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Monday, February 05, 2007

The Washington Naval Treaty Signed, February 6, 1922

Today in 1922, the Washington Naval Treaty was signed by representatives of five nations: the United States, the British Empire, France, Italy and the Empire of Japan. The agreement, also known as the Five-Power Treaty, was the first treaty intended to limit the size and strength of the signatory nations' naval forces. It would change the balance of power in both the Atlantic and Pacific and force a re-thinking of naval strategy for the first time in nearly a century.

It is said by military historians that nations' military machines always prepare to fight the last war. In the case of naval strategy during the decade after the First World War, this was especially true. There had been only one large sea engagement during the war---the Battle of Jutland. While neither the German or British fleets won a decisive victory, the battle showed the world the awesome power of battleships and heavy cruisers. In the mind of admirals around the world, many of who had come of age during the last decades of the 19th century, there was simply no replacement for big guns and heavy armor mounted on a fast ship. While airplanes had proved their worth over the battlefields of Europe, the aircraft carrier was still seen as an experiment by the establishment.

During and after the war, Japan, the UK and the United States all embarked on massive shipbuilding programs aimed at producing the world's largest navy. Just like the nuclear arms buildup that would begin thirty years later, there seemed to be no end to the plans put forth for more and more powerful battleships and battlecruisers.

But other factors had to be taken into consideration. Of the five major sea powers, the British had the largest navy, but the United States had an economy larger than England, France, Japan and Italy combined. The Americans were worried about the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, which dated back to 1902 and called for the two empires to provide for a mutual defense. The US government also had to contend with a population that was increasingly isolationist. For their part, the Japanese considered themselves the major power in Asia and wanted a navy large enough to prove it.

To keep the naval arms race from growing out of control, US President Warren G. Harding created the Washington Naval Conference. While the major European powers were all invited (with the exception of Soviet Russia), the main intention of the American delegation was to limit the growth of Japanese naval power in the Pacific. To make sure the US had an upper hand in the negotiations, all the delegations' cables to their governments were tapped. Thus, the Americans knew the highest level of cuts the Japanese would accept without walking out of the negotiations.

The treaty that came out of the Washington Naval Conference limited the total tonnage that each of the five signatory nations could have in battleships. It also clearly defined what a battleship was and limited the caliber of guns to sixteen inches. The US and Britain were given the same tonnage allotment at 525,000 tons. Japan was given 315,000 tons while France and Italy were each given 175,000 tons. The difference in allotments was justified by the US because, according to the American delegation, America was responsible for defending coasts on two oceans. The British had a worldwide empire to defend, thus justifying their allotment. None of the other three signatory nations was in such a distributed position.

One unintended consequence of the Washington Naval Treaty was the acceptance of the aircraft carrier. Almost every unfinished ship that was outside of the treaty limits was converted to an aircraft carrier because there were virtually no limits on that type of ship other than the restriction on the size of the guns they carried. Thus, naval aviation slowly moved to the center of fleet operations and took on an offensive role instead of just acting as the eyes of the battleships.

For its part, the United States did not build another battleship until 1937.

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