ON January 23 of this year the Council of the League of Nations announced its decision to issue a call for a world conference on disarmament to meet in February 1932. International conferences are not an unmixed blessing. Often they are inevitable, as at the close of wars; but unless inevitable they should be called only when the ground-work has been so carefully prepared that there is reasonable expectation of successful results. The Locarno negotiations are a good example of the manner in which an international conference should be prepared and staged. There the real work was done without ostentation or publicity before the delegates assembled, and the conference met merely to ratify and focus the attention of the world upon achieved results. The Washington Naval Conference is almost unique in having achieved striking results without previous agreement in principle; and this success was due in part to the fact that the United States was prepared to give up more than it was asking other Powers to concede.

An open debate between the representatives of fifty or more nations regarding their military and naval needs and ambitions and the closely related question of national security presents obvious dangers. At no time is popular feeling more difficult to control than when the subject of national defense is raised. Much as the various delegates at the conference may insist that their estimates of their country's military and naval needs are not predicated upon the fear of aggression from any particular Power, the world at large will not need to do much guessing before deciding exactly which other countries each has in mind in insisting on a certain scale of armament.

The difficulties and dangers connected with a general disarmament conference are fully known. It was probably well appreciated, therefore, that in risking a general conference under League auspices the very future of the League itself was being placed in jeopardy. Probably the members of the League Council who assumed the responsibility for calling the conference felt that they had no other alternative, the issue having been postponed as long as could well be done without admitting failure.

The Covenant pledges the League to work for the progressive reduction of armaments, and in accordance with that pledge the League set itself to the task immediately upon its creation and has kept at it ever since. Following preliminary studies, it formed in 1926 a commission to prepare for an international conference. This commission has worked for five years, has submitted an elaborate report and the skeleton of a convention, and has disbanded. Under present conditions it is probable that the technical preparation for the conference could not have been carried further. But the political preparation so essential to the success of the conference has hardly begun.

It is reasonably safe to assume that if the private judgment of many of the members of the Preparatory Disarmament Commission could now be asked, they would favor the tabling of their report until France, Germany, Italy and Great Britain have made further progress toward the solution -- if solution there be -- of the main problems of armament and security which vitally interest them; but circumstances forced a decision, and it is now too late to debate whether or not it was wise to take the step of fixing a date for the general conference. It may not yet be too late, however, for the Powers to determine whether they will be ready by next February to reach constructive decisions; and if not to defer the date of meeting.

Expressions of pious wishes inserted in legal documents, whether treaties or business contracts, generally come back to plague their authors. The attempt may be made to disregard such expressions by arguing that they have no binding force, but this is hardly enough to satisfy those for whose benefit they were given or even the conscientious person who is trying to get at the real intent of the contracting parties.

When the Allies at Versailles were endeavoring to induce the Germans to accept highly unpalatable provisions respecting their military and naval establishments, they prefaced this section of the Conditions of Peace and later the Peace Treaty articles with the statement:

In order to render possible the initiation of a general limitation of armaments of all nations, Germany undertakes strictly to observe the military, naval and air clauses which follow.

In the reply to the German comments on the Conditions of Peace, the Allies gave certain explanations of what they meant by the above quoted sentence, and by the terms which they were imposing with respect to Germany's military and naval forces. They wrote:

The Allied and Associated Powers wish to make it clear that their requirements in regard to German armaments were not made solely with the object of rendering it impossible for Germany to resume her policy of military aggression. They are also the first steps towards that general reduction and limitation of armaments which they seek to bring about as one of the most fruitful preventives of war, and which it will be one of the first duties of the League of Nations to promote.

They must point out, however, that the colossal growth in armaments of the last few decades was forced upon the nations of Europe by Germany. As Germany increased her power, her neighbors had to follow suit unless they were to become impotent to resist German dictation or the German sword. It is therefore right, as it is necessary, that the process of limitation of armaments should begin with the nation which has been responsible for their expansion. It is not until the aggressor has led the way that the attacked can safely afford to follow suit.

