Washington Disarmament Conference

In the aftermath of a naval arms race and World War I, the world’s major powers agreed to reduce their numbers of battleships.

Summary of Event

Rejection by the United States of membership in the League of Nations did not imply a lack of U.S. interest in many parts of the world or in certain international problems during the 1920’s. U.S. leaders, including those within the Republican administration of President Warren G. Harding, recognized that decisions must be made regarding the limitation of armaments and the critical situation in the Far East, and that the United States must take a leading role in making such decisions. Otherwise, an armaments race among the three great naval powers—the United States, Great Britain, and Japan—was certain. In the tense Far East situation, the United States might be drawn into a disastrous war with Japan and Great Britain because of the 1902 Anglo-Japanese alliance, which had been renewed to run through 1921. Washington Disarmament Conference
[kw]Washington Disarmament Conference (Nov. 12, 1921-Feb. 6, 1922)
[kw]Disarmament Conference, Washington (Nov. 12, 1921-Feb. 6, 1922)
[kw]Conference, Washington Disarmament (Nov. 12, 1921-Feb. 6, 1922)
Washington Disarmament Conference
[g]United States;Nov. 12, 1921-Feb. 6, 1922: Washington Disarmament Conference[05480]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Nov. 12, 1921-Feb. 6, 1922: Washington Disarmament Conference[05480]
Balfour, Arthur
Briand, Aristide
Geddes, Auckland C.
Harding, Warren G.
Hughes, Charles Evans
Katō Tomosaburō
Lodge, Henry Cabot
Root, Elihu
Shidehara Kijūrō
Underwood, Oscar
Viviani, René

The “big nine” delegates to the Washington Disarmament Conference, including Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes (center).

(Library of Congress)

The experience of World War I World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];postwar period supported the belief that competition in armaments caused wars. The initiative for an international conference to consider these problems was introduced by Senator William E. Borah, Borah, William E. with a resolution in the Senate calling for a three-power disarmament conference even before President Harding and his secretary of state, Charles Evans Hughes, took office in March, 1921. Passed in May, 1921, the Borah Resolution Borah Resolution received immediate and overwhelming endorsement from the press and the general public. Harding had to deal with not only agitation by Borah but also difficulties from other former Republican colleagues in the Senate. Harding decided, as part of the party’s postwar “return to normalcy,” to seize the initiative and propose a conference to limit armaments and forestall renewal of the alliance between Britain and Japan. He directed Secretary of State Hughes to propose real cuts backed by the industrial power of the United States and insisted that if diplomacy failed, the United States would be a serious competitor in any ensuing arms race.

The British government had been contemplating a similar conference, but it yielded the honor to the United States and proposed that with the addition of discussions on the Far East, all countries with interests in the Pacific be invited. Accepting the British recommendations, Secretary Hughes on July 8, 1921, dispatched informal inquiries about the idea to interested powers. A suspicion of the motives behind the Western powers’ invitation and a dislike for the vague terms of the proposed agenda caused the Japanese to be reluctant to take part in such a meeting. Nevertheless, on August 11, 1921, Hughes issued formal invitations to Japan, Great Britain, France, Italy, Belgium, China, the Netherlands, and Portugal to a conference in Washington the following November.

After a solemn observance of Armistice Day on November 11 by the delegates and the U.S. people, the Washington Disarmament Conference convened. An impressive group of statesmen assembled in Memorial Continental Hall. Secretary Hughes led the distinguished U.S. delegation, which included Republican senator Henry Cabot Lodge, chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs; Elihu Root, former secretary of state and former secretary of war; and Senator Oscar Underwood, probably the most powerful Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee. Former prime minister Arthur Balfour, author of the Balfour Declaration, which favored limited Jewish settlement in Palestine, and Ambassador Auckland C. Geddes represented Great Britain. Prime Minister Aristide Briand headed the French delegation, later to be replaced by René Viviani. Baron Katō Tomosaburō and Ambassador Shidehara Kijūrō were the principal spokesmen for Japan.

In the first session, Hughes demonstrated the determination of the United States to secure immediate and effective agreement on naval armaments. “The way to disarm is to disarm,” Hughes proclaimed, as admirals stiffened with shock. He made two general proposals: a ten-year moratorium on the construction of warships displacing more than ten thousand tons and the scuttling of existing battleships and vessels under construction, so as to reduce U.S. and British tonnage in capital ships to approximately one-half million tons each, and total Japanese tonnage to three hundred thousand. This proposed ratio of 5:5:3 conformed approximately to existing naval strength.

Over the following four months, representatives struggled to work out agreements on naval armaments and security arrangements in the Pacific that would meet Hughes’s stringent demands without upsetting the strategic balance of power. The resulting treaties dealt mostly with the Far East. On December 13, 1921, the United States, Great Britain, France, and Japan signed the Four-Power Treaty, Four-Power Treaty (1921)[Four Power Treaty] which terminated the Anglo-Japanese Treaty of Alliance that had bound Great Britain legally to come to the aid of Japan in any conflict. Instead, the four powers agreed to respect one another’s rights in the Pacific and to refer any future disputes over the area to a joint conference. They also agreed to hold disarmament discussions with one another to decide what measures should be taken if any nation threatened the status quo in the Far East.

