On the Necessity of Naval Disarmament Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The general disillusionment with modern warfare that prevailed in the United States after the World War I prompted Idaho senator William E. Borah to call for the US government to engage with other major naval powers, notably Great Britain and Japan, to limit naval shipbuilding. Borah’s proposal called for a fifty-percent reduction over five years. Although other politicians were initially skeptical of Borah’s plan, the senator was able to generate substantial public support for his ideas by constantly appealing to American citizens. As a consequence, in November 1921 the administration of President Warren G. Harding convened an international conference in Washington, DC, to discuss naval disarmament and a number of other issues considered key to preserving international peace.

Summary Overview

The general disillusionment with modern warfare that prevailed in the United States after the World War I prompted Idaho senator William E. Borah to call for the US government to engage with other major naval powers, notably Great Britain and Japan, to limit naval shipbuilding. Borah’s proposal called for a fifty-percent reduction over five years. Although other politicians were initially skeptical of Borah’s plan, the senator was able to generate substantial public support for his ideas by constantly appealing to American citizens. As a consequence, in November 1921 the administration of President Warren G. Harding convened an international conference in Washington, DC, to discuss naval disarmament and a number of other issues considered key to preserving international peace.

Defining Moment

At the end of the World War I, disillusionment about the horrors of modern warfare ran high in the United States. President Woodrow Wilson took advantage of these sentiments to promote speedy ratification of the Treaty of Versailles, drafted by the Allies to impose terms for peace on Germany, and quick admission of the United States to the newly created League of Nations, an international organization set up to promote, and in some cases assure, peace among nations. Wilson’s aggressive campaign for these initiatives in 1920 was met with an equally strenuous counter-effort by a number of American politicians, notably members of the US Senate, who became known as the Irreconcilables. Led by Senator Borah of Idaho, the group argued that the United States should refrain from endorsing treaties or joining organizations that might entangle the country in the affairs of foreign countries.

When the League of Nations had some success getting member nations to agree on security measures, Borah became concerned. He realized that if the United States remained totally isolated from efforts to restrict future hostilities, it could find its security threatened. He believed that European nations, most notably France, had already expressed reticence about making serious reductions in capabilities for land warfare. He was skeptical about the willingness of Japan and Great Britain–the two great naval powers other than the United States–to reduce naval forces. As a consequence, on December 14, 1920, Borah introduced a Senate resolution that called on the president to convene a conference at which the three great naval powers might come to an agreement on reduction in naval armaments.

Initially, Borah’s idea met with some skepticism by politicians. He believed, however, that he could successfully change the minds of Senate colleagues by tapping into the public’s feelings about the necessity for action to reduce the likelihood of future wars. As he predicted, his proposal drew popular support, and Americans began to see him as a peacemaker. When his first resolution failed to generate sufficient support, however, he introduced another one in April 1921. President Harding’s administration, which had just come to power, reluctantly agreed to the idea of convening an international conference. Borah’s resolution passed, and Harding issued invitations for a meeting to be held in Washington, DC. As plans for the conference took shape, Borah’s original ideas were modified; additional nations were invited and the agenda was expanded beyond the goals Borah envisioned. As a result, he continued speaking and writing to generate public support for his more focused proposal, sustaining his lobbying efforts until the conference opened.

Author Biography

William E. Borah was born in Fairfield, Illinois, in 1865. After a brief enrollment at the University of Kansas, he studied law and was admitted to the bar. In 1890, he moved to Idaho, where he became a successful attorney and state politician. In 1895, he married Mary McConnell, daughter of Idaho’s governor. Borah was appointed to the US Senate by the state legislature in 1907 and served there until his death. Initially, he was interested in domestic issues, championing the constitutional amendment for popular election of senators.

After World War I, Borah became the leading voice among the Irreconcilables. In 1921, he succeeded in pushing the Harding administration to call an international conference on naval disarmament. Later in the decade he became involved in efforts to outlaw war as an instrument of government policy. His reputation was tarnished by his longtime affair with Theodore Roosevelt’s married daughter Alice Roosevelt Longworth and his belief that diplomacy would cause Adolf Hitler to abandon his expansionist plans in Europe. Borah died in Washington, DC, in 1940.