Each year that has passed since 1920, when the Treaty was ratified and went into effect, has seen Germany reminding the Powers with ever increasing emphasis that she was expecting action to give effect to these promises. More recently her reminders have been coupled with the intimation that unless action were taken Germany would consider that she has been relieved from the Treaty restrictions over her military and naval establishments. Probably Germany's most pointed statement in this connection was contained in Chancellor Müller's address at the Assembly of the League of Nations in September, 1928, where he stated:

The disarmament of Germany cannot possibly continue to be a unilateral act, the outcome solely of the power wielded by the victors in the World War. The promise that Germany's disarmament would be followed by general disarmament must be fulfilled, and, finally, the article of the Covenant which incorporates that promise as a basic principle of the League of Nations must be carried into effect.

Even if the Versailles Treaty had contained no suggestions of a general reduction of armaments, the issue would inevitably have come to a head sooner or later. Now it must be faced in a very few months, and with the principal European Powers far from agreement. Will the six months before the conference assembles be allowed to pass in the Micawber-like hope that something will turn up to permit the conference itself to solve this question? What will Germany do if the conference ends by leaving the present situation unchanged?

It is beyond the scope of this article to deal with the European political phases of the problem. Doubtless the European capitals realize that between now and next February it is vital to reach some preliminary agreement between the Powers chiefly interested, and that if such preliminary agreement is not reached the success of the conference is doubtful, to say the least. The United States will probably have little to do with such conversations, as they will revolve chiefly about the question of European security. But even apart from the legitimate American interest in the general issue, growing out of its bearing upon the maintenance of peace in Europe, there are certain important questions of immediate concern to the United States which may be debated at the conference and which therefore call for early consideration.

The United States was farsighted enough to press for an early solution of naval questions as a separate and distinct phase of the disarmament problem. Hence, this country is in the fortunate position of approaching the conference with few outstanding naval questions of vital importance, apart from questions affecting aviation, which are not regulated by treaties to which it is a party.

Washington's anxiety to settle naval problems, as shown by its initiative in connection with the Washington, Geneva and London conferences, may be due in part to the fact that few issues have more general popular appeal than that of the limitation of armaments. As a result, each succeeding Administration since the war has endeavored to show some concrete achievements in this direction. But the influence which has been exerted from Washington to effect an early settlement of naval problems has probably been due in no small measure to the reluctance to see these problems discussed at a general conference under League auspices. This reluctance has not been caused by any unfriendliness toward the League, but rather because the League setting was not considered particularly propitious for naval discussion, as it inevitably permitted a large number of Powers, only a small percentage of whom had a vital interest in navies, to have a disproportionate voice in naval discussions. This does not mean that there is any lack of respect for the opinions of Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and a score of other countries whose direct interest in navies is limited, but merely that there seems no good reason why they should be consulted in deciding strictly naval matters of interest to the five principal naval Powers. Hence the Washington Naval Conference and the London Conference of last year were limited to a small number of Powers. These conferences have resulted in treaties, ratified and in effect, which cover every type of combat vessel as far as the United States is concerned. Great Britain and Japan are equally bound. France and Italy are bound by treaties only as regards battleships and aircraft carriers, and with respect to certain qualitative limitations for other vessels -- that is, limitations which concern the maximum size of types and of guns, and the like. In this situation it would be proper for the United States to take the position at the general conference that formal treaties of recent date have fixed its naval schedules; that these treaties have as yet several years to run; and that they provide for further conferences upon their termination. It might assert, further, that these treaties are based on the same principles of reduction and limitation which the conference had been called to apply. It would be logical to argue from this basis that instead of endeavoring to revise accomplished achievements, thus possibly threatening the whole scheme of naval limitations, the conference should devote its attention, first, to the question of land armaments, where little or no progress has yet been made, and second, to inducing other naval Powers not party to the Washington and London treaties to enter into corresponding engagements which would insure the Powers who were parties to these treaties that the naval building by other Powers would not threaten established limitations of the five Powers.

Such a decision would make the United States little more than an interested on-looker at the conference -- interested because we are in sympathy with any steps which would help maintain peace in Europe, but not immediately concerned with the manner in which the particular problems are met. It is hardly necessary to add that unless the conference should endeavor to limit land armaments by some arbitrary method of budgetary reductions its decisions could have little effect upon our modest land forces.

The United States may possibly be such an interested on-looker if two phases of the naval armament problem are settled between now and February, and hence are not injected into the conference.

