The Washington Naval Treaty was bold move towards averting potential conflict and ensureing the balance of power.

The interwar period, particularly the 1920s and 1930s, was a time of significant tension, as the world’s major powers sought to reestablish themselves after the devastating events of World War I.

The rise of militarism and the accompanying arms race posed a real threat to international peace.

This pact, signed in 1922, was a landmark in arms control, focusing specifically on limiting naval armaments.


Historical Context

The First World War was a cataclysmic event that resulted in huge human and economic costs. Amid the political and social upheaval that followed, countries were increasingly wary of a potential new conflict.

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Naval power, specifically the construction of large battleships, was seen as a barometer of national strength. By the 1920s, the United States, the British Empire, and Japan were racing to build ever-larger fleets, with each viewing their respective naval strength as paramount to their global position and security.

The growing naval arms race, however, was not sustainable, either financially or strategically. The economic toll of continuously building and maintaining massive warships was draining national coffers, and the strategic risk of an uncontrolled arms race was growing apparent.

The Stipulations Of The Washington Naval Treaty

In 1921, the newly inaugurated U.S. President Warren G. Harding invited representatives from the world’s major naval powers — including Britain, Japan, France, and Italy — to Washington, D.C., to discuss naval disarmament.

The conference, which began in November 1921 and concluded in February 1922, led to the signing of the Washington Naval Treaty on February 6, 1922.

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The Treaty’s key provisions were:

  1. Capital Ship Limitations: The Treaty established a ratio for capital ships (battleships and battlecruisers) among the signatories. The ratio, often referred to by the numbers “5:5:3,” meant that for every five capital ships that the U.S. and the British Empire could have, Japan could have three, and France and Italy could each have 1.75. This ratio was devised considering the strategic needs and economic capabilities of each nation.
  2. Battleship Tonnes: The Treaty set a maximum tonnage for battleships at 35,000 tons. Additionally, it capped the caliber of the main guns on these ships at 16 inches.
  3. Aircraft Carriers: The Treaty also addressed aircraft carriers. The U.S. and the British Empire were allowed up to 135,000 tons of aircraft carriers, with Japan allotted 81,000 tons, and France and Italy 60,000 tons each.
  4. Moratorium on Construction: A ten-year pause on the construction of new capital ships was mandated, allowing nations to replace old ships but not add to their overall numbers.
  5. Fortifications in the Pacific: In an effort to ease tensions in the Pacific region, especially between the U.S. and Japan, the Treaty prohibited new fortifications or naval bases in the Western Pacific. This effectively froze the status quo, with the U.S. maintaining its positions in the Philippines and Guam and Japan holding its territories without further militarization.
The Japanese ship Akagi was originally intended to be a battlecruiser, but was instead converted into an aircraft carrier.

Impacts Of The Washington Naval Treaty

Initially, the Washington Naval Treaty was heralded as a massive success. It was hoped that by limiting naval armaments, tensions would decrease, and the likelihood of another devastating war would be diminished.

For a time, the Treaty functioned as intended. The major naval powers scrapped or halted construction on many ships, and the global naval arms race noticeably slowed. Economically, nations benefitted as they could reallocate funds from military to domestic projects.

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However, as the years passed, the Treaty’s flaws became apparent:

  • The Treaty did not cover all types of naval vessels. Cruisers, destroyers, and submarines were notably excluded, leading to a new arms race in these categories, particularly between Britain and Japan.
  • Naval aviation was in its infancy in the early 1920s, and the Treaty’s provisions regarding aircraft carriers, although they were included, were not comprehensive. As naval aviation technology and tactics advanced, carriers became the dominant naval weapon of World War II.
  • Political and strategic situations changed. By the 1930s, Japan, Italy, and Germany (which was not a signatory) started to violate or withdraw from the Treaty, as the rise of totalitarian regimes led to renewed militarization.

By the mid-1930s, it was evident that the Washington Naval Treaty could not hold back the tide of militarism. It was effectively rendered obsolete by the outbreak of World War II.

While the Washington Naval Treaty had a limited lifespan and could not prevent World War II, it remains an important historical document. It symbolizes the world’s first major attempt at multilateral arms control and reflects the hope and ambition of its time.