve a decided departure from our traditional position of neutrality and involve constitutional and practical difficulties for which no one has as yet suggested an entirely satisfactory solution.

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  • ALLEN W. DULLES, former chief of the Division of Near Eastern Affairs in the State Department, delegate to the Preparatory Commission for the Disarmament Conference at Geneva in 1926
  • More By Allen W. Dulles