Document Analysis

From December 1920 until the Washington Conference ended in February 1922, Borah made repeated appeals to the American public to support naval disarmament as a means of securing world peace. Even after President Harding called an international conference to discuss naval disarmament, Borah continued his campaign. In September 1921, Borah took his case to the country’s business leaders through an article published in Nation’s Business, the magazine of the US Chamber of Commerce. In this essay Borah states the two principal reasons for naval disarmament: first, it makes financial sense, and second, it is a necessary first step toward real reduction in militaristic capability among the world’s most powerful nations.

Borah constructs his essay as a formal argument, relying principally on logic and reason to make his case to business leaders. He begins by pointing out the misguided actions already taken to produce stable political and economic conditions in the world, highlighting the irony of the present world situation. Where one might expect that Germany would suffer economic ruin as a result of losing the war, Borah claims that the country held responsible for the four-year conflict actually has the greatest chance of returning to economic prosperity because it will not be spending on materials of war. By contrast, the Allies are now hampered by the “vast burden” of spending to maintain their military forces. To strengthen his argument, he cites that France’s army is eight hundred thousand men and leaves it to his readers to calculate the cost of sustaining a force of this size.

Immediately thereafter, Borah appeals to business leaders, whom he says “must realize, more keenly, perhaps, than anyone else just now” how taxation to maintain military strength saps the nation’s productivity. The businessmen’s “profits are to be taken for taxes” to pay for continued military armament; thus, the only way to reduce taxes is to cut back on military spending. Borah acknowledges, however, that some expenses are necessary, and he knows his audience realizes this fact as well. To make sure he is not seen as an extremist, he repeats that he wants both taxes and public expenditures reduced “within reason.”

Borah also argues that efforts to bring about naval disarmament should not be sidetracked by other issues. He makes this point specifically by questioning the wisdom of Australian prime minister William Hughes’s demand for settling security and territorial issues in the Pacific before discussing reductions in military strength. Borah argues that the world remains captivated by the lure of militarism, which he equates with “chaos and barbarism,” two of the many emotionally charged words he employs throughout his argument. His allusion to German general Friedrich von Bernhardi, author of books proclaiming a country’s right and duty to make war as a means of advancing its national agenda, would have sparked alarm in contemporary audiences. Borah concludes restating his argument that diplomacy and reason, not military strength, can achieve lasting peace, and he appeals to the public to support his proposals.

Essential Themes

Borah’s constant demand for action on naval disarmament prompted the Harding administration to convene the International Conference for Limitation of Armament, which began on November 12, 1921, and ended the following February. Though Borah was unhappy that President Harding and Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes, who chaired the convention, decided to extend the focus to include discussion of matters affecting the Pacific and the Far East, the idea that nations were ready to deal seriously with disarmament was made clear on the first day of the conference. In his opening address, Hughes laid out specific proposals for reducing naval capabilities; he identified existing ships to be destroyed by the major powers and proposed a ten-year moratorium on construction of new warships. Significant attention was paid to this issue, as the United States lobbied for a ratio to be established that would create a balance of naval power; the target ratio of 5-5-3 for major naval combat vessels (principally battleships) would give the United States and Great Britain parity and Japan a slight numerical disadvantage.

Diplomats also discussed issues involving islands in the Pacific and the status of China, whose economy had long been controlled by foreign powers. Three important treaties emerged from the conference. The Five-Power Treaty set limits on warship tonnage for the United States, Great Britain, Japan, France, and Italy. The Four-Power Treaty bound the United States, Japan, Great Britain, and France to consult on any military action contemplated in East Asia. Under terms of the Nine-Power Treaty, the United States, Great Britain, Japan, France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal, and China set up a mechanism to guarantee the territorial integrity of China and bound the parties to consult before taking action in the region. While Senator Borah remained concerned that the United States was becoming too involved in international relationships that could force the country into armed conflict, the naval disarmament he sought was realized by actions at the conference.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Ashby, LeRoy. The Spearless Leader: Senator Borah and the Progressive Movement in the 1920’s. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1980. Print.
  • “Borah Condemns Armament Costs.” New York Times 15 Aug. 1921: 2. Web. 5 May 2014.
  • Dingman, Roger. Power in the Pacific: The Origins of Naval Arms Limitation, 1914–1922. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1976. Print.
  • Maddox, Robert James. William E. Borah and American Foreign Policy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1969. Print.
  • Miller, Karen A. J. Populist Nationalism: Republican Insurgency and American Foreign Policy Making, 1918–1925. Westport: Greenwood, 1999. Print.
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