Washington Naval Conference
The Washington Naval Conference also called the Washington Arms Conference, was a military conference called by President Warren G. Harding
Warren G. Harding
Warren Gamaliel Harding was the 29th President of the United States . A Republican from Ohio, Harding was an influential self-made newspaper publisher. He served in the Ohio Senate , as the 28th Lieutenant Governor of Ohio and as a U.S. Senator...

 and held in Washington from 12 November 1921 to 6 February 1922. Conducted outside the auspices of the League of Nations
League of Nations
The League of Nations was an intergovernmental organization founded as a result of the Paris Peace Conference that ended the First World War. It was the first permanent international organization whose principal mission was to maintain world peace...

, it was attended by nine nations having interests in the Pacific Ocean and East Asia. Soviet Russia
Soviet Union
The Soviet Union , officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics , was a constitutionally socialist state that existed in Eurasia between 1922 and 1991....

 was not invited to the conference. It was the first international conference held in the United States and the first disarmament conference in history, and as Kaufman, 1990 shows, it is studied by political scientists as a model for a successful disarmament movement.

Held at Memorial Continental Hall
Memorial Continental Hall
Memorial Continental Hall is owned & operated by the Daughters of the American Revolution. It also serves as the organization's National Society headquarters. Memorial Continental Hall is located alongside DAR Constitution Hall, connected by a third building that houses the DAR Museum...

 in downtown Washington, it resulted in three major treaties: Four-Power Treaty
Four-Power Treaty
The ' was a treaty signed by the United States, Great Britain, France and Japan at the Washington Naval Conference on 13 December 1921. It was partly a follow-on to the Lansing-Ishii Treaty, signed between the U.S...

, Five-Power Treaty (more commonly known as the Washington Naval Treaty) and the Nine-Power Treaty
Nine-Power Treaty
The ' or Nine Power Agreement(Chinese:九國公約) was a treaty affirming the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China as per the Open Door Policy, signed by all of the attendees to the Washington Naval Conference on 6 February 1922....

 and a number of smaller agreements. These treaties preserved peace during the 1920s but are also credited with enabling the rise of the Japanese Empire as a naval power leading up to World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...



The world's popular mood was peace and disarmament throughout the 1920s. Women had just won the right to vote in many countries, and they helped convince politicians that money could be saved, votes won, and future wars avoided by stopping the arms race. At the end of the Great War, Britain still had the largest navy afloat but its big ships were becoming obsolescent, and the Americans and Japanese were rapidly building expensive new warships. London and Tokyo were allies in a treaty that was due to expire in 1922. Although there were no immediate dangers, observers increasingly pointed to the American-Japanese rivalry for control of the Pacific Ocean as a long-term threat to world peace. By this time, London realized it had best cast its lot with Washington rather than Tokyo. To stop a needless, expensive and possibly dangerous arms race, the major countries signed a series of naval disarmament agreements.


For the American delegation, led by Secretary of State
United States Secretary of State
The United States Secretary of State is the head of the United States Department of State, concerned with foreign affairs. The Secretary is a member of the Cabinet and the highest-ranking cabinet secretary both in line of succession and order of precedence...

 Charles Evans Hughes
Charles Evans Hughes
Charles Evans Hughes, Sr. was an American statesman, lawyer and Republican politician from New York. He served as the 36th Governor of New York , Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States , United States Secretary of State , a judge on the Court of International Justice , and...

, the primary objective of the conference was to restrain Japanese naval expansion in the waters of the west Pacific, especially with regard to fortifications on strategically valuable islands. Their secondary objectives were intended to ultimately limit Japanese expansion, but also to alleviate concerns over possible antagonism with the British. They were: first, to eliminate Anglo-American tension by abrogating the Anglo-Japanese alliance
Anglo-Japanese Alliance
The first was signed in London at what is now the Lansdowne Club, on January 30, 1902, by Lord Lansdowne and Hayashi Tadasu . A diplomatic milestone for its ending of Britain's splendid isolation, the alliance was renewed and extended in scope twice, in 1905 and 1911, before its demise in 1921...

; second, to agree upon a favorable naval ratio vis-à-vis Japan; and, third, to have the Japanese officially accept a continuation of the Open Door Policy
Open Door Policy
The Open Door Policy is a concept in foreign affairs, which usually refers to the policy in 1899 allowing multiple Imperial powers access to China, with none of them in control of that country. As a theory, the Open Door Policy originates with British commercial practice, as was reflected in...

 in China
Chinese civilization may refer to:* China for more general discussion of the country.* Chinese culture* Greater China, the transnational community of ethnic Chinese.* History of China* Sinosphere, the area historically affected by Chinese culture...


The British, however, took a more cautious and tempered approach. Indeed, British officials brought certain general desires to the conference—to achieve peace and stability in the western Pacific, avoid a naval arms race with the United States, thwart Japanese encroachment into areas under their influence, and preserve the security of Singapore
Singapore , officially the Republic of Singapore, is a Southeast Asian city-state off the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, north of the equator. An island country made up of 63 islands, it is separated from Malaysia by the Straits of Johor to its north and from Indonesia's Riau Islands by the...

, Hong Kong
Hong Kong
Hong Kong is one of two Special Administrative Regions of the People's Republic of China , the other being Macau. A city-state situated on China's south coast and enclosed by the Pearl River Delta and South China Sea, it is renowned for its expansive skyline and deep natural harbour...

, and Dominion
A dominion, often Dominion, refers to one of a group of autonomous polities that were nominally under British sovereignty, constituting the British Empire and British Commonwealth, beginning in the latter part of the 19th century. They have included Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland,...

 countries—but they did not enter the conference with a specific laundry list of demands; rather, they brought with them a vague vision of what the western Pacific should look like after an agreement.

Japanese officials were more focused on specifics than the British, and approached the conference with two primary goals: first, to sign a naval treaty with Britain and the United States, and, secondly, to obtain official recognition of Japan’s special interests in Manchuria
Manchuria is a historical name given to a large geographic region in northeast Asia. Depending on the definition of its extent, Manchuria usually falls entirely within the People's Republic of China, or is sometimes divided between China and Russia. The region is commonly referred to as Northeast...

 and Mongolia
Mongolia is a landlocked country in East and Central Asia. It is bordered by Russia to the north and China to the south, east and west. Although Mongolia does not share a border with Kazakhstan, its western-most point is only from Kazakhstan's eastern tip. Ulan Bator, the capital and largest...

. Japanese officials also brought other issues to the conference—a strong demand that they remain in control of Yap
Yap, also known as Wa'ab by locals, is an island in the Caroline Islands of the western Pacific Ocean. It is a state of the Federated States of Micronesia. Yap's indigenous cultures and traditions are still strong compared to other neighboring islands. The island of Yap actually consists of four...

, Siberia
Siberia is an extensive region constituting almost all of Northern Asia. Comprising the central and eastern portion of the Russian Federation, it was part of the Soviet Union from its beginning, as its predecessor states, the Tsardom of Russia and the Russian Empire, conquered it during the 16th...

, and Tsingtao
' also known in the West by its postal map spelling Tsingtao, is a major city with a population of over 8.715 million in eastern Shandong province, Eastern China. Its built up area, made of 7 urban districts plus Jimo city, is home to about 4,346,000 inhabitants in 2010.It borders Yantai to the...

, as well as more general concerns about the growing presence of American fleets in the Pacific.

The American hand was strengthened by the interception and decryption of secret instructions from the Japanese government
Black Chamber
The Cipher Bureau otherwise known as The Black Chamber was the United States' first peacetime cryptanalytic organization, and a forerunner of the National Security Agency...

 to its delegation. The message revealed the lowest naval ratio that would be acceptable to Tokyo; U.S. negotiators used this knowledge to push the Japanese to it. This success, one of the first in the U.S. government's budding eavesdropping and cryptology efforts, led eventually to the growth of such agencies.

Policies agreed upon

The Washington Conference was called by President Warren Harding and run by Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes
Charles Evans Hughes
Charles Evans Hughes, Sr. was an American statesman, lawyer and Republican politician from New York. He served as the 36th Governor of New York , Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States , United States Secretary of State , a judge on the Court of International Justice , and...

. Harding demanded action in order to gain domestic political credit. Hughes—helped by the cryptographers who were reading the Japanese diplomatic secrets—brilliantly engineered a deal that everyone thought best for themselves. To resolve technical disputes about the quality of warships, the conferees adopted a quantitative standard, based on tonnage displacement (a simple measure of the size of a ship.) A ten-year agreement fixed the ratio of battleships at 5:5:3—that is 525,000 tons for the USA, 525,000 tons for Britain, and 315,000 tons for Japan. The dominant weapons systems of the era—battleships—could be no larger that 35,000 tons. The major powers allowed themselves 135,000:135,000:81,000 tons for the newfangled aircraft carriers. The Washington Conference exactly captured the worldwide popular demand for peace and disarmament; without it, the US, Britain and Japan would have engaged in an expensive buildup, with each worried the other two might be getting too powerful. The agreements forced the US to scrap 15 old battleships and 2 new ones, along with 13 ships under construction. Britain had to scrap ships too—indeed, more warships were lost at Washington than at any battle in history.

The naval treaty was concluded on February 6, 1922. Ratifications of that treaty were exchanged in Washington on August 17, 1923, and it was registered in League of Nations Treaty Series on April 16, 1924.
Japan agreed to revert Shandong
' is a Province located on the eastern coast of the People's Republic of China. Shandong has played a major role in Chinese history from the beginning of Chinese civilization along the lower reaches of the Yellow River and served as a pivotal cultural and religious site for Taoism, Chinese...

 to Chinese control by an agreement concluded on February 4, 1922. Ratifications of that agreement were exchanged in Beijing
Beijing , also known as Peking , is the capital of the People's Republic of China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of 19,612,368 as of 2010. The city is the country's political, cultural, and educational center, and home to the headquarters for most of China's...

 on June 2, 1922, and it was registered in League of Nations Treaty Series on July 7, 1922.


The Washington Naval Treaty led to an effective end to building new battleship fleets and those few ships that were built were limited in size and armament. Numbers of existing capital ships were scrapped. Some ships under construction were turned into aircraft carrier
Aircraft carrier
An aircraft carrier is a warship designed with a primary mission of deploying and recovering aircraft, acting as a seagoing airbase. Aircraft carriers thus allow a naval force to project air power worldwide without having to depend on local bases for staging aircraft operations...

s instead.

Even with the Washington Treaty, the major navies remained suspicious of each other, and for a brief while (1927-30) engaged in a race to build cruisers which had been limited to size (10,000 tons) but not numbers. That oversight was resolved on value of cruisers by the London Naval Treaty of 1930, which specified a 10:10:7 ratio for cruisers and destroyers. For the first time submarines were also limited, with Japan given parity with the US and Britain at 53,000 tons each. (Submarines typically displaced 1,000-2,000 tons each.) The U.S. Navy maintained an active building program that replaced obsolescent warships with technically more sophisticated new models in part because its construction yards were important sources of political patronage, and well protected by Congress. During the New Deal, furthermore, relief funds were used to build warships. "The naval program was wholly mine," President Roosevelt boasted. �
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