France and Italy are not parties to the limitation schedules of the London Treaty. Article 21 of this Treaty (inserted to protect the British position vis-à-vis France and Italy against possible future building programs of those countries) provides in substance that if the requirements of national security of any of the three Powers party to the Treaty, that is the United States, Great Britain or Japan, are materially affected by new construction by any other Power, the Power so affected may proceed under certain conditions to increase its naval tonnage beyond that specified in the Treaty. Hence if the pending Franco-Italian negotiations are unsuccessful, and if the general conference terminates without definitely fixing limits to the building programs of France and Italy in auxiliary craft, the whole structure of the London Naval Treaty might be in danger. The schedules necessary to give effect to the tentative agreement reached at Rome between France and Italy have not yet been drafted, apparently because of the failure to agree as to the replacement tonnage which France may lay down between 1934 and 1936 for completion after 1936. Meanwhile, political developments in Europe, particularly the proposed German-Austrian customs union, have created an atmosphere which makes France unwilling to yield on naval questions when in her opinion a situation has arisen affecting the general question of national security. Hence she maintains her reservations with regard to the Rome naval memorandum as a basis for negotiating other settlements. It should not take much ingenuity to solve the technical question of replacement tonnage as an isolated problem, but if agreement is to be reached there must be a real desire for it.

Possibly the most authoritative recent statement of France's position is that given by President Doumergue as one of his last acts in office. In what the London Times of April 10 describes as a considered statement on French policy in respect of the League, the projected German-Austrian customs union (referred to in the text as a "sudden and disconcerting event"), and the question of disarmament, he is quoted as having stated:

France had suffered too much from the war not to appreciate peace at its full value, but her own history had taught her only too well that there could be no lasting peace unless the security of her frontiers was fully assured. She was, therefore, obliged to remember that so long as the League of Nations had not at its disposal a military force strong enough to impose its decisions upon recalcitrants, she must be on her guard and to a great extent rely upon herself. France had the greater right to think thus, since she had just been confronted with a sudden and disconcerting event, the present importance and further consequence of which must not be underestimated, because the history of the country where it happened offered a precedent fraught with a lesson it would be dangerous to forget. A country like France, which knew by bitter experience to what painful and sudden events it might be exposed, had no right in the absence of a strong organized international force to allow its own material strength to be reduced below the level dictated by its need for security and the integrity of its home and oversea territory, for which the present generation was answerable to those of the future.

As the difficulties which brought about the Franco-Italian naval impasse are peculiarly European in character there is little that the United States can now do to help in the situation. But there is no doubt that we are deeply interested in coming to the general conference with final treaty understandings having been reached between the five principal naval Powers. Should this be achieved, the conference (as far as naval matters are concerned) could devote its attention to working out an understanding between other naval Powers so as to obviate the danger that building by such other Powers, whether in numbers or in new types of vessels, could disturb the limits fixed under the Washington and London Treaties.

There is, however, some reason to believe that even should France and Italy reach an agreement, several of the naval Powers will try to insist that the conference should consider a revision of existing naval treaties.

If the conference, as is almost inevitable, encounters serious obstacles in making any real progress in dealing with land armaments, there will be a natural tendency to avoid criticism for failure by working out some further reduction in the field of naval armaments, to which the conference may point as a definite achievement. In this field methods of limitation have been settled, and it is only a question of supplying new numerical coefficients to total tonnages or size of types of guns. Hence it may turn out that a reconsideration of the maximum size of battleships will offer an alluring method of drawing attention away from the wellnigh insoluble problems of the limitation of land armaments. The British Government has at various times urged the consideration of this question, notably at Geneva in 1927, and more recently in the Rome memorandum it formally committed itself to support a reduction in the size of battleships. The French and Italians are tentatively committed to build a type of battleship of about 23,000 tons, that is 12,000 tons smaller than that sanctioned in the Washington Treaty. Japan's position is not so clear, but it is unlikely that she would seriously oppose such a reduction. This would mean a considerable financial saving when the time comes to consider the replacement of battleship tonnage, assuming of course that the number of battleships remains constant.

Suggestions from British and other quarters that the maximum size of battleships provided for under the Washington Treaty should be reduced have generally met with opposition from American sources. As the English naval critic, Hector Bywater, pointed out recently in an interesting article,[i] the question has considerable background. At the time of the Washington Conference the British Government had laid down two battle cruisers which were to be of 47,000 tons each, namely, the Rodney and the Nelson. These were later cut down to fit within the 35,000 tons limitation established at Washington. The British Admiralty had further designed battleships exceeding 50,000 tons. The American and Japanese Navies, under plans of an earlier date, were preparing to lay down vessels of 43,000 tons. The vast expense involved in building such vessels, coupled with the fact that as each nation built a newer and larger type the older vessels became obsolete, was tending to create an intolerable situation. The Washington Conference corrected this by fixing 35,000 tons as a limit. We may assume this maximum size was fixed upon by the naval experts of that day as permitting the combination of the various elements which go to make up what we now popularly call a battleship. While there is nothing sacred in the figure of 35,000 tons it is likely that under present conditions American naval experts will continue to resist any great reduction from it, on the theory that a reduction would mean the sacrifice of certain of the important elements which they desire to maintain. These elements include protection, speed, cruising radius, and means of defense against aircraft and submarines.

Apart from the question of our defense of the Philippines, or of naval operations in the Pacific far from our own shores, other naval Powers in sacrificing certain of these elements would seem to be accepting the same handicaps as the United States. If, however, our fleet should ever be called upon to operate in those distant waters, a reduction in size of the ships would quite obviously prove to be a handicap to us as compared with other Powers with more naval bases.

From the practical point of view there is little reason why the question of the size of battleships should be agitated at the present time or even at the general conference. Under the London Treaty, the United States, Great Britain and Japan can none of them lay down any new battleships until 1936, and definite provision has been made for the consideration of this and other related questions in 1935. No one can predict what technical developments in aviation and other branches of naval strategy may occur in the next few years, some of which may well affect the decision as to the size of battleships. It seems reasonably prudent, then, to delay settling the question until the decision would have some practical effect and could be made in the light of conditions existing at the time new ships are to be laid down. If France and Italy felt forced to build battleships of 35,000 tons because other naval Powers have ships of such size, there might be some real reason for taking up the question limiting battleship size now, but it is hard to see how any effective argument can be made on this point. France and Italy have never taken advantage of the privilege which they had under the Washington Treaty to build battleships, and have allowed ten years to pass without any such building. According to the Rome memorandum, they have now tentatively agreed that whatever battleships they may build during the next few years will not greatly exceed 23,000 tons. While the British promise given at Rome that they would favor the reduction in the maximum battleship size as fixed at Washington may have had some influence upon this decision, it seems unlikely that France and Italy would in any event have built a larger type of ship. Very possibly if it had not been for the construction by Germany of ships of the Ersatz Preussen type, which are more powerful than existing French cruisers, the question of the construction of battleships by France and Italy might not have arisen. Hence, unless the general conference is hard put to it to show some results in the reduction of armaments, and turns to battleships as the last resort, the American position that this question should be deferred until 1935 must have the support of those who prefer to deal now with the more immediately pressing questions.

In the field of disarmament, as in most fields of human endeavor, it is important to take as a guide such successful precedents as we may have. There are several failures to record, notably the two Hague Conferences of 1899 and 1907, which though they show many useful accomplishments did not succeed in limiting armaments or in stopping the race in armaments which culminated in 1914. It is only in the field of naval armament that any real progress has been made, notably at the Washington and London Conferences. The successive steps which have been taken toward naval limitation have been rendered possible by the following circumstances:

(1) Certain fundamental principles of a political nature were accepted as the basis for technical agreement. Thus almost at the outset of the naval discussions in 1921-1922 England and the United States agreed on the principle of parity, and Japan, with certain qualifications as applied to auxiliary vessels, accepted a 5/3 ratio. France and Italy each recognized England's right to a navy substantially superior to either of theirs.

(2) Measures of limitation were applied to tangible objects, that is, vessels and guns, and the element of man-power was eliminated from calculation.

(3) No international supervision or control is required to insure the rigid application of measures of limitation. Steps taken to scrap existing tonnage or to restrict the size of new construction are matters of public knowledge and may be easily verified by all the parties to a treaty of naval limitation.

(4) Despite what propagandists may say, neither the United States, Great Britain nor Japan is alarmed at the naval programs of the others, and as far as France and Italy are concerned, fear of an attack at sea is secondary to other and more immediate causes of apprehension since the primary defense of both countries is on land.

Unfortunately, the conditions surrounding any attempt to limit land armaments are very different. There is no agreement as to the basic principles on which a program of limitation is to be based. For example, is France by treaty to have her land forces, however evaluated, stabilized on a basis of x times Germany's land armaments and y percent more than that of Italy? General agreement on any such basis is hardly conceivable today, but it is equally inconceivable that France should consent to any reduction or limitation of her land armament which did not insure to her military superiority over Germany. While progress has been made by the Preparatory Disarmament Commission in suggesting technical methods of limitation, there is no real agreement as to which of the various methods should be applied or how they should be enforced. There has been discussion of budgetary limitation, limitation of materials of war, limitation of the number of trained men under arms at any given time, and of other methods. It is generally agreed that a limitation which did not restrict the trained and equipped force with the colors in time of peace would not be particularly efficacious, but no agreement is yet in sight as to the form of such limitation. Further, there is a strong feeling in certain European circles that the effective limitation of land forces presupposes some form of international control, so that there shall be no secret violations; many States are equally emphatic in the refusal to consider any such form of international control. Finally, rightly or wrongly, the fear of many European Powers of possible future aggression from their neighbors is, despite the League of Nations, the Locarno Treaties, and the Briand-Kellogg Pact, real and persistent. And each state which feels itself so menaced makes a maximum of military security its first consideration in the shaping of foreign policy.

Despite the real accomplishments of the Preparatory Commission -- and its work certainly merits the approval of all who are interested in the solution of the disarmament puzzle -- the general conference will start almost from scratch in dealing with the major problems on which any real limitation of land armament must depend.

Through the centuries such peace as the world has known has generally been produced and preserved in one of two ways. In the days of Greece and Rome it was maintained by the supreme military control of one state over vast areas; hence what we call the pax Romana. In more modern times, when the number of independent and powerful states multiplied, the supremacy of one state gave way to the system of the balance of power; the rival forces were so nearly equal that neither side dared to risk an attack on the other. As an outcome of the World War one Power, with its allies, disposes of land forces so overwhelmingly larger than those of its neighbors that its military position cannot be threatened. Thus we see in Central Europe, which holds the key to world peace, la paix Française, though with the military supremacy of France and her allies tempered and restrained by the influence of the League of Nations, Locarno and the Briand-Kellogg Pact. We might even say that England's traditional "two power" naval standard has been adapted by France, without specific definition or declaration, to her continental military needs.

By insisting that a general Disarmament Conference be called, Germany is in effect making a plea for a change in this situation. Stripped of its technicalities, a discussion of the limitation of land forces and materials of war, or of the limitation of budgetary expense for military establishments, will be in effect a passing of judgment upon the question of the extent to which France should be permitted to retain her military ascendency in Central Europe.

There is little reason to believe that France would now consent to any material reduction in her land forces, or to any increase in Germany's military forces as limited under the Versailles Treaty, which would tend to change in any substantial degree the relative situation of the two countries. There is as little reason to believe that Germany would enter into any further treaty commitments which would tend to perpetuate the present military situation as between herself and France. This is the fundamental dilemma which the February conference faces, disguised as it may be and complicated as it surely is by the individual problems and policies of a score of other states (and in particular by the claims of Italy).

In this situation it would be unfortunate if we built too many hopes on the possibility that miracles can be wrought. Basic political situations do not change overnight. It will be a real accomplishment if some agreement can be reached upon methods of limitation, or if the military forces of certain of the European Powers can be stabilized at or slightly below present levels, thus removing the armament question for a time at least from the arena of public debate. Given the great military supremacy of the late Allied Powers, some reduction would not change the present balance -- or rather, lack of balance -- between them and their late opponents. But if nothing more is achieved than stabilization near present levels, with some agreement as to methods of limitation, there is always the hope for an improvement in political conditions -- possibly through the pressure of industrial and economic movements -- which would permit a gradual reduction over a period of years. The progress made in naval matters shows that once stabilization has been achieved, reduction tends to follow. And the imperative necessity for further economy in governmental expenditure will be a powerful incentive to many states voluntarily to apply principles of reduction which they might be reluctant to accept as a treaty obligation.

[i] New York Times, April 13, 1931.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • ALLEN WELSH DULLES, American member of the Preparatory Commission for the Disarmament Conference at Geneva in 1926, and legal adviser to the American delegation at the Three-Power Naval Conference at Geneva in 1927
  • More By Allen W. Dulles