The Nine-Power Treaty, Nine-Power Treaty (1922)[Nine Power Treaty] signed on February 6, 1922, provided additional guarantees for the status quo. It bound all the members to respect the sovereignty and independence of China, to renounce any desire to exploit the unsettled conditions in China to gain special advantages, and to respect the “open door.” The United States and Great Britain insisted on this pact; Japan agreed to it only after strong pressure was exerted. Although this treaty was to be the only formal multilateral affirmation of the open door policy ever agreed to, it proved completely ineffectual because the American and British peoples were unwilling to sanction the use of force to aid China.


The major accomplishment of the Washington Disarmament Conference was the Five-Power Treaty, Five-Power Treaty (1922)[Five Power Treaty] signed by Great Britain, the United States, Japan, Italy, and France on February 6, 1922. This pact called for a ten-year moratorium on the construction of capital ships. It largely confirmed Hughes’s proposals for limiting existing battleship tonnages. The ratio for the five leading naval powers was 5 (United States) to 5 (Great Britain) to 3 (Japan) to 1.75 (France) to 1.75 (Italy). Japan was unhappy with the agreement but was somewhat mollified by the promise of the United States and Great Britain not to fortify any of their Pacific possessions. The French delegation, outraged by its relegation to third-class status, finally accepted the agreement on capital ships and parity with its Mediterranean rival, Italy. No limitations were placed on lesser warships—cruisers, destroyers, and submarines. As a result, international naval competition shifted to cruisers in the 1920’s, and that ship type was the subject of the failed Geneva Conference of 1927. It was not until the London Naval Treaty of 1930 London Naval Treaty (1930) that the approximate limits of the Five-Power Treaty were extended to other warship types, although the Japanese pushed for and received a 10:10:7 cruiser ratio.

The U.S. Senate approved the Washington treaties with only one dissenting vote. The agreements were received with great enthusiasm in the United States but less warmly elsewhere. They did halt a potentially disastrous competition in the construction of battleships, although the United States was allowed to complete three of the superdreadnoughts from its 1916 program, and Britain was allowed to build two new battleships to offset the qualitative superiority of the latest U.S. ships. Total aircraft carrier tonnage was limited (the United States and Great Britain each were allowed 135,000 tons, Japan 81,000 tons, and Italy and France 60,000 tons each); maximum aircraft carrier displacement was restricted to 27,000 tons, but the United States was allowed to convert two unfinished 33,000-ton battle cruisers (the Lexington and Saratoga) into aircraft carriers. Limits on aviation per se were deemed too complex, given the overlap between civilian and military aviation, and were to be the subject of a future conference, which was never held.

As a result of the Washington Disarmament Conference, the Great Powers promised to support the maintenance of peace and the status quo in the Far East, an encouraging step at the time, and the public regarded the conference as a tremendous accomplishment. However, along with other efforts to control arms and the likelihood of war, such as the Kellogg-Briand Pact, it failed to prevent the outbreak of the second, and far more deadly, world war less than two decades later. Washington Disarmament Conference

Further Reading

  • Dingman, Roger. Power in the Pacific: The Origins of Naval Arms Limitation, 1914-1922. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976. Extremely competent study of geopolitical relations, naval policy, and the Washington Disarmament Conference.
  • Dukes, Paul. The USA in the Making of the USSR: The Washington Conference, 1921-1922, and “Uninvited Russia.” New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004. Examines the Washington conference from the perspective of its impact on Russia, which was not invited to participate. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Glad, Betty. Charles Evans Hughes and the Illusions of Innocence. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1966. Emphasizes Hughes’s agreement with the activist Republican senators and minimizes the friction that existed between the Senate and the Department of State regarding the Washington Conference.
  • Hall, Christopher. Britain, America, and Arms Control, 1921-1937. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987. Excellent account of British and U.S. relations and naval arms reductions between the world wars.
  • Nish, Ian. Japanese Foreign Policy in the Interwar Period. New York: Praeger, 2002. Discussion of Japanese foreign policy devotes a chapter to the 1921-1922 Washington conference. Includes bibliography and index.
  • O’Connell, Robert. Sacred Vessels: The Cult of the Battleship and the Rise of the U.S. Navy. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1991. Cautionary account of naval strategic weapons, including the Washington Disarmament Conference, and the profession in which these weapons evolved.
  • Vinson, John Chalmers. The Parchment Peace: The United States Senate and the Washington Conference, 1921-1922. 1955. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984. Argues for a shift in U.S. foreign policy making from the executive to the Senate in the years immediately following World War I